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Pop culture or traditional culture?

The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitchcock’s 1956 thriller, with Doris Day and Jimmy Stewart opens in Marrakesh. Ten years later, in 1966, Our Man in Marrakesh aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead! with Tony Randall and Senta Berger, is part comedy and complete guide to what’s worth seeing in the city.  Even the Absolutely Fab pair spent an episode there. Spielberg filmed Raiders of the Lost Ark in the city in 1981; Scorsese followed in 1988 with The Last Temptation of Christ, and Stone topped it in 2004 with Alexander.

Walking through the narrow, windy streets of the Medina, I half-expected to see someone running from someone else. Car chases would be mad. Motorbike chases  a possibility. But the old reliable on foot dodge-em would be perfect. It’s hard to get a sense of city scape. But I’d imagine that viewed from above, it would be a different story entirely.

Kasbah Mosque

Kasbah Mosque

The Saadian Tombs date back to the sixteenth century, but lay hidden for years and years and years until 1917 when they were rediscovered during an aerial survey of the city by the French. Located in the Kasbah, next to the mosque, a pathway was built to access them and the grounds reclaimed. Architecturally, they are a fine example of  mosaic work and inlay.
IMG_2220 (800x600)It’s thought thIMG_2226 (600x800)at they were sealed back at the turn of the eighteenth century when Moulay Ismail was in power. Having destroyed the Badai Palace next door, word has it that superstition intervened and rather than destroying the tombs and risking the wrath of those who had gone before him, Ismail just sealed it all up leaving just one entrance, a well hidden one, open from the Kasbah Mosque.

For two hundred years or so, the dead rested in peace, undisturbed by clicking cameras or littering tourists. Today, it’s a sight to be seen if you’re in Marrakesh – and, in fact, it was the only one we visited on purpose. [I have a thing for cemeteries.]

IMG_2231 (800x754)IMG_2224 (600x800)Sixty-six tombs are housed in the two main mausoleums with another 100 or so graves in the gardens, including, interestingly, a few Jewish ones. The dead are mostly princes or members of the various royal households, their elevated status probably reflected in the brilliance of the mosaic and the intricate carvings of excerpts from the Qu’ran. It’s quite something really. And while you might be shoulder to shoulder with someone as you try to get a peek inside, it still manages to retain that sense of quiet, that air of solemnity.

It’s an ongoing restoration, a painstakingly slow one, a lot of which is done by hand. Just last month I saw something similar going on with tombs in Hyderabad – hand chisels and hand work. And even watching that process is fascinating, in and of itself. It made me wish that I had paid more attention to pronunciation in French class – I might have been able to ask some questions. [Are mosaic artists good at doing jigsaws?]

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IMG_2234 (600x800)The walls outside, the shared walls with whatever is next door, are a maze of pigeon nests. It’s hard to know whether they are old bullet holes or mortar holes or whether, as in Malta, they were made with pigeons in mind. I’d be interested to hear if anyone knows more? But perhaps as much as anything else, I was impressed by the tri-lingual write-up in the square outside, written in the first person, as if the square was talking about itself and the sights around it. A new one for me and one that I’d like to see catch on.

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Before and after

Where did it all go wrong? Way back, long before electricity was born, long before we had drills and jack hammers and tall cranes, long before we had the myriad man-made materials we have today, we were building stuff that lasted. Stuff that stood the test of time. Stuff that was literally made by hand.

And today? Our apartment buildings and tower blocks are failing us after just ten years (a sore subject in Dublin these days).

IMG_1810 (800x600)IMG_1814 (800x600)In Hyderabad, at the Qutub Shahi Tombs, I was given good reason to curse progress, to grieve for the craftsmen who are watching their trade die out because they have no one to whom they can pass them on. No one who wants to learn. These amazing feats of architecture date back to IMG_1815 (800x600)the sixteenth century, and blend three architectural styles: Persian, Pashtun, and Hindu. The stone is intricately hand carved and even today, during the renovations, the boys were out with their chisels, their only nod to technology being the iPod earphones.

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IMG_1818 (800x600)Back in the day, the tombs would have been furnished with carpets and rugs and chandeliers. Readers would recite from the Quran, strategically stationed on lecterns dotted about the place. The tombs of the Sultans would have had golden spires fitted to the top of their domes to show that royalty resided within, but apparently these disappeared along with the British (or so rumour has it). Hard to know who to believe. The chap wearing a vest emblazoned with ‘Tourist Police’ told me that as a single foreign woman I would need a guide to be safe. When I asked ‘safe from what’, he said ominously that someone might run away with me. I figured I was safe enough wandering around on my own.

IMG_1831 (800x600)IMG_1816 (800x600)The seven tombs belong to the seven kings of Hyderabad, each one housing the king and his companions. Plenty of room for all. The grandest of the them all, currently under reconstruction, is that of Muhammed Quli Qutub Shah, dates back to 1602. He built it himself, as was the custom back then. Nothing like taking care of your accommodation after your departure. The tomb of Fatima Sultan (Muhammed’s sister) has been partially renovated and is looking well on it.

IMG_1819 (800x600)IMG_1820 (600x800)My vote, though, would go to the twin tombs – but I couldn’t figure out if they were the tombs of the Sultan’s two favourite hakims (physicians)  — Nizamuddin Ahmed Gilani and Abdul Jabbar Gilani — which date back to 165i, or the tombs of Premamati and Taramati, his favourite courtesans built a few years later. Whoever is lying in side, they’re certainly enjoying it. The tomb is exquisite. The carving ornate. And to think it was all done by hand is simply mind-boggling. Why, why, why do we not value these crafts more?

I’m as guilty as anyone for balking at the price of handcrafted items. We’ve become way too conditioned to those mass-produced goods that are so much cheaper. Is it any wonder that crafts like this sort of stone working are dying out – no one wants to pay for it any more.

The gardens are seeing a facelift. Money is dribbling in to restore the tombs and to bring them back to their former glory. Here’s hoping that the reconstruction helps keep these trades alive.

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Originally known as Lagar-e-Faiz Athar (a place for bountiful entertainment) in the days of the Qutub Shahi rulers, musical and dance shows would be staged each evening to keep the poor entertained. Now, that one I’m still mulling over …

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