Within the Walls of Imperial Cities

We were slowly moving in the direction of the magical Red City, Marrakesh. It was going to be my second visit in this amazing place and though it was a few years ago I still remembered delightful activities it offered: a walk through the charming and mysterious Medina, a visit to the Ben Youssef Madrasa, one of the largest and best Koranic schools in the Maghreb countries, then to the famous Miracle Square – Jemaa el-Fnaa, where the largest in the world, undirected street spectacles begin at sunset. There, one could admire snake charmers, dancers, acrobats, musicians and local healers, all amidst exotic sounds, rhythms and fragrances.  

Miracle Square – Jemaa el-Fnaa, Marakesh. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Behind us there was left the magical world of a ‘Thousand Kasbahs’ (see Road of a Thousand Kasbahs). Ahead of us there were Rabat, Meknes, Fez and Marrakesh – imperial cities.

Luxurious SPA in an unfriendly landscape

It was early in the morning when our coach was climbing through the High Atlas mountains. It finally stopped at the picturesque Tizi-n-Tichka Pass, at an altitude of over 2260 metres above sea level. A strong wind was pulling my hair and blew into the folds of my clothes as I tried to embrace the charm of the country’s magnificent views that stretched across the mountain landscape.

The Almoravid army managed to transferred through this hostile environment four hundred horsemen, eight hundred camel-riders and two thousand foot soldiers (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Whereas the army was composed of desert warriors, the mountains were a completely different environment to them (Ibid.). Yet they had a clear goal: reaching the northwest of the mountains, where lived the tribes of Berbers considered by them as heretics (Ibid.).


In 1058, first people to feel the force of the Almoravid army were the rulers of Aghmat, a small city nestling in a lush valley on the northern site of the mountains (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Eventually, the town became a new headquarters from where the army took further their jihad against the Berber tribes dwelling nearby (Ibid.). For long Aghmat was thought to be a lost city (Ibid.). After being localized, the site has been excavated but a carried study has revealed only its small portion so far (Ibid.).

Aghmat, a former Almoravid capital city. It was thought to be a lost city. After being localized, the site has been excavated but a carried study has revealed only its small portion so far. Source : Babas (2019).

One of the most substantial finds of the town is an almost intact hammam or a bathhouse, which is also one of the oldest in Morocco and one of the biggest in Maghreb (500 square metres) (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). In this context, it is regarded as an architectural masterpiece; the bathouse required an expert knowledge for heating and water supply for such an enormous space (Ibid.). The bathhouse was not made of mud, like kasbahs, but of stones and mortar, which made it a more solid construction (Ibid.). Its remains also illustrate the scale of the settlement in the medieval town and how expertly its inhabitants understood how to use water, which is a very important recourse in the area even today (Ibid.). As it turned out, water was not only used in public places as the hammam, mosque or the palace, but it was also utilised for irrigation (Ibid.). Accordingly, water had two distinct uses :in a first place it was used for public buildings and private houses, and after three days, the same water was used for irrigation of the fields (Ibid.).

Beginnings of Marrakech

With time, the Almoravids started to appreciate a city life but for desert nomads the city was in a wrong place (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Surrounded by mountains and hills from three sides, Aghmat was not in a good defensive position as an army was used to fight in the open space (Ibid.). After a decade, the Almoravids stared looking for a new base from where they could expand and take on more territory (Ibid.). Eventually, they chose a flat dry open piece of land over thirty kilometres from the foothills of the Atlas Mountains; it was the city of Marrakesh (Ibid.).

Marrakesh, the so-called Red City due to its ochre colours of the walls. Photo by Iwona Wilczek. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The founding of the city in 1070 represents a point in history, when the Almoravids became an imperial force (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). What began as a collection of tents rapidly became an established city and the Berbers who settled there were offered security in return of their taxes, which were used for the further expansion of the Almoravids’ territory (Ibid.). The city only lacked water (Franus 2012:159). This problem was handled by a smart engineer from Baghdad who designed a system of channels to bring water from the Atlas (Ibid.:159). Since then, Marrakesh has been drowning in flowers; now every wealthier family has got a garden, where figs, palms, roses and jasmines are grown (Ibid.:159).

Red City

When Abdullah Ibn Yasin died, Youssef Ibn Tachfine took charge of the jihad and made a great contribution to the dynasty than any other man; he turned a fledgling kingdom into an empire (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Firstly, he developed the urban area of Marrakesh (Ibid.); “a circuit of walls around the city was built to defend it (Jacobs 2019). “Made with red earth from the surrounding plain, the walls [have been in the colour of] ochre” (Ibid.), and hence “[some call it the Pink city while for [others] Marrakech represents the feisty shade of [red]” (Toa 2017) and is called the Red City (Jacobs 2019). “Today, even outside the walls, in the modern Ville Nouvelle, buildings are still faced in that same hue. It looks particularly beautiful on the ramparts along the west side of the Medina when lit up by the setting sun” (Jacobs 2019).

As we were approaching the city, I looked for a characteristic picture: palm trees rising from behind the red wall, in the background of which mighty mountains loomed (Franus 2012:158). The city of Marrakech is today a fairy-tale metropolis known for its beautiful gardens, excellent cuisine, reliable weather and an atmosphere of eternal fun (Ibid.:158-159). “[Its] souks […] are a feast for [human] senses. [One’s] eyes are treated to a blast of colours, while [their] olfactory organs are welcomed by the enticing fragrance of honey-cakes and spices. As one strides through the crowded souks, one gets a glimpse of the lifestyle of common man. A further walk into the interiors of the city [takes] to the traditional courtyard homes of the city known as ‘riadas’. […] Adjacent to a mosque in medina, lies a huge plaza known as the [Jemaa el-Fnaa] that was historically the centre of Marrakech. Water sellers, snake charmers, musicians, dancers and food throng the square, which was once the spot for public executions” (Toa 2017).


After the creation of the Almoravids’ capital the Berbers set out establishing an empire (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Their army took the jihad north, taking city after city, Fez – Tangier – Algiers, expanding their influence eastwards, well beyond what it is now called Morocco (Ibid.). And having conquered the north-western Africa, the Almoravids extended their jihad beyond it, to Europe (Ibid.).

Ben Youssef Madrasa in Marrakesh; one of the windows in the gallery of the courtyard. carved stucco decoration, including an Arabic inscription in kufic script. Below part is carved of cedar in square patterns. Photo by Gosia Nowa. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

A parallel Islamic world had existed in Spain and Portugal since the eighth century and was known as Al-Andalus (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). The south of Spain had flourished under the rule of the Caliphate of Cordoba into a rich civilization of lavish palaces and elegant gardens (Ibid.; see Architectural Oasis of Al-Andalus). Yet in the eleventh century, the caliphate broke up into weak city-states being attacked by Christian armies from the north of Spain (Ibid.). Therefore, Muslim rulers of Spain appealed to the Almoravids for help (Ibid.). Youssef Ibn Tachfine repelled the Christians but he was disgusted by the European Muslims’ lack of dedication to Islam (Ibid.). Consequently, in 1019 he returned to Andalusia in force and deposed its Muslim rulers (Ibid.). Afterall, the Almoravids ruled over a vast kingdom that stretched out from the Sahara to Spain, and from the Atlantic coast to Algeria (Ibid.). It was the first time, the vast Muslim territory had been united politically and spiritually under one management and the people who achieved it – the Berbers, those who had been previously referred to as the barbarians of the desert (Ibid.).

Medieval charms of Fez

I was looking down the hill at the medina of Fez; the city consists of almost a thousand tangled streets, tens of thousands of low houses, madrasahs, palaces and mosques (Franus 2012:153).

A bird’s eye view of Fez. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Two hundred thousand people live and work there (Franus 2012:153). The largest medieval place in the world is impressive when viewed from above, but it seemed more orderly than up close (Ibid.:153). After crossing the gate, we immediately fell into the city’s labyrinth and my already poor orientation completely disappeared in this maze (Ibid.:153). Fortunately, I was not on my own and one of my friends, who is an architect, features extraordinary orientation skills. Nevertheless, finding the right path turned out to be more than difficult. We had headed for the famous Fez tannery. When we finally reached our destination, someone gave us mint leaves and suggested that we put them to our nose (Ibid.:158). Then we went up the narrow stairs to the terrace; the smell coming from the tannery was getting there really intense and not very pleasant (Ibid.:158). Mint was supposed to neutralize it. Below, the coloured eyes of the vats filled with urine and dyes sparkled in the sun (Ibid.:158). Hence the awful smell. People were bustling around them and occasionally dipping a batch of fresh hides into the paint (Ibid.). The technology of work at the tannery has not changed here since the Middle Ages (Ibid.:158).

Fez tannery; the technology of work at the tannery has not changed here since the Middle Ages. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Back in the streets of Medina. The heat was pouring down from the sky and the white walls were making us blind by reflecting a strong sunlight (Franus 2012:153,158). In summer, the temperature in the old streets of Fez reaches almost 50 degrees Celsius, so wherever possible, there are nets or mats that cut off the flow of sunlight (Ibid.:153). Besides, the streets are so narrow that it is not possible to see anything but the sky (Ibid.:153). Once entered the maze, one just needs to give up their senses and get lost, and then find themselves again by means of a courtesy of an inhabitant of the medina (Ibid.:153). Fes el Bali quarter, the oldest walled part of Fez has not changed for hundreds of years (Ibid.:153; see (“Fez, Morocco” 2020). It was founded by the Almoravid Sultan Yusuf ibn Tashfin who had united two previously competing and autonomous settlements and rebuilt the city until the eleventh century (“Fez, Morocco” 2020).

Fes el Bali quarter, the oldest walled part of
Fez with narrow streets and alleys.

With the stubbornness of a maniac, we walked through the old town; the streets were getting narrower and narrower, so that sometimes we had to squeeze sideways (Franus 2012:153,158). Another time we had to give way to loaded donkeys, the only means of transport in the local alleys (Ibid.:158). On the way, we passed by hundreds of small shops with items so beautiful that I could not take my eyes off them (Ibid.:158). Moroccans love beautiful products and prefer handicrafts to mass production (Ibid.:158). The greatest Moroccan artists are actually in Fez (Ibid.:158). Their ancestors have settled there since the time Fez was founded under the Idrisid rule between the eight and the nineth centuries as the two separate settlements, and Fez’s craftsmen have constantly improved their skills (Franus 2012:158; (“Fez, Morocco” 2020). However, only “[under] the Almoravid rule, [did] the city [gain] a reputation for the religious scholarship and the mercantile activity” (“Fez, Morocco” 2020). In the twelfth century, also scientists, clergy and mystics came to Fez, making it the medieval center of Morocco’s science (Franus 2012:158).

Nevertheless, the reign of the Almoravids dynasty was relatively short-lived (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012).

Enemy came from the mountains

High in the mountains behind Imperial Cities of Morocco, a new force had been born; rival Berbers holed up in the High Atlas Mountains (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). While, the Almoravids had never felt comfortable in the hills, a new group of Islamic revolutionaries laid there the groundwork for their domination over the mountainous region (Ibid.). They were called the Almohads, which stand for the people who believed in the unity of God (Ibid.). The Almohad movement was founded in the twelfth century by Muhammad Ibn Tumart among the Berber Masmuda tribes in the south of modern Morocco (Ibid.). The leader was not a desert warrior like the Almoravids (Ibid.). He lived in the mountains, where he spent decades studying Islam (Ibid.). He claimed to have been divinely chosen to restore the true faith as he understood it (Ibid.).

The Tin Mal Mosque is a mosque located in the High Atlas mountains of North Africa. In this area the Almohads’ revolution started. Source: Atlas Mountain Guides Compony (2020). If you are interested in their tours, please check on the website given below (Bibliography).

Tinmel is the village, where the revolution started (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). From there, Ibn Tumart preached against the arrogance and corruption of the Almoravids (Ibid.). In fact at that time, Moroccan society was purely Muslim (Ibid.). Therefore, Ibn Tumart’s role was not to convert the society to Islam a second time; he only used religion to legitimize his political project and, eventually, create a large Islamic empire in the western Mediterranean (Ibid.). Tinmel was his starting point towards Marrakech (Ibid.). In 1130 a long  military campaign started between two groups: the Almohads and the Almoravids (Ibid.). Eventually, in 1147 the dynasty of the the Almoravids was fought back (Ibid.).

Building a new empire

Once the Almohads were within the walls of Marrakech, they wanted to stamp their authority on the city (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). They started by replacing the most significant of the Almoravids buildings with their own (Ibid.). Legend has it that the architectural predecessors of the mosques built by Almohads in Marrakech were all pulled down as they had not been correctly aligned with Mecca (Ibid.). This was a big bold message to the people of Marrakech; the Almohads made it clear that their interpretation of Islam was the correct one (Ibid.). Today, the Almohads’ Kutubiyya Mosque is the largest mosque in Marrakesh (Franus 2012:159). Its squared minaret tower is seventy meters high and is a great landmark for newcomers (Ibid.:159).

Kutubiyya Mosque is the largest mosque in Marrakesh. Photo by Iwona Wilczek. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

One of the greatest mosque, however, was going to be built in Rabat at the end of the twelve century (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). It had four hundred columns and pillars and it was big enough to hold the entire army (Ibid.). It would have been the largest mosque in Maghreb, if not in the entire Muslim world (Ibid.).

The unfinished architectural project of the
mosque in Rabat, stopped after four years
since it was started in 1995. Photo by
Monika Ryglewicz. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The architectural project of the mosque was as ambitious as the great architecture of the North Africa or the buildings of Mecca (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Yet it has become just an unfulfilled dream (Ibid.). The reason why there is no top of the minaret or a lack of the roof over the prayer hall is that the third Almohad Muslim Calip, Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur, died in 1199, just four years after the project started, and the mosque remained in an unfinished state (Ibid.). Its grand vision had been never completed (Ibid.). To this day, only the forty-meter-high Hassan tower has survived (Franus 2012:149). It was designed in the manner of Moroccan minarets (Ibid.:149).

Behind the gate, enchanted gardens of Rabat surrounded us; the air smelled wonderfully of roses, oleanders and belladonna, called deadly nightshade, a plant with magical properties (Franus 2012:149). Although it is poisonous, Roman women used it to dilate their pupils, which made them look more seductive (Ibid.:149). White ibises walked among the trees and storks nested there as well (Ibid.). We were accompanied by a pleasant breeze from the Atlantic (Ibid.:149).

Like a watered garden

Gardens in Rabat. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

All that the Almohads used to create were composed of all the traditional elements of Berber culture, also applied by their predecessors (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Nevertheless, the scale of their intellectual achievements seems much higher (Ibid.). Some medieval poet compares their empire to the watered garden in a perfect balance of the monarch’s power and people’s prosperity (Ibid.). In such a favourable environment, there was a place for an artistic development (Ibid.).

Marrakech’s most impressive gate constructed in 1185 by the Almohads is Bab Agnaou (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012; Jacobs 2019).

Bab Agnaou in the 1920s. Source:“Bab Agnaou” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

It leads to the later built Kasbah within the already walled Medina (Jacobs 2019). The gate was originally just the main southern entrance into the city (Ibid.). Unlike the walls and the other gates, Bab Agnaou is not red, but green, made from a locally quarried stone (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012; Jacobs 2019).

It is richly ornate which makes it different from rather simple and modest gates of Marrakech, designed at the time of the Almoravids (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012; Jacobs 2019). It is carved with embellished scallops and floral designs, which makes it very sumptuous with layers upon layers of decorations (Ibid.). They are, in turn, “surrounded by Koranic quotations written in an Arabic […] script called kufic” (Jacobs 2019). The gate’s “name means ‘Black people’s gate’, possibly because it was used by black slaves of African descent, or perhaps because it leads south, across the Sahara to West Africa” (Ibid.).

The glory days have gone

Almost all that the Almohads has built seems now more impressive than constructions left by their predecessors, and that also applies to their Berber kingdom (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). As for the Almoravids, the Almohads used Marrakech as their imperial base for a further expansion, which was even more successful and ambitious than previously (Ibid.). The Almohads not only took over the territory, which was run by their opponents but also seized the neighbouring lands of Africa, which stretched into what is now Libya, whereas in Andalucía, they made their second capital in Sevilla (Ibid.). Consequently, after the Almohads, the empire became even stronger force in the Mediterranean (Ibid.).

The Tin Mel Mosque. Tinmel was the cradle of the Berber Almohad empire. Source: Viator (2020) “Image of Timnel Mosque”. In: “Day Trip to Tinmel Mosque & Berber villages”. In: © Viator, Inc. (1997–2020). If you are interested in their tours, please check on the website given below (Bibliography).

Intellectually and economically, the Almohads were in charge of an empire that ranked alongside the greatest of that time in the world (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). This was the high point of the Berber kingdom but controlling such a massive realm brought its own problems (Ibid.). The death of the last great leader, Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur, meant the beginning of the end of the Almohad dynasty (Ibid.). Squabbles over his succession allowed rival Berber tribes to divide the power over the empire (Ibid.). The Almohads were also humiliated by the Christians in a decisive battle in Spain, from which their army had never really recovered (Ibid.). Simultaneously, the authority of the Almohad rulers in Africa was lost as Arab tribes rebelled against (Ibid.). None of the Berber dynasties that succeeded the Almohad dynasty was powerful enough to control the North Africa (Ibid.). Any attempts to return to the glory days of the Almohads failed (Ibid.).

Last night in Marrakech

I made my way through the perpetually jammed street to reach the most famous square in Marrakesh and in all of Morocco, Jemaa el-Fnaa (Franus 2012:159).

A view from one of the gallery windows facing
the courtyard of Ben Youssef Madrasa in
Marrakesh. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

My companion, Iwona, decided to buy a few mint seedlings to plant them in her garden upon arrival. The seller offered a thousand and one of their varieties, which were highly valued in Morocco and used to brew the famous Moroccan mint tea. We drank litres of it here (Franus 2012:159). Only for the sake of the tea serving ceremony, was it worth ordering this famous drink, which not only invigorates but also quenches thirst. I also decided to treat myself with a Moroccan souvenir – henna (Ibid.:159). After a while, my hand looked like a work of art woven into orange lace (Ibid.:159).

It was terribly hot (Franus 2012:159). After a while we ran away to the hotel and returned to the square around 7 in the evening (Ibid.:159). At that time, nothing was left there from the sleepy afternoon atmosphere (Ibid.). The crowd in the square thickened and it reached its peak one hour later (Ibid.:159). I felt like being at a festival of street performances, but here all the actors performed simultaneously (Ibid.:159).

The clamour, the smells of spiced dishes and music vibrated in the air and deafened (Franus 2012:159). In one of the streets leading from the square, I bought and dressed jellabiya (a traditional dress) to blend in more with Moroccan folklore (Ibid.:145,159). After a while we were sitting in a restaurant resembling a Moroccan palace: the stuccoes, mosaics and carpets were filled with the sounds of enchanted music and dancing of an orientally dressed dancer (Ibid.:158).

The heirs of Maghreb

In the sixteenth century, the Kingdom of Morocco was revived but it was built by a different dynasty claiming the right to rule as true interpreters of Islam (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Although this dynasty has got the Arabic origins not Berber, they have declared themselves the heirs of the kingdom the Berbers had earlier created (Ibid.). One of the cities the Arabic monarchs developed is Meknes, known as the Versailles of the South (Franus 2012:149). It is surrounded by a twenty-five-kilometre-long wall that winds like a serpent through fertile fields, vineyards and fruit orchards (Ibid.:149). Today the city is a provincial centre, but in the seventeenth century it was the capital of Morocco (Ibid.:149).

It flourished during the reign of Moulay Ismail Ben Sharif, the second ruler of the Alaouite dynasty, established by the Arabs (Franus 2012:149). Moulay Ismail Ben Sharif himself was one of the country’s greatest and bloodiest sultans (Ibid.:149). Therefore, it seems strange the fact that his tomb has become a destination for pilgrims from all over the world (Ibid.:152). Even at the beginning of his reign, the monarch cut down seven hundred slaves as a warning to his enemies, and decorated the walls of Fez with their heads (Ibid.:149,152). He had no mercy on anyone, not even his own children (Ibid.:152). He himself did not feel safe as he made Meknes an impregnable fortress, able to resist possible enemies for years, but at the same time it was supposed to be full of gardens, palaces and fountains (Ibid.:152). The city itself impresses with the colours of the Greek islands, where blue and white dominate. It reminded me a little my favourite city in the north of the country, Chefchaouene, which is called the Blue City due to deep blue colours of its walls (Ibid.:151).

Royal horses and the largest gate of Africa

In royal granaries, consisting of a series of rooms connected by corridors, grain and legumes were collected (Franus 2012:152). The supplies were to feed the population during the long siege. Only walls covered with wild vines and bushes remained of the equally impressive Royal Order Stables (Ibid.:152). There is not enough money for a restoration or thorough excavations. Some sources mention twelve thousand horses that were supposed to be kept there (Ibid.:152). However, the calculations show that there were no more than 1,200 of them, although it is still impressive (Ibid.:152).

Mansour Gate. Photo by Jerzy Strzelecki (2011) CC BY 3.0. Source: “Mansour Gate” (2019). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The horses had royal conditions there (Franus 2012:152). They were even supplied with water via an underground system (Ibid.:152). The most famous decoration of the city, however, is the main gate of the Old Town of Meknes, Bab Mansour, known as Africa’s largest gate (Ibid.:152). It stands opposite a huge souk, where you can buy olives arranged in giant pyramids and supposedly the best sweets in Morocco (Ibid.:152). “The gate structure was completed in 1732 by Mulay Abdullah who was the son of Sultan Mulay Ismail. This gate marks the main entrance of the imperial palace built for Isla Mulay and the ancient city of Meknes. The door was designed by a Christian converted to Islam whose name was ‘Mansur’, hence [the gate’s] name. Adjacent to the gate within the walls are the Royal Order Stables, the Royal Prison and the Meknes City Museum” (“Mansour Gate” 2019). Bab Mansour itself looks like a gate to another world (Franus 2012:152). It is ten meters high (Ibid.:152) and “is decorated with green ceramics with paintings with Islamic motifs. [Its] white pillars are columns that [once] used to stand in the Roman city, Volubilis, which is about [thirty kilometres] north of the city” (“Mansour Gate” 2019).

The Alaouite dynasty is still in power today (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Nevertheless, the Berber story and their large achievements deserve their place among great histories of Africa (Ibid.).

Waterfall and the ocean

Just before heading off to Agadir, we stopped yet at Ouzoud Falls. The heat of the sun hid for a moment in the crowns of dense trees and in the splash of falling water. Macaques were popping out of the bushes, in hope for a delicious bite from the tourist’s hands. The heavenly smells of tagines, which were served in the open air, were hanging around, inviting for a Moroccan feast.

In the late afternoon, I was already standing on the wide beach near Essaouira, a charming port city and resort on Morocco’s Atlantic coast. I watched the ocean waves washing away the sun-heated sand (Franus 2012:137).

Everything seems extraordinary in this country. From the multi-colours of the mountains, the fairy-tale kasbahs, the green of palm groves rising up among the sands, the architecture of imperial cities, people who look like they have just been transferred from the past, to craftsmanship that captivates with its unique fantasy (Franus 2012:135).

By the Atlantic Ocean. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Featured image: The Ben Youssef Madrasa in Marrakesh, reflecting in the water. The Ben Youssef Madrasa in Marrakesh, reflecting in the water. Photo by Iwona Wilczek. Copyright©Archaeotravel.


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