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Seb Many Moorish trading families emigrated from Marrakesh to Britain in the early lgth century. Simon Sebag Montefiore finds mayhem - and tranquility - in his ancestral city. here has always been something debauched and glamorously infer-
nal about Marrakesh: everyone who goes there wants to go back. It comes in and out of fashion but the wonderfirl thing about this hedonistic, manic royal city is that, apart from getting more expensive, it never changes. No journalist or torr guide can resist describing Marrakesh as mysterious or secretive. Both are nonsense: it is just that the city has an exaggerated sense of the difference between private and public life.
The cool delicacy of life behind the walls contrasts with the wild-eyed frenzy of the streets. This cliscretion is the cin-i genius. But tlespite the trishiorr magazines lnd interior decorators rvho tn- ro rurn
Morocco into an exotic version of the Hamptons, Marrakesh is desperately poor, dusty, chaotic and unhinged; the food is hot and spicy, the souks are crazy and aggressive
if you don't like flies, sweat, spices, donkeys or tagines, then go to the Cรถte d'Azur.
ageing hippies and German backpackers.
The souks are filled with tourist tat, yet this markeplace is not for tourists; it was here long before they came and is still the same. The sounds deafen but inspire drums beating, voices chanting, carts heaving, horses neighing, snakes hissing, apes chattering, qrmbals clashing, motorrycles rewing, torches buming. This is the people's Marrakesh, as unbounded as the city's private life is tucked away. The southern capital of the kingdom of Morocco, Marrakesh was always a royaT city - even today the young king is building a palace here. Founded in 1061 lx the ยงrnoravid sultans, its old pink walls are ,,rnchanged ll the 'r-crrs. Bv the late 19th cenrun; *re cin' canrc uirJ.r; r..- :,,...,:
-i the Glaoua *'arlords, rvho reached their apogee under Thami el-Glaoui, pasha of Marrakesh who owned much of Morocco; in old age this rich and cultured cut-throat came as a guest of Winston Churchill to Queen Elizabeth II's coronation, not long after he had had the heads of enemies impaled on his palace gates. The city first became
Nothing prepares you for the lamous medina:
place Djemaa el-Fna is as z ny as A Thousand and fashionable in the west One Nighrs meets Iggy Pop Abclve: this early 1900s during the virile youth of in a film by Fellini. With courtyard is unlikely to have el-Glaoui, thanks to the changed in I00 years. frlgยงrt: all the savage glory the the wonderful writings of the Koutoubia mosque in 1897. wealthy eccentric Walter boundless energy, the dark imagination, the anger, love and hatred Harris, the Morocco correspondent for of a once-great slaving capital, it remains Tbe Tim.es who befriended three sultans a cauldron ofpassion, greed, poverty and besides el-Glaoui himself. Harris died in
The city sits astride the slave routes from West Africa
and the royal road heading north to
Rabat, the route east to the mountains
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the High Atlas and the trading road to the Adantic ports - on the very borders of a forgotten empire. Yet for all its grandeur, it is still a frontiers town. Djemaa el-Fna is an ordinary souk by day, but when the air cools and darkness falls, it is where the people come out in droves, to dance, sell, fight and dream light-skinned Berbers from the Atlas, black descendants of slaves sold here, Rehemna Arabs from the plains, beggars,
wrestlers and hustlers, monkey men, snake-charmers, fortune-tellers, hags painting henna on the sandalled feet of
1933, el-Glaoui in 1956.It was not until the late Sixties that the city fascinated once more and Jimi Hendrix wrote songs here. Men of taste, Yves Saint Laurent and interior designer Christopher Gibbs among them, still have houses in the city. Gibbs more than anyone brought the culture, robes and decoration of Marrakesh into the mansions of rock stars in Chelsea
and Gloucestershire, Now the city
enjoying renewed popularity: the medina is currently being renovated; designer Emmanuel lJngaro launched his latest perfume here in a two-day fiesta, and the Amanjena hotel has opened, as magnificent as el-Glaoui's palace. But fashions come and go: Mamakesh
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bec:use J am rlrrsl oDe oi them- I hare a special rseson tor loring the cin': the Sebaes. mr temih. lired in the city for hundreds of vears, sening as merchants and adrisors to the Alaouite kings, while rading in slares and spices in the famous
a part of the
In the 18th
Sebag family helped finance the construction of a 'port' for Marrakesh, the city of Essaouira (formerly Mogador) on the Atlantic coast a few hours' drive away. Then the Sebags came to London along with the d'Israelis (Benjamin Disraeli's father was born in Marrakesh) and the Hore-Belisha family (one of whom was the defence sec-
retary who gave his name to
So immaculately run and cleverly built are these pavilions and villas (with two storeys
Belisha beacons). I was longing to visit Marrakesh, and since my wife had married into a pardy Moorish family, she agreed to come. Here and there we ask in the souks if
and four rooms for a family) that some grandees never emerge at all.
There is a golf course and a spa of The place echoes with
they know the name and they always reply, "Once there were
haunting Moorish and Berber musicians.
There is delicious international food French, Italian, Thai and American - at one high-ceilinged restaurant, but the best cuisine is in the palace where the skills and traditions of Moroccan cooks prepare authentic Moorish
many Sebags here...".
The holy frenzy of this city is incomprehensible without experiencing the serenity of courtyards. Our cases carried for us, we make our way through the infernal dance of the big square, heading down a street alive with sellers, traders, old men, blind men, motorcycles and donkeys, before turning into a long, empty winding lane
to a wooden door marked number 87. We enter the delicate, aristocratic and insolentlv pror.rd world of *re riad, one of :".i::'. - :'.\ i:':((l to$ nhouses. 'l'hese are ' -". :..Jienant läll^t--- .--.. ..:. ' lies like mine uoultl nare lived and done business. Ours, the Riad el-Cadi in the medina, is three houses combined by a former German ambassador into an exquisite labyrinth of rooms filled with Moorish antiques, tiles and lamps, set around courtyards of tinkling fountains, turquoise pools and orange trees. This was like staying in a museum: the whole pleasure was its air of studied lang'uor, a heavenly sanctuary from the heat and madness. It is not for the service or spas that one stays at a riad - they are
seeing those high
hauntinS I*p: the saddle-tloth.maker's
foothills of the Atlas, it is the kind of place for those who enjoy the faded glories of old legends; it is lost, not to say shiprvreckctl. irr tirnc. s-ith its doz.r' ser,..r .r:'.1 1....ri'. Irlneh lixrJ. susf)crlrl.tl forever in the n'orld betbre rravellers' standards rose so high. But it remains the best place to stay as a rose-petalled base from which to see the red-stone, hennaskinned people and thin, cool air of the
Atlas. The hotel is a calm and restful
in the early morning, ride on
or walk up the hills along winding paths to sun-baked villages clinging onto precipices that have not horseback
changed for a thousand years.
The Moorish splendour that is
much a part of Marrakesh as the souks is
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palatial bed and breakfasts. The food was simple but good; the boy in charge, who served as waiter, concierge, doorman and
telephonist, was cheerfully distrait and quaindy bewildered. When we staggered in from the sweltering souks, we spent the happiest afternoon lazingby the pool
in a courtyard that belonged in
peaceful seraglio of some ancient sultan. At night, we walked back across the
square, dodging the burning torches, dancing serpents and marauding motorcr-clists, to enter another sanctuary of \r,r-r'rkesh. a restaurant in an old Glaoui ' .,1 Fl Baraka, a triumph of :-IIre-
to be found at the edge of the city in the Amanjena, the latest golden child of Amanresorts which has been built from scratch around a huge, beautiful lake.
With flawless taste and the highest standards of service, class, cuisine and everything else, this sumptuous hotel combines the exquisite culture of Morocco with the excellence of the world's top hotels. Its luxury is what luxury should be; everything has been thought of, yet with a delicate touch. Indeed the Amanjena is the best, most spoiling, most luxurious hotel between Paris and Cape Town. Around its lake lies
a village of 34 miniature Moroccan
palaces or pavilions built in plain pink Atlas stone; each has a domed bedroom,
dishes. So imaginatively and
,,,o*ltopp"d ieaks frori *':*.fPi"J:?th€d in r8s7' grandly is this hotel conthe ord-äshioned,,J;; Ilt'jffil'#:ll xlHxl, ceived, so well-trained the Roseraie. An hour's drive a letter--writer in tgzg. staff, that tlere is no checkin desk, no registration and from Marrakesh in the
in lrethrooms for couples, a -.
no signing for one's meals: one is simply whisked straight from the lobby to the discreet world of one's own pavilion. The arrival of the Amanjena has revo-
lrrit,nir.-cl the concept
of luxurv in
-\larrakesh. l n.r. :: - ....,>, .'. h,, -.,. .: :,. not.Nloroccan enough, or vou or*ä, ,aa enough of the Adas mountains, or even that it is too perfecg those critics can go back to the tawdry French d6cor, bad service, faded grandeur, sewage smell and fly-spotted mess of the city's more famous hotels which it makes seem clumsy and old hat. The Amanjena is the country's
charm and magnificence personified
with its cuisine but without the donkeys, flies and incompetence. That is precisely what we wanted and what we paid for.
More than that, this is the ideal third hotel to stay at: after the immaculate riad of the medina and solid comfort in the Atlas mountains, Amanjena is the
of the Alaouites and elGlaoui himself, an almost private palace
of pleasure, taste and magnificence. No wonder the Learjets line up at the airport to deliver moguls and their families for weekends at this Shangri-La. No wonder Harrison Ford and Sting are recent visi-
tors. We feasted on the charm and Iuxury, enjoyed the Moroccan food, and even today I miss the delicate taste of the Iemon-marinated whole chicken cooked in a tagine. This is among the one or two best hotels we have ever stayed in; we
spent days in our room, writing and
relaxing. Yet another irresistible reason to come back to the ancestral home.
Sim.on Sebag Montefrore u,aoelled to Man akesh witb Scott Dann World (020- I
5010, wwwscoudunn.com). Tuo nights at Riad el-Cadi, three nigbts at La Roseraie (002 1 244-4 3 9 1 2 8, uuw. cybernet.n et tno
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Financial Times Weekend Magazine - Marrakech - Riyad El Cadi