MARRAKECH -- When the conquest of Great Britain was but a gleam in the eye of William of Normandy, Marrakech was already a stronghold and a trading center in southern Morocco. From 1062 on for several centuries, it straddled the main caravan routes from Timbuktu to the markets of the Mediterranean.
The city had its ups and downs as various sultans and their dynasties held sway in or sacked it and moved its treasures elsewhere. Today, some of its lavish early palaces and gardens are ruins. Other buildings spanning the centuries have visitors looking in awe at the intricately carved plaster walls, cedar ceilings and elaborate tiles.
The color of Marrakech buildings can be described as "salmon" or "terra cotta" -- take your pick -- and it pervades both the old walled city, the Medina, and Nouvelle Cite begun by the French in 1912 and building outward to this day with a frenzy that suggests that the number of new villas may soon stretch for miles into the desert toward Casablanca, 120 miles away by superhighway.
Although the souk -- marketplace -- in the Medina is a warren of narrow streets that have been there for centuries, it is no fossil re-creation intended to transport tourists back, say, to the days of Sultan Yacoub Mansour, who built many of the palaces, mosques and gardens that brought the city fame in the 12th century.
Actually, walking the Medina one is reminded of Washington in two ways: Everyone is bustling somewhere and everyone is hustling something. There the resemblance ends.
Everything in the souk is for sale, including a photo pose by the vegetable delivery man's donkey. Walking the narrow streets involves dodging a steady stream of donkey carts, motorbikes, Japanese mini-pickup trucks, wheelbarrows and fast-walking locals of all sizes, from boys in shorts to staid women in jalabiyas with veils. The walk is accompanied by a changing blend of smells --cumin and other spices, oranges, lemons, perfume, sweat.
Visit a rug merchant and you will be given a comfortable seat and sweet mint tea, along with an entertaining presentation of carpets from those made by Berber tribesmen to tightly-loomed large "Persians."
The herbal pharmacist demonstrates two dozen or so of his specialties, intended to cure insomnia, snoring, dyspepsia, psoriasis, high and low blood pressure and sundry other ailments.
One mixture of spices is for enhancing the flavor of fish. He is a Berber whose accented English and frequent smile results in his audience happily parting with several Dirhams, the currency of Morocco, in order to test the efficacy of his potions.
Like the country, Marrakech is about half Berber, half Arab. The Berbers were there long before the Arabs arrived. It is a beguiling city with excellent hotels and restaurants for the visitor, along with what must be the planet's most lively and alluring marketplace, interspersed by handsome historic buildings and grounds. The city is said to have 700,000 palm trees, creating an air of a peaceful Eden.
Problems seem very distant. Yet, about 250 miles south lies what is generally known as the Western Sahara, a vast area treated as the Southern Provinces by Morocco. In 1975 some 400,000 Moroccans moved in to settle the area. Indigenous people formed the Polisario movement to push for independence. Sporadic fighting ensued. For some time now the United Nations has had a presence there to keep things quiet. Plebiscites have been promised several times, but postponed just as often. What to do about this very dry and economically poor area remains to be seen. Algeria supports the Polisario and the independence movement. War over the area is unlikely, as both countries face a bigger potential problem, the specter of al-Qaeda-in-the-Maghreb and its efforts to recruit and radicalize young men across the region.
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