Marrakesh is one of the world's great shopping destinations. The full gamut of Moroccan crafts – both traditional and contemporary – can be found here, and few travellers return from a trip empty handed. In the souqs, haggling is the name of the game although some medina boutiques and all the Ville Nouvelle design shops are fixed price.
'Souq' means 'market', but when locals refer to ‘the souqs’, they mean the maze of market streets north of the Djemaa El Fna and southwest of the Musée de Marrakech. The main thoroughfare from the Djemaa El Fna, Souq Semmarine (Leather Souq), sells a hodgepodge of local crafts. Prices are at their most expensive here, given the high price of real estate on the main drag, and products often come from specialist souqs just a few streets away. It is always better to buy products direct in dedicated souqs, especially in the case of carpets, metalware and leatherwork. The smaller qissaria (covered markets), which run between Souqs Smata and El Kebir (literally, ‘the big souq’), usually have lower-priced crafts.
Natural henna dye – extracted from the dried leaves of the henna tree – is applied traditionally during celebrations, particularly on the Islamic festival of Eid Al Adha and before wedding ceremonies when the women gather together to adorn the bride-to-be. Henna tattoo artists hang out on Djemaa El Fna. Be careful, though: some may use ‘black henna’, which can contain chemicals known to cause skin allergies, rather than natural henna, which is a reddish brown. Henna Cafe and Marrakech Henna Art Cafe both have henna artists on hand and guarantee they use natural henna.
Rich in vitamin E, argan oil must be the finest cosmetic ever to pass through the business end of a goat. Outside Essaouira and in the Anti Atlas Mountains, goats climb low argan trees to eat the fruit, digesting the soft, fuzzy outer layer and passing the pit. Traditionally it is women who then collect the dung, and extract, clean and crack the pit to remove the nut, which is then pressed to yield the orange-tinted oil. This is arduous handwork. Buying argan oil from a shop run by a collective is the best way to ensure that the women are fairly paid.
Shopping for Saffron
Saffron – the gold dust of the foodie world – is for sale throughout Marrakesh’s souqs. But hold on to your cooking aprons, gourmet travellers. Not all of it is exactly what it seems. That really cheap saffron that spice stalls are hawking for Dh10 to Dh20 per gram? That’s usually safflower. Real saffron (the stigmas of the saffron crocus) have a more delicate thread, are less garishly red than safflower and have a tiny yellow tip. It costs about Dh60 per gram.
Carpet Buying For Beginners
This quick guide to Morocco’s carpets will help you on your hunt for the perfect rug in the souqs.
Rabati Plush pile carpets in deep jewel tones, featuring an ornate central motif balanced by fine border details. Rabati carpets are highly prized, and could run to Dh2000 per sq metre.
Chichaoua Simple and striking, with zigzags, asterisks and enigmatic symbols on a variegated red or purple background (about Dh700 to Dh1000 per sq metre).
Hanbels or kilims These are flat weaves with no pile. Some hanbels include Berber letters and auspicious symbols such as the evil eye, Southern Cross and Berber fibule (brooch) in their weave (about Dh700 to Dh900 per sq metre).
Zanafi or glaoua Kilims and shag carpeting, together at last. Opposites attract in these rugs, where sections of fluffy pile alternate with flat-woven stripes or borders. These are usually Dh1000 to Dh1750 per sq metre.
Shedwi Flat weaves with bold patterns in black wool on off-white. For as little as Dh400 for a smaller rug, they make impressive yet inexpensive gifts.