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Morocco-Fez-Old City-Street Scene with author
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
When Idriss I, the great-grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, in the 8th century, established a Moroccan royal dynasty, little did he know that his kingdom would continue on until our times. Yet, even though his realm, in the subsequent centuries, was ruled by half a dozen other dynasties, Morocco has remained until this century – one of the oldest nations in the world.
For many years I had often read and wondered the sultans and kings of these dynasties until one day I found myself in Rabat, the present-day capital of the country and one of its four Imperial Capitals – Fez, Meknes, Marrakesh, and Rabat – the city where King Muhammad VI, a member of the Alaouite Dynasty rules.
I was elated as I set out to explore the city. It was fulfilling to discover its ancient monuments, surrounded by wide and clean avenues, flowering gardens and stately whitewashed mansions.
They imbued to the city elegance with a serene modern yet historical aura.
A national showplace, Rabat, with a population of 1,500,000, is a spacious city with wide expanses of greenery encircling splendid modern structures. These edge historic ramparts that hug ancient quarters, creating a city of fascinating duality.
The most important of Rabat’s monuments is the impressive 44 m (144 ft) high Tour Hassan, built by Yaqoub el Mansour, which is part of a never-completed mosque now in ruins, intended to be the largest in the Muslim world. Its eight-foot-thick walls, each decorated differently on the outside, make this unfinished minaret a sturdy and attractive landmark that dominates the city. The ruins of its attached mosque include parts of 200 columns, some renovated and surrounded by a newly laid concrete-slab floor.
At the end of these columns rises a white marble terrace on which stands the Mausoleum of the former King Mohammed V, the beloved father of Moroccan independence, and that of his two sons, the late King Hassan II and his brother Abdullah, edged by a small mosque and a museum. The entire complex is an exquisite example of modern Andalusian-Moorish architecture and the most popular tourist site in Rabat.
Leaving this modern yet ancient Moroccan capital, we made our way through a lush green countryside, rich in all types of crops and dotted with farm homes, many seemingly newly built.
“I thought that Morocco was a desert country! Look at all this greenery!”, an American traveller remarked as we conversed while filling our gas tanks.
After driving for some two hours, I stopped atop a hillside enthralled with the view. Below, Moulay Idriss, a Muslim holy city and the first capital of Morocco established by Idriss I, glittered in the midday sun – an astonishingly dramatic sight. Homes and mosques crowned two rocky spurs, surrounded by a landscape of olive groves and forested lands. From our vantage point I could clearly see the only cylindrical minaret in Morocco.
The main reason for the town’s existence is that it is the burial place of Idriss I who also laid the foundation for the city of Fez. Agents of the caliph in Baghdad murdered him and the city grew around his tomb. In the subsequent centuries, he became Morocco’s most venerated saint. Every year in August and September, during the Moussem (season) Festival, thousands of pilgrims flock to the city to be blessed. However, his shrine is banned to non-Muslims and non-Muslim travellers cannot stay overnight in the city.
Some 4 km (2.5 mi) from this holy city, I stopped by Volubilis – the most impressive Roman site in Morocco. Established first by the Phoenicians, it later became the home of the Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, and Byzantines, until taken over by the Arabs in their first sweep into North Africa. A striking sight, visible for miles, Volubilis became a Roman provincial capital and the empire’s most remote outpost in North Africa. Today, it is the largest, best preserved and the finest Roman architectural site in Morocco.
Here, the Latin language survived for centuries and after the Arab conquest of North Africa and continued to flourish in the city for a thousand years. It was demolished by Moulay Ismael in the 18th century in order to use its stones for his palaces in his nearby capital of Meknes.
After examining a good number of Roman mosaics and semi-erect structures, I departed to Meknes – the handiwork of Moulay Ismail, one of Morocco’s greatest sultans. Virtually without respite for a period of 50 years he built palaces, mosques, fountains, gardens and stables, then surrounded them with mighty ramparts, pierced by monumental gates. After examining Bab al-Mansour Gate, the finest in Morocco, and the edging Moulay Ismail Mausoleum, I left for Fez – ever since it establishment, Morocco’s intellectual heart.
In less than an hour, we entered that historic city more than 1,000,000 inhabitants. Inside its ancient walls, the largest medina, Fez el-Bali, in the Arab world has been preserved almost intact. No vehicles are allowed to enter within its ramparts. As was the case in the Middle Ages, through its 300 km (186 mi) of streets, donkeys and humans do all the transport and labor. No other urban center in the world has kept so well its original character.
The heart of the city is a kaleidoscope of medieval colors, noise, sights, and smells. Every turn of a street hides a surprise. Historic monuments everywhere, craftsmen making and selling huge copper and iron pots; men dying silk, cotton and woolen threads; and foul-smelling tanneries where tourists watch tanners producing the famous Moroccan leather – it’s a medieval world come alive.
After exploring this fairytale ancient town, it becomes apparent to a visitor why Fez continues to be Morocco’s centre of culture and religion. Considered the country’s jewel lying modestly behind its ramparts, it is Morocco’s leading Imperial city – for centuries the home of Morocco’s sultans and kings..
Fez was the last stop on this first portion of my journey following the route of the Moroccan monarchs. There was still Marrakesh, far to the south, with its Almoravids, Almohades and Saadian Dynasties, but that Imperial city had to wait for another visit. For now, I was content to have live awhile in the aura of Morocco’s colorful past.