Exotica (1): Jardin Majorelle and Berber Museum, Marrakesh.

Blue wall

Rue Yves Saint Laurent
8pm to 6pm summer, 5.30pm winter; the museum closes earlier.
Gardens only 70DH; gardens + Berber Museum 100 DH.

Step through a door. Once you have finished the longish-queuing – a United Nations of lines – Dutch, German, Chinese, Norse, Canadians: all accents, all degrees of patience at being delayed in their urgent quest to encounter beauty, step through a door. Step from the intensity of Marrakesh street life with construction and commerce and shouted conversations and scooters everywhere – into bamboo quietness and birdsong.

The garden’s paths take you to vivid blue walls, ponds with fat koi drifting about whispering that it’s good luck to feed the carp (it’s not), and small brown birds tossing through the leaf litter in search of an afternoon snack.

Beautiful Asian girls pose for their boyfriend photographers backgrounded by a cactus or a fountain or an ochre arbour. A pair of elderly Americans lay their hiking sticks aside and take a breather on a vivid turquoise bench against a terracotta wall. Fantastic colour schemes are everywhere.

The villa and the garden was originally built by the French orientalist painter Jacques Majorelle (1886 -1962), bought by Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge in 1980 and on Yves’ passing in 2008 bequeathed to Marrakesh.

In the centre of the garden is the Berber Museum. Formerly the artist’s studio, it’s a fairly modest space but well-organised with a serious purpose. The collection comprises Pierre and Yves’ personal Moroccan Berber collection.

The entrance hall provides an introduction to the Berbers who trace their history back nearly nine-thousand years and currently comprise around 85 percent of the population of Morocco. The museum is divided into three rooms. The first covers the  quotidian: objects such as combs, boxes, cooking implements, religious objects such as some early written tablets and a Koran holder and, in a nice touch, an adjacent display on apiary comprising an impressive collection of clay smokers which, if I didn’t know better, I may have mistaken for a display of ocarinas from some octopuses’ orchestra.

Once you’re done with the day-to-day, the guides direct you to the spectacular jewellery display. Presented in a darkened mirrored room with the night sky above you the silver jewellery is luminous and endlessly repeated (along with the gawky tourists) under an infinite star-studded sky.

My attention was drawn to a wonderful amber necklace: large chunks of cheesy amber strung on a silver braid with fine decorative clasps. What I wanted to know, which none of the labels and explanatory sheets answered, was where did the amber come from? As it’s not mined in Morocco (as far as I can tell), how did it come to the high Atlas Mountains to be incorporated into this necklace? Was there a trade route across the desert or by sea? Who did the Berbers trade with? Are there cultural links evident in the object and so on?

If there is a shortcoming to the museum it is that the objects – ocarinas, desert and mountain kaftans and headdresses and the jewellery – beautiful as they are, are undated and decontextualised.

The final room displays costumes, weapons, weaving and decorated doors. While interesting, I was drawn to the poster of the Berber alphabet or Tifinagh. Berber (or Tamazight) is spoken substantial number of Moroccans although it is primarily an oral language with a very limited written literature: our guide estimates less than five percent of the Berber in Morocco are literate in their own language.

Berber language
The Tifinagh, the 33 character alphabet of the Berber language

In response to the Arab Spring in Morocco in 2011, the King* agreed to amend the Moroccan constitution so that Berber became Morocco’s second official language next to Arabic. In a further concession, the government also committed to the teaching of Berber in schools. However, that commitment hasn’t yet been fulfilled and given the shortage of teachers in the country, some fear it never will.

You may wish to ponder these issues – the relationship between haute couture and Berber fashion, trading routes across the desert trading amber for salt or purple dyes, and the importance of language to a people in their struggle for identity – while you sit in the shade for a moment longer, before you step out into the hyper-excitement of peak hour traffic in Marrakesh.


* King Mohamed VI. The constitution was amended following a referendum in July 2011.

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