DAI Trip to the Kingdom of Morocco

Morocco 2009 Carpets-in-Marrakech

From 26 March to 2 April 2009, Friends of the Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah explored the Kingdom of Morocco. This article is an excerpt of Dr. Mashael A. Alhajeri’s account of the trip. 

We started with a short tour in Casablanca’s lively market area in the Medina (old fortified city). We then took a walk along the Boulevard Victor Hugo that leads to the Royal Palace in the Alahbas district. From there, we set off to Mohammed V Square. The highlight of our time there was the water vendors, who were all dressed in bright red outfits, and wore fringed hats with brass ornaments hanging from them. A very delightful sight!

We were quite lucky to arrive at the Hassan II Mosque in time for the weekly Salat Aljumaa (Friday Prayer).  The mosque is world’s third-largest and has one of the world’s tallest minarets.

Rabat, our second stop, is the home of the Royal Family and the administrative capital of the Kingdom of Morocco since its independence in 1956.  It is a vibrant city with a lively mixture of ancient Islamic history and modern cosmopolitan culture, strikingly similar to many European cities.

Our first stop was the Royal Palace. With its Andalusian gardens, elaborately ornamented gates, and colourfully-dressed guards, this is a truly bewitching palace.   Next was the very serene Mohamed V Mausoleum, the burial place of the current King’s grandfather, father and uncle. The Mausoleum is on the same grounds as the 44-meter Tour Hassan, a skyline-dominating minaret that is the only remaining structure of a vast mosque that was built circa 1200 and destroyed by an earthquake in 1755.

Next, we went to see the Kasbah Aloudaya (Aloudaya Fortress). Kasbah is home to Rabat’s oldest mosque; the Kasbah Mosque (built circa 1050). Walking through the Kasbah’s narrow, winding but remarkably clean alleyways was an enchanting experience.  Sitting on the rather spacious terrace of a local café with a spectacular view of the Atlantic Ocean, we drank the famous Moroccan green tea and (liberally!) enjoyed the house’s speciality: divine traditional almond sweet cookies. We concluded our visit with a relaxed walk through the lush Aloudaya gardens.

Later, we took a stroll in Rabat’s old Medina; a compact town surrounded by the sea, the Bou Regreg river and Andalusian walls. The souq reflects authentic Moroccan identity with its extraordinarily colourful and exotic merchandise: incense, handcrafts, poultry, snails, produce, turtles, old French comics … you name it!

Meknes, situated in the Middle-Atlas mountain range, was our next stop.  Meknes was built by the legendary Sultan Moulay Ismaïl of the Idrissid dynasty in the 11th century, as capital of his empire. The most striking attractions of Meknes are its majestic gates, which bear witness to the Meknes grandeur as an ancient imperial city of the Kingdom of Morocco. An example of this architectural splendour is the massive gate of Bab Al-Mansour, also called Bab Al-Eulj (the Gate of the Renegade).  It is widely held that it was built by a Christian prisoner who then converted to Islam.

We then visited the Ismaïlian capital, Moulay Ismaiel (27 km from Meknes). Admiring the lavish wall decoration inside, we had the pleasant surprise of spotting the symbols of the three Abrahamic faiths worked into the mosaic artwork of some of the panels; the Muslim octagon, the Christian cross and the Jewish Seal of Solomon (i.e. Star of David). This is considered a post-mortem message sent by Moulay Ismaiel, from his grave, of the importance of embracing religious tolerance.

Declared a protected monument on UNESCO’s World Heritage map, the Volubilis Excavations and ruins date back to the 3rd century BC and are Morocco’s most well preserved ruins. Most of us found the most spectacular monument to be the arch de triumph which was erected in the honour of the Roman Emperor Caracalla.

Fez is the oldest and most revered of the country’s imperial cities (founded in 789). A distinguishing feature of this city is its colourful demographics, as it was a refuge for both Muslim Moors and Jews that were driven out of Cordova by the Spanish. A considerable part of Fez is declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The highlight of our tour was the visit to the leather tanneries nearby the AlKaraouine mosque. Armed with springs of mint held by our noses to suppress the overpowering smell, we were led through a leather shop and very bravely climbed the narrow, endless stairs towards the terrace. The sight was breathtaking; the terrace overlooks the world’s oldest leather tanneries. Unchanged since the 11th century, this is a collection of honeycomb-like multi-coloured stone vessels filled with natural dyes, where workers were busy tanning and dying reams of cow and sheep hides, applying the same manual methods that were used centuries before.

Our next destination was Marrakech. The bus journey from Fez took us through many Berber mountain villages, including the town of Ifrane (1650 meters in altitude).  Nicknamed Little Switzerland, this charming hill station truly resembles Alpine-style resorts. With ski stations nearby, it was very hard to believe that we were still in Africa!

We started our exploration of Marrakech by touring the 12th century AlKoutobia Mosque and the Saadian Tombs; before heading to the extravagant Bahia Palace which was built in the late 19th century as a residence to Ba Ahmed, one of the city’s grand officials.

One of the most interesting places we visited was the city’s main square; the famous Sahat Jamea Alfana (Alfana Mosque Square).  Featuring a fascinating melange of snake charmers, storytellers, musicians, fortune-tellers, dancers, preachers, water vendors, food caterers, street performers, carpet weavers, monkey tamers, poets, jugglers, the place is a patchwork of performing arts and on-going exotic spectacles. UNESCO declared this square a heritage site whose cultural space is a “masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity”.

All in all, out trip was a fascinating experience that truly inspired the mystique ambiance of the Middle EastIt is one of these rare places where being lost was a blessing indeed!