After visiting Casablanca, the next 3 days in Morocco found us exploring Rabat, Meknès and Chefchaouen.
These past 5 years we have thoroughly enjoyed delving into the fascinating history of each city and town we visited on the European continent. So we were thrilled to have the opportunity to travel to Morocco and begin discovering the African continent.
Morocco has roughly the same population and is the same size as California and did you know that Morocco is only one of 54 countries that make up Africa today?
Brief history of Morocco
The first written record of Morocco began between the 8th and 6th centuries BCE when the Phoenicians arrived to colonize the Moroccan coast. Indigenous Berbers had inhabited the area for a minumum of two thousand years before the Phoenician’s arrival but they may not yet they have had a written language because the oldest known Berber inscriptions only date to the 4th century BCE.
In the 5th century BCE, the Carthaginians arrived and took over the coastal areas. The earliest known independent Moroccan state was the Berber Kingdom of Mauretania that flourished around 225 BCE. Next the mighty Romans descended and ruled from around 40 CE until the mid-5th century CE when the region was overrun by a Germanic people called the Vandals. The Byzantine Empire conquered and ruled in the 6th century and the Arabs with their Islamic religion arrived in the early 8th century CE. Under the Almoravid and the Almohad dynasties and for the next 700 years, Morocco dominated the Maghreb (northwestern region of Africa) as well as most of Spain.
The Portuguese all but destroyed the city of Casablanca in 1468 and continued to increase their presence on Morocco’s coast before being successfully repelled in 1537. In 1912 Morocco was made a protectorate of both Spain and France and it wasn’t until 1955 that Morocco won its freedom and gained its independence.
The customs, beliefs, architecture and gastronomy of Morocco today is a blend of Berber, Arab, Jewish and Western European cultures. Each country that once ruled this land has left an indelible impression.
This large mural, we felt, uniquely represents this part of the world.
Known as the white city, Rabat is the Capital of the Kingdom of Morocco, (Morocco’s official name) and the Royal Palace or Dar al-Makhzen is the official residence of the King and his family. Many foreign embassies are also found in Rabat. Like other countries it is easy to tell when the King is in residence. In Rabat’s case, the palm tree lined avenues are filled with Morocco’s brightly colored flag when the King is ‘in’. As you can see below, the flag has a vibrant red background with a green star in the center.
The King was expected to give a speech on the day we visited this lovely city. Unlike the dry landscapes we had passed through from Casablanca to Rabat, the capital city is a modern and striking city filled with wide boulevards, opulent tiered fountains and a multitude of trees and flowering plants. Located on the Atlantic coast, the temperatures are some of the most comfortable in the country – the averages highs vary from mid 60° F in winter to mid 80’s F (18-30°c) in the summer and the lows from mid 40’s°F to mid 60’s°F (7-18°c) in the winter months.
The Royal Palace of Rabat, Dar El Makhzen, is also the seat of government and Morocco has a parliamentary constitutional monarchy. They have a multi-party system and the prime minister, chosen by the King of Morocco from the largest party elected to parliament, is the head of government.
Rabat is a UNESCO Heritage site and we were able to visit a few of the ancient sites. We began in the lovely walled quarter known as the Kasbah des Oudaias. Kasbah means fortress and the Oudaïas were a tribe that defended the city from pirates. Part of the Kasbah des Oudaias dates back to the 12th century.
The emblematic 144 foot (44m) tall Hassan tower / mausoleum was built at the end of the 12th century. It once towered above a huge mosque, however the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and fire completely destroyed the mosque. All that remains today at the base of the Hassan Tower is a huge open-air courtyard dotted with 200 columns that had been relocated from Volubilis, the ancient Roman site nearby.
The large square white and gold building with emerald green roof tiles is the Mausoleum of Mohammed and a treasure of the Moroccan people. It is on this site that Mohammed V, in 1955, declared that Morocco was an independent country once more. Mohammed V was Sultan of Morocco from 1927-1953 until French colonial authorities forced the ruler and his family into exile. Upon his return in 1955 he was again Sultan until 1957 when he changed ‘Sultan’ to the more western recognizable title of ‘King’ and he ruled as King until his death in 1961.
The Mohammed V mausoleum is guarded by two men-at-arms in ceremonial dress. It houses the tombs of the current King’s grandfather, King Mohammed V and his two sons, King Hassan II (father) and Prince Moulay Abdallah (uncle).
We next traveled to the historic former capital city of Meknes, arriving late in the afternoon. First thing the next morning we enjoyed a walking tour of a medina in Meknes and noted that Morocco is known for its many crafts. There are its babouche footwear, argan oil products, handmade djebellas and kaftans, leather goods, carpets and the zellij style of mosaic tiles. However, one beautiful artisan craft we discovered is only produced in one city in Morocco and only a handful of other places in the world.
Meknes is the city and damascene metalwork or known locally as damasquinerie is the art.
Damascene is an ancient technique for decorating metal. The lengthy process involves first cutting and hammering sheets or blocks of metal, usually steel or iron, into the shape needed. Thin cuts are made in the metal using fine chisels, creating the outline of a pattern. Next, thin threads of silver (gold and copper can also be used) are carefully hammered into the indentations on the metal surface. The item is then heated to melt the thin metal strands. After it has cooled the object is polished to remove any imperfections. Damascene is used to make all sorts of jewelry, lamps, vases, musical instruments, swords, shields, spurs and more. The intensive process of this craft has led to its demise in many places in Morocco, but a few master artisans, known as maalems, continue to keep the damascene craft alive in Meknes.
We spotted these two lifesize damascene examples while touring through Meknes.
Many cities we visit have charming horse and buggy rides that can be rented to tour the city. However nowhere have we found such eye-catching and cheerful buggies as we found in Meknes.
Meknes became the capital of Morocco under the reign of Sultan Moulay Ismaïl (1645-1727) who turned Meknes from a provincial town into an imperial city in the 17th century.
We visited the magnificent Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail inside the Sultan’s former kasbah. It contains the tomb of Sultan Moulay Ismail, who ruled Morocco from 1672 until his death in 1727.
Moulay Idriss Zerhoun
We stopped at a lookout to view the holy town of Moulay Idriss also known as Moulay Driss Zerhoun or Zerhoun. It is spread over two hills at the base of Mount Zerhoun and is famous for being the site of the tomb of Idris I, the first Islamic ruler of Morocco, after whom the town is named.
In 789 CE, Idris I, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, fled west, after losing a battle near what is now Mecca, Saud Arabia. Upon his arrival he initially settled in the former Roman town of Volubilis but soon moved 5 kilometers up into the mountains. He built the town of Moulay Idriss Zerhoun taking much of the building materials from the old Roman site.
The Idrisid dynasty would go on to form the first true “Islamic” state in Morocco. They also founded Fes and turned it into their capital.
A Berber agricultural development appeared on this site in the 3rd century BCE. It was later occupied by the Carthaginians and then it became the capital of the Kingdom of Mauretania. However it was in the 1st century CE under Roman rule when this North African out-post rapidly expanded covering nearly 100 acres (42 hectares) with a mile and half (2.6km) of walls protecting the city. A basilica, temple and triumphal arch were added in the 2nd century. Today Volubilis is a UNESCO protected treasure.
Rome did not always directly manage and occupy their outposts, but instead created alliances with the local tribes. Volubilis, the capital city of the Roman Province of Mauretania Tingitana was a strategic part of the Roman Empire and it was governed by the local tribal alliance.
We have visited numerous Roman ruins – Tarragona, Rome, Pompeii, Bordeaux, Verona to name but a few, and it is always magical to walk through the ruins of the ancient empire. Two thousand years later you can still sense the vibrant life that once occupied the ancient cities. Even their sense of humor is palatable, as seen in the ‘horseman riding backwards’ in the mosaic tile located at Volubilis’s, House of the Acrobat.
One of the prettiest places in Morocco and one of our favorites is Chefchaouen, the gorgeous “Blue City” that sits nestled in a valley between two peaks in the Rif Mountains. The care and attention to the colors in the medina with the striking shades of blue and white houses, red-tiled roofs, and artistic doorways made this city memorable. It feels cheerful, yet peaceful too. Our tour guide generously offered to give us a 7am tour guide. So just before dark our small group had the entire city almost to ourselves – we were accompanied by a few dogs and cats. It was fantastic!
As you might have guessed, the photo at the top of this blog as well as the next one was taken in Chefchaouen.
We stayed overnight in our first riad in Chefchaouen. It was a typically cozy and colorful Moroccan house with indoor courtyards, fountains and designed with lots of zellij (Moroccan tiles). Our room were indeed charming and authentic.
And lastly as we left Chefchaouen we made one final stop to enjoy another lovely vista. Comically, every one of the stops we made had at least one or two vendors laying in wait for us. This stop had a vendor selling freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. Isn’t that the most interesting squeezer? It worked perfectly and the juice was delicious!
Bssaha from these Moroccans,
Ted + Julia
— Kasbah of the Udayas
— Hassan Tower of the Unfinished Mosque
— Mausoleum of Mohammed V
Moulay Idriss Zerhoun, Morocco
Archaeological site of Volubilis, Morocco