While writing my book Architecture of the Islamic West: North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula, I came across a citation about a 16th-century annotated plan of the royal palace in Marrakesh. It had been inserted into a manuscript in the Escorial written in 1585 by the Trinitarian friar Antonio de Conçeyçâo (1549-89) about the death of seven Portuguese youths in Moroccan captivity. The Franciscan friar Henry Koehler, who was resident in colonial Morocco, first mentioned the plan in his 1937 French translation of the manuscript. Thanks to the internet, I was able to find an inexpensive copy of the publication, inscribed by the author and de-accessioned from the library of the Franciscan convent in Macon, France, but it had no image of the plan. In a 1941 article Koehler published the plan (in fuzzy black-and-white), but it was difficult to see anything from his reproduction. I tried looking on the internet for a better image of the plan, but gave up. In desperation, I sent an email to the Escorial in the hope that someone there might help me out. To my amazement, by return email I received this extraordinary image and permission to publish it in my book.
The Moroccan royal city occupied a rectangle of some 44 hectares (about 100 acres) surrounded by rammed earth walls. Much of the area is now occupied by one of the palaces and gardens of the present king of Morocco. In the 16th century the interior was divided into several distinct parts: Bab Agnaw, which had built by the Almohads in the late 12th century, served as the principal entrance to the palace compound.
It led to a plaza bordered by the old Almohad Qasba mosque, along with its annexes and the royal necropolis, the “Saadian tombs” (illustrated on the cover of my book), which were only “rediscovered” in 1917) behind.
The mosque is shown with its minaret on the upper left of the friar’s plan.
It had been severely damaged in 1569 when gunpowder stored in the nearby armory exploded, but it was restored as the palace was being built. To its right is the great courtyard of the Badiʿ (“splendid,” “marvelous,” “incomparable”) palace, an immense reception complex constructed in their capital city, Marrakesh, between 1578 and 1593 by Ahmad al-Mansur al-Dhahhabi (“the Golden”; r. 1578-1603).
Its enormous pools, sunken gardens, and pavilions projecting from the short sides still stand, albeit in a much dilapidated state.
This huge structure was once one of the largest and most lavish buildings of its time. Inspired by both Topkapi Palace in Istanbul (where Ahmad had resided while avoiding being murdered by his older brother, sultan Abu MarwanʿAbd al-Malik) and the enormous Escorial Palace that Ahmad’s contemporary Philip II was constructing outside Madrid, the palace had massive walls of rammed earth that would originally have been concealed behind elaborate revetments of marble, stucco and tile.
While the scale and splendor of the Moroccan palace may have been inspired by palaces in Istanbul and Spain, the plan of the Badiʿ palace with pavilions projecting into a planted courtyard surrounded by living rooms goes back to the Court of the Lions at the Alhambra, although the scale of the Moroccan palace is enormously inflated.
Another plan of the palace was originally drawn by the Dutch orientalist Jacob Golius (1596-1667), who accompanied the 1622 Dutch embassy to Morocco.
The plan was not published, however, until the British ambassador John Windus went on an embassy to Marrakesh to rescue British captives and wrote about what he saw in his 1725 book, A Journey to Mesquinez [Meknès], the Residence of the Present Emperor of Fez and Morocco [Marrakesh], on the Occasion of Commodore Stewart’s Embassy Thither for the Redemption of the British Captives in the Year 1722. In the accompanying legend Windus indicates how the rooms were used, from reception pavilions to bed-chambers and baths, but the plan is misidentified as the palace in Fez!
Virtually everything except the palace’s rammed earth walls has vanished, for after Ahmad’s death any valuable materials were salvaged and reused elsewhere. Many of the marble columns were removed by Mawlay Ismaʿil (1672-1727) for use in his palaces at Meknès, and others have been found in various locations around Morocco, including supporting a pavilion at the Qarawiyyin mosque in Fez.
Some of the columns are decorated with carvings in a Hispano-Moroccan style, others in a frankly Italianate manner, and still others rely strongly on Ottoman designs, indicating that some were carved locally while others were imported already finished from abroad.
I was surprised to discover that Moroccans (and Tunisians and Algerians as well) had imported finished marble columns from Italy and perhaps from the Ottoman empire as well, but in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Morocco was integrated into the emerging global system connecting the Ottoman Empire, Western Europe, the Songhai empire of West Africa, and the New World. Not only were European materials (Italian marbles, Dutch tiles, Bohemian glass) employed in local buildings, but merchants, adventurers and craftsmen arrived looking to make their fortunes in the prosperous cities of Morocco, while others were captured by North African pirates and sold into slavery until they could be ransomed.
The Barbary Company, established in London in 1585, traded Moroccan saltpeter, used in the manufacture of gunpowder, and Moroccan sugar in exchange for fine English woolen cloth and firearms, which the Moroccans used against the Spanish and Portuguese (also enemies of the English), who were establishing presidios along the Moroccan coast. After the Spanish and Portuguese established colonies in the Americas, they enslaved Black Africans to work newly-established sugar plantations there, thereby undercutting the Moroccan sugar industry.
The funds to pay for the Badiʿ palace, however, did not come from trade, because Ahmad is best known for his conquest and brief expansion across the Sahara into western Sudan (literally, “land of the Blacks”). After a series of clashes with the Songhai empire of Ghana over control of the salt mines at Taghaza in the middle of the Sahara, a Moroccan expedition of 4000 men under the command of a Spanish renegade crossed the desert and—using European firearms—subjugated the Songhai in 1596, forcing them to pay an enormous annual tribute—an Englishman in Marrakesh saw just one shipment arrive with thirty mule-loads of gold—along with thousands of slaves and massive amounts of booty. This wonderful Portuguese plan reveals how Ahmad’s palace in Marrakesh was as grand as his ambitions.
Jonathan M. Bloom was the Norma Jean Calderwood University Professor of Islamic and Asian Art at Boston College and the Hamad bin Khalifa Endowed Chair of Islamic Art at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Find out more about his latest book, Architecture of the Islamic West: North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula, 700-1800 on the Yale University Press website.