Shopping in Marrakech

A souk is an open-air marketplace. Historically, souks were held outside of cities at areas where incoming caravans stop for merchants to display their goods for sale.  Souks extend their function beyond being markets for buying and selling goods, into major festivals involving many social and cultural activities. Later, due to the significance of the marketplace and the growing cities, the places for souks shifted to urban areas. Marrakech in Morocco is famous for these souks or markets.

The Shopping and Sights

The shopping in souk markets is not the high-street-style with air conditioned shops or malls where everything needed is under one roof, elevators to ride, or escalators to take.  Instead, going to a souk is a journey in itself, a discovery trip, and an entertainment holiday.  Wandering the whole day, pursuing which alley looks enticing, and entering the shop that takes one’s interest.  Getting lost is all part of the activity until Djemaa el Fnaa of Marrakech is in sight.  Being cautious is always part of life so other than this, one must enjoy shopping.

Mosque and Medersa

There is far more to the souk than shopping.  Heading north and can be found the Marrakech’s monuments: the Ali Ben Youssef mosque and medersa.  Like other mosques in Morocco, this one is closed to non-Muslims, but the attached university or medersa is open to guests.  This structure was built during the most delicate period of the Moroccan architecture in 1565. Its intricate plaster work and fine zellij glazed tiles are fantastic.  The tiny courtyards can accommodate up to 900 students, a number bigger than the largest of the colleges of Oxford or Cambridge, even today.

The Almoravid

Not far from the medersa is a tiny elegant building with zigzag battlements and arcaded domes. It is austere looking on the exterior but the interior is a luxury, the Almoravid qubba, the only edifice left intact from the time of Almoravid in the twelfth century.  The decoration is profound, with scallop shells, palm branches, pine cones, and acanthus leaves; the plasterwork illuminates patterns of light and shade. The qubba and medersa give visitors just a few moments of shade and relative stillness; then it’s back to the full packed streets of the souk.

Dying Souks

And finally, at the end of the souk are the dirty trades, filling up vats and tanning. Huge vats of stinking liquid, whole animal skins moving around, and loudly colored dyes all make up the process of dying fabric or leather to be made into scarves, hand bags, and other leather works. Dying is making wet the fiber to be dyed by mixing up the dye solution in a dye pot, adding the fiber and letting it soak, bringing the dye solution slowly up to the temperature of hot tap water, adding vinegar, and holding at that temperature; and then slowly bringing the dye solution to a full simmer for a period of time. The last step is letting the fabric to cool slowly in the dye solution; then washing this when it is completely cooled.

There’s no shelter in the dying souk area from the burning sun and the tanners work with no shirts, only pants and often drenched at that. It’s a shocking sight that is far from the elegance of the finished products.  Yet to see this is to understand the culture of the people in Marrakech.

Photo by nbroekzitter86 on Flickr

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