Marrakesh’s Souks - A Walk Through a World of Oriental Splendour
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
“Would you like to see the Medina?” is the usual question young lads put to visitors roaming Jamaa el Fna, Marrakesh’s square of never-ending entertainment. Usually, not many take up the offer. To a good number of tourists, the Medina (oldest part of the city) has no special meaning. Yet, for those who know, it is a fascinating world which takes one back to the Middle Ages.
To explore this ancient section of Marrakesh, an auto is unnecessary. When the old city was laid out centuries ago, it was planned for people who tread the streets by foot. Hence, this part of the city, which is a wealthy storehouse of what Morocco has to offer, is ideal for a walking tour.
There is no need for a guide. The Medina alleyways are as safe to walk through as any wide boulevard in the western world. Remember the name of the souk where you began and if you get lost, just say the name and any merchant will point the way. However, do not look for street names: you will not find them.
For a tour on foot, it is always best to begin is Jamaa el Fna. It provides an excellent gateway to the maze of souks (streets) in the Medina. A good starting point is Souk el Rahba directly opposite Cafe de France. As you walk in, stalls display women’s belts followed by a bewildering array of handmade pottery. Further on, nuts, piles of dried mint, spices, dates and clothing are on sale until Bab Seminarine, a filigreed Moorish gateway.
The arched entrance leads to Souk el Kabir which is made up of three short streets: Semmarine, el Nejjarine and Chkairia, following each other in that order. Souk el Kabir is the spine of the Medina connected by a labyrinth of narrow streets where some of the finest craftsmen in Morocco are to be found.
Traditional clothing of every kind, gold and silver embroidered fabrics sparkling in the sunlight, piles of handmade rugs, attractive brass articles, ladies’ purses and other leather products are the main goods featured in the stalls as you move along on the right side of the street. As you move along, you will note that the latticework covered souk casts shadows which make people appear striped like zebras. In this shadowy atmosphere, the merchants try to lure you with tempting articles of brilliant handiwork from gaudily decorated slippers to ornamented daggers.
Stop and ask the price of any article that catches your fancy, but do not buy. Purchasing should be done on the way back. The vendors would have noted your presence and know that you have a fair knowledge of prices when you return.
The first connecting street to your right is Souk el Ghazel. Walk on and you are now on Souk el Nejjarine. All around you are wood products, leather clothing and endless other articles for sale. Soon, on the right, you will come to Souk el Zarbi or, as some merchants call it, el Raba’.
Turn into this street and walk about 50 feet through stalls exhibiting delicate handmade wood products to a square called Rahba Kedima. If you like exotic spices, this is your spice-land of make-believe. It seems that every herb and spice in the world is to be found piled on the ground or sold in the surrounding stores. The aroma of coriander, cumin, ginger, paprika,
saffron, sandalwood, and countless other herbs and spices impregnate the square. If you are looking for any rare spice, the prices, even for tourists, are very reasonable.
Return to Souk el Nejjarine which becomes more interesting as you move along. In tiny semi dark stalls workmen are busy carving attractive wood articles. Alongside, leather products and a spectrum of other goods add a riot of colours and entice the passerby.
Pass Souk el Styleyah on the left and continue to Souk el Fakharine, the next opening on the right. Turn and walk through an exquisite display of pottery, then to the left a few steps down to a metal workers section. Around you are brass shops with artisans chiseling out plates that glimmer in the sun. Between them are stores that exhibit eye-catching traditional silver jewellery and other metal products. If you wish to purchase Berber ornaments or shining brass articles, bargain, then buy them as they are being produced.
On el Nejjarine again, walk a few yards further to the Tegmoutine, a small gold vending street on the right. You are now in the world of exquisite gold jewellery. If you want to bargain, visit half a dozen shops and ask the prices, then return to the one you think is the fairest and cut down the price asked, at times, by half. If you take the time, you are sure to make a good buy.
Return back to el Nejjarine and continue walking. The next passage on the right is Souk el Sawafine. Make a little detour and browse through its dazzling display of handmade daggers and ancient looking flint-lock rifles and watch the artisans producing these weapons by hand.
On the left, after Souk el Styleyah, there are six openings leading to kaisarias (markets) where traditional clothing, dyes and other useful home items are sold. Unless you are interested in Moroccan attire, move on.
Now you are on Souk Chkairia, the last part of Souk el Kabir. The shops on both sides offer the same goods you have already seen. Walk past Souk el Sarajine on the right until you reach Souk el Sharatine on the left, a street before Chkairia ends. Turn into this souk where craftsmen are at work, producing traditional Moroccan belts, purses, and other leather articles. If the ageless leather products of Morocco interest you, buy here.
Continue, past Souk el Samata and turn a sharp left on the second passageway. You are now walking in Souk el Attarine where the main articles on display are brass products and Moroccan silver tea sets. If this does not hold your interest, then walk to Souk el Styleyah. The first opening to the left, turn and walk about 100 feet to Souk el Sabaghine, the dyers’ souk. Here you will find hanging on lines strung across alleyways, over the brass shops, skeins of wool or silk of every hue found in the rainbow.
Return and turn right, then walk a short distance and you are at the lower end of Souk Semmarine. Now is the time to buy the gift you want to take home with you. Bargain with the merchants whom you had asked about prices while you had been taking your walk. They know that you are now much wiser and their values will be reasonable.
If you want to purchase a rug, stop at the Chateau de Ia Koutoub on the left or La Porte d’Or on the right. You should by now have an idea of the prices and here you have a wide choice of handmade carpets. A good 2 x 3 metres handmade rug sells for some US$500.
Walk back on your right and pass the first opening, Souk Dufa Rabah, by a few feet. If you have a sweet tooth, stop at one of the two pastry shops, and try Moroccan sweets with a coffee or orange juice that cost less than a dollar U.S. A few yards more and you are at the last connecting street, Ka’at el Zait where 50 feet into the Ka’at are olives and olive oil piled up in barrels.
At Bab Saminarine, you end the walk at the point where you began. No doubt, you have found that Souk el Kabir and the streets threading from its sides are a world of oriental splendour and you will not quarrel with the traveller who said: “Cool and kept spotlessly clean, Marrakesh’s souks are a perfect reflection of the medieval world at its best”.