Saturday, May 06, 2017

Atay Maghrebi: The Saadian Tombs

Inside one of the mausoleums at the Saadian Tombs, Marrakesh.
Stepping out of the cool darkness of the shuttered dorm, into the shade of the courtyard and then up onto the bright reality of the roof terrace, I realized that Saturday morning seemed to have even more of a Sunday morning feel than Friday did. The hotel was silent save for the handful of people at breakfast and the usual group of sparrows dancing around, picking up cake crumbs from the buffet.

The massiveness of the pale blue sky would seem almost oppressive, were it not for the distinct outline of the Atlas mountains in the distance and a handful of minarets nearby. Only the occasional revving of a moped shimmying through the alleyways brings you back into your present.


Getting more used to the Marrakshi heartbeat, I decided to stick to my plan of going to visit something specific in the cooler morning air. Today, it was my full intention to reach Le Palais de la Bahia, or Bahia Palace.

Setting off, passing through the narrow passageways of the medina, a route with which I had familiarised myself the previous day, I made my way along Boulevard Fatima Zahra, onto Rue El Mouahidine and continuing on Avenue Hommane Al Fatouaki.

In a small navigational error – I hadn't restudied the map from the guidebook and was going mobile internet free – and ended up turning a couple of streets too soon.

Walking past an unending line of camel-coloured grand and petit taxis, I found myself not arriving at the Bahia Palace, but walking below the castellated walls of the casbah and into the square opposite the Moulay El Yazid Mosque.

I turned the corner, and found that another of Marrakech's historical monuments, the Saadian Tombs squirreled away in an innocuous corner, nestled between the walls of the much younger mosque and the modern palace.

Once I’d got past the man trying to sell me a German guidebook to Marrakech, I discovered that entrance fee was only a minimal 10 dirhams.

The Saadian Tombs are a curious attraction. On the face of it, you may be tempted to think it isn’t visually too spectacular apart from a couple of the larger mausoleums, but you’d be wrong.

The Saadians were a ruling dynasty in Marrakesh and Sultan Ahmed Al-Mansour decided that a fitting monument to his rule would be a mausoleum made of Italian marble, golden muqarnas plasterwork and colourful zellige tiles. The tombs house a number of princes, wives and nobility.

What is the most curious thing is how such a monument has survived, seemingly at odds with Islamic convention. The Saadian Tombs are, in essence, a monument to a past dynasty of kings, and my understanding is that any such memorial could be considered a form of idolatry.

The Saadian Tombs are well hidden between high walls in the casbah, Marrakech.
Indeed, the Wahhabi movement in Saudi Arabia has, over the years, removed a number of historical sites connected with the history of Islam lest they detract from the sole worship of Allāh.

What you discover is that the subsequent Alawite ruler Sultan Moulay Ismail walled the tombs up so that they were completely hidden from view. Some say it was superstition that prevented him from destroying them.

For lunch I spend an hour or so on the roof terrace of Café Casbah overlooking the mosque and the entrance to the tombs.

Somewhere in the distance a rhythmic beat appeared and disappeared like a ghostly carnival before the relative silence of this neat little section of the city returned.


That evening, shortly before Magrib prayers are called, I meet with Dee on the top terrace and we talk briefly before she attempts to meditate.

Allahu akbar… hayya'alas-salāh

After a while she gives up and reveals that she's had an awful day. It seems that after ten days of travelling alone she is homesick and has spent most of the day buying new flights to Barcelona, but is now worried about how to proceed onwards to Switzerland.

I reassure her by saying that she is, in fact, remarkably brave to be travelling alone. I'm attempting it for the first time and I was homesick after about five hours, let alone ten days – although, I admit tiredness played a part in how I felt.

It transpires that, in spite of having a partner, she mainly travels alone.

"Maybe though, at this time, it is not the right thing for me," she says.

After a while we are joined by Rory - a red-headed, harem-pants wearing Dubliner with a beard that's so good it's practically sunnah. He is quite a sight and when we are joined by Ella, an Irish primary school teacher, Dee’s mood lifts.

We resolved to find some dinner, wandering through a part of the medina that I’ve not been through yet and settling for a small café just off the main part of Jemaa el-Fnaa. Crucially, most of the customers seem to be Morrocan, rather than European.

Rory and Dee are good company and it felt good to be in a group rather than alone. Rory designs video games for smart phones and is having a short break before heading back to meet the launch deadline for his app. He is quietly optimistic about the potential success of it.

Dee is a dance and yoga instructor. She is self-employed and is less certain about things. She tells us about how she can't really have a sick day because she won't get paid.

Rory, who was self-employed for a long time, offers a few bearded words of wisdom and encouragement, looking as he does like a wise character from One Thousand and One Nights.

Throughout dinner, where I opted for merghez sausage, harira soup and Morrocan salad, we talked about where we are now and where the immediate future may take us.

Denmark got more than a fleeting mention from me and I momentarily daydreamed about the prospect of leaving the UK – my own Brexit brought about by a perfect cocktail of circumstances.

After offending a diner, whose dinner-stained white shirt meant we'd mistook for a waiter, Dee bought ice-cream for three child-beggars and we took a gentle stroll through the slowly-closing souk, returning to the hostel.

It was generally quiet and the terrace being closed already signalled an earlier night than yesterday.

Lessons learned:
  • Food is cheap when you avoid the casbah (where a tagine will cost you a lot)...
  • … and eat where you see Moroccans eating.
  • Cats will enjoy harassing you whilst you eat in any country.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great read! ��

T.S. Ó Ceallaigh said...

Many thanks.

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