With the Marrakech Museum for Photography and Visual Art (MMPVA) scheduled to open in 2016 and a temporary photographic exhibition housed in El Badi Palace, Marrakech is blossoming as a centre for the arts. Ramy Salameh explores one of the world’s most photogenic destinations through its timeless heritage….
Standing on the roof terrace of Maison de le Photographie and looking out toward the majestic snowy peaks of the Atlas Mountains, standing like sentries over the city of Marrakech, I realised that Morocco’s second oldest imperial city has not changed much over the centuries and that there are two levels of life in Marrakech — the one that takes place on ground level and the one that takes place on the flat roof terraces.
The gallery was inaugurated in 2009, housing a collection of 8,000 original prints and postcards within a building that encapsulated much of what makes Marrakech so enchanting. Its location is in the northern quarter of the souk, near Madressa Ben Youseff, hidden behind one of the many unassuming Marrakechi doors within the medina; thus it remains a relatively well-kept secret to stumble upon. This was to be a recurring pattern throughout my stay.
Maison de la Photographie charts the early journey of the medium in Morocco from the late 19th century through to the middle of the 20th century. The early pioneers of photography within the region first came to Tangiers, which was seen as the gateway capital before making their way to Marrakech. These exquisite images captured the very essence of the country through the eyes and architecture of its citizens.
And so it was that these stills, hanging from the stark white walls, allowed me to compare the city in the early 1900s with the present day. Very little has changed within the walled city, the same sun-weathered faces peer from beneath hooded djellabas and the atmospheric beams of light that cut through the wooden slats of the covered souk, are still to be found within the labyrinthine warren of alleys of the old city. Similarly, the only high rise feature of the cityscape are the square minarets, whose design can be traced to the Umayyad rulers of Islamic Spain. During the call to prayer, the roof terraces are the places to be, as the first Imam sets off a domino effect that bounces from minaret to minaret across the city until it creates some unity of religious devotion.
The photography gallery is housed in an ancient Fondouk. Whilst not having the religious significance of a mosque, or the political importance of a Palace, the ‘‘Fondouks’’ (the word ‘‘Funduk’’ is still often used today for ‘‘hotel’’ in Arabic) played an important role in the medieval market life of the souk, to help stimulate the passage of trade for the passing caravans. Today, they are the workshops of artisans who dye leather, hammer metal work or serve as small bakeries.
From my perch on the terrace café of the gallery, I peered over a side railing to see a young Moroccan boy laying out rows of tanned leather hides upon the roof of the neighbouring tannery, to allow them to be dried by the sun, part of an age-old tradition. In the distance, the Koutoubia Mosque’s minaret is one of the great landmarks of the city, and is also one of the oldest, dating to the 12th century and thanks to old French colonial legislation (that no building in the medina should be above the height of a palm tree), provides the ideal reference point above the maze of the souk.
As with most fondouks and riads, the footprint of the building is based around the central courtyard, beautifully tiled and featuring a central water fountain, both of which are open to the elements and allowed to interact with bright sunlight that funnels down into the central area. This cascade of light bounces off the glass-framed images adorning the gallery walls, creating a series of reflections placing the zellij mosaic tiles and arabesque stained-glass windows of the building with these early ancestors. Whether by clever design or coincidence, this fusion is illuminating.
The maze of alleyways are the ventricles of the old city, where modern caravans of trade and life continue to pass through. The tightly-packed stalls use every inch of available space to design, drape and display their wares; everything from babouche pointed slippers to fanous lanterns and leather bags, to antiques and perfumes. But the most eye-catching are the colourful rows of spice stalls, all offering the same sculpture of fresh dates, almonds, pistachios, melon seeds, cumin, cinnamon and much more. The chequer board of produce is piled high like pyramids, engulfing the vendor who pokes his head through a solitary gap between his mountainous local fare.
The contrast of aromas overlap, mix and change as you move from district to district, each one specialising in traditional crafts. The most distinctive smell emanates from the famous Tanneries district, located in the north east of the medina just next to Rue de Bab Debbagh. The process of fermenting, colouring and drying the hides is a fascinating spectacle, but also one that requires a sprig of mint positioned under the nose.
However puzzling the souk’s alleys may appear, they eventually lead to Djemaa El-Fna square, designated and considered by UNESCO as a ‘‘masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity.’’ There can be no better description of the uniqueness of Marrakech’s famous central forum. It is, of course, the most visited part of the city by tourists and the daily ritual of snake charmers, dancers, tooth pullers, highly decorative water sellers and followers is hyped to lure the tourist dollar, yet every component has its roots in the historical fabric of the city. As night descends and the food stalls move into prime position, they become a hive of activity. Steam and smoke ascend into the night air along with the rhythmic drumming coming from the huddles of people crowding around performers. Locals and visitors sit down in the square’s alfresco setting for the renowned Tagines or Harira soup, which is a spicy blend of tomato, lentil and chickpea, to contemplate and cogitate over their busy day. So it seems natural for one of the most photogenic places in the world to be the home of MMPVA, expected to be one of the world’s biggest photography galleries. Marrakech is most definitely visualising the future.