I had planned to attend at least a few of the sessions of the World Summit of Local and Regional Leaders which was held last week in Rabat (see previous post on urban planning in Africa).
About 15 AUI students volunteered to help with logistics on-site, but my teaching and administrative duties kept me in Ifrane all week, so I missed out on the big event.
I did however contribute, along with more than a few of my AUI colleagues, to the glossy official document prepared by the Ministry of the Interior. Morocco: Past Glory, Future Wonders was published in three languages: English, French and Arabic. It has chapters on history, language, the political system and current reforms, foreign relations, the economy, media, music and tourism. The tone of our contributions was, by deference, to be up-beat about the country and its achievements. It is not therefore an academic text. It’s a promotional book presenting the Kingdom in its best clothes.
I remember reading books such as this one as a child. Large format and illustrated with photos, maps, graphs, charts and diagrams. One Quebec Government book from the early ‘60s, still all in black & white, showed off our belching chimneys, aluminum plants, hydro-electric dams and mushrooming skyscrapers. I remember a book produced by South Korea in the late ‘70s (in glossy color) showing the great social and economic strides it had made in only a few decades. That book was my first window onto that country’s history, culture, architecture, cities… With hindsight, I now think those books too must have been co-authored by a coterie of academics. Academics and “area” specialists have long been solicited to contribute to show-case promotional books and travel guides. I remember avidly reading the 1950s editions of Hachette’s Guides Bleus (L’Egypte was the best). In order to address the needs of inquisitive French travelers Hachette solicited chapters on geography, history, archaeology and architecture from top professors in these disciplines. As these were mostly European scholars working in what were often colonies, their scientific descriptions contributed to the Orientalist project of representing the “other.” Earlier in the century, Resident-General Lyautey had certainly instrumentalized academics and scientific research, along with artists and the tourism sector, for his Protectorate project. Since then, the “Imperial Cities” (in itself an Orientalist concept) has become a tourist product, a very popular “circuit” tour of Morocco.
I am by no means a” top professor” when it comes to Morocco’s historic cities. There are many Moroccan geographers, historians and architects currently studying this living heritage who are better qualified than I to present it. And I know I run the risk of perpetrating the Orientalist tradition of re-presenting a “foreign place” for a problematic “other.” It is with due humility therefore that I make my contribution public, first in last week’s government publication and now here on this blog.
My involvement with this country’s urban heritage goes back generations but it is also on-going. I regularly visit the four cities described below, conducting tours with student groups, usually in the company of my friend and office-mate Dr. John Shoup (author of the chapter on music and credited with many of the photos below). I am a “user” of these heritage spaces, along with those who inhabit them, and along with the tourists who visit them.
So, it is in a post-orientalist, post-colonial and post-modern spirit that I present this informed account of Morocco’s Imperial Cities. I Have illustrated each city with a map, and was delighted to be able to produce these in all three languages for the publications. I have also located all the monuments described below on Google Earth. Download this .kmz file of Morocco’s Imperial Cities to view these places.
Production of the book was entrusted to fellow geographer Dr. Abdelkrim Marzouk. It was to Dr. Myronn Hardy, the poet whose office is across from mine, that the task of giving a voice to the disparate chapters fell. I thank them both for the unabridged text which follows. Many of the photos below, I regret to report, I lifted directly off the web. I only did this though because I do not have access to the images used in the book, and because I’m no photographer. My photos just aren’t of web publication quality, just not glossy enough.
Morocco’s historic cities
The Kingdom of Morocco is world renowned for its urban heritage. It is home to numerous historic cities whose medieval and pre-modern urban fabrics, monuments and defensive walls have been largely preserved until today. The four largest of these historic cities: Fez, Marrakech, Meknes and Rabat, are designated as “Imperial Cities” as they have served as capital of Morocco at various times in the kingdom’s history and they still house major royal palaces.
There are several reasons why Morocco’s wealth of urban heritage has survived so well. First of all, the highly mobile nature of the Moroccan court throughout much of the medieval and pre-colonial eras required that royal palaces and the infrastructure of rule be maintained in all the important cities of the realm, not only in the official capital. This contrasts with the more centralized political and administrative structures of other North Africa states, where power was more or less fixed in the capital city (i.e.: Algiers, Tunis, Cairo) with the result that regional centers received far less state patronage. In the absence of a large bureaucracy, rule and governance in Morocco were personal and direct. In order to effectively control agricultural regions (the kingdom’s tax base) and major commercial cities, the king had to physically preside over local areas. He would habitually tour the kingdom with his court and followers. As a result, the capital of the kingdom was effectively wherever the monarch happened to be residing at the time. Personal preferences also played a role, as one king might prefer to reside in Fez while his successor might prefer Marrakech. The current designations of the country in Europe and the Middle East are largely a by-product of the court’s mobility. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the country was known as the “Kingdom of Marrakech” in Europe. Meanwhile, to Ottomans and Persians it was the “Kingdom of Fez.” Thus, in European languages the country’s name derives ultimately from Marrakech (from Spanish “Marruecos”) while the country is still called “Fas” in Turkey and Iran. The monarchy’s peripatetic tradition continues today as the king often leaves Rabat to conduct affairs of state in one or another of the kingdom’s cities.
The second main reason why Morocco’s historic cities have been preserved until today has to do with Protectorate-era urban planning and development policies. Morocco was colonized quite late in the age of European imperialism, after “lessons had been learned” in older colonies. Louis Hubert Lyautey, the architect of French rule in Morocco, had had a military career in French Algeria prior to his appointment as Resident-General (1912-1925). He was highly critical of the colonial urban planning practices he had witnessed there. In Algeria, the old “Arab” cities had been pierced with straight modern streets, and European building activities had been encouraged in them. As a result, the commercial centers and public buildings resembled those in France, though neither the French nor the indigenous residents were satisfied with urban living conditions.
In Morocco, Lyautey intended to “get things right.” Existing cities, designated as “old medinas” (ancienne médina) were left intact and entirely new, state-of-the-art modern European neighborhoods, designated as “new towns” (ville nouvelle), were built next them. Open spaces (cordon sanitaire) of park land, orchards and market gardens separated the old/Arab cities from the new/European centers.
Today, Morocco’s historic cities are the object of several layers of preservation and carefully managed urban interventions. Seven of them (Fez, Marrakech, Meknes, Rabat, Tetouan, El Jadida and Essaouira) are listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites. Other, smaller historic cities with significant urban heritage include: Tangier, Asilah, Larache, Ouezzane, Taza, Oujda, Sefrou, Casablanca, Azzemour, Safi, Taroudannt and Tiznit (the city of Tlemcen, just across the border in Algeria, also constitutes a fantastic repository of imperial architecture of the Idrisid, Almoravid, Almohad and Merinid eras).
It is important to note that it is not just isolated historic monuments that are listed and protected; the entire urban fabric of these cities, replete with all the streets and alleys, every house great or small, the markets, the mosques, the public bread ovens and hammams, the city ramparts, the buildings and the traditional craftsmanship that built them, all are comprehensively covered by preservation and planning tools.
A presentation of Morocco’s imperial cities provides an opportunity to explore the country’s architectural history and traditions, and its imperial “moments.” Exquisite Islamic architecture and extraordinary history live on in these old cities. This wealth of urban heritage contributes substantially to Morocco’s national identity, helps define its tourism sector (the “Imperial Cities” circuit) and attracts foreign investment. In effect, over the past few decades many people from Europe and North America, investors but also artists and chefs, have bought properties in the old medinas: Marrakech especially, but also Fez, Essaouira, Taroudannt, and the Qasbahs of Rabat and Tangier. Some of these buildings serve as winter get-away homes. Others have been turned into boutique hotels, bed & breakfasts, art galleries or other small businesses.
Fez, city of scholars and saints
Fez is the oldest of Morocco’s imperial cities. It was established as a city called Fâs on the right bank of the Boukhareb River in 808 CE by Idriss II (reigned 805-829, some sources report that Fâs was actually established by Idris II’s father, Idriss I, c. 790). A year later Idris II founded a sister city called Madinat Al-‘Aliya just west of it on the opposite (left) bank of the Boukhrareb River where he built his palace. The twin cities remained separate, sometimes rival, entities until their unification three centuries later.
Whereas the Idrissid state (788-974) was highly decentralized (more like a network of principalities than a kingdom), Fez was immensely successful as a city. It was the premier center of Islamic scholarship and the main base for the dissemination of Arabic in what was at that time still an overwhelmingly Berber-speaking country.
Intellectual life in Fez was given an early boost by the arrival of urbane refugees from neighboring states. In 818 eight thousand families from Cordoba (capital of the Umayyad Caliphate of Andalusia at the time) settled in Madinat Fâs following civil strife in their city of origin. Eight years later thousands of other refugees fleeing similar strife arrived from the city of Qayrawan (capital of Aghlabid Tunisia). They settled in Madinat Al-‘Aliya on the opposite bank of the river. So important were these new citizens to the character of the emerging city that the two neighborhoods are still known respectively as Al-Andalus and Al-Qarawiyyin. A generation later, in 859, both neighborhoods were endowed with large new Friday mosques by two wealthy sisters, Fatimah and Mariam al-Fihri (daughters of a refugee from Qayrawan). The Qarawiyyin and Andalus Mosques soon became the centers of the city’s intellectual life as they served not just for prayer but for advanced education.
The Qarawiyyin Mosque-University is arguably the oldest continuously functioning university in the world (classes only left the mosque for a new campus in 1963). Many great and famous scholars studied and/or taught there. Among them we can cite: al-Idrissi (1099-1166, geographer/cartographer), Maimonides (1135-1204, philosopher), Ibn Arabi (1165-1240, theosophist, Sufi), Ibn al-Banna (1256-1321, jurist, mathematician, astronomer), Ibn Khaldun (1332-1395, diplomat, historian) and Leo Africanus (1494-1554, diplomat, lexicographer).
Whereas there were a few comparable mosque-universities further east in the Muslim world: Al-Zaytuna in Tunis, Al-Azhar in Cairo, Bait al-Hikma in Baghdad, there was no comparable institution of higher learning in Christian Europe at the time. Thus, more than a few Europeans, mostly young clerics (maybe even Gerbert d’Aurillac, future Pope Sylvester II, 999-1003), came to the Qarawiyyin to study. The trend continued well into the Renaissance; both Nicolas Cleynaerts from Brabant (1495-1542, grammarian), and Jacob Golius from Holland (1596-1667, mathematician, lexicographer) are known to have studied at the Qarawiyyin. The library attached to this mosque-university is famous in its own right as it houses numerous rare or unique manuscripts.
Though the powerful imperial dynasties which succeeded the Idrissids ruled from Marrakech (see below), Fez remained the most important commercial hub of northern Morocco. It commanded the main road east across the Maghreb (to Taza, Tlemcen and ultimately to Tunis) and had excellent connections with ports on the Mediterranean coast (Sabta/Ceuta and Badis in particular). It also had commercial links southward to Sijilmassa and the trans-Saharan trade.
Fez remained the premier intellectual center of Morocco. Its religious scholars (collectively referred to as the ‘ulama’) often voiced reasoned and principled opposition to the arbitrary policies and acts of the sultan. Consequently, when sultans rebuilt Fez’ ramparts or invested in the city’s infrastructure it was usually more with the aim of controlling the city than of defending it against outside attack.
It was the Almoravids who first united the twin cities of al-Aliya (the Qairawan quarter) and Madina Fas (the Andalus quarter) with a single encompassing wall. They also built a number of qasbahs (fortresses) in the upper-most part of the city (today’s Bab Boujloud neighborhood). This move “uptown” was consolidated under the Merinids.
The Merinid era (1258-1465) is in many ways Fez’ “golden age.” Under Merinid rule Fez was reinstated as the official capital. Given the hostility of the city’s scholarly establishment to royal imperatives however, and given the needs of 13th century court life, the Merinids safeguarded their rule by building an entirely new palace city, Fas al-Jadid (“new Fez”), a few hundred meters upstream from the existing metropolis. Apart from the palace, its gardens and dependencies, New Fez consisted of neighborhoods to house officials and civil servants (most of whom were slaves of the state) as well as a new Jewish neighborhood, called the “Mellah.”
Jews had been part of Fez’ population since its foundation and they were important to its trade and crafts sectors. Living more or less dispersed across the city’s old neighborhoods, there was nonetheless a concentration of Jewish houses of business in the heart of the Qarawiyyin quarter, next to Qarawiyyin Mosque. In 1438 the last Merinid sultan, ‘Abd al-Haqq (reigned 1420-1465), convinced the Jews of Fez to relocate to the new city. This was the first case of a Jewish neighborhood being established next to the royal palace. Similar Mellahs were subsequently created in every important Moroccan city. For the most part, throughout Moroccan history sultans have seen themselves as protectors of the Jews. This sultan was not just eager to have Jewish craftsmen close at hand, he also sought the proximity of Jewish merchants as Morocco’s increasing trade with Christian Europe was in part conducted through them. Residents of the Mellah also included many families forcibly expelled from Spain. They brought with them elements of Andalusi high culture, including courtly chamber music (still designated as “Anadalusi”), architectural taste, fine cuisine and silk fashions.
The Merinid Sultans did much to promote intellectual and scholarly activities in Fez. They legitimized their rule by institutionalizing Sunni-Maliki fiqh (jurisprudence), encouraging the cult of Sharifs (descendants of the Prophet Muhammad) and patronizing Sufi mystics. No fewer than nine royally-endowed madrasas (law schools) were established in Fez under their rule (by comparison, other large cities in Morocco received only one each). Most of the madrasas were erected right next to the two main Friday mosques, the Qarawiyyin and the Andalus, already renowned universities. The madrasas trained young men to become jurists, judges and teachers of Maliki jurisprudence, and to enter the civil service. Fez was second to none as a center of Maliki fiqh. Its manuscripts were traded across the Sahara and into West Africa.
Merinid madrasas are architectural jewels (most of them are now museums). They are decorated in the highly ornate Anadalusi style, brought to Morocco by Muslim and Jewish refugees from Spain, incorporated rich designs in multicolored zellij (cut and engraved ceramic tile), stucco-work and cedar wood-work, with sparing use of white marble (imported from Carrara in Tuscany). There are still in Fez today master masons and craftsmen who produce these architectural elements and whose expertise is called upon whenever madrasas need restoration. Fez is also famous for the art of calligraphy and for book binding (in soft “morocco” leather), crafts which derive directly from its scholarly heritage.
Throughout its history, Fez has exerted a strong attraction not just on scholars and jurists, but on Sufis as well. The city has been one of the most enduring hearths of Sufism, or Islamic mysticism. From Ali Ibn Harzihim (d. 1163), to Abu Madyan (1126-1198), Ibn ‘Arabi (1165-1240), Abu-l-Hasan al-Shadhili (1196-1258), Muhammad ibn Sulayman al-Jazuli (d. 1465), Hassan al-Youssi (1630-1691), Ahmad Ibn ‘Ajiba (1747-1809) and Moulay al-‘Arabi al-Darqawi (1760-1823), there is hardly a single Sufi master anywhere in the Maghreb who did not, at some point, either study, teach or write in Fez. More than a few of these masters settled in the city and are buried there. One of the most important, in terms of current number of disciples, was Ahmad al-Tijani (1735–1815). The Tijaniyya Sufi order he founded has tens of millions of followers across the Muslim world, with a great concentration in West Africa. The Tijani zawiya (Sufi lodge) in Fez receives a constant stream of pilgrims.
Fez’ patron saint, however, remains its founder, Moulay Idris II. It is during the Merinid era that his tomb was miraculously discovered beneath the floor of Shurafa’ Mosque. Since then the shrine has been continuously rebuilt and embellished, not just by the Fassi civic elites, including its Jews, but by the kings of Morocco as well. The shrine complex includes soup kitchens, hostels and the Sidi Frej maristan, a psychiatric clinic where Leo Africanus interned during his studies. Treatments administered at the maristan appealed to the spiritual life of patients and included types of music therapy, use of song birds, and scream therapy.
Today, Fez’ reputation for scholarship and mysticism is undiminished. Fassi intellectuals and students played a leading role in Morocco’s independence movement, Qarawiyyin University is still the country’s premier institution of higher Islamic education (and it continues to attract students from across Africa), and the city’s numerous Sufi zawiyas receive pious visitors day and night.
Surely the most visible dimension of Fez’ intellectual and spiritual heritage is the Festival of World Sacred Music. This festival has been held annually since 1994. For nine days each year (usually in early June), singers, musical ensembles, bands and troops from around the world congregate in Fez to experience the sacred through music. The festival is as popular with local citizens as it is with internationals. In any given festival one can enjoy shows by whirling Mevlana dirvishes, gospel choirs from the USA, European chamber ensembles playing Bach, qawwali groups from Pakistan, griot praise singers from Mali and Senegal, Korean drum dancers and other musical genres.
Marrakech, the imperial capital
Marrakech sits on an open plane nested in an extensive grove of date palms, the only oasis north of the Atlas Mountains. For much of its history it has been Morocco’s southern capital, complimenting rather than rivaling Fez in the north. Crucially, Marrakech was the capital of three imperial dynasties: the Almoravids, the Almohads and the Saadians. Consequently, whereas the architectural treasures of Fez are mostly tucked away and only reveal themselves discretely, Marrakech was built to impress; its prestigious monuments stand out boldly in the landscape.
Marrakech was established in 1062 by the Almoravid sultan Yusuf Ibn Tashfin (reigned 1061-1107). The Almoravids (from al-Murabitun) originated in the Adrar region of present-day Mauritania. In the mid-eleventh century they rapidly conquered a vast empire which stretched from the Senegal River north to the Ebro in Spain and east to Algiers. While the dynasty’s sources of men and material lay in the Sahara, most of the military campaigns (and of its tax base) lay north of the Atlas Mountains, which constituted a major impediment to communications and supply lines, especially in winter. This is what led Yusuf Ibn Tashfin to create a forward military camp to the north of the mountain chain. All that remains of the Almoravid-era city today is a Qubbat al-Bayadin, a delightful little pleasure pavilion, though for the most part the current ramparts follow the original Almoravid city walls.
Within a century of its establishment, the Almoravid capital fell to a rival dynasty, the Almohad (from Al-Muwahidun, 1147-1269). Like the Almoravids, the Almohads created a vast empire—theirs extending from Morocco’s Souss region east all the way to Cyrenaica and including what was left of Muslim Andalusia to the north. The current configuration of Marrakech owes much to their rule. In what was to become an unfortunate (from an architectural history point of view) dynastic tradition in Morocco, the Almohads systematically destroyed and replaced the official buildings of the preceding dynasty.
The Almohads rebuilt Marrakech in a monumental fashion. They established the Qasbah neighborhood on the southern perimeter (i.e. upstream) of the existing city as a separate palace quarter (the Almoravid palace had stood in the center of the city). The Almohad Qasbah had its own defensive walls and monumental gates (Bab Agnaou is a particularly grand example), and appended to it were vast gardens, the Agdal Gardens. Centered on two large reservoirs (called buhairahs or “little seas”), the Agdal Gardens included orchards of citrus, olive and pomegranate trees, palm groves and elevated pleasure pavilions (menzahs) where members of the court could enjoy the garden’s various sensual delights (fragrances, blossoms, chirping birds, flowing waters, refreshing breezes). Indeed, much Almohad court life, including diplomatic gatherings, audiences with tribal leaders, displays of sovereign power, etc., took place in the gardens rather than in the palace proper. The Agdal Gardens are still part of the Royal Palace today, but they are open to the public two mornings each week.
The Almohad’s new monumental style proved seminal for the subsequent development of Moroccan architecture.
Marrakech’s most famous landmark, the minaret of the Koutoubiyya Mosque, is a statement of their imperial rule. The Almohads erected imposing stone minarets in all the principal cities of their empire. In Seville, seat of their rule in Andalusia, they erected a minaret now known as the Giralda over the city’s Friday mosque (now the cathedral). In Tunis they erected the Qasbah Mosque and minaret in that city’s official quarter. Closer to home, they built the stone minaret of Salé’s Friday Mosque and began construction of what is now called the Hasan Tower in Rabat. This latter stone monument would have been the tallest minaret in the world at the time had it been completed. At 77 meters, Marrakech’s Koutoubiyya Minaret is still the tallest structure in the city. Its proportions and surface decoration have served as a model for countless minarets across the country.
The Almohad capital was not just a center of power and diplomacy; it was also an intellectual hub. The rulers had a complex relationship with religious scholars, theologians and philosophers. Many intellectuals from Muslim Spain, coming under increased pressure from the Christian kingdoms to the north, settled in Marrakech. Ibn Tufail (1105-1185) and Ibn Rushd (aka Averroës, 1126-1198) are exemplary of the trend. Both these polymath philosophers began their careers in Andalusia before becoming court physicians to the Almohads in Marrakech. The Almohad court included famous poets, musicians, astronomers and historians as well. Sufism too flourished there. The city’s most famous Sufi master, Abu l-‘Abbas al-Sabti (1129-1204), counted Sultan Yaqub al-Mansur (reigned 1184-1199) as one of his disciples. His shrine (called Sidi Bel Abbès locally), near the northern tip of the Medina, is the most popular in the city.
The fall of the Almohad dynasty, the dismantling of their empire, and the transfer of the capital to Fez by the Merinids heralded two and a half centuries of stagnation in Marrakech. The city continued as southern Morocco’s main trading center but the artistic and intellectual ferment of the previous era came to an end. The fortunes of the city only revived when a new dynasty, the Saadians (1521-1629), chose it as capital. The Saadians were from the south, from the Draa Valley and the Souss, and they did much to develop southern Morocco. For instance, they developed sugar manufacturing and actively engaged in trade with Europe; sugar was traded for luxury goods such as Carrara marble. Though they failed to remove the Portuguese from all their Atlantic coastal enclaves, they did succeed, however briefly, in creating a trans-Saharan empire, defeating the Songhai Empire on the Niger Bend and seizing Timbuktu in 1591. Timbuktu was the hub of the West African gold trade. For a few decades around the turn of the 17th century tremendous wealth flowed into Marrakech from all directions.
The Saadians resurrected the imperial monumentality of the Almohad city and overlaid it with the exquisite Andalusi architectural flourish that had developed during the Merinid era. They rebuilt the city walls and the Qasbah neighborhood, endowing the latter with a new Friday mosque and a new palace, called the Badi’ (the “Incomparable” palace). They also refurbished the Agdal Gardens. Other Saadian palaces and royal gardens (including the famous Menara Garden) dotted the palm groves surrounding the city. The best preserved architectural specimens of the era are the Saadian tombs, located adjacent to the Qasbah Mosque. The Badi’ palace, on the other hand, was completely stripped of its architectural decor (ceramics, marble, stucco-work) by the subsequent dynasty. Nonetheless, even stripped to its masonry core, the expansive hulk of this palace still exudes grandeur.
Intellectual life also revived in Marrakech during the Saadian era. Sultan Abdallah Ibn Ghalib (1557-1574) greatly expanded and embellished the existing Merinid madrasah (called the Ali b. Youssef Madrasah), making it the largest in Morocco. Following the capture of Timbuktu, camel loads of books and manuscripts confiscated from its famed libraries were brought to the capital. West African scholars too were assigned to live and teach in Marrakech. Foremost among them was the jurist and political consultant Ahmad Baba (1556-1627), author of numerous treatises on law, history and the slave trade, which was experiencing unprecedented growth in his day. The Saadian Sultans also patronized poets and Sufis. Partly to benefit from his baraka and partly to recuperate the popular ideology of resistance to Portuguese coastal encroachment his legacy represented, the mortal remains of the popular Sufi master Muhammad Ibn Sulayman Al-Jazuli (d. 1465) were re-interred in Marrakech as soon as the Saadians established their rule there in 1541. The zawiya of Imam al-Jazuli (called “Sidi Slimane” locally) is the most prestigious and renowned shrine in Marrakech today (see this early post).
Fragmentation and dissolution of Saadian rule only diminished the importance of Marrakech slightly. It continued to serve as southern capital, and sometimes even as official capital, under the Alawite Sultans in the 18th and 19th centuries. Sidi Mohammed ben Abdallah (reigned 1757-1790) in particular chose to reside there. New palaces and gardens continued to be built until the end of the 19th century and the tradition of the “seven saints” of Marrakech (a pilgrimage circuit of shrines within the city which includes both Sidi Bel Abbès and Sidi Slimane) also dates from this period.
Marrakech rapidly grew in importance during the French Protectorate. Easily reached by rail from Casablanca, the city was developed mostly for tourism. Its evocative monuments and gardens, its idyllic winter weather and the stunning backdrop of the High Atlas Mountains to its south made it an attractive, exotic, “oriental” destination for wealthy French and European tourists. In the 1920s and 30s Marrakech was not just a trendy place to visit, it became a fashionable place to live. For example, artist Jacques Majorelle (1886-1962) moved to the city in 1919 and his poster artwork did much to popularize the image of Morocco in Europe. The city’s premier hotel at the time was the Mamounia. Originally, the Mamounia had been an 18th century garden-palace belonging to an Alawite prince. In 1925 the little palace was replaced with a luxurious hotel furnished in the art deco style of that time. The Mamounia quickly became the favorite haunt of Europe’s great and famous. Artists, singers, financiers and statesmen, Winston Churchill (1874-1965) among them, would regularly “winter” at the Mamounia.
Today, tourism is still the biggest business in the city. Large hotels fill the central neighborhoods of Gueliz (the French-built “ville nouvelle” outside the city walls) and Hivernage. The formerly rural “Palmeraie,” east of the city, has also been rebuilt with tourist complexes and winter holiday homes, while other complexes are currently being built west of the Agdal Gardens. Meanwhile, thousands of courtyard buildings in the historic old city have been renovated as “riads” (boutique bed & breakfast hotels). The city has a thriving night-life and serves as base for tourist excursions into the High Atlas. It regularly hosts major international conferences and conventions (such as the Marrakech Conference of 1994 which set up the World Trade Organization). Since 2001 Marrakech also hosts an annual international film festival which promotes the best of Moroccan and world cinema and photography. Marrakech remains an ideal place for northern Europeans to spend the winter months. Numerous European artists, writers, designers and show people call the city home for at least part of the year.
Marrakech’s most distinctive space is the public square called Jema’ El-Fna’, in the heart of the old city. While the entire old city was designated UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985, since 2001 Jem’a El-Fna’ has the additional UNESCO designation of a site of “intangible heritage,” the first site in the world to be given this designation. The intangible heritage designation commemorates and protects the various types of public performance which take place on the square. By day Jema’ El-Fna’ is the focal point of tourism in the city; snake charmers, dancing monkeys, henna artists and Gnawa musicians compete for the dirhams and euros of passing tourists.
Yet Marrakchis reclaim the square every evening. Serial story-tellers establish circles of intent listeners, troops of acrobats and dancers perform for their own circles of spectators, children test their abilities at fair-ground games, and mobile restaurant stalls serve affordable traditional dishes to locals and tourists alike.
Meknes, Moulay Ismail’s gargantuan palace-city
Meknes is the “poor brother” among imperial cities. It was developed as a capital late in the history of the nation, and only briefly, by a singular sultan. While the imperial legacy of Moulay Ismail’s reign (1672–1727) is spectacular and still largely determines the city’s layout today, he did not found the city.
Meknes is named for the Miknasa tribe (aka Imeknasan), a western branch of the powerful Zanata. They founded it as a military camp on the north slope of the Boufekran Valley (on the site of the current Ville Nouvelle) to control the western passage off the Saïss Plain. After submitting the Miknasa to their rule, the Almoravids built a qasbah across the river from the original settlement, on the valley’s south slope. The Almoravid qasbah was destroyed by the Almohads, but the latter then proceed to rebuild it on a vaster scale. The Almohad city consisted of the present day Medina, with its Friday mosque (built 1199-1213), souks and main gates.
Meknes was a prosperous commercial city under the Merinids. They endowed it with a majestic madrasa, the Bou Inaniya (built 1331-1351). Like other Moroccan cities of the era, Meknes attracted Sufi seekers as well as law students. Muhammad Ibn Aïssâ (1465-1526) came to Meknes from the Souss to study under the city’s highest spiritual master. He stayed on to found the Aïssâwiyya Sufi order. Known to his disciples as Sheikh al-Kamil (the Perfect Master), he is now considered Meknes’ patron saint. His shrine, in a cemetery outside the city wall, is a major pilgrimage center, especially during religious holidays. In Moulay Ismail’s day the Aïssâwiyya order became popular among Abid al-Boukhari soldiers (see below). It adopted their West African spiritual practices and developed a rich musical repertoire.
Moulay Ismail chose Meknes for his capital largely to snub Fez. The Fassi elite, led by its ‘ulama’, opposed many of his policies. So, just as the Merinids had built a “New Fez” beyond the control of the old city (but able to control it), Moulay Ismail built an imperial city 60 km. to its west. Moulay Ismail’s Meknes has been compared to Louis XIV’s Versailles. Both monarchs were absolutist, and both exercised their power through architecture. The imperial scale of Moulay Ismail’s palatial constructions in Meknes was unparalleled in Morocco. Over the course of his reign he built four successive palaces, and surrounded these with multiple ramparts that enclosed an area more than ten times larger than the pre-existing city of Meknes, still largely confined within the Almohad walls. The palace-city included neighborhoods for civil servants and the army (largely slaves), vast storage facilities, stables, reservoirs, flocks, fields and gardens. So large was Moulay Ismail’s imperial city that within its walls, today, we find: the current Royal Palace (the third to be built by Moulay Ismail), dense urban neighborhoods (some old, others new), a military academy, a horticultural institute, a track for horse races and other outdoor sports facilities, a golf course, a university campus, as well as monuments open to the public.
The old city of Meknes is connected to the palace-city through a public square (Lahdim Square) facing the imposing Bab Mansour (the “Victorious Gate”), the palace’s main gate. The boldly decorated gate is Meknes’ most famous monument, and Lahdim is its liveliest square.
All that remains of Dar Lakbira, Moulay Ismail’s first palace, is the first mashwar (palace fore-court) now Lalla ‘Aouda Square, and the palace mosque (now known as Lalla Aouda Mosque).
A second mashwar connected Dar Lakbira to Moulay Ismail’s second palace, the Dar El Makhzen (still used today). This mashwar contains the Pavilion of the Diplomats, where Moulay Ismail received ambassadors and emissaries, and the mausoleum where he is buried. The sobriety of the mausoleum’s interior decor contrasts with the Andalusi exuberance of the previous dynasty’s tombs in Marrakech.
Other important monuments in Moulay Ismail’s palace-city were utilitarian. The most impressive are the storehouse (Hri Souani) and the reservoir (Sahrij Souani). The gigantic storerooms of the Hri Souani were roofed with massive vaults. Most have collapsed. The part that has survived was the part most massively built. It is a marvel of ancient-régime engineering, with an underground water delivery system connected to the reservoir outside.
Moulay Ismail completely reformed the Moroccan court somewhat on the Ottoman model. He staffed both his army and his civil service with slaves trained at court. The army, especially, consisted of the already mentioned, “Abid al-Boukhari,” slave boys from West Africa who had been educated in royal schools and then taken oath on Al-Boukhari’s book of Sunna. Moulay Ismail hoped in this way to free the monarchy from dependence on tribes and tribal politics. Moulay Ismail settled his immense entourage of courtiers and slaves, loyal only to him and over whom he wielded the power of life and death, in a slave-built palace-city designed to withstand a decade-long siege. No such siege occurred. Nor was one likely. There was no foreign army anywhere on the horizon capable of besieging Moulay Ismail in his own capital. The grand display of defences was aimed more at the domestic audience than at the foreign one. It impressed upon the tribal sheikhs, in particular, the extent of the sultan’s power.
Moulay Ismail’s reforms did not survive him long. With no clear law of succession his sons warred over supreme power. As a result, not only were Morocco’s tribes dragged back into the business of king-making, so too were the contingents of the recently-created slave army. Moulay Ismail’s eventual successor, Moulay Abdallah (reigned 1727-1757), maintained the capital in Meknes. He even added a new palace, the Dar al-Beida (now the military academy). The imperial city was however damaged by the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. Sidi Mohamed Ibn Abdallah (1757-1790) moved the capital to Marrakech and Meknes has not regained that function since.
Perhaps because in never received such imperial favor again, Meknes offers a “snapshot” of Morocco’s last imperial era. Moulay Ismail’s palace-city (over 40 km. of walls, not counting outer defences) is a stupendous investment of might in masonry. It also proved both durable and adaptable to modern city growth. His spectacular monuments have feature in countless movies and music video clips.
During the Protectorate, Meknes was an important center of European colonization. Land across the rich Saiss Plain was taken from tribes and sold to colon farmers to produce wheat, wine and olive oil. The Ville Nouvelle in Meknes, designed by Henri Prost, was laid out on the plateau north the Boufekrane River. It became a thriving commercial and agribusiness hub. The Military Academy, training officers for the new Moroccan army the French were creating, was located next to the Ville Nouvelle.
Rabat and Salé, twin cities on the ocean
Of all Morocco’s imperial cities, Rabat-Salé has the longest and most compelling history. The twin cities are built on opposite sides of the Bouregreg Estuary. Over the course of their history, power and prosperity have shifting often from one side to the other.
The Phoenicians and then the Carthaginians traded at a Berber settlement called Sala, on the south bank of the Bouregreg about two km from its mouth, and many settled there. The place is still called the Chella today. When the Romans took over the Kingdom of Mauritania in 40 A.D., the Bouregreg River marked the south-western most border of the empire. The port city of Sala was the only Roman territory south of the river. This exposed part of the border was fortified with a ditch. The Romans further reinforced the border by turning Sala into a colonia, a colony for retired soldiers. The current Chella contains the ruins of the forum and main temples of Sala Colonia. The town continued to prosper long after the Romans withdrew from the interior of Morocco in the 4th century.
By the time of the Muslim conquest of Morocco in the late 7th century, a second port city had been established on the north bank of the Bouregreg, right on the estuary. This is the modern city of Salé (still “Sala” in Arabic). The strategic value of the Bouregreg increased considerably thereafter. Salé developed as a merchant town and ship-building center. Ibn Hawqal reports that in his time (second half of the 10th century) there was a ribât protecting the south side of the estuary. Ribâts were forts built to defend a threatened border. They were manned by young volunteers who sometimes came from very far away to protect Dâr al-Islâm (the lands of Islam). Ribâts were built on most of Morocco’s estuaries as a response to Viking incursions. This is the origin of the present city of Rabat.
The Bouregreg Estuary, and Rabat in particular, were particularly strategic to the Almohads. The founder of the empire, Abd el-Moumen (reigned 1130-1163), developed Rabat as the linchpin of a grand maritime policy which aimed to control of the Straights of Gibraltar and all the Atlantic and Mediterranean ports each side of it. Maintaining maritime hegemony was crucial to his operations in Andalusia. Construction of an imperial city in Rabat got under way in 1149. At first it was called “Al-Mahdiyya,” it consisted only of the current Qasbah “des Oudayas” (a later attribution), an enclosure only large enough for Abd el-Moumen’s court. The sultan died in Salé, at the head of a great fleet and expeditionary army, just prior to departing to campaign in Andalusia. Abd el-Moumen’s grandson, Yacoub el-Mansour (reigned 1184-1199), revived this imperial project on a grand scale. Renamed “Ribat el-Fath,” the new city included the entire area within Rabat’s current ramparts, an area big enough not only for the royal court but able to house his assembled armies as well. The centerpiece of the Ribat el-Fath was to be the Friday mosque, today’s Hassan Tower, set to be the largest mosque in the world (183 x 143 m.), situated on a bluff above the river just upstream from the Qasbah. Yacoub el-Mansour also expanded the arsenal in Salé, and gave that city’s Friday mosque its stone minaret. Like his grand-father though, Yacoub el-Mansour died before his grand schemes could be completed. Subsequent Almohad sultans had other priorities and the often ravaged half-built imperial city of Ribat el-Fath was soon abandoned. Only the Qasbah remained inhabited.
The architectural survivors of the Yacoub el-Mansour’s imperial city are impressive. Rabat’s walls and gates (Bab l-Oudaia and Bab el-Rouah) are exemplary of the Almohads’ military prowess, and the Hassan Tower, 44 meters in height but far shorter than originally designed, is exemplary of their imperial stretch. Since Morocco’s independence the Hassan Tower has been given a new imperial destiny, that of marking the graves of its kings.
The port and arsenal of Salé, on the opposite bank, continued to prosper despite the collapse of Almohad naval power. Under Merinid rule it grew to become the kingdom’s principal Atlantic port, regularly visited by Pisan, Genoese and Venetian merchants. The Merinid sultans favored the city, investing in its arsenal and rebuilding its ramparts following a horrific breach by the Castilians in 1260.
Sultan Abu l-Hassan (reigned 1331-1351) built a most exquisite madrasah next to Salé’s Friday Mosque, and turned the abandoned site of Sala, the first city on Bouregreg, into a necropolis. The Chella is built like a qasbah, with a single entrance gate. Inside, it contains the ruins of Roman Sala Colonia as well as the funerary zawiya which Abu l-Hassan endowed. A zawiya is a Sufi lodge where brothers on the mystic path meet, and in this case lived. The zawiya, now ruined, resembles the madrasahs of that era in both layout and style (zellij, stucco and marble). Abu l-Hassan’s mausoleum is attached to the zawiya. Though it too is ruined he lives on in folk culture as the “Black Sultan,” the legendary sultan who commands the jinn. Other elements of folk religion also live on in the Chella, which is one of the most beautiful places in all Morocco.
It is during the Merinid era that Rabat-Salé began hosting waves of Muslim refugees arriving from Andalusia. The first to come, as early as the 1290s, were the wealthiest. Urbane, educated and pious, they were adopted by Salé society. One of the newcomers, Ahmad Ben Acher (d. 1364) was a much sought after physician and Sufi teacher. His mausoleum, just inside Salé’s sea wall, is still today a maristan (hospital) for the treatment of psychoses through traditional methods (see my post on Morocco’s seaside shrines). Ahmad Ben Acher later became the patron saint of the corsairs during the heyday of that business in the 17th century. Another saint, Abdallah Ibn Hassoun (d. 1604) marked the spiritual life of the city by initiating an annual procession of candles through the streets of Salé to commemorate the Mawlid (the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday). Supposedly inspired by an Ottoman procession he had observed in Istanbul, the procession of candles must have resonated well with those refugees in Salé familiar with the Catholic processions of Spain. Sidi Abdallah Ibn Hassoun is considered Salé’s patron saint. His shrine is the grandest in the city and the Mawlid procession remains a major popular commemoration to this day.
Subsequent flows of refugees from Andalusia (1492, 1502, 1526, 1570, 1609-10, 1614) brought ever more destitute people: Conversos, Hornacheros and Moriscos. Many could not speak Arabic and, as Muslims who had been forced to convert to Catholicism, their religious practices were considered highly dubious by Salé élites who did not want them in their city. Consequently, these refugees were housed across the river in the ruins of Ribat el-Fath. The Hornacheros who arrived at the end of the 16th century were still comparatively well off. They moved into the Almohad Qasbah. The most destitute were the Moriscos of 1609. They settled outside the Qasbah, in the northern part of the abandoned city (today’s Rabat Medina), which they enclosed with a new wall. All brought with them a deep hatred of Spain and many engaged in privateering against Spanish ships. Still today, all of Rabat’s oldest families can trace their origins back to Andalusia.
The Bouregreg cities: Salé, the Qasbah and Rabat, were one of North Africa’s main corsair centers. The estuary was particularly well situated for attacking Spanish and Portuguese shipping lanes in the Atlantic. When the power of the Saadian Empire dissolved early in the 17th century no centralized power grew to replace it. Morocco became politically fragmented. The Bouregreg cities became city states, operating independently of any royal control from1627 to 1668. Moreover, nearly all of Morocco’s other coastal cities were under Portuguese control. Only Rabat-Salé remained free. Privateering against Iberian ships was thus not just a lucrative commercial activity, it was a religious and patriotic duty. The “Bouregreg Republic” attracted men from all over Morocco willing to take up the struggle against the Christians. It also attracted many “renegades” from northern Europe, Dutch and English Christians who converted to Islam and joined the fight against the Iberians. Successful privateering at sea was accompanied by disunity and bloody strife among the three cities on the estuary. Europe’s maritime powers (the Dutch, the English and the French) became implicated in these little wars. They were the chief trading partners of the corsairs and they all had consulates in Rabat (Rabat’s “rue des Consules” is a testament to this). For a while a charismatic Sufi leader, Mohammed El-Ayachi (1563-1641), took charge in Salé and successfully expelled the Spaniards from several key coastal cities. Even after Moulay Rashid (reined 1667-1672) brought Rabat-Salé under central state control, privateering continued to dominate the economy of the city. For instance, the French adventurer-cum-lexicographer Germain Moüette was captured by Salé pirates in 1670 and published an account of his captivity after being ransomed. And “Sallee Rovers” feature in Robinson Crusoe, an English novel published in 1719. Following Sultan Moulay Ismail’s death in 1727 Rabat-Salé briefly regained effective independence from the central state, but the age of lucrative privateering had passed.
While privateering slowly declined as a viable commercial activity throughout the 18th century, Rabat-Salé remained an important port for legitimate trade. Sidi Mohammed Ibn Abdallah (reined 1757-1790) reaffirmed Alawite sovereignty over the twin cities and thereafter often resided in Rabat. He built a royal palace (precursor the present one) and a new Friday Mosque, the Sunna Mosque still used by the King today. This sultan invested determinedly in maritime infrastructure. He armed a new arsenal on the Rabat side of the Bouregreg (the old arsenal in Salé was by then silted up), established a canon foundry there, and reinforced both Salé and Rabat’s maritime ramparts by building sqalas (platforms able to accommodate a battery of canons). Damage cause to the fortifications by the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and tsunami occasioned further state-of-the-art repairs. The Bouregreg defences proved very effective against a French attack in 1765 but were clearly unable to cope nearly a century later when the French navy bombarded the cities in 1851.
The fortune of the twin cities changed abruptly with the onset of the French Protectorate. Occupied by French troops in 1911, Rabat was designated as the capital of French Morocco the following year. The move of the capital from Fez to Rabat was part of Resident-General Lyautey’s larger plan for Morocco, that of developing its Atlantic seaboard. In the age of steamships and submarine telegraph cables Rabat could be more securely protected by the French than any of the inland cities (the populations of both Fez and Marrakech had risen in revolt against the imposition of the Protectorate in 1912). Rabat was also close to Casablanca, the emerging economic and industrial metropolis of the country, but far enough away from it not to be completely subsumed by its interests (Lyautey compared the relationship to that of Washington DC vis-a-vis New York City). For a while, until Casablanca’s artificial harbor was built, the Bouregreg estuary remained an important commercial port and entry point for military materiel. Port activity declined precipitately in the 1930s and was stopped altogether during World War II.
Lyautey’s chief architect, Henri Prost, designed the new capital. More understated than grandiose, the plan is centered on a palm tree-lined boulevard, now Mohammed V Avenue, fronted by important institutions: Bank al-Maghrib, the central post office, the court house (now the parliament), a train station and the city’s most modern hotel, the Balima. Mohammed V Avenue is a showcase of the innovative modern architecture Lyautey developed for Morocco. Rather than pasting pastiche oriental decorations and motifs onto standard-issue beaux-arts buildings (as was being done in Algeria and Tunis), Lyautey and Prost developed the “neo-Moroccan” style which used traditional building crafts (ceramic zellij, stuccowork) for new designs (at first art-nouveau, then art-deco).
Rabat-Salé, now Morocco’s second largest metropolitan agglomeration, continues to develop not just as the kingdom’s political and administrative capital, but as an intellectual and cultural capital in its own right. Mohamed V University is the flagship of the national network of public universities. The National Library, now in a brand new building, houses a great collection of manuscripts. ISESCO (the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) is headquartered in Rabat, which held the title “capital of Arab culture” in 2003. The National Theatre and various European cultural institutes are main venues for the performing arts, while other theatres and museums (one for contemporary art, another for archaeology and earth sciences) are currently being built. Some of these new cultural institutions are part of a major urban development scheme for the Bouregreg Valley.
The Bouregreg Valley plan was launched in 2006 and major components have already been completed (improved transportation corridors, tram lines, new bridges). The plan calls for the creation of numerous cultural and recreational facilities along the banks of the river, along with shopping areas, office parks and high-end housing. The valley is to be developed in stages, starting at the estuary (already dredged and marinas built) and progressing to the dam 30 km. upstream.