the 5 untold treasures of rabat, morocco’s medieval and modern capital city

I fell in love with Rabat at first sight.

Sophisticated, Mediterranean, with a world-class museum and gallery, Morocco’s capital city is a breath of fresh air in a country otherwise steeped in romantic orientalism. Whitewashed Art Deco buildings vie with an ultramarine blue sky for attention here. Street-side cafes serve delectable tagines and kebabs accompanied with steaming cups of cafe nous nous.

Faced with the exotic wonders of Morocco further ahead, not many travellers break their journey in Rabat. What does a capital city have to offer in comparison to the enigmatic imperial cities of Fez and Marrakesh, and the wild call of the Atlas Mountains and sweeping dunes of the Sahara Desert?

The answer is: A different kind of Moroccan experience.

Rabat holds the honour of being Morocco’s capital city, not once or twice, but a whopping four times through its eventful history.

The first was when Almohad ruler Yacoub al-Mansour moved to Rabat in the 12th Century AD and used it as a military base for his naval campaigns against Spain. It rose to political fame once again, though very very briefly, under the Alaouite Sultan Mohammed Ben Abdallah in the 18th Century. In 1912, France made Rabat its colonial capital—it came with the least local political baggage. The same year the Alaouite Sultans also made Rabat their capital, and since independence in 1956 [and for the 4th time] it has been the political and royal capital of the Kingdom of Morocco.

Each of these periods has bequeathed its own unique treasures to the fortress city by the sea, Rabat.

There is an interesting story behind the name Rabat. A Phoenician and Roman port in antiquity, the local Zenata Berbers built a Ribat or fortress monastery at the site after the Romans left in the 5th Century AD. When Yacoub al-Mansour decided to move his capital here, he rebuilt the Ribat as a Kasbah and called the city Ribat al-Fatah, the victorious fortress. Ribat became Rabat and the name has stuck since.

Yacoub al-Mansour belonged to Morocco’s medieval desert Berber kingdom, the Almohads who ruled from 1130 – 1269 AD.

If there is any one person with whom the city’s heritage is inexorably tied to, it is this gentleman. Rabat flourished under his rule and large-scale construction projects were carried out under his ambitious vision. The exquisite Oudaias Gate, monumental Oudaias Kasbah, and sadly incomplete Le Tour Hassan mosque are all his legacy.

With his death in 1199 AD, the city fell into decline to be revived once again after 500 years. This time it was the Muslim refugees from Al-Andalus across the Strait of Gibraltar and pirates plying the Mediterranean Sea who made Rabat their home and filled it with colour.

Whilst the French colonisers from 1912 to 1956 have given Rabat its Mediterranean Art Deco look and feel, free Morocco has made the city a repository for its finest art and antiquities by providing it state-of-the-art exhibition spaces.

This post is about Rabat’s various untold treasures I discovered whilst exploring it as part of a much larger cross-country journey through Morocco. Do you know of any more other wonderful treasures in Rabat? If yes, please do share. I’d love to read about them. 🙂

1. Le Tour [tower] Hassan, An ambitious 12th Century ruler’s ambitious mosque

Like all true rulers, the Almohad Sultan Yacoub al-Mansour wanted to leave behind something larger than life to be associated with his name. What could be better than to build the world’s second largest mosque [next in size only to the Samarra Mosque in Iraq back then]. So, in 1195 AD he built a minaret meant to be 88 metres high surrounded by 400 glistening columns. Unfortunately, he died in 1199 AD and construction was abandoned. An earthquake in 1755 further toppled the half-built structure down. Facing these evocative ruins is the Mausoleum of Mohammed V where the present king’s father and grandfather are interred.

Travel tips: 1) Non-Muslims are not allowed to go near the royal graves. They can only view them from a gallery inside the mausoleum. 2) Should the current king decide to make a random visit to the mausoleum, the entire site is closed without notice.

2. Oudaias Gate, Almohad dynasty’s architectural marvel

The imposing Oudaias Gate stands at the entrance of Oudaias Kasbah. I have listed it separately because most people just walk past it. Which is pure sacrilege. Built in 1195 AD by Yacoub al-Mansour, the same gentleman who also built the incomplete Le Tour Hassan [see above], the horseshoe-shaped sandstone gate is a marvel in its own right. Everything Yacoub al-Mansour built was ambitious and grand. His gate was no different. It is filled with carved arches, scalloped shells, and fantastical ornamentation, and served a ceremonial rather than defensive purpose—his palace once stood behind it.

Travel tip: Oudaias Gate is the one facing you when you climb up the stairs of Oudaias Kasbah. Entry to the Kasbah is through a smaller gate to its right.

3. Oudaias Kasbah, Refuge for Al-Andalusian Muslim refugees

Spain’s Christianisation in the 17th Century was accompanied with an influx of Spanish Muslim refugees from Al-Andalus into Morocco, in search of a safe place to call their home. One group made their way to the Oudaias Kasbah, Rabat’s historical citadel perched on the hill by the sea. They brought along with them their Moorish traditions and rituals, and proceeded to paint their walls an eclectic mix of snow white and electric blue. The tradition has lasted three hundred years, and their descendants who still live in the Kasbah’s narrow lanes faithfully paint their home facades the same way.

Travel tips: 1) Get happily lost in the Kasbah! 2) For scenic sea-views, take the main avenue to Plateforme du Sémaphore. 3) Rabat’s oldest mosque [12th Century AD] is on this main road [left side]. It was renovated in the 18th Century by an English Muslim pirate. 4) Andalusian Gardens [bottom-end of the Kasbah] is a calm oasis of green.

4. Mohammed VI Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Mecca for 20th and 21st Century Moroccan art

Paintings [from above] by Chaibia Tallal, [Left] Ahmed Benyessef and [Right] Haj Abdelkrim Ouazzani, Jacques Majorelle, Mohamed Anzaoui.

If you have the slightest interest in modern and contemporary art, this national art museum established by King Mohammed VI in 2014, is a must visit. If not, it still warrants a dekko for it reveals the turn Moroccan art has taken since the 20th Century right up to present times, through the work of some 200 artists. No longer delimited to being a craft guided by religion and traditions, Moroccan modern and contemporary art at times blends personal expression with indigenous Moroccan forms, and at others veers away from all things Moroccan to stake its place in the global arena.

Travel tips: 1) The museum is located in the heart of the city. 2) Entry ticket: 40 DHS. 3) Open every day from 10 am to 6 pm, closed on Tuesdays and public holidays.

5. Museum of History and Civilizations, Morocco’s treasure trove of Roman antiquities

Rabat’s National Museum of History and Civilizations is compact, super-slick, and brimming with treasures excavated from around the country. It even has rare coinage from the medieval Almoravid and Almohad dynasties! Though the extensive archaeological exhibits range from Morocco’s pre-historic, Roman and Islamic periods, its most fascinating collection is, without a doubt, that from the Roman outpost Volubilis. The bronze busts of Cato and Juba II, ivy-crowned Ephebe, and dog of Volubilis are spectacular. The reconstructed mosaic floor, picture perfect. The statuettes bursting with movement and emotion, even after 2,000 years, a wake-up call to life’s constancy. ❤

NOTE: You may also like to read: Discover ancient Roman Volubilis through a self-guided walk.

Travel tips: 1) Entry ticket: 40 DHS. 2) Open every day from 10 am to 6 pm, closed on Tuesdays and public holidays.

meknes: the story of a bloodthirsty sex-addict sultan and his beloved imperial city

“Green is the sweetest colour; white is a good sign for those appealing to him; but when he is dressed in yellow, all the world trembles and flees his presence, because it is the colour that he chooses on the days of his bloodiest executions.”
~ Dominique Busnot, Histoire Du Regne de Moulay Ismail, Roi de Maroc (1704)

Once upon a time lived a Sultan in Morocco who loved his imperial city with every fibre of his being. The 55 years he reigned, the longest by any Moroccan Sultan, were spent building gates, mosques, madrassas, palaces and gardens in it, each more magnificent than the other. When he died, aged 82 in 1727 AD, he had one of the most beautiful mausoleums ever built in the Kingdom made to house his corpse.

A slender man of medium height, a long face and dark skin [his mother was an African slave], he was the 2nd ruler of the Alaouite Kingdom. His name was Moulay Ismail ibn Sharif aka the Warrior King of Morocco.

Apart from Meknes, if there was anything else Moulay Ismail ibn Sharif loved—it was women, and sex. A lot more than the ordinary. Better known as the Sultan who had 10 wives, 500 concubines, and 1,171 children, his 700th son was born just after his death. His 10th wife was an Irishwoman by the name of Mrs. Shaw. He also proposed to his contemporary, Louis XIV’s, daughter. He was quite smitten by her charm and beauty. However, she declined.

The other two things he is still remembered for, nearly three hundred years after his death, are his cruelty and his army of Black Guards. Continue reading

8 hours in casablanca

Casablanca. The very name transports one back to 1942 and the black and white American romantic drama set in World War II. Starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, the film was an unprecedented success like no other before. Who has not heard of Casablanca? And Rick’s Café?

But did you know that not a single scene in the movie was actually filmed on location. Casablanca was shot entirely at Warner Bros. Studio in California. There never was any Rick’s Café in Casablanca, back then, either. The one that stands now near Hassan II Mosque is a recreated version of the one in the film, built much later. It doesn’t really matter though, for through the movie Casablanca, Casablanca the city on which the film was based became a household name globally.

Most travellers zip past Casablanca onto the more exotic destinations Morocco has to offer. Compared to the cultural charms of the royal cities of Fes, Marrakesh, Meknes and Rabat, Casablanca comes in as a poor second. When it is rugged nature that tugs your heartstrings, what does a commercial port-city by the Atlantic Ocean have to offer?

Lots. Continue reading

discover ancient roman volubilis through a self-guided walk

There is a reason I travel solo. I tend to get lost when I travel. No, not physically. That would be impossible in today’s day and age with Google Maps and diligent service providers busy at work with their mobile phone tracking systems to keep you connected. What I mean is I get lost in the experience. I lose track of time. Which is great for me, but, have come to realize, is not so great for others. 😀

This post is about one such lost-in-the-experience day I spent at a place called Volubilis in northern Morocco, in the foothills of Mount Zerhoun. And how you too, if you wish [that is], could lose yourself in its magic!

Volubilis was a large Roman colonial town on the fringes of the Empire. Though dating back to the 3d Century BC and occupied till the 11th Century AD, its hey-day lasted from 44 – 285 AD when it was capital of the Roman province Mauretania Tingitana.

It was a wealthy town—fertile grain and olive oil-producing lands surrounded it—and its 20,000 Romanised Amazigh inhabitants lived in fancy villas lining broad avenues. Today, the archaeological site is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Continue reading

the forgotten kasbahs and ksars of morocco’s high atlas mountains

[Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs]

A high-pitched Amazigh love song is playing on a loop in the car stereo. Abdul, my cab driver decides to give it company with deft dance moves from behind the steering wheel even as he swings the car around hairpin bends. He does not speak English. I don’t speak Arabic, Amazigh or French. We are high up in the High Atlas Mountains in Southern Morocco.

Should we crash down the rock face would anyone be able to trace us, I ask him with hand signs. He signals I should not worry, and grins. These mountains are his home. I tell myself I should be afraid. Instead, I have a huge smile plastered on my face as well.

Oh, how I love these blood-red, barren mountains spread all around us, till as far as the eye can see! Majestic, mysterious, and millions of years old. There is no other sign of life under the ultramarine blue sky, except for our car and glimpses of a green oasis which ribbons its way in the plunging valley below.

I am on my way to Telouet, a crumbling mud-brick Kasbah [palace] 5,900 feet high up in the mountains. I had chanced upon the name when reading up for my Morocco trip and though outside the tourist circuit, I just knew I had to visit it. Continue reading

travel diaries: hiking through the todra gorge

There are two choices for the hiker at Todra Gorge. You can either go up, scaling the burnt orange limestone crumbling cliffs of the High Atlas Mountains, higher with every step, or carry on along the canyon floor into its bowels, deeper ahead. Both have their own perks. A bit like life itself.

Since most people tend to climb up, and I like to do things a tad differently, I decided to walk on straight. It was a long walk. Some four-and-a-half-hours long.

I started at the most visited and dramatic section, a 10-meter-wide chasm shared by both river and road, and penned in with towering perpendicular cliffs 160 metres tall. Stretched over a length of 600 metres, the tourist crowds usually do their U-turn here and go back.

But should one venture on, the unfolding of the cliffs into craggy piles of rock up to 400 metres high that line a desolate sun-baked concrete road is surreal and unreal rolled into one. The only sound I could here as I trudged on alone under the ultramarine blue sky was the chirping of birds. They seemed almost glad for my company. Continue reading