Morocco boasts many of Africa’s most famous cities, and the most quintessentially exotic of all Moroccan cities is storied Marrakesh, which is home to some of the best Islamic architecture in the region. It boasts several of Morocco’s best preserved palaces, countless mosques and madrassas, a magnificent casbah and one of the world’s largest traditional Muslim marketplaces. The city’s architectural highlight is the magnificent Minaret of Yaqub Al-Mansur at the Masjid Koutoubia. This minaret is considered one of the finest in the world, and was the prototype for literally hundreds of minarets, church towers and other similar structures around the world. The Masjid Koutoubia is part of the Medina of Marrakesh UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Marrakesh is one of North Africa’s most storied cities. Founded by the Almoravid dynasty in the 11th century, it served on and off as the capital of Morocco until the 1700s. Morocco was, in fact, referred to as the Kingdom of Marrakesh throughout most of its history. The Almoravids and some of their later successors, including the Almohads, poured money and resources into making Marrakesh the greatest Islamic city in the west, eclipsing all of its rivals from Fes to Cordoba. It was even for many years the largest city in the western Mediterranean region.
The one thing that Marrakesh lacked in its early years was a major religious shrine such as those in nearby Fes or in Kairouan in Tunisia. However, Marrakesh did not lack for magnificent mosques, the greatest of which was the Masjid Koutoubia. Built by the Almohad caliph Yaqub Al-Mansur, one of the greatest builders of his day, the Masjid Koutoubia was named in honor of the bookseller souqs in the neighborhood. It rivaled all other mosques in Morocco in its day, architecturally at least if not in religious importance.
The Minaret of Yaqub Al-Mansur is without a doubt its most famous feature. One of the largest minarets yet built, it was considered an architectural masterpiece from the outset. A famous legend tells of the four brass balls that crown the minaret. As the story goes, there were originally three golden balls on the pinnacle. However, when Yaqub Al-Mansur’s wife accidentally ate during one of the days of Ramadan, she made penance by having all of her gold jewelry melted down so that a fourth ball might be added. The legend makes no hint of how or when the gold balls were replaced by brass.
Beginning in the 17th century, Marrakesh entered into a long, slow decline which did not end until the 20th century. During that period, Marrakesh began to adopt the tradition of the seven saints in order to improve the city’s image as a legitimate religious center. These seven saints were seven Sufi mystics and scholars who made there home in Marrakesh during various periods in the late Middle Ages. The saints are now associated with various mosques throughout the old city, including the Masjid Koutoubia. The Minaret of Yaqub Al-Mansur is among the most visited, and photographed, structures in Morocco.
The Masjid Koutoubia is one of the best-preserved mosques in North Africa, with much of it dating back to the original 12th century construction, although an earlier mosque which had been constructed when Marrakesh was founded previously stood on the site. It is an outstanding example of medieval Moorish architecture. The sand-colored stone walls, high windows and imposing square corner towers give the mosque and almost fortress-like appearance reminiscent of Christian monasteries of the period.
The highlight of the mosque is the Minaret of Yaqub Al-Mansur, which at over two hundred feet in height is the most distinguishable and famous building in Marrakesh. One of the structural elements that makes the minaret so famous is its width – it measures forty feet on a side, and contains an interior ramp large enough for horses to carry passengers up and down. At the pinnacle of the minaret is a small dome topped with the fabled stack of four copper balls of decreasing size, a flourish which would be emulated by many other mosques in later years.
The Masjid Koutoubia is located about a half a mile from the casbah in the southwestern quadrant of the immense old walled city of Marrakesh, approximately 175 miles south of Rabat. It is open to Muslims only. There is no cost of admission to the mosque. Web: www.visitmorocco.com (official tourism website of Morocco)
Marrakesh is Morocco’s most typical Islamic city, especially architecturally and culturally, and there are many great Muslim sites in the city. The Madrassa Ben Youssef is one of the most famous theological schools in North Africa. There are also many famous dead in Marrakesh, including the Tomb of Muhammad Al-Jazuli, a popular local Sufi saint. Many members of the Islamic Saadi royal dynasty are buried in the Saadian Tombs.