In October 2006, accompanied by AUI colleagues John Shoup, Audra Grant and James Sater, I visited the restored qasba-zâwiya of Sheikh Mâ al-‘Ainîn in Smara, Morocco. Scholar, strategist and Qâdirî sheikh, Mâ al-‘Ainîn ould Sheikh Muhammad al-Fadl (1831-1910) rallied support across the western Sahara against encroaching French and Spanish imperialists. He built Smara with this aim. It was to serve as new power base for the Reguebat-Hassani tribes of the western Sahara and secure transportation routes to Morocco and the Atlantic coast, from where Mâ al-‘Ainîn’s forces were supplied with arms. Construction of the new city got underway in 1898. Moulay Hassan I, sultan of Morocco, contributed to the project by sending craftsmen, material and palm trees from northern oases. Mâ al-‘Ainîn lived in the qasba, which served as his court and his zâwiya, from 1902 to 1909. Smara was taken and burnt by the French in February of 1913. The qasba has been entirely restored since Smara reverted to Moroccan control.
The qasba is located on the right bank of the Seguiet al-Hamra, at the entrance to the modern-day town of Smara. It is a fortified quadrangle. Three of its corners are reinforced with turrets. At the center of the qasba is the zâwiya proper, a domed edifice where Mâ al-‘Ainîn held court, taught, wrote, etc. To the left and the right of the zâwiya are the private apartments where the sheikh and his family lived. The qasba compound also contained quarters for slaves, storehouses, stables, and a hammam. The mosque, outside the qasba walls, was never completed. It has been preserved in its ruined state.
The dry-stone architecture of the qasba and the mosque resembles that of other Saharan cities such as Tichitt and Chinguetti.
Some of the sheikh Mâ al-‘Ainîn’s manuscripts are still kept in the Smara zâwiya.
At one point Smara rivaled Timbuktu in the European imaginary as the ultimate distant, fabled Saharan city. In 1930 French adventurer Michel Vieuchange set out to reach Smara “and die,” and that’s exactly what he did. He arrived in the ruined city, completely exhausted, at a quarter past noon on the 16th of November (we know this because his travel notes were posthumously published: Smara, chez les dissidents du Sud Marocain et du Rio de Oro, Paris: Plon, 1932). He died of dysentery on the return journey.
Mâ al-‘Ainîn died in Tiznit and was buried in his zâwiya there. I have visited this zâwiya several times. It is located in a partially ruined neighborhood north of the Méchouar, near Bab el-‘Aouina, a neighborhood which also harbors a number of government agencies. One gains entry to the zâwiya from the street to the north.
The zâwiya’s stout tapering minaret, which rises over Mâ al-‘Ainîn’s tomb, is a marker of the institution’s Saharan identity, as are other aspects of Tiznit architecture. The zâwiya building itself is very well maintained but the rest of the complex is ruined.
You can download Google Earth placemarks for Mâ al-‘Ainîn’s qasba-zâwiya in Smara and his zâwiya-mausoleum in Tiznit (single kmz file) by clicking here. Both shrines continue to be managed by Mâ al-‘Ainîn’s descendants and we have always been warmly received by them.
On Smara see Attilio Gaudio’s L’Ouest Saharien (Polaris: Florence, 1997)