A History of Marrakesh

From its beginnings as a stronghold in 1062, Marrakesh became, together with Fez, a center for trade, culture, and religion, and the capital from which Youssef ben Tachfine, the Almoravid sultan, controlled the whole of North Africa and Andalusia. Under Tachfine's pious son, Ali ben Youssef, whose mother was a Christian slave, an influx of craftsmen from Spain created the New City's buildings, including the ramparts, and an underground irrigation system.

Although conquered and sacked in 1147 by the Almohads, Marrakesh remained the dynastic capital and became even more significant under Yacoub el-Mansour, the third Almohad sultan. Perhaps the greatest of Marrakesh's sultans, El Mansour built extensively—palaces, mosques, and gardens—with materials imported from Italy and the Far East. The completion of the extraordinary Koutoubia Mosque, begun by the Almohad sultan Abdel Moumen, is one of El Mansour's accomplishments. Peace did not last, however. By the early 13th century, after two centuries of control by the Almohads and Almoravids, Marrakesh relapsed into a long period of skirmishing between dissenting tribes that constantly attacked and ransacked each other's strongholds.

By the mid-13th century the conquering Merenids had arrived and taken Marrakesh as their capital; but they soon moved it to Fez, which then became the center of Moroccan culture. In the 14th and 15th centuries, Marrakesh fell into decline and was finally conquered in 1554 by the Saadians from the south, who restored it as their capital. The rich and powerful Saadian sultan Ahmed el-Mansour ("the Golden One") was responsible for a prosperous period in Marrakesh during the late 16th century, thanks to his raids of caravan routes from Timbuktu. El Mansour was the creator of El Badi Palace and the Saadian tombs, his own final resting place.

The 17th century saw the beginning of the Alaouite dynasty, during which Marrakesh suffered another decline. The power-hungry sultan Moulay Ismail turned north to Meknès for his capital, plundering every monument and palace in Marrakesh—especially El Badi—to build his version of Versailles there. The Alaouites have ruled Morocco ever since; today they reside in Rabat, administrative capital since the French protectorate (1912–56). In the 18th century, however, Moulay Ismail's successor Sidi Mohammed ben Abdellah restored many of Marrakesh's ruined palaces, as well as the ramparts and mosques, and added to gardens such as the Menara, but although Marrakesh remained one of Morocco's imperial cities because of its strategic location, it declined again.

In the 19th century Moulay el-Hassan I, great-great-grandfather of the current king Mohammed VI, gave Marrakesh renewed importance by choosing to be crowned and building his palace here in 1873. When the French established a Moroccan protectorate they built the Ville Nouvelle, which facilitated new trade.

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