An evil sultan, and the story of the enchantment of the Saadian Tombs Marrakech
Our final visit was to the Saadian Tombs. These graves have a history to rival any fairy tale. Hidden by an evil sultan they were lost and forgotten in the heart of the city for centuries almost as if he cast a spell. You will need a guide if you want to find them.
Mohammed led me through a narrow passageway into a peaceful pink walled garden filled with haphazard oblongs covered with tiles like those at the madrasa. Mohammed explained that these were the tombs of princes and members of the royal household. Almost all face towards Mecca but the few that don’t are Jewish graves. The height of each grave denotes the importance of the occupant and in the garden most of the graves were just a few inches high although some had raised marble monuments shaped a little like stepped prisms. I guessed these must belong to the princes.
Inside the two mausoleum rooms the marble monuments were higher, the highest being the tomb of sultan Ahmad al Mansour, who had the whole place built. The floors and half way up the walls are covered in yet more zellij tiles and above this the cedar wood panels and vaulted ceiling are almost overwhelmed with carvings. It must have taken many hundred of hours to build.
The bloodthirsty sultan Moulay Ismail is the reason everything is so well preserved. When he took over Marrakech in the 17th Century he had the tombs sealed. He destroyed the old sultan’s place but was too superstitious to destroy the tombs so he hid them away. During his reign he murdered between 30,000 and 100,000 people who he thought were lazy or who upset him. Goodness knows what he would have made of the western world today, there would be no one left. He was also said to have fathered over 800 children. It’s a wonder he found the time between lopping peoples heads off, hiding tombs and building a palace that rivalled Versailles.
It wasn’t until 1917, when they showed up on a French aerial map, that the tombs were found, reopened and restored. It seems strange that such a large area was hidden away and forgotten in the middle of this crowded city, imagine Leicester square suddenly disappearing. Perhaps the evil sultan really did cast a spell. Once you have explored the streets and alleys and seen the beautiful riads and secret gardens that hide behind the high walls and shabby little doors it’s a little easier to understand.