Next on our list of places to see, after our adventures in the souk and a visit to the beautiful gardens of Le Jardin Secret, was the El Badi palace. We made our way through the maze of the souk and back out to Jemaa El-Fna. From there we walked along another alley, the Riad Zitoun Lakdim past more shops filled with souvenirs and handicrafts of all kind, to Place de Ferblantiers. By now it was past lunchtime and we were hungry, so looked for a restaurant with a terrace outside, where we could ideally sit in the warm afternoon sun. We found a restaurant on the top floor of one of the buildings in Rue de Berrima, which served us a delicious lunch menu for only about 10€/per person. From there we enjoyed the view onto the streets from our seats on the terrace. The food was traditional local soup or mixed Morroccan salad, followed by tagine and fruit for dessert, simple food but welcome.
The entrance to El Badi palace was less than five minutes away. Chris and I had visited the palace on our last trips to Marrakech but it was the first time for Jerome. From the outside, we could see the high mud coloured walls with the signatures holes in the side. Some people assume the holes were used as shooting holes or for airing the properties, neither are they there for birds to nest in (even though they love them for just that purpose), they are actually the remnants of previous scaffoldings! On top of the wall we could spot some storks nesting with a big thatch of sticks drooping over the edge.
When you buy the tickets at the entrance, I would advise to pay the extra dirhams to see the restored Minbar (pulpit in a mosque).
Once we were inside the El Badi palace, we first went to the lower ground to see some of the cave like rooms, where an exhibition was on display. It is probably the best route in but not well signposted. Unfortunately, as all signs in the palace, the signs in the display were only in Arabic and French, although luckily both Chris and I are fairly fluent if a little rusty in the latter. It was still interesting to look at the pictures though and decipher some of the plaques.
Outside we walked back up some steps to the main courtyard and it is only there that the sheer size of the ruin is visible. El Badi palace was commissioned by an Arab Saadien Sultan in 1578 and was planned and built over 25 years and must have been a magnificent display of craftsmanship at the time. The palace was built with the most expensive materials, including gold, onyx and marble. There used to be 360 rooms in the palace, plus a large pool in the centre of the courtyard. Nowadays we could only imagine what splendour and grandeur this palace must have been hundreds of years ago. Now there is nothing left, after being raided and exploited by a later Sultan, who used the buildings contents and materials for one of his palaces in Meknes.
All we could see was the ruins of the pavilions, which were used as summerhouses at the time, there used to be five pavilions in total on the site of El Badia besides the pools, and the sunken gardens with orange trees. Sadly there was no water in the pools and a pinky dust had covered most of the traditional Moroccan tiles. Each pool and garden had steps down and we could see some children running around between the orange trees in one of the gardens. To one side of the palace grounds, we found the entrance to the dungeons and stables. There the servants used to be housed and we walked though the dark, dimly lit passages past bare rooms.
Back outside we strolled to the room, which displayed the minbar. A minbar is a pulpit, found in Mosques where the imam (preacher) stands to deliver the sermons. The minbar we saw at El Badi palace dates back to the 12th century and used to stand in the Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakech. It was an intricately carved pulpit, with beautiful floral inlays. Some of the pieces of the inlays were sadly missing but we could see that it must have been an incredible piece of art when it arrived from Cordoba, Spain, were it was handcrafted. We were not allowed to take photos, so I am unfortunately not able to show you the beauty of this masterpiece of Islamic art.
After seeing the minbar we headed over to the tower, which can be climbed by stairs. From its roof terrace we had a great view over the palace grounds, with the pools and sunken gardens, over the rooftops of the Medina and on to the snow covered Atlas Mountains in the distance. Jerome liked seeing the storks in their nests, it felt like they were really close but they did not seem bothered by humans at all.
We had originally planned to visit the Saadian tombs after the El Badia palace, as they are just a stone throw away, but time was ticking away and they would have been closing soon. Instead we decided to come back for the tombs the next day and walk through the spice market to the Jewish cemetery in stead.
We knew we were close to the spice market when a mixture of fragrant smells floated into our noses. The most prominent smell, that we were able to figure out, was curry but there were hints of cinnamon and other spices too. Once we got to the entrance of the souk, we saw the mountains of colourful spices outside the shops. We do not think that the mountain are completely made up of spices, some are very obviously just painted papier mâché or metal or have spice glued to them! Jerome could not take his eyes of the multi-coloured mountains and was fascinated by the array of goods for sale.
We walked through the covered alley, immersing ourselves in the mesmerising smells. Jerome had stopped at one of the shops and the shopkeeper started to explain all his goods to him. He did not only sell spices, even though they made up a lot of his good for sale. He explained that local men and women not only come to buy spices here for cooking, but also necessary items for their daily hygiene. There were fennel flowers used as tooth picks, different types of clay for masks, charcoal for teeth cleaning, cloves to use as an eyebrow pencil when burned and many more surprising facts. He also let us smell some of the natural oils and spices. The vendor really gave us a great insight into Moroccan life and we felt that we should buy something, after him all he spent his time explaining a lot to us for maybe a quarter of an hour or more. Even though he did not even push us into buying anything. Jerome loves cinnamon, so we bought a small packet of his favourite spice, at a much cheaper price than it would have been in the UK.
Many people come to the spice market to fill up their cooking cabinets with their spices, especially saffron is a favourite among the many on offer. Be careful when purchasing saffron though, there are a few crooks around that have tricked many tourists in the past, by selling fake saffron. If you want to make sure you get the real thing, go to Talioune, a town where saffron is grown, a three hours drive away from Marrakech.
We left the smells of the spice market behind us and walked along one of the back streets towards the Jewish cemetery. We passed local shops and children playing in the streets. One boy seemed to guess, that we were headed for the cemetery and wanted to guide us. We did not want him to come with us and politely declined in French. After the second time of saying “non merci” he got the hint and went back to play with his friends. This area of the Medina appeared more residential and less frequented by tourists, despite the fact that it was located just behind the spice market. I guess, apart from the cemetery there is not that much else to see that way. We rather liked the atmosphere, it felt more authentic and a bit like we were off the beaten track and away from the tourists. I am aware that not everyone has a weakness for cemeteries like I do, even my boys can get annoyed with me at times for it.
We had never been to a Jewish cemetery before and I believe that in our upbringing of Jerome he should be aware of the history of all religions although we subscribe to nothing seriously. Morocco used to have a significant Jewish population of several thousands. They all lived in the Melach, a walled Jewish quarter inside the Medina. Today there are only 200 Jews living within the Melach, most have moved away, even though Moroccans have always been welcoming towards their community. There is one synagogue in the Melach, it is hidden away but I am sure local children would be more than happy to point it out to you. We had set our mind on visiting the cemetery and did not bother with a visit to the synagogue this time. The cemetery was hidden behind a wall, but we could see the David’s star and some Hebrew writing over the entrance gate. We were asked to donate a few dirhams towards the upkeep of the cemetery by the guard. He explained to us that his family had been looking after the cemetery for generations. When I asked him if he was Jewish, he declined and said that he was Muslim. He wore a kippah, the little round cap Jewish man wear. Chris was told he had to wear one as well to enter further, Jerome did not, I wonder if he did not have to because he was still a child or maybe he assumed he was a girl due to his long hair. It was the first time for Chris to wear a kippah, Jerome thought this was quite funny.
The guard explained to us that most of the graves were hundreds of years old, the oldest dating back to 16th century. We could see the vastness of white and sand coloured graves in front of us. The cemetery was huge and much bigger than we had ever expected. All of the white washed graves had no names or indication on who was buried there and pointed into the direction of one of the entrance gates. Most of them sadly were graves of children that had died from cholera, typhoid and other epidemics. There were so many of them, some really close to one another that there was no way you could walk between them. We found out that the graves were made up of three layers in order to make the already limited space go further.
We could see some mausoleums and larger graves at the far end, next to the outer walls of the cemetery. The guard explained to us that these were the newer graves and that the mausoleums belonged to famous and respected people of the community, including some rabbis. It was unlike any other cemetery we have visited before and it was fascinating to see and find out more about the Jewish community here in Marrakech from the large boards at the entrance. On the way out, we had to wash our hands at the fountain next to the entrance gate; this is part of Jewish tradition.
I was glad to have made the little detour to visit the cemetery, we had learned a lot about the history of the Jews here in Marrakech and seen a different aspect of the city. We made our way back through side streets to Jemaa El-Fna.
There we had another orange juice from one of the stands, the vendor was pleased to see us again. We sat on the stools in front of the juice stall, watched the locals visit Jemaa El-Fna to enjoy the groups of musicians, storytellers and future tellers. The food stalls were already set up and when we strolled through them, got pestered straight away by staff to sit down and have a meal with them. We told them we were not interested as we were going back to our hotel to have dinner there. Some told us to come back another day, other were less friendly and annoyingly that happened at almost every food stall. I dread to think what it would be like if you really go there to eat. I am sure it would be a great experience and the food probably is good and great value but at this time of year I would feel too cold sitting outside in the open air to have a longer dinner. One advice though, ignore the hustlers and pick the stall that you like, do not let them drag you into their stall if you do not feel like eating there. Most guidebooks say it is a must to eat at these iconic stalls but sometimes we have to ignore these recommendations!
We were tired by then, we must have walked a lot that day and were glad to get into our complimentary hotel bus and to have a quiet dinner next to the fireplace at the Caravanserai with the cat on Jerome’s lap again.