Many desert caravans passed through this outpost before Almoravid Berber leader Youssef ben Tachfine and his savvy wife Zeinab recognised its strategic potential, and built ramparts around the encampment in AD 1062. The Almoravids established the city’s khettara (underground irrigation system) and signature pink mud-brick architecture. But when Almohad warriors stormed the city like a marauding construction crew, they left only the plumbing and the Koubba Ba’adiyn intact. Almohad Yacoub el-Mansour remodelled Marrakesh with a fortified kasbah, glorious gardens, qissariat (covered markets), rebuilt Koutoubia and Kasbah mosques, and a triumphal gate (Bab Agnaou). But the Almohads soon lost their showpiece to the Merenids, who turned royal attention to Meknès and Fez.
Life became sweet again in the 16th century, when the Saadians made Marrakesh the focal point of their lucrative sugar trade route. With the proceeds, Sultan Moulay Abdullah rebuilt the Almoravid Ali ben Youssef Mosque and Medersa, established a trading centre for Christians and a mellah (Jewish quarter) outside the Kasbah in 1558. His glitz-loving successor, Ahmed el-Mansour Eddahbi (the Victorious and Golden), paved the Badi Palace with gold and took opulence to the grave in the gilded Saadian Tombs.
Alawite leader Moulay Ismail preferred docile Meknès to unruly Marrakesh, and moved his headquarters there – though not before looting the Badi Palace. High-maintenance Marrakesh slid into disrepair, and Marrakesh entered its Wild West period, with big guns vying for control. Those who prevailed built extravagant riads, but medina walls were left to crumble, once-grand gardens filled with garbage, and much of the population lived hand to mouth in crowded fondouqs (rooming houses). In 1912 the French Protectorate granted Pasha Glaoui the run of the southern Morocco and several medina palaces, while French and Spanish colonists built themselves a ville nouvelle. After the independence movement reduced the pasha to snivelling before King Mohammed V, independent Morocco got organised. Rabat would be the nation’s capitol, Fez remained the spiritual centre, and Casablanca was business as usual – but what would become of Marrakesh?
Without a clear role, Marrakesh resumed its fallback career as a caravanserai – and became the nation’s great success story. Roving hippies and spiritual seekers built the city’s mystique in the 1960s and ‘70s, and visits by the Rolling Stones, Beatles and Led Zeppelin gave the city star power. Fashion arrived in fierce force with Yves St Laurent, Jean-Paul Gaultier, sundry Vogue editors and gaggles of supermodels, all demanding chic digs. In the 1990s private medina mansions started being converted as B&Bs, just as low-cost airlines delivered masses of weekenders to brass-studded riad doors. The city doubled in size, and now Marrakesh eagerly awaits your arrival: the city invested US$2 billion in tourism infrastructure in 2007. Meanwhile in the Djemaa el-Fna, Gnawa musicians are tuning up three-stringed banjos and megawatt grins, just as they have every night for a thousand years.