Rabat – They’re one of the world’s oldest trading centers, a foundation of empire, and no visit to Marrakech is complete without time spent in the Souks. These narrow, twisting streets seem to follow no logical pattern, but getting lost is more than made up for by what one can find. The souks have lost none of their character over time and they remain one of the most exciting shopping districts in the world and visiting them is always an adventure.
A walk through history
Marrakech is almost a thousand years old. The red walled medina was built around 900 years ago and the souks as they are today became established at the same time, formalizing trading arrangements that date much further back. Traders with camel caravans regularly passed through the area, selling gold and ivory and slaves, and local Berber farmers had gone there to sell their wares. The economic growth caused by the expansion of the city made it a center for all sorts of exotic goods. Although it has evolved over time, its vibrant atmosphere is one of the most consistent things about the city, and the same sellers’ calls have been heard there for centuries.
What to expect
As might be expected in this situation, the souks are full of traditional goods such as hand-woven carpets, baskets, silks, pottery, jewelry, babouches, shisha pipes, musical instruments and carved ornaments. There are spices of every kind, filling the air with rich scents, and there are stalls selling fruit. Visitors are advised to take water with them because it can get very hot in the narrow streets and sellers will be happy to take advantage of weary visitors. There are also all manner of delicious sweets, and curiously these are among the cheapest things available there, so it’s a great place to pick up gifts for children back home.
What to seek out
The above might sound appealing, but that’s just what can be found in the outer areas of the souks – further in, things get stranger and much more interesting, as this is where all the niche areas can be found, and where the finest craftsmen have their stalls. Souk Haddadine, for instance, sells some of the finest ironware to be found anywhere in the country, and as dusk falls its bright lanterns give it a magical atmosphere. Souk Kchacha sells nuts and dried fruits of all kinds, including half-forgotten traditional delicacies and delicious spiced figs. Modern electronic goods can be found in Souk Belaarif, and these often change hands at very low prices.
Bagging a bargain
Visitors from other parts of Morocco are often shocked by the prices at some of the stalls in the souks, but they shouldn’t be taken at face value. While Western tourists may end up paying through the nose, anybody can haggle, and most sellers here are willing to lower their prices by a lot more than sellers in the marketplaces of smaller towns and villages. It’s not uncommon to succeed in buying something for less than half the labeled price after a bit of hard haggling. If all else fails, walking away sometimes results in being followed and offered a lower price, and everybody always remains friendly.
The best of Marrakech
Marrakech has countless delights to explore, so visitors should beware of finding themselves distracted by the souks throughout their time there. Naturally the medina is a place of religious pilgrimage for many, and there are numerous beautiful mosques and madrassas scattered throughout the city that are well worth going to see. There are also many beautiful gardens with lakes and trees that make them wonderful places to relax and cool off. The city’s palaces are magnificent ad it also has ancient tombs that will intrigue those with an interest in history.
Visitors who fall in love with Marrakech’s palaces will be delighted to know that some of them have been converted into holiday accommodation. There are many different kinds of vacation apartments in Marrakech and the freedom they allow for coming and going make them a popular choice with visitors. The roads are in good condition so it’s easy to get around, and the major railways station and airport make it simple to get to and from the city.
There’s so much to discover in this fascinating city that everybody should make the effort to visit it at least once. Deep in the souks, surrounded by music, laughter, conversation and beautiful things, it really comes alive.