Bahia Palace, Marrakech, Morocco
The Arabic word ‘bahia’ means ‘beautiful’ or ‘brilliance’. To name the house you’re building ‘Bahia Palace’ would be quite a boast – except, as it turns out, in the case of the Moroccan compound of that name in the city of Marrakech. Here, it is more than apt.
Bahia Palace was built in the second half of the 1800s in two stages. Firstly by a man called Si Moussa who had risen from being a slave to the grand vizier of the Sultan of Morocco. When he died, the construction and decoration was expanded by his son, Bou Ahmed, who was not only also grand vizier but also effectively the ruler of the country because the new sultan he served was just a teenager.
There’s no symmetry or planning to Bahia Palace because of its haphazard construction over so many years as more land became available. Elegant rooms open onto courtyards or gardens that then have more doors into narrow passageways leading to private areas. It could be a labyrinth but not one you want to escape from.
Some of the best Moroccan artisans came to Marrakech from across the country to work on the palace. Painted ceilings; tiled walls; ornate woodwork; classic columns; colourful windows; hanging lanterns; water features; fruit trees in courtyards; and mosaic floors. Natural light illuminates most areas on this sunny morning and the colours are vibrant even a century after the art was first installed.
In total, the palace compound is about eight hectares in size and has about 150 rooms. Only some of it is open to the public but it’s enough to see some of the best examples of the art and interior design – at least, those that weren’t stolen by the sultan when he raided the palace upon the death of Ahmed Ba. Some parts were spared, including the marble-paved courtyard and adjoining apartments.
The streets of Marrakech around the compound have the hectic and somewhat dusty atmosphere expected here in the city’s medina… but inside these walls there’s a calm. There’s also a little glimpse into how the country’s nobility lived in the 19th century with the beauty and brilliance of Islamic and Moroccan-influenced luxury.