Palace Invasion

Marrakech, Morocco
September 2014

Saardian Tombs

Saardian Tombs

They descend like rats on the southern medina, scattering out from a line of buses on the streets alongside the Saardian Tombs and ancient El Badi Palace in the heart of the old kasbah. For a brief time, I had the tombs to myself, with a faint hope of taking pictures of the pleasant grounds and yellow-walled buildings before having a closer look inside. But those hopes are quickly dashed. Group after group spill in, crowding up to the first mausoleum with their pennant-holding guides. They poke their noses inside to look, linger in the opening having their pictures made, take shot after shot of themselves in front of the same backdrop to be posted to Facebook, Instagram, and Weibo. Even before they’ve moved on, the next group has shoved in.

There’s no waiting them out. There’s too many of them. The best I can do is squeeze in. I’ve planned this day all wrong.

Fortunately, tour groups are on tight time tables, so they skip a lot of things. The views into the tombs of the first mausoleum are packed, but things open up at the subsequent tombs, as the resident cats look on.

Palace Storks

Storks ruling their palace

Assuming the tours will move on to the El Badi Palace next door, I head for the Bahia Palace, which is farther away. When I arrive, there are huge crowds, too, as the first wave of tours are taking in their last palace of the morning.

Still, the Bahia Palace is gorgeous, with two riads separated by a series of courtyards, each surrounded by well-adorned rooms and outdoor alcoves with fine wood carvings. The bright, sunny day and the plush array of blue, yellow, and green plants in the first courtyard lift my spirits. So I don’t mind the Japanese tourists who are pushing by me, or the Russians who are scowling at me for standing in their shot.

A sumptuous lunch tajine on the rooftop terrace of the Bahia Restaurant gives me rest and renewed energy for the afternoon. By the time I reach the Dar si Saad, the tour groups have moved on to the souks. The old mansion is now a quiet museum showing off an array of Moroccan crafts, clothing, ceramics, gold work, furniture, and carpets. There’s a quaint garden with a gazebo, and a stately gallery with tile floors and gold and colored glass lanterns. At this time of day, the light through its windows bisects the room between sun and shadow.

Tour groups are on tight time tables, so they skip a lot of things.Back to the kasbah for the last stop of the day, the ruins of the El Badi Palace, off the Place de Fusiliers. From the outside, the palace is crumbling in places, but once I pass through the gate I am dwarfed by its towering red-stone walls. Looking up into the late afternoon sun, I see a group of storks nesting atop the walls, lording over all they survey.

The marvel of the El Badi Palace is the sprawling central court and gardens, which must be the size of a couple of football fields. The gardens of small trees and flowering shrubs are planted in a quartet of sunken spaces surrounded by stone walkways, with reflecting pools cut down the middle. At the end of a reflecting pool, to the west side, is the immense Koubba el Hamsuniya, once used by the sultan for state occasions. Beyond it to the south is an annex that once housed the palace stables and dungeons. Now it abuts the royal palace on the other side of the high walls.

El Badi Palace

El Badi Palace

Another feature of the El Badi Palace is that one of its pavilions exhibits the original minbar from the Koutoubia Mosque. A minbar is like a pulpit where the iman would read from the Koran during Friday prayers. The Koutoubia minbar predates the mosque and is quite tall, with some of the original carvings in Arabic text on its wood panels.

Back in the light, I take in the view of the central court, the palace ramparts, and the greater kasbah from high on the terrace. From this vantage point, I can see the walls and rooftops of the royal palace to the south and as far away as the Koutoubia Mosque to the north. Best of all, it’s quiet and calm, free of tour groups. Just where I need to be.

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