The Magic Lure of Morocco’s Imperial Cities
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
After exploring Morocco, a traveler once wrote: “It is a fabulous country of misty legends, illustrious history, exotic colors and great scenic beauty – one of the most fascinating spots on the face of the earth.” Well, did this wayfarer have a point when he wrote of Morocco as a beautiful and spellbinding land that usually entraps the very souls of exotic-loving visitors?
Situated on the threshold of Europe, it is an inheritor of the great civilizations. Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, and the Arabs who, in the 7th century, brought in their new dynamic religion – Islam. All these conquerors left their lasting imprints. However, it was the Muslim Arabs, fleeing the Iberian Peninsula after the defeat by the Christians, along with the Berbers, Morocco’s original inhabitants, who gave the country much of its modern character.
The resplendent Moorish palaces, perfumed with the scent of blooming flowers, the haunting music of the muwashashat (classical Arab music and song), the country’s world-renowned foods, and the many superb handicrafts one finds throughout the land, owe much to Arab Andalusia. In every city, regal homes with wrought-iron balconies; carved plaster-work, finely worked wood ceilings; and a fantastic world of colored mosaics are living proof that the handiwork of the Moors in Spain is still alive in Morocco.
The country is a kaleidoscope of scenery and climate. On both, its Atlantic and Mediterranean shores are found some of the top beaches in the world. Besides the resorts of Al-Hoceima and Cabo Negro on the north coast, from Tangiers southward to the famous retreat of Agadir and beyond these beaches with their modern facilities yearly draw millions of European tourists. Eastward from the western coastline, stretch fertile plains which lead to four mountain chains: the history-filled Riff in the north; the Middle Atlas, with their forests of cedar and pine; the Great or High Atlas, whose snow-capped peaks reach to over 4,116 m (13,500 ft); and the Anti Atlas, bordering a land of majestic pink kasbahs (mud fortresses), edging the endless Sahara.
Powerful dynasties such as the Almoravides, Almohades, Saadians, Merinides, and Alaouites (the dynasty which rules Morocco today) arose from these mountains. Each new regime built or reconstructed its own imperial city whose grandeur would radiate to the outside world.
The most important of these royal metropolises that still today retain their aura of splendor are Rabat, Meknes, Fez and Marrakesh. The Thousand and One Night atmospheres of these cities are a testimony to the majesty and glory of Morocco’s past. To roam through their historic forts, palaces, and colorful souks, watching artisans plying their ancient trades, is to feel the vibrant medieval life of long ago. If one is to know the true Morocco, visiting these four ancient capitals is a must.
It is best to begin is in Rabat – the most recent of the Imperial Cities, founded in the 12th century and, today, the country’s capital. The modern city with its wide tree-lined streets, embassies, towering hotels and handsome whitewashed houses, hugs the ancient walled section in a loving embrace. Nearby, are the ruins of Chella, once the Roman city of Sala, retaining partially standing walls and gardens, edged with Roman and Islamic ruins.
The Hassan Tower, surrounded by the ruins of an unfinished mosque, built to hold the Almohade Sultan Yaqub al-Mansur’s army of 100,000, is usually the visitor’s first stop. In a tiny section of its huge area are a small mosque and the mausoleum of Muhammad V, the king who brought freedom to the country. From this tomb, the epitome of traditional Moroccan artistic brilliance, one can plunge into the medieval atmosphere of the Medina – the old town, founded in the 12th century. Its most interesting part is the Andalusian Gardens, built in the same fashion as the renowned gardens of Moorish Spain.
Leaving this historic city with a traditional past enshrined in a modern setting, travelers make their way through eucalyptus forests, then rich farmlands and endless vineyards until the outskirts of Meknes – built by a mighty sultan as his capital. Moulay Ismail in the 17th century was bequeathed a land, partially occupied by Europeans and full of civil strife. In the subsequent years, he drove the colonizers out, then unified the country and made it into one of the world’s leading powers.
For his revived nation he built Mekness, a new impregnable fortress-capital that rivaled Paris – the most important city in that era. Not to be outdone by his contemporary Louis XIV, he built a complex of palaces to compete with Versailles in its age of glory.
Today, inside the 25 km (15.5 mi) well-preserved massive walls of this Royal City, most of the palaces, gardens, mosques, and stables, once holding 12,000 steeds, are only a faint shadow of their former self. Only Moulay Ismail’s tomb has been renovated. Yet visitors exploring the very extensive ruins can still feel the echoes of the town’s fabled wealth and majesty.
Barely 50 km (31 mi) away from this once largest palace-complex in the world lays Fez – the first of the Imperial Cities, established in 808 A.D. by Idriss II as the initial capital of Arab-Islamic Morocco. Like other North African urban centers, this most Arab of the country’s cities has its modern sections, but it has preserved its ancient heart, known as Fez el Bali, almost intact. No motor vehicle is allowed within its walls. Hence, it has retained the ancient atmosphere of its glorious age when it was a perfect Islamic city.
From its inception, it has been the intellectual and spiritual heart of the country. Its un-breached walls still encircle medieval Arab schools, majestic mosques, superb tiled baths, and public fountains, stately public buildings, and magnificent homes of the wealthy. The Qarawiyin, Morocco’s holiest mosque and home of the world’s first university; the innumerable madrasas (schools), especially Bou Inania and El-Attarine; the Al-Andulas Mosque; and the tomb of Idriss II are marvelous examples of Moorish architecture found in this fabulous city.
Around these historic monuments, in narrow streets never touched by the wheel, there is a world of excitement, color, and charm. Donkeys transporting goods, countless artisans at work, aromas rising from food stalls, the stench of the tanneries, and the perfume rising from the pyramids of spices, enthrall the traveler. It is the most overpowering of Morocco’s Imperial Capitals.
From this fairytale medieval town, traveling southward on the edge of the Atlas Mountains one passes a scenic countryside with its picturesque Berber towns until Marrakesh – the fourth Imperial City, surrounded by olive and palm groves and nestled in the shadows of the snow-peaked High Atlas. The most fascinating and mysterious city in Morocco, it was founded in the 11th century by Yusuf Ben Tashfine – the first sultan of the Almoravide Dynasty. Subsequent rulers expanded and beautified the city until it became the most renowned capital in its day.
The Koutoubia Mosque, built in the Almohade era; the 16th century Saadian Tombs, delicate works of beauty; Bahia Palace, noted for its Moorish gardens and architecture; Jamaa el Fna, the town’s main square and one of the greatest entertainment centers in the world; ancient palaces converted to sumptuous tourist restaurants; the huge Imperial Aguedal and Menara Gardens where the sultans once wiled their hours; and the eye-catching pink buildings, edged by ornamental lemon and orange trees, are some of Marrakesh’s drawing points which attract tourists in never-ending streams.
It is always hard to leave this town of sultans and bewitching beauty, but barely four hours southward is Agadir, a 20th-century sunbathers imperial city and, the same distance north-westward, Casablanca, the throbbing modern heart of the country. Here a traveler can rest in one of the many luxury hotels in this city of some 5,000,000 and dream of the magnificence of Morocco’s Imperial Cities – a living world of oriental splendor.