Monday, February 13, 2017

Atay Maghrebi: The Koutoubia Mosque and Hotel La Mamounia

The Koutoubia Mosque and its imposing minaret, early on a Friday morning.
I didn’t really feel that Marrakech and I had got off on the right foot. This morning, after a really good night’s sleep, I had resolved to have a calm day, take in a few sights, and limit my spending to 200dh.

Perhaps most excitingly, it was my first Jumu’ah spent in a Muslim country. The day already had the feel of a Sunday morning in a Christian country and when I finally got out of bed the hostel was very quiet. By 8.30, there were only two others on the roof terrace.

Breakfast was, as expected, a bit of a bread fest, but there are also the options of cake, yoghurt, coffee, atay, pancakes, all accompanied by the worlds sweetest and thickest apricot jam.

I took my time eating and made the most of the sun’s mild temper to write the previous days misadventures into my notebook, accompanied by a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and a pair of sparrows who insisted on monitoring my every move lest I drop a crumb.

I also reflected on how humourless I had been the day before. Plenty of people go travelling alone, but, as it’s something that I had never done before, it seemed like the lack of any sense of order hit me hard. Today I realised that I simply had to find a rhythm to my day.

After studying the Marrakech Lonely Planet guidebook, handily stolen from the library at my workplace on the last day of term, I made a modest itinerary for the morning: Koutoubia Mosque followed by a wander around the gardens of La Mamounia, a large hotel by the medina walls.


The minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque is the defining architechuaral feature of Marrakesh’s medina.

Mid-morning on Jumu’ah, the square in front of the mosque was quiet, save for the traffic rushing in small waves along the junction of the Rue Mouahidine and Rue Ibn Khaldoun. 

In front of the mosque was the small white-washed tomb of Lalla Zohra, whose history it's hard to pin down. Some sources told me she was is considered a saint, others I spoke to said she was the daughter of a liberated slave. I found it strange that there would a tomb or mausoleum to a potential saint, and a female one at that, so openly placed at the side of the road – especially when this could be considered as a form of idolatry under Islamic law. It wasn't the only instance of such a thing I would find in Marrakech.

Turning back to the main building, to say that minaret dominates the landscape is an understatement and somehow seems to cheapen it. It was built in the 12th Century and is one of the oldest buildings left in the medina as well as one of the tallest. One taxi driver, a Paris Saint Germain fan called Hassan, confidently informed me, “You can see that tower for 40 kilometres in every direction.” I didn’t test whether this was the truth, but I could well imagine that it would be.

In many ways, the bottom of the minaret is quite plain, but the intricacy of the design increases the further up you look. 

It starts with some carving into the masonry around the window spaces; further up there are lines of blue painted into geometric patterns; some small castellation; a smaller part at the top where the muezzin would call the adhan has both blue and red details, a variant of the fleur-de-lys in the stonework, and at the top four golden orbs, one of which being supposedly a penance payment from a sultan’s wife for breaking her fast during ramadan.


Even the secluded areas of La Mamounia's gardens are palatial.
After this, I made the short but rather hot walk through Parc Lalla Hasna to La Mamounia. 

Nearing the end of the park, the scale of the hotel becomes evident, but you can’t truly appreciate its architectural splendour until you’re safely through the security gate.

Emerging from a well-manicured garden full of trees with large branches, the entrance to the hotel looks more like modern reworking of the Alhambra in Seville, Spain. Not a square inch of the entrance is free from either zelij – the typically Moroccan mosaic patterning – or carved and sculpted stucco or masonry, with designs so complex that only my camera was able to do it any real justice.

The hotel opened to travellers in 1923, but has a history that stretches back much further than this. The gardens were gifted to Prince Al Mamoun in the 18th Century and the palatial theme is continued throughout the premises. Indeed, the hotel’s website claims that Winston Churchill once remarked to Franklin D. Roosevelt that it was “one of the most beautiful places in the world.”

Inside, the floors and walls were made of what seemed like polished black marble interlaced with gold highlights. Along the sides were small water features with the ubiquitous zelij sorrounding them, gently flowing as I made my incongruous (read: linen trousers, light blue T-shirt and sandals) passage through the lobby towards the blazing light of the terrace that overlooked the gardens.

I sat myself down with Ian Fleming’s For Your Eyes Only, feeling a little bit like James Bond as a waitress in a gold and white abayah took my order. Whilst the couple on the table next me, a Canadian woman and her partner from Kent, went for a late-morning mojito, I opted for second pot of atay, that came accompanied by three small pastries.

Whilst finishing my atay, I read a bit more of my novel and then some of the rather arty in-house magazine. Ironically enough the articles include one about a house that was used for fiming in the recent James Bond movie Spectre in Morocco and an article on atay, which really was becoming a running theme of my stay.

In Mouna Lahrech’s article Fifty Shades of Green, she took aim at mint tea, claiming that it wasn't really that Moroccan. She says, “Moroccan tea was originally a British idea” and that green tea was “introduced in the mid-19th century by the British who were looking for a market for their exports of different green tea varieties.” She also can’t stand the slurping noise that you’re supposed to make whilst drinking it.

Just as I was beginning to despair as my entire notion of one of Morocco’s essential components was beginning to crumble, she went on to write that what Moroccans did with the basic ingredient of green tea is what makes it special. Indeed, the addition of mint and other regional variations of ingredients is what “created a beverage that would accompany life’s most beautiful moments for an entire country” – although she still prefers coffee.

With my faith in the Moroccan integrity of atay restored, I set off on a stroll around the gardens. Now, having recently agreed with my father in an argument about the overuse of football pitches as a means for measuring area, I will avoid doing so, but you get the implicature; the gardens were vast.

Within the boundaries of the garden, which push up against the inside wall of the medina, there were countless cacti of every shape and size imaginable, rows of date palms piercing the cloudless Marrakshi sky, lush green lawns standing in counterpoint to the reddish sands that surround the city and even a 'water bed' – a flower bed filled with lilly pads, flowers and bulrushes. In amongst this there was evena terrapin swimming blithely amongst a couple of small fish.

To add to the magnificence, a small seating area, or so it seemed at first, in fact opened out into a small riad style courtyard with a symmetrical balance of columns, alcoves and soft azure zelij, all finished off with an artistically overflowing fountain in the centre.

Considering that it was just the garden to a hotel, it took me nearly forty-five minutes to navigate and I managed to get mildly lost before emerging near the pool bar. I could only guess at what the price difference must be between my room at Equity Point and La Mamounia.

For the afternoon I had planned to visit Le Jardin Majorelle, the one time residence of Yves Saint Laurent, but when I got back to the AC of my cheap, but comfortable, dorm room after a lunch of kefta tagine and yet more atay, I fell asleep for the majority of the afternoon.

Lessons Learned
  • Waking up early and getting out whilst the sun is a bit cooler is a good idea at this time of year.
  • Not every Moroccan actually likes to drink mint tea, and some will actually print this opinion openly.

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