Cut in two by the wide river valley of the Oued Boufekrane, MEKNES is a sprawling, prosperous provincial city. Monuments from its past - dominated by the extraordinary creations of Moulay Ismail justify a day's rambling exploration, as do the varied and busy souks of it Medina. In addition, the Ville Nouvelle is pleasant and easy to handle, and there is the appeal of Roman Volubilis, within easy short bus or taxi distance. To get the most out of the city's monuments and the atmosphere of the Medina and souks, it's best to visit before heading to Fes. Getting a grasp of Meknes prepares you a little for the drama of Fes, and it certainly helps give an idea of quality (and prices) for crafts shopping; visited second, it is inevitably a little disappointing by comparison.
samedi 29 janvier 2011
For the first half of this century TANGIER was one of the stylish resorts of the Mediterranean - an "International City" with its own laws and administration, plus an eclectic community of exiles, expatriates and refugees. It was home , at various times, to Spanish and Central European refugees; to Moroccan nationalists; and - drawn by loose tax laws and free-port status -to over seventy banks and 4000 companies, many of them dealing in currency transactions forbidden in their own countries. Writers also were attracted to the city : the American novelist Paul Bowles has lived in Tangier since the war, William Burroughs spent most of the 1950s here, and most of the Beats - Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Brion Gysin and the rest -passed through. Tangier was also the world's first and most famous gay resort, a role it maintains to a smaller degree.
When Moroccan independence was gained in 1956, however, Tangier's special status was removed. Almost overnight, the finance and banking businesses shifted their operations to Spain and Switzerland. The expatriate communities dwindled, too, as the new national government imposed bureaucratic controls and instituted a "clean-up" of the city. Brothels -previously numbering almost a hundred-were banned, and in the early 1960s "The Great Scandal" erupted, sparked by a handful of pedophile convictions and escalating into a wholesale closure of the once outrageous gay bars.
These ghosts have left a slight air of decay about the city, still tangible in the older hotels and bars, despite a recent flurry of development and, especially, apartment building. There seems, too, a somewhat uncertain overall identity; a city that seems halfway to becoming a mainstream tourist resort - and an increasingly popular destination for holidaying Moroccans - yet which still retains hints of its dubious past amid the shambling 1930s architecture and style. It is, as already noted, a tricky place for first-time arrivals -hustling and mugging stories here should not be underestimated and the characters you run into at the port are as objectionable as any you'll find in Morocco but once you get the hang of it, Tangier is lively and very likeable, highly individual and with an enduring eccentricity.
El JADIDA is a stylish and beautiful town, retaining the lanes and ramparts of an old Portuguese Medina. It was known as Mazagan under the Portuguese who held it from 1506 until 1769 when it was taken by Sultan Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdallah. Moroccan Mazagan was renamed El Jadida - "The New" - after being resettled, partly with Jews from Azemmour, by the nineteenth-century Sultan Abd Er Rahman. Under the French, it grew into a quite sizeable administrative centre and a popular beach resort.
Today it's the beach that is undeniably the focal point. Moroccans from Casablanca an Marrakesh, even Tangier or Fes, come here in droves in summer, and, alongside this cosmopolitan mix, there's an unusual frenetic evening promenade and -as in Casa- Moroccan women are visible and active participants.
vendredi 28 janvier 2011
with its dramatic sea bastions and fortifications, Essaouira seems a lot older than it is. Although a series of forts had been built here from the fifteenth century on, it was only in the 1760s that the town was established and the present circuit of walls constructed. It was known to European sailors and then trades - as Mogador, said to be a reference to the prominent Koubba of Sidi Mgdoul, used for navigating entry to the bay. Less likely is the legend that the town's patron saint was a Scotsman named McDougal who was shipwrecked here in the fourteenth century. To the Moroccans it was known as Seurah, from the Berber 'little picture'.
The work on the town's walls, which was completed in 1770, was ordered by the Sultan Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdalah, and carried out by a French captive architect, Theodore Cornut, which explains the town's unique blend of Moroccan Medina and French gird layout. The sultan's original intention was to provide a military port, as Agadir was in revolt at the time and Sultan Mohammed Ben Abdallah needed a local base. It lent itself superbly to the purpose, as its series of forts ensured complete protection for the bay. Soon, however, commercial concerns gained pre-eminence. During the nineteenth century, Mogador was the only Moroccan port south of Tangier that was open to European trade, and it prospered greatly on the privelege. Drawn by protected trade status, and a harbour free from customs duties, British merchants settled in the Kasbah quarter, and a large Jewish community in the Mellah, within the northeast ramparts.
Decline set in during the French Protectorate, with Marshal Lyautey's promotion of Casablanca. Anecdote has it that he arrived in Essaouira on a Saturday when the Jewish community was at prayer; he cast a single glance at the deserted streets and decided to shift the port of Casablanca further up the coast! The decline was accelerated after independence, by the exodus of the Jewish community. These days, however, the town is very much back on its feet, as a fishing port and market town, and especially with the recent impetus of tourism.
The principal city of Morocco, and capital in all but administration, CASABLANCA (Dar El Baida in its literal Arabic form) is now the largest port of the Maghreb - and busier even than Marseilles, the city on which it was modelled by the French. Its development, from a town of 20,000 in 1906, has been astonishing but it was ruthlessly deliberate. when the French landed their forces here in 1907, and established their Protectorate five years later, Fes which was Morocco's commercial centre, and Tangier its main port. Had Tangier not been in international hands, this probably would have remained the case. However, the demands of an independent colonial administration forced the French to seek an entirely new base. Casa, at the heart of Maroc Utile, the country's most fertile zone and centre of its mineral deposits, was a natural choice.
Superficially, Casa is today much like any other large southern European city : a familiarity which makes it fairly easy to get your bearing and a revelation as you begin to understand something of its life. Arriving here from the south, or even from Fes or Tangier, most of the preconceptions you've been travelling round with will be happily shattered by the city's cosmopolitan beach clubs or by the almost total absence of the veil. But these "European" images shield what is substantially a first-generation city - and one still attracting considerable immigration from the countryside -and perhaps inevitably some of Morocco's most intense social problems.
Alongside its show of wealth and its prestige developments -most notably the vast Mosquée Hassan II, on a promontory looking out the Atlantic - the has had since its formation a reputation for extreme poverty, prostitution, crime, social unrest and the bidonvilles (shanty towns) which you will see both sides of the rail track as you approach Casablanca. The bidonville problem resulted partly from the sheer extent of population increases - which exceeded one million in the 1960s - and partly because few of the earlier migrants intended to stay permanently. Most of them sent back their earnings to their families in the country, intending to rejoin them permanently as soon as they had raised sufficient funds for a business at home.
the pattern is now much more towards permanent settlement, and this, together with a strict control of migration and limited number of self-help programmes, has eased and cleared many of the worst slums. Also, bidonville dwellers have been accorded increasing respect during recent years. They cannot be evicted if they have lived in a property over two years, and after ten years they acquire title to the land and building, which can be used as collateral at the bank for loans. The dread of every bidonville family is to be evicted and put in a high-rise block, which is regarded as the lowest of the low on the housing ladder.
The problem of a concentrated urban poor, however, is more enduring and represents, as it did for the French, an intermittent threat to government stability. Casa, through the 1940s and 1950s, was the main centre of anti-French rioting, and post-independence it was the city's working class which formed the base of Ben Barka's Socialist Party. There have been strikes here sporadically in subsequent decades, and on several occasions, most violenty in the food strikes of 1982, they have precipitated rioting whether Casa's development can be sustained, and the lot of its new migrants improved, must decide much of Morocco's future.
ESSAOUIRA is by popular acclaim Morocco's most likeable resort: an eighteenth-century town, enclosed by medieval-looking battlement, facing a cluster of rocky offshore islands, and trailed by a vast expanse of empty sands and dunes. Its whitewashed and blue-shuttered houses and colonnades, its wood workshops and art galleries, its boat-builders and sardine fishermen, its feathery Norfolk Island pines which only thrive in a pollution-free atmosphere: all provide a colourful and very pleasant backdrop to the beach. The life of the resort, too, is easy and uncomplicated, and very much in the image of the predominantly youthful Europeans and Marrakchis who come here on holiday; unlike Agadir, few of the visitors who stay here are on package tours.
Essaouira features in none but the most trendy brochures and upmarket TV travel programmes, and you will only be aware of packaged tourism at lunch-time when hungry coachloads from the four-star hotels in Marrakesh arrive. The seafront restaurants are best reserved for the evening meal.
Many of the foreign tourists, making their own way, are drawn by the wind, Known locally as the alizee, which can be a bit remorseless for sunbathing but creates much sough-after waves for surfing and windsurfing. In recent years, Essaouira has gained quite a reputation in this respect, promoting itself as "wind City, Africa" and hosting national and international surfing contests. This burgeoning population is , inevitably, changing the town's character; with villas springing up along the corniche, but as yet it's very far from spoilt. and remains a thoroughly enjoyable base to rest up after the big-city tension of Casa or Marrakesh.
mardi 25 janvier 2011
Capital of the nation since independence - and, before that, from 1912 to 1956, of the French Protectorate - RABAT is in many ways the city you'd expect: elegant in its spacious European grid, slightly self-conscious in its civilized modern ways, and, as an administrative centre, a little bit dull. If you arrive during Ramadan, you'll find the main avenues and boulevards an astonishing night-long promenade -at other time, it's hard to find a café open past ten at night. Rabat, as they tell you in Casa, is provincial. None of this makes any difference to the considerable historic and architectural interest in the city - and across the estuary in Salé - which include some of the finest and oldest Arab monuments in the country, dating from the Almohad and Merenid dynasties. You can spend an enjoyable few days looking round these, and out on the local beaches, and there is a major plus in that, unlike Fes or Marrakesh , you can get round the place quite happily without a guide, and talk in cafés with people who do not depend on tourist money.
Rabat's monuments punctuate the span of Moroccan history. The plains inland, designated Maroc Utile by the French, have been occupied and cultivated since paleolithic times, and there were Neolithic settlements on the coast south of Rabat, notably at present-day Temara and Skhirat. Both Phoenicians and Carthaginians established trading posts on modern-day Rabat's estuary site. The earliest Known settlement, Sala, occupied the citadel known today as Chellah. Here, after the demise of the Carthaginians, the Romans created their southernmost colony. It lasted well beyond the breakup of the empire in Africa and eventually formed the basis of an independent Berber state, which reached its peak of influence in the eighth century, developing a code of government inspired by the Koran but adapted to Berber customs and needs. It represented a challenge to the Islamic orthodoxy of the Arab rulers of the interior, however, and to stamp out the heresy, a ribat -the fortified monastery from which the city takes its name -was founded on the site of the present-day kasbah.
The ribat's activities led to Chellah's decline - a process hastened in the eleventh century by the founding of a new town, Salé, across the estuary. But with the arrival of the Almohads in the twelfth century, the Rabat Kasbah was rebuilt and a city again took shape around it. The Almohad fort, renamed Ribat El Fathi (Stronghold of Victory), served as a launching point for the dynasty's campaigns in Spain, which by 1170 had returned virtually all of Andalucia to Muslim rule.
Under the Almohad Caliph Yacoub El Mansour, a new Imperial Capital was created. Its legacy includes the superb Oudaîa Gate of the Kasbah, Bab Er Rouah at the southwest edge of town, and the early stages of the Hassan Mosque. Until recent years, this was the largest ever undertaken in Morocco and its minaret, standing high above the river, is still the city's great landmark. Mansour also erected over five kilometres of fortifications - but neither his vision nor his success in maintaining a Spanish empire was to be lasting. He left the Hassan Mosque unfinished, and only in the last sixty years has the city expanded to fill his dark circuit of pisé walls.
After Mansour's death, Rabat's significance was dwarfed by the imperial cities of Fes, Meknes and Marrakesh , and the city fell into neglect. Sacked by the Portuguese, it was little more than a village when, as New Salé, it was resettled by seventeenth-century Andalucian refugees. In this revived form, however, it entered into an extraordinary period of international piracy and local autonomy. Its corsair fleets, the Sallee Rovers, specialized in the plunder of merchant ships returning to Europe from West Africa and the Spanish Americas, but on occasion raided as far afield as plymouth and the Irish coast - Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe began his captivity "carry'd prisoner into Sallee, a Moorish port".
The Andalucians, owing no loyalty to the Moorish sultans and practically impregnable within their Kasbah perched high on a rocky bluff above the river, established their own pirate state, the Republic of the Bou Regreg. They rebuilt the Medina below the kasbah in a style reminiscent if their homes in Spanish Badajoz, dealt in arms with the English and french, and even accepted European consuls, before the town finally reverted to government control under Moulay Rashid, and his successor, Moulay Ismail. Unofficial piracy continued until 1829 when Austria took revenge for the loss of a ship by shelling Rabat and other coastal towns. From then until the French creation of a capital, Rabat -Salé was very much a backwater.
lundi 24 janvier 2011
The Imperial City
More than any other Moroccan town, Meknes is associated with a single figure, the Sultan Moulay Ismail, in whose 55-years reign (1672-1727) the city was built up from a provincial centre to a spectacular capital with twenty gates, over fifty palace and some fifteen miles of exterior walls. The principal remains of Ismail's creation - the imperial city (la Ville Imperiale )of palaces and gardens, barracks, granaries and stables- sprawl below the Medina, amid a confusingly maniac array of welled enclosures. If you intend to take in everything, it's a long morning's walk. Starting out from the Ville Nouvelle, make your way down to the main street at the southern edge of the Medina (Rue Rouamzine/Rue Dar Smen), and along to Place El Hedim and its immense gateway, Bab Mansour. There are usually guides hanging around here if you want to use one; you don't need to, but if you can find some-one entertaining, he'll probably elaborate on the story of the walls with some superbly convoluted local legend.
samedi 22 janvier 2011
the undoubted highlight of this chapter is Fes. The imperial capital of the Merenid, wattasid and Alaouite dynasties, the city has for the past ten centuries stood at the heart of Morocco history - and for five of these it was one of the major intellectual and cultural centres of the west, rivalling the great university cities of Europe. It is today unique in the Arab world, preserving the appearance and much of the life of a medieval Islamic city. In terms of monuments, it has as much as the other Moroccan imperial capitals together, while the city's souks, extending for over a mile, maintain the whole tradition of urban crafts. In all of this-and equally in the everyday aspects of the city's life - there is enormous fascination and, for the outsider, a real feeling of privilege. But inevitably, it is at a cost. Declared a historical monument by its French colonizers, and subsequently deprived of its political and cultural significance, Fes today retains its beauty but is in evident decline. Its university faculties have been dispersed around the country, with the most important departments in Rabat; the Fassi business elite have mostly left for Casablanca; and, for survival, the city depends increasingly on the tourist trade. Nonetheless, two or three days here is an absolute must for any visit in Morocco. Meknes, Like Fes (and Rabat and Marrakesh) an imperial city, sees comparatively few visitors, despite being an easy and convenient stopover en route by train from Tangier or Rabat, or by bus from chaouen. The megalomaniac creation of Moulay Ismail, the most tyrannical of all Moroccan sultans, it is once again a city of lost ages, its enduring impression being that of an endless series of walls. But Meknes is also an important modern market centre and its souks, though smaller and less secretive than those of Fes, are almost as varied and generally more authentic. There are, too, the local attractions of Volubilis, the best preserved of the country's Roman sites. and the hilltop town of Moulay Idriss, home to the most important Islamic shrine in Morocco. South of the two imperial cities stretch the cedar-covered slopes of the Middle Atlas, which in turn gradually give way to the High Atlas. Across and around this region, often beautiful and for the most part remote, there are two main routes. The most popular, a day's journey by bus, skirts the range beyond the market town of Azrou to emerge via Beni Mellal at Marrakesh. The second climbs southeastward from Azrou towards Midelt, an excellent carpet centre, before passing through great gorges to Er Rachidia and the vast date palm oasis of Tafilalt - the beginning of a tremendous southern circuit. A third and distinctly adventurous route runs between these two, leaving the main Azrou - Marrakesh highway at El Ksiba and following a series of pistes (dirt roads) directly across the Atlas to Tinerhir. You can take the latter route if you have 4x4 car - or by get - ting lifts over the various stages in local Berber lorries, If you're travelling in Morocco one of the main highways, and you've got the time, the Middle Atlas has considerable attractions of its own. Close to Fes, Immouzer and Ifrane are popular summer resorts, their air and waters a cool escape from the city. The Berber market town of Azrou is host to great Tuesday souk and surrounded by pine forests and mountain lakes. And off the Marrakesh road, near Beni Mellal, are the cascades d'ouzoud - waterfalls which crash down from the mountains, even in midsummer, and beside which you can swim, cam and hike.
vendredi 7 janvier 2011
The most ancient of the Imperial Capitals, and the most complete medieval city of the Arab world, FES is a place that stimulates your senses, with haunting and beautiful sounds, infinite visual details and unfiltered odours. More than any other city in Morocco, it seems to exist suspended in time somewhere between the Middle Ages and the modern world. As with other Moroccan Cities, it has a French-built Ville Nouvelle-familiar and modern in appearance and urban life -but some 200,000 of Fes's half-million inhabitants continue to live in the extraordinary medina-city of Fes El Bali - which owes little to the West besides its electricity and its tourists.
As a spectacle, this is unmissable, and it's difficult to imagine a city whose external forms (all you can really hope to penetrate) could be so constant a source of interest. But stay in Fes a few days and it's equally hard to avoid the paradox of the place. Like much of "traditional" Morocco, the city was "saved" and then re-created by the french -under the auspices of General lyautey, the Protectorate's first Resident-General. Lyautey took the philanthropic and startling move of declaring the city a historical monument; philanthropic because he was certainly saving Fes El bali from destruction (albeit from less benevolent Frenchmen), and startling because until then many Moroccans were under the impression that Fes was still a living city - the Imperial Capital of the Moroccan empire rather than a preservable part of the nation's heritage. In fact, this paternalistic protection conveniently helped to disguise the dismantling of the old culture. By building a new European city nearby -the Ville Nouvelle -and then transferring Fes's economic and political functions to Rabat and the west coast, lyautey ensured the city's eclipse along with its preservation.
to appreciate the significance of this demise, you only have to look at the Arab chronicles or old histories of Morocco, every one of which takes Fes as its central focus. The city had dominated Moroccan trade, culture and religious life -and usually its politics, too -since the end of the tenth century. It was closely and symbolically linked with the birth of an "Arabic" Moroccan state due to their mutual foundation by Moulay Idriss I, and was regarded, after Mecca and Medina, as one of the holiest cities of the Islamic world. Medieval European travellers wrote of it with a mixture awe and respect -as a "citadel of fanaticism" and yet the most advanced seat of learning in mathematics, philosophy and medicine.
The decline of the city notwithstanding, Fassis - the people of Fes -have a reputation throughout Morocco a successful and sophisticated. Just as the city is situated at the centre of the country, so are its inhabitants placed at the heart of government,and most government ministries are headed by Fassis. what is undeniable is that they have the most developed Moroccan city culture, with an intellectual tradition,and their own cuisine (sadly not at its best in the modern city restaurants), dress and way of life.
the development of Fes
when the city's founder, Moulay Idriss I, died in 792, Fes was little more than a village on the east bank of the river. It was his son, Idriss II, who really began the city's development, at the beginning of the ninth century, by making it his capital and allowing in refugees from Andalucian Cordoba and from Kairouan in Tunisia -at the time, the two most important cities of western Islam. The impact on Fes of these refugees was immediate and lasting: they established separate, walled towns (still distinct quarters today) on either riverbank, and provided the superior craftsmanship and mercantile experience for Fes's industrial and commercial growth. It was at this time, too, that the city gained its intellectual reputation. The tenth-century Pope Silvester II studied here at the Kairouine University, and from this source he is said to have introduced Arabic mathematics to Europe.
the seat of government - and impetus of patronage - shifted south to Marrakesh under the Berber dynasties of the Almoravides (1068-1145) and Almohads (1145-1250). But with the conquest of Fes by the Merenids in 1248, and their subsequent consolidation of power across Morocco, the city regained its pre-eminence and moved into something of a "golden age", Alongside the old Medina, the Merenids built a massive royal city - Fes El Djedid, literally "Fes the New" - which reflected both the wealth and confidence of their rule. They enlarged and decorated the Kairaouine mosque, added a network of fondouks (inns) for the burgeoning commercial activity, and greatly developed the Kairaouine university - building the series of magnificent medersas, or colleges, to accommodate its students. Once again this expansion was based on an influx of refugees, this time from the Spanish reconquest of Andalucia, and it helped to establish the city's reputation as "the Baghdad of the West".
it is essentially Merenid Fes which you witness today in the form of the city and its monuments. From the fall of the dynasty in the mid-sixteenth century, there was decline as both Fes and Morocco itself became isolated from the main currents of Western culture. The new rulers - the saadians -in any case preferred Marrakesh, and although Fes re-emerged as the capital under the Alaouites, it had begun to lose its international stature. Moulay Ismail, whose hatred of the Fassis was legendary, almost managed to tax the city out of existence, and the principal building concerns of his successors lay in restoring and enlarging the vast domains of the royal palace.
Under French colonial rule , there were positive achievements in the preservation of the old city and relative prosperity of the Ville Nouvelle, but little actual progress. As a thoroughly conservative and bourgeois