The cities of Morocco
Here we are, continuing our journey through Morocco. After giving you an insight on what Morocco has to offer in terms of landscapes and wild life, it’s now time to discover the cities of the country. We had the chance to take some tours in only 4 of the cities of Morocco, but it was enough to give us a clear pictures what a city actually means for the Moroccans.
Meknes was the first city we visited and the first interaction we had with the Moroccan urban civilization. We only had a quick tour in the city with our guide of about one hour by car to the main touristic attractions.
A quick stop to Bab Mansour. Bab means “gate” or “door” in Arabic, and Bab Mansour is the largest and most striking of Meknes’ many gates (27 gates). It’s directly across from Place Hedim, the medina’s main square. Recently redone with new brickwork, this square once rivaled Djemaa el Fna in Marrakech. The square was teeming of all kinds of people, some of the performing some shows, but our guide told us to be careful because there are a lot of thieves.
An important tourist location is the Hri Souani – the stables where Sultan Moulay Ismail held his horses. The legend says the stables were constructed to comfortably house no less that 12000 of the royal horses. In front of the stables, was build a big lake to store water for the royal horses. As we understood, the water was brought with a system of channels from the glaciers in the high Atlas mountains. There was a canal that ran fresh water through the stables constantly, so the horses never lacked clean water and a huge granary to store grain for the horse feed.
We saw also the gate of Dar El Makhzen, the royal palace, but our guide told us we are not allowed to take pictures and drove to the next attraction. 🙂
Neer the Royal Palace is the Prison of Kara, an underground prison where more than 50,000 slaves were kept during the 17th century. Majority of them were captured Christians. We were supposed to visit also the prison, but unfortunately we got there too late and it was closed.
As I said, Meknes was just a very quick stop. Our guide hurried us a bit, as we were supposed to get to Fes for the night. Meknes gave me no impression what so ever regarding the life in the Moroccan cities. Except for the fact that we had the first contact with the Muslim world and that, as Europeans, we were looked at a bit different.
At the entry to the beautiful Todra Gorges, stands the Amazigh town of Tinghir. The city is at the center of one of the most attractive oases in southern Morocco. The palm oasis, dense and widespread, is irrigated by a network of pipes and irrigation canals. Occasional heavy rains are absorbed in a few days.
The city has two parts. The old part is almost deserted, because of the danger of collapsing buildings and the new rebuild one where almost all families had been relocated.
The beautiful oasis is crossing the middle of the town.
The last houses before entering the magnificent Todra Gorges.
Rissani was next on our list, said to be the capital of the desert. The last city before the desert, this is also the departing place for most of the desert trips.
For me, Rissani seemed to look like a village in Romania, rather than a city. The guide took us for a tour in the old fortress of the city, now a residential area for many families.
Our next stop was the market. A former major caravan center, Rissani remains the major commercial center in the region and the local market is noted for its leather and goat skin trading. You could find there almost everything to buy, from sheep and donkeys…
To spices, fruits and vegetables, meat and all sorts of tools. There were a lot of traditional workshops where the materials and the work process is the same as 500 or 1000 years ago.
Then we got to a very nice shop with all sorts of traditional accessories and decorations, where we spent a lot of time choosing gifts and negotiating. Negotiating is something that you have to do all the time in Morocco.
The fun part was when we got to a place where they sold products based on natural ingredients … tea, all sorts of creams and lotions made from plants, for all diseases and health issues. Here the seller gave us a presentation of some of his products and of course, we did buy some. Negotiation is always part of the buying process. Not sure, though, if it’s still an authentic process or it’s just to entertain the tourists.
This was the Rissani tour, a rather rural, than urban city.
Fes was the last city we visited. This time we had a longer tour and got the chance to see the old Medina of the city. Different from the other cities we visited, Fes is a modern one for sure. It has a modern part of the city which looks quite European and then it has the old Medina, where time seems to have stopped.
Fez is the medieval capital of Morocco founded by Idris I in 789, and a great city of high Islamic civilization. Fez has the best-preserved old city in the Arab world, the sprawling, labyrinthine Medina of Fes el-Bali, which is incidentally also the world’s largest car-free urban zone. Within the Medina transports of goods is provided by donkeys, mules and handcarts.
The Medina has more than 9000 narrow streets, some of them with small shops. As a tourist getting yourself around can become quite a challenge, so would be a good idea to get a guide. The Medina is like a big maze and one wrong step can take in the wrong direction.
The Medina can become very crowded, especially during the evening, when people finish work. In the same time, here the hygiene and cleaning are not some of the most important values. You see garbage at almost every corner and there is this constant smell of a closed area with no fresh air coming in. There are cats all around the place, they are like the community pets. We saw also a few stray dogs, but not to many, as in the Muslim culture the dog represents filth and they are not allowed as pets.
From the outside, each Medina house is like a small fortress, with high walls (usually each house has 2-3 levels and terrace) and no or very small windows. The frontage of the buildings is in general quite poor, giving the impression of poverty, the only thing giving away are the imposing wooden doors, sometimes adorned in beautiful colors.
From the inside, this is totally different. The houses have very nice decorations, all kinds of trifles, dishes and tea sets, carpets, beautiful mosaic, traditional wooden furniture and they have all you would think about a house in the 21st century.
The guide took us to three traditional workshops, where they die leather and create leather products, where they make cashmere scarfs and where they make camel hair blankets and carpets.
This was interesting as they explained the entire production process, which still remains in a high degree natural and hand made. But it was a bit annoying as the whole purpose of this was to make us buy as many things as possible. Actually my impression was that these places were touristic places, because I didn’t see any Moroccan people in there, only tourists. Well… business is business in the end…
Seeing the cities gave me an idea of the way people live in Morocco. Medinas seemed like the place where tradition and culture are very well preserved. With not too much luxury, like us, capitalists are used to, people live a very simple life, still based on some very common sense values. Consumerism is not one of them. You will see simple people, dressed in simple clothes, focusing more on the interaction between them, on religion and respect, rather than on showing off.
This would be it about the cities that we visited during our stay in Morocco. It was interesting to visit them. Maybe if we had spent more time exploring them, I could have understood even better the Moroccan way of life. The fact that we had a guide who was always on the run and we didn’t have the time to slowly digest everything we saw around us gave the impression that there is still a lot to see and find out about this world, that for an European seems like taken out from the Scheherazada’s ‘1001 Nights’. But who knows, maybe next time we come here, I get a different taste of the Moroccan cities.
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