Located on a fertile plain, Marrakesh is one of Morocco's four imperial cities. Founded in eleventh-century as the African capital of Almoravid dynasty; it was conquered by the Almohads in 1147, and then to Marinids, only to be taken by the French in 1912.
Marrakesh was founded in 1062 by Yusif Ben Tashfin, the first ruler of the Almoravid dynasty. His son, Ali, built the Ben Yussef Mosque and the city wall. The Almohads (1146-1268) made Marrakesh the capital of their empire and it was during this period that the Koutoubia was built.
The Marinids (1268-1520) neglected Marrakesh but they were succeeded by the Saadians (1520-1668) who endowed the city with the Badi' palace, the Ben-Yussef madrasa and the Saadian mausoleum.
From 1668 onwards, the Alawites, who resided in Marrakesh only occasionally, erected numerous buildings such as the palace of Bahia and Dar Si Saod at the end of the nineteenth-century. Later, the modern town was to develop three kilometres from the Medina, with its wide avenues bordered with palm-trees, orange-trees and jacarandas.
When first created in the 11th century, Marrakesh was a link on the caravan route that joins the south and the north of Morocco by way of the valleys up the Upper Atlas. Routes from the Tafilelt region and the Draa valley also converged on Marrakesh. Later, as the capital of the Almoravid and subsequently the Almohad empires (eleventh and thirteenth centuries), it became the seat of the unique authority ruling the entire Muslim West, including Andalusia.
At that time, Marrakesh was a large metropolis, housing probably up to 100,000 inhabitants.
Between the thirteenth and early sixteenth centuries, Marrakesh experienced a period of decline due to the displacement further east (in Algeria, Tunisia and particularly Egypt) of roads used to transport African gold, and the relocation of Morocco's capital to Fez. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, under the Saadians, Marrakesh was revived and flourished thanks to the gold trade, and the conquest of Tombouctou by the Saadians.
The Sidi Bul Abbas Complex in Marrakech was commissioned by Sa'dian sultan Abu Faris al-Wathiq (reg. 1603-1609) in 1605 to honor an influential twelfth-century Sufi preacher. Sidi Bul Abbas (1130-1205) is the patron saint of Marrakech, and one of seven Sufi saints associated with the city. Individual mausolea within the medina honor each of these saints, and a famous weeklong processional links the tombs of these revered "Seven Men." Visiting the mausoleum of Sidi Bul Abbas is a minor pilgrimage recognized in the Islamic faith. The Sidi Bul Abbas complex comprises a mausoleum, a mosque, and various religious and educational facilities organized around two linked courtyards. An additional program of interest within the complex is an asylum for the blind, as Sidi Bul Abbas was well known for his charitable work on their behalf.
The plan of the complex is highly irregular, as variously sized buildings surround two loosely rectangular courtyards that meet at an overlapping corner. The structural grid of each building in the complex is aligned to one of two major longitudinal axes. The first of these axes is rotated eighteen degrees counter-clockwise from the north-south meridian. The mosque, madrasa, hospital for the blind, markets, and washrooms are aligned to a series of scaled grids derived from this axis, which regulate the southwestern portion of the complex. The northeastern corner of the complex is home to the mausoleum of Sidi Bul Abbas, the cemetery, ritual slaughterhouses, and lodgings. This part of the complex is aligned to a grid whose north-south axis is rotated twelve degrees counter-clockwise from the north-south meridian. Two generous courtyards occupy the interstitial space between the opposed clusters of development, buffering the six-degree rotation in planar orientation. Overall, the collection of buildings is 130 meters long north to south and 90 meters wide east to west at its largest points.
The complex is entered via a linear bazaar that leads from the neighboring souks into a small triangular entrance courtyard. This bazaar is approximately thirty-six meters long and twelve meters wide, structured on a four-meter grid. The width of the bazaar is subdivided into three bays, as covered stalls flank an unroofed central aisle. The triangular courtyard at the end of this market funnels visitors into a narrow three-meter-wide and twenty-eight-meter-long alley that leads to the first of the two major courtyards of the complex. This twenty-six-meter-wide and twenty-meter-long courtyard is surrounded by a series of small chambers, measuring on average four meters to a side. The eastern wall of the complex mosque forms the courtyard's western edge. A fountain for visitors to the mosque and mausoleum is located at the center of the southern wall bordering the courtyard. Near the center of the northern wall defining the courtyard is the entry to the mausoleum of Sidi Bul Abbas.
The mausoleum is a square chamber with a pyramidal roof measuring fifteen meters to a side. It opens through a gallery along its eastern side onto a nine-meter-wide and fourteen-meter long courtyard with a fountain at its center. This small courtyard is accessible only via the mausoleum, and is used by pilgrims as a place for quiet contemplation and devotion. A fifteen-meter-wide and eleven-meter-long cemetery is located directly to the north of the mausoleum.
To the west of the mausoleum is the second major courtyard of the complex, whose southeast corner opens onto the northwest corner of the first major courtyard. Compact chambers forming the northern edge of this second courtyard serve as lodgings for visitors to the site. The ritual slaughterhouse borders the northeast corner of this courtyard, immediately to the west of the cemetery. In the southwest corner of the courtyard is the entrance to a labyrinth-like series of hallways and chambers that house the home for the blind, the madrasa, washrooms, and additional shops. The madrasa is a typical rectangle in plan, with a single ring of chambers surrounding a central courtyard and fountain. Located immediately to the west of the mosque, the madrasa is eighteen meters wide along its east-west axis and twenty-seven meters long along its north-south axis.
The south side of the second, northwestern courtyard is fronted by the elevation of the mosque. A door aligned with the mosque's central aisle opens directly onto the courtyard to its north. The mosque measures thirty-eight meters long north-to-south and thirty meters wide east-to-west. It is divided by its column grid into seven longitudinal aisles, each eight bays deep. Most of the northern half of the mosque is unroofed, as a fountain in the third bay of the central aisle anchors the center of an inner courtyard. Additional entrances to the mosque are located at the east and west ends of the fifth row of bays. The qibla niche is located at the center of the southern wall of the mosque. The minaret of the mosque is located in its northeast corner, defining the intersection of the two primary courtyards.
The original decoration of the complex was in line with the rich Sa'dian architectural traditions found in other structures from the early seventeenth century. Opulent stone and woodwork, intricate stucco carvings of abstract vegetal motifs, and polychromatic zellige tile work lend rich textures to both interior and exterior building surfaces. The courtyards are paved with large black and white stone tiles in a rectangular grid pattern. The roofs of the structures are made of varying colors of tile; the region's signature green glazed ceramic tile covers the pyramidal roof of the mausoleum of Sidi Bul Abbas. The interior of the mausoleum features walls covered in mosaics of zellige, stained-glass windows, and a spectacular painted wooden dome ceiling.
As the Sidi Bul Abbas Complex has persisted as a highly significant devotional site in Marrakech, the buildings have been well maintained during the four centuries following their construction. The complex has been a site of architectural investment for nearly every Moroccan ruler since its first patron, Abu Faris al-Wathiq. Most recently, in 1988 Alawi King Hassan II (reg. 1961-1999) commissioned a major restoration of the mausoleum.
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