The Bahia Palace and gardens were built in two stages by two men – father and son with the goal of featuring the finest Islamic and Moroccan style architecture and decoration making it one of the greatest palaces of its time. The first phase of construction was 1859-1873 for Si Moussa, Grand Vizier of the Sultan Moulay Hassan as his home and was named after one of his wives. Si Moussa was a slave who had gained power and wealth. Following Si Moussa his son Ahmed Ibn Moussa (Ba Ahmed or Bou Ahmed) took over the palace and continued building from 1894 to 1900. Bou Ahmed became the Grand Vizier and Regent in 1894 while Hassan’s young son was Sultan. In this position he had virtual power over the entire state and he remained in this powerful position until he died in 1900. During his lifetime he renovated and expanded Bahia Palace adding a hammam, mosque and further gardens.
The palace has a harem with a large courtyard featuring a central basin; rooms around the courtyard open up to the central area. There are pavilions, walled gardens and buildings. The oldest part of the palace is Dar Si Moussa with a courtyard, central garden, fountains and many varieties of trees. There are decorative rooms with ceramic tiles covering the walls. One of the greatest parts of the newer section of the palace is the marble courtyard measuring 30 meters by 50 meters. It is divided into quadrants by white marble pathways with colorful tiles and glazed earthenware in a checkerboard pattern and fountains where the paths meet. Other decorative details in the palace include carved stucco, cedar wood, painted wooden ceilings, zellij (polychrome mosaic) fireplaces and stained glass windows. The gardens are spread across 8,000m² and are as beautiful as the palace. The palace is still used by the royal family and is sometimes closed when the royals are using the palace.
Ben Youssef Medersa
The Medresa Ben Youssef was an Islamic college constructed during the Almoravid era (14thcentury) by the Marinid Sultan Abu al-Hassan and named after the Almoravid ruler Sultan Ali ben Youssef who reigned 1448-1458. It was refurbished by the Saadiens in the 16th century and work was completed in 1565 according to writing in the prayer room. At the time there were one hundred and thirty student dormitory cells arranged around a central courtyard which was beautifully decorated with cedar, stucco and marble. At the time it is thought to have housed approximately 900 students and been the largest Medresa in the region. The building ceased to function as an Islamic college in 1960 and underwent extensive refurbishing before being opened to the public in 1982.
The Medresa is almost a perfect square measuring 42 meters by 42 meters. The Medresa is known for its beautiful ceramic tiles, carved plaster work and typical 15th century Moroccan design. The mihrab is entirely decorated with carved plaster work depicting plants and geometric designs. The niche of the mihrab is topped by a muqarnas dome of carved plaster. On display throughout the Medresa are photos of the building before the most recent renovations. It is possible to tour the student dormitory cells.
Dar Si Said Museum
This special mansion and former home of Bou Ahmed, Chamberlain of Sultan Moulay Hassan 1stand Grand Vizer of Moulay Abdelaziz ’s brother Si Said now houses the Museum of Regional Moroccan Art and Handcrafts. The house showcases the traditional regional arts and crafts but is an attraction in itself. The architectural features include a musician’s balcony, Hispano-Moorish ceilings, plaster work, intricate cedar wood carvings, mosaics, stucco, tiled walls and a painted dome. The home is an opulent palace and one of the rooms recreates the traditional wedding reception salon with cedar wood furniture and a small bedroom so that visitors can get a sense of life in Marrakesh in the late 19th century. Outside there is a small courtyard with decorated doors and window frames and visitors can also see the Harem Quarters.
The oldest object on display is a chest which belonged to a chamberlain of Spain’s Umayyad Caliphate and dates back to 1002AD. Other items on display include beautifully carved wooden doors, carpets, a Berber silver headdress, High Altar carpets, wedding clothing, leather items, antique musical instruments, ceramics and an antique Ferris wheel for babies with miniature palanquins operated by a hand-cranked axis. You can also see decorative clothing, weapons, copperware and traditional Berber jewelry.
Almoravids (1062-1145) were a Berber imperial dynasty of Morocco established in the 11thcentury and this structure founded in 1064 is all that remains of the dynasty in Marrakech. The Koubba or Qoubba or Koubba Ba’adiyn is the oldest building in Marrakesh and for years remained hidden until excavated in 1952. This was the place where worshipers would do their ablutions on route to the Ben Youssef Mosque complex. The Koubba ablution complex had three fountains and was also one of the city’s first fountains bringing water to the people of the city. In addition to the fountains there were once showers, toilets and drinking taps in the complex all supplied with water by the advanced hydraulics of khettaras (a sloping underground channel used to transport water) and an advanced drainage system. The complex remained active for several centuries thanks to the complex pipes and large water reservoir.
The highlight of the ablution complex is the ornate dome which tops the structure. The dome is made from stone of Gueliz or straw and lime. Beneath the dome are finely carved arches and the structure has a complex support system with a square and star-shaped octagon. The exquisite architecture includes decoration of pine cone, palm and acanthus leaf motifs which are also used in the Ben Youssef Mosque. The shape of the windows is also a distinct feature of the Almohad architecture. The Koubba has pyramid-like battlements, a large water cistern and the remains of the original ablution fountains.
El Badi Palace
The “incomparable palace” has not survived in its entirety but it is still possible to see the ruined remains. The palace was commissioned by Saadian ruler Ahmad al-Mansur in the 16th century. The palace was built using money from retributions paid by the Portuguese after the War of the Three Kings. It took 25 years to construct the palace which was completed in 1593. The best craftsmen of the Saadian period were used in the decoration and the finest quality materials were used in the construction. Among the special materials used there was gold, onyx and marble. The marble used to make the colonnade columns was obtained in barter swopping sugar for marble with Italians. The palace complex once had more than 350 rooms, courtyards, walled gardens, fountains and a pool. The palace was unfortunately destroyed by Moulay Ismail but there is still plenty to see including the sunken gardens, dungeon prison cells, subterranean passages and the main hall with 50 columns. There is a museum here where you can see a restored 12th century minbar from the Koutoubia Mosque. The palace ruins are used for festivals and special events including weekend dance parties.
The Jewish Quarter
The Jewish Quarter of Marrakesh is where for centuries the Jewish community lived and worked side by side with their Muslim neighbors. In cities across Morocco there are Jewish Quarters which exist like a city within a city. You can enter the Mellah via Place des Ferblantiers and reach the Place Souweka, a fountain at the center of the quarter. Before the French arrived Jews were not allowed to own property and if venturing outside the Mellah had to go barefoot. The Marrakesh Mellah reached its peak in the 1950s when there were many tradesmen, outdoor markets and bustling stores. Today there are only about 250 Jews left in Marrakesh. You can still see some of the original store fronts and stores selling silver and pottery engraved with Hebrew or Jewish symbols. Other stores sell a variety of goods including herbs and spices. Some of the houses in the Jewish Quarter have street-facing balconies which are not seen in Arabic homes.
There are several synagogues in the Jewish Quarter including the El Fasiines, Bitoun and Rabbi Pinnhas Synagogue. One of the most important structures in the Jewish Quarter is the Lazama Synagogue; it is the only synagogue in the quarter that is open daily to visitors and it is the most beautiful and popular. The original synagogue built on this site was established in 1492 following the Jewish expulsion from Spain by the Inquisition. The building which stands here today is a more recent version. The synagogue courtyard has blue and white tiles decorating the walls and blue and white details on the lower and upper level where a balcony overlooks the courtyard. To off-set the blue and white there are potted plants and flowerbeds in the courtyard. Inside there are a number of historic photographs of the early Marrakesh Jews. There is a Jewish cemetery just five minutes from the Lazama Synagogue. The Jewish Quarters get the name “Mellah” which means salt in Arabic and Hebrew from the area where the first Jews settled in Fez by a salt marsh/spring.