When Marrakesh (or Marrakech) was a stop along the international “hippie trail,” Crosby, Stills and Young sang fondly of “blowing smoke rings” and “charming cobras on the square.” Today, smoke rings are harder to find in Morocco’s third largest city, but cobras still entertain visitors on the celebrated square.
The Almoravids founded Marrakesh at the foot of the Atlas Mountains in 1062 as the capital of an Islamic empire comprising southern Spain and northwest Africa. The Almohads, practicing a severe form of Islam, conquered Marrakesh in 1147, killing thousands of its citizens and destroying many of its buildings. The Almohads built the Koutubia mosque over the ruins, its 253 feet high minaret now a Marrakesh landmark. Marrakesh declined under the Almohads, but entered a period of renewal in the sixteenth century under the Saadi dynasty, which built the magnificent El Badi Palace to mimic the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. The beautiful Saadian tombs, rediscovered in 1917, contain graves of Jewish members of the palace staff mingled with those of the Muslim royal family. In the late 19th century, Marrakesh’s Grand Vizier built the Bahia Palace for his four wives and 24 concubines in the mudejar style of Moorish Spain and Morocco.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, Marrakesh’s hashish and hostels attracted members of the counter culture seeking a cheap kasbah high. Its aura of authentic oriental mysticism drew the likes of the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and Yves St. Laurent, whose ashes were spread around the restored Marjorelle Garden that he purchased in 1980.
Hashish is now illegal in Marrakesh and deluxe hotels and casinos have replaced the flophouses of the hippie era. Visitors come from around the world to see the Koutubia mosque, the Saadian tombs, the Bahia Palace and Jemaa el-Fnaa, the most famous square in Africa. Reportedly once the site of public beheadings, the square is filled with a noisy collection of exotic entertainers and insistent merchants hawking everything from false teeth to fortune telling. For a fee, costumed charmers will make their hooded cobras sway while playing a flute the snakes cannot hear. All aboard the Marrakesh Express!