Historically, the term Gnawa (Gnaoua in French) refers to the descendants of black slaves in Morocco, the mystical Islam they practice, and the music used in their religious ritual.
Slaves were brought into Morocco from Sub-Saharan West Africa beginning around the end of the 16th century. Enormous gold-wealth and thriving trade networks fueled two great empires, first Ghana (parts of modern Mauritania and Mali), from around the 8th century to the 11th century, and then the Empire of Mali, from the 11th century to the end of the 16th century. In 1591, Timbuktu, a major city of the Mali Empire and a center of Islamic scholarship, was conquered by mercenary armies for Morocco. Mali declined steadily from there and Morocco began to import its people to work as soldiers and imperial domestic slaves. Continue reading
Visitors to Marrakech often take a day to venture into the High Atlas Mountains, which dominate the eastern horizon, less than an hour’s drive away. Besides mountain air and gorgeous scenery, they find many villages of the indigenous Amazigh people. (The Amazighen are better known as the Berbers, a name which derives from the ancient Greek or Roman for barbarian.) Tafza is one such village, about 37km from Marrakech, on the edge of the Ourika Valley. It’s a typical Atlas village, friendly and scenic, with at least one notable distinction – the Ecomusée Berbere (Berber Ecomuseum).
This exceptional little cultural museum is housed in the restored ksar of a former caïd (castle of the tribal chief). The collection is well curated and includes rugs, tools, musical instruments, pottery, jewelry and fascinating antique photographs of Atlas village life in the early decades of the last century. The local hosts are knowledgeable and amiable guides and proud representatives of their heritage.
With advance reservation, guests can have a meal on the ksar’s large terrace, with broad mountain-valley views. Also with advance notice, more extensive experiences are available, such as traditional pottery workshops and walking tours of the village and environs.
A riad is a particular type of boutique hotel housed in a renovated, grand, old house in Morocco, mainly Marrakech and Fez. I’ll speak in general terms; with riads opening almost weekly now, there will certainly be some exceptions to this description. For a couple of decades now it has been quite trendy for Europeans to buy old riads and renovate them as vacation homes or guest houses. Now there are hundreds in Marrakech alone.
In the Kasbah neighborhood of the Marrakech medina, tucked behind the Kasbah Mosque are the Saadian Tombs, burial grounds of the Saadi dynasty, which ruled Morocco in the 16th & 17th centuries. The mausoleum was built during the reign of sultan Ahmad al-Mansur, not the first Saadi ruler but definitely the most famous.
There are near 200 graves altogether, with the sultan and princes inside and women and officials in the garden. After the fall of the Saadis, the succeeding Alawites (still ruling Morocco today) walled up the Saadian tombs and they were lost to history until discovered in 1917.
Unless you’re seriously into Moroccan history, the main appeal of this place is the interior architecture and embellishments – Carrara marble, elaborately carved cedar and plaster, and colorful tiles, as well as the peaceful courtyard garden, which feels far removed from the busy medina.
The tombs are accessed by a path around the right side of the mosque (non-Muslims cannot enter the mosque). This is a popular tourist stop in Marrakech and can get quite busy, with long lines to enter, best to go early and with a guide.
Many of our travelers to Marrakech, Morocco request a day trip into the High Atlas Mountains, the white-capped wall on the city’s southern horizon. With Berber villages dotting the foothills, there’s a cultural appeal to these trips, equal to the natural one. Many of the villages have weekly markets.
Probably the best-known mountain excursion from Marrakech is to the Ourika Valley, a stunning 60-90-minute drive southeast from Marrakech. It’s long been a favorite getaway for Marrakeshis and in recent years, it has become quite popular with tourists. While still very beautiful, it can feel overrun at times, especially in the summer.
Some lament the presence of vendor stalls set up along the river, others appreciate the development or look past it to thoroughly enjoy the mountain air and views of soaring peaks, including that of Jebel Toubkal, the tallest mountain in North Africa.
Setti Fatma, clustered around the Ourika River, is the main village of the valley. Above the village is a series of seven waterfalls. The hike to the falls, especially the upper ones, is steep and involves a lot of scrambling over large rocks. Some stretches of the trail skirt significant drops and there are no barriers. Many reach the first fall and call it good. Any hiking in the area, even just along the river banks, is best done in sturdy shoes with good tread.
Considerably less busy than Ourika (but increasingly popular with tourists), Ouirgane is 90 min-2 hours southwest from Marrakech, in the heart of the Toubkal National Park. This is another gorgeous drive, through Berber villages, orchards and forests, but the destination is quite different. There’s lots of easy-moderate walking in the hills and pine forests of Ouirgane, as well as mountain biking and horseback riding. Ouirgane village has a weekly market on Thursday.
Beautiful Ouirgane Lake (aka Yacoub el Mansour) was created in 2008 when the Nfis River was dammed. Nearby, the 12th-century Tin Mal Mosque was the original spiritual home and fortress of the Berber Almohad Dynasty, which rose from humble beginnings to conquer all of Morocco, much of North Africa, Portugal and Southern Spain. It is one of two mosques in Morocco that allows entry to non-Muslims (the other is the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca).