In addition to its bustling souks and mouthwatering Moroccan cuisine, Marrakesh is known for its historic architecture. Although by no means the oldest of the city’s landmarks, El Bahia Palace is nevertheless one of the most beautiful. Fittingly, its Arabic name translates as “brilliance”. Located in the medina near the Mellah, or Jewish Quarter, it offers a stunning example of imperial Alaouite architecture.
History of the Palace
El Bahia Palace is the product of several years of construction during the latter half of the 19th century. Its original buildings were commissioned by Si Moussa, who served as the Grand Vizier of Sultan Moulay Hassan between 1859 and 1873. Si Moussa was a remarkable man, ascending to his lofty position from humble beginnings as a slave. His son, Bou Ahmed, followed in his footsteps, serving as chamberlain to Moulay Hassan.
When Hassan died in 1894, Bou Ahmed led a coup that displaced Hassan’s older sons in favor of his youngest son, Moulay Abd el-Aziz. The young sultan was just 14 at the time, and Bou Ahmed appointed himself as his Grand Vizier and regent. He became the de facto ruler of Morocco until his death in 1900. He spent his six years in office expanding his father’s original palace, eventually transforming El Bahia into one of the most impressive residences in the country.
Bou Ahmed employed artisans from across North Africa and Andalusia to help with the creation of El Bahia. By the time of his death, the palace comprised 150 rooms - including reception areas, sleeping quarters and courtyards. All told, the complex sprawled across eight hectares of land. It was a masterpiece of architecture and art, with fine examples of carved stucco, painted zouak or wood ceilings and zellij mosaics.
In addition to Bou Ahmed and his four wives, El Bahia palace also provided living quarters for the Grand Vizier’s harem of official concubines. Rumor has it that rooms were assigned according to the concubines’ status and beauty, with the largest and most ornately decorated reserved for Bou Ahmed’s favorites. After his death, the palace was ransacked and many of its valuables were removed.
The Palace Today
Fortunately for modern-day visitors, El Bahia has since been largely restored. Such is its beauty that it was chosen as the residence of the French Resident General during the French Protectorate, which lasted from 1912 to 1955. Today, it is still used by the Moroccan royal family to house visiting dignitaries. When it is not in use, sections of the palace are open to the public. Guided tours are offered, making this one of Marrakesh’s premier tourist attractions.
The Palace Layout
Upon entry, an arcaded courtyard leads visitors to the Small Riad, a beautiful garden enclosed by three salons. Each of these rooms boast beautiful painted wood ceilings and intricate carved stucco work. One of them leads out into the great courtyard, which is paved with white Carrara marble. Although the marble originated in Italy, it was brought to El Bahia from Meknes (another of Morocco’s imperial cities).
Interestingly, it is thought that the same marble once adorned El Badi, a medieval palace located not far from El Bahia in Marrakesh. The marble was stripped from the palace along with the rest of its precious materials by Sultan Moulay Ismail, who used them to decorate his own palace at Meknes. The courtyard is divided into quadrants by pathways paved with intricate zellij mosaics. At the center lies a large fountain. The surrounding galleries are inlaid with yellow and blue ceramic tiles.
On the other side of the grand courtyard is the Large Riad, part of Si Moussa’s original palace. The gardens here are a veritable oasis of fragrant orange, banana and jasmine trees, and the surrounding rooms are rich with fine zellij mosaics and carved cedar ceilings. This courtyard connects to the harem quarters, and to the private apartments of Bou Ahmed’s wives. The apartment of Lalla Zinab is known for its beautiful stained glass.
El Bahia Palace is located on the Rue Riad Zitoun el Jdid. It is a 15-minute walk south of Djemma el-Fna, the famous marketplace at the heart of the Marrakesh medina. It is open daily from 8:00am until midnight, with the exception of religious holidays. Entry is free, but it is customary to tip your guide should you choose to use one. After your visit, take a 10-minute walk to nearby El Badi Palace, to see the 16th-century ruins from which El Bahia’s Carrara marble probably originated.