Early history of souks in Marrakech
A souk is the name given to an Arab market. Traditionally an open-air market that locals relied on for their essential items, a souk would have travelling merchants passing through them once a week, once a month or at other infrequent periods. Marrakech’s strategic location at the heart of Morocco, however, meant that many traders came through the city every day.
Sitting on important trading routes, people passed through here from the north, south, east and west. Located at the centre of ancient commerce networks, goods found their way to Marrakech from all over Morocco, surrounding African countries and farther afield. Merchants often travelled by camel or donkey, usually with a heavily laden caravan.
The vast number of traders visiting Marrakech is a major reason why the medina has so many gates; access to the main part of the city was made easier for merchants. The Bab Doukkala gate, for example, was used by merchants from El Jadida, to the northwest of Marrakech, and nearby areas. The medina’s large gates opened early in the morning and closed every evening. Merchants who arrived late had to spend the night outside of the protective walls. Those who arrived in time typically slept in mosques, or fondouqs – accommodation for merchants and their animals. The trading action took place at Djemaa el-Fna, the city’s large square, with numerous sellers offering an array of goods.
Growth of Marrakech’s souks
As the local population grew, vendors started to hold smaller souks close to main communities. Using donkeys, camels and carts to navigate the labyrinth-like streets of the medina, trading areas close to home made shopping easier for locals. Thus, the convenience also increased the number of items being bought. Neighbourhood souks originally mainly sold everyday essentials.
The smaller neighbourhood souks gradually grew, as more traders saw the opportunity to increase sales. Many souks expanded so much that they merged with nearby souks.
Local artisans and craftsmen often lived and worked close to others in the same trade. Communities of artisans grew, hence why there were traditionally some souks dedicated to particular goods. People sold their wares from or near their workshops. This is why today’s visitors will still find separate areas in some souks – for example in the Carpet Souk close to Rahba Lakdima.
How to navigate the souks
Unless you stay fairly close to the web of streets branching off Djemaa el-Fna, it’s very easy to get lost in Marrakech’s souks. The narrow alleyways, with overflowing items that snake off to more thin passageways with even more goods, can all start to look very similar. Many are covered too, making it even more difficult to get a good idea of where you are.
Wandering the souks with a local guide is the best way to explore if you’re concerned about getting lost, especially if time is short. Make sure the guide is licensed.
If exploring independently, a map is essential. Grab a paper map from your accommodation or print one from an online source. Alternatively, use GPS on your mobile devices. Most major streets have signs for their names. If road signs and landmarks, such as mosques and monuments, can’t easily be spotted, walk through busier areas until you find a sign or landmark. Or, walk until you are outside and can see the towering minaret of Koutoubia Mosque as a reference point.
Asking for directions
Getting lost is generally part of the fun of exploring the energetic souks. If you start to panic and really need to ask somebody for directions, try to approach families or females as opposed to younger men. While not dangerous, it’s a lot more common for younger males to make a friendly offer to take you to where you want to go. Although this might seem like a blessing, it often ends with you paying a substantial ‘tip’, possibly having also been carted to several stalls, from where the ‘helpful’ stranger is trying to score commission on a sale, on the way.
Another option is to go into a small shop and ask for help. Shop owners generally can’t leave their premises and are less likely to try and lead you in exchange for payment. Of course, you could also ask somebody to call your accommodation to come and collect you if you’re in a real muddle.
Shopping in the Marrakech souks
The huge variety of items on sale in the souks of Marrakech makes some people travel with an empty suitcase, ready to load up with goodies to take home.
Pottery stalls can be found in abundance – tagine pots in all sizes, serving plates, soup bowls and small tagine-like dip holders are especially common. Jewelled glassware and ornate tea pots can make a pretty addition to a dining room back home.
Vibrantly coloured aromatic spices are often among the first things people think of when imagining the souks of Marrakech.
Traditional woven Moroccan carpets and handmade Berber boucherouite (rugs) are proudly displayed at numerous stalls. Colourful lamps and lanterns hang from the rafters and surrounding doorways.
Leather goods are often popular with visitors, especially wallets, belts, bags, shoes and other items that are handmade in the city. Looking for a few new pieces to add to your wardrobe? Marrakech’s souks have clothes in all shapes, sizes and colours – from T-shirts, shorts and jeans through to the traditional kaftans and djellabas (a kind of robe). Islamic items of clothing are also found in abundance, such as abayas (a robe-like dress) and head coverings. Pick up a pashmina to complement an outfit. Balgha (Moroccan slippers) are widely available, as are pieces of beautiful silver jewellery, artwork, shisha pipes, accessories, traditional musical instruments, toys, souvenirs and much, much more.
Tips for being safe in Marrakech
As with most places where a lot of people congregate, pickpocketing and bag snatching can be a problem. Fasten bags and keep a tight grip. Make sure your wallet is in a secure place – not your back pocket!
Haggling is an essential part of shopping in the souks. Keep things light-hearted and friendly while negotiating and, if you can’t settle on a price, it’s OK to walk away. However, don’t agree on a price and then not go through with the sale.
The constant calls and attempts to entice buyers can become a bit tiresome after a while. Take a break and head to a café for a breather.
Other related activities to enjoy in Marrakech
Head to Marrakech’s tanneries to see how leather is worked before being crafted into the items you see for sale in the souks. Watch various artisans and craftsmen in their workshops, sewing, hammering, chiselling, sculpting, cutting and applying their skills.
Experience the lively atmosphere of Djemaa el-Fna in the evenings, admire the various monuments and ornate doorways that can be found around the souks, and try local delights from food vendors. Marrakech’s sweet, tasty orange juice is not to be missed.