Leaving icy England for mild Morocco was a very welcome opportunity to thaw out, under clear, blue Marrakeshi skies. With the snow capped majesty of the High Atlas Mountains as a backdrop, and the haunting, atmospheric chorus of myriad muezzin calling the faithful to prayer drifting across the rooftops, this colourful and chaotic city was an intriguing place to explore.
Staying in the riads, traditional Moroccan houses, was wonderful. The spectacularly ornate architecture and fine décor of the rooms, alluded to mystical tales of the Arabian Nights or to the exotic courts of Islamic royalty, and set around the pretty sun-drenched and charismatic courtyards, to stay here was to reside in a silent, serene oasis in the midst of the mayhem.
To step out into the labyrinthine souks within the crumbling Medina walls was to become Theseus confronting a thousand Minotaurs, albeit friendly ones. With your wits about you, bargains could be proffered, though escaping the maelstrom of fez toting, cringily obeisant marketeers to the sanctuary of the riad was not so easy. Amid the bazaars, each street mirrors the next, with a thousand different sellers selling a million things the same, each stall holder apparently ‘remembering’ you from yesterday…it was very easy to get lost. Besides, a trail of breadcrumbs would certainly be snatched up by the hordes of melancholic and hungry street kids. It was great fun in the markets, a real haggler’s haven, but one thing troubled me. All my life I’ve believed I only have one brother, yet in Marrakesh I met so many men vehemently claiming kinship with passionate cries of, “My brother! My brother.” It really has me wondering. Mum! Something you want to tell me?
There are many places and people in the world that could learn a few things from Moroccans. In Marrakesh, Muslims, Jews and Christians live, work and socialize together in natural harmony. There is not at all a sense of toleration, but a genuine acceptance and appreciation of different faiths, harmonious for centuries, while religions and some of their followers continue to make large parts of the world unpleasant and dangerous. To Marrakesh, if I wore a fez, I would tip it to you now. Instead, I will simply say ‘tres bien, and merci.
A road trip beyond the city saw us nervously traversing the frozen peaks of the High Atlas, via perilous, innumerous switchbacks, before descending into the unfolding arid vastness of the northern Sahara. Abandoned mud brick Berber villages clung to the surrounding, windswept hillsides, while occasional, vibrant flashes of colour indicated rare and sporadic life along the fringes of the modern highway. A couple of hours into the barren terrain, the ancient citadel of Ait Ben Haddou rose before us. For millennia it served as an important caravan stop on the old trade route from Timbuktu to the Mediterranean, and though the weather-beaten landscape here seemed familiar, as yet I knew not why.
I soon learned though that this beautiful old city had been used as the setting for many a Hollywood movie scene; Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven to name but two. The innate character and looming presence of the rustic, archaic structure, seemingly carved from the very desert from which it rises, exuded romantic notions of a bygone era, and to explore its silent, dusty alleyways as the setting desert sun cast its long, creeping shadows all about, was to truly take a step back into history.
Back in bustling Marrakesh, with its constant though not unpleasant cacophony of noises, from the incessant pipes of the snake charmers and the clip clopping trundle of a thousand horse drawn carriages, to the melodic muezzin and the plaintive cries of the street urchins for baksheesh, you come to understand why the desert was virtually devoid of all humanity: Everybody, it seemed, was in the magical medina of Marrakesh. We didn’t realize it yet, but our glimpse of gladiators and Minotaurs in the relatively composed mayhem of Morocco, would completely be surpassed the moment we touched down in Egypt. For to step into Egypt, is to well and truly ‘Enter the Arena.’