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 Bab Agnaou is the portion of the fortifications of Marrakesh is best known for its decoration. This gate, constructed by the first Almohad Caliph 'Abd al-Mu'min (reg. 1130-1163) in 1147, allows an entrance to the city near its southwest corner. The Almohad qasbah was built nearby decades later in 1185, and it was only then that the Bab Agnaou became one of the city's most important gates. It was through the Bab Agnaou that the citizens of Marrakech accessed the royal Almohad qasbah and its mosque, the Ya'qub al-Mansur mosque. Bab Agnaou is the only gate in the city that survives from the Almohad period, and it is notable for its rich ornamentation that reflects twelfth-century fortification design and decorative tastes. The entry portal is a large horseshoe arch with low imposts, a type of opening that was later repeated often in Islamic fortifications. The arch surround is faced with stone, which features concentric rings of geometric carvings that encircle the central arched opening. The spandrel above the large arch is decorated with finer stone carvings of more intricate, vegetal motifs. A large rectangular band of Qur'anic inscriptions in stone borders the spandrel, which is in turn topped by a thick sculpted stone cornice ornamented with geometric patterning and false merlons. Two massive brick towers border the portal on each side, and finer stone pilasters frame the central carvings and spandrel, extending from the base of the wall to the upper cornice. The contrasting colors of the stones used in the decoration is notable; red and gray-blue stones are intermixed to create a polychromatic effect. The gray-blue stones are used in particular density along the base and the top of the wall in order to give visual significance to the gate's entry and cornice.
Bosworth, Clifford Edmund. 1996. The New Islamic Dynasties. New York: Columbia University Press, 37-53.
Deverdun, Gaston. 2004. Marrakech, des origines à 1912. Casablanca: Editions Frontispiece, 108-128, 229-232, 528-529.
Hillenbrand, Robert. 1999. Islamic Architecture. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 143.