Concealed in veils and djellabas (long hooded robes),
a mother reaches out her intricately patterned, henna-dyed hands to grip her child. She weaves through the dark passages of a kasbah. Kasbahs (medieval fortresses or cities) and the Sahara Desert are all part of the mystique of Morocco. Couple that with its people – people dedicated to Islam and to Arab and Berber traditions, Morocco is positively intriguing.
“The Koran teaches charity,” says Nouri, our guide, as he habitually doles out dirhams, Moroccan currency, to anyone performing the smallest deed.
Moroccans invite strangers to their homes for a meal, treating them like long lost relatives. (Likely the dish will be tajine, a Moroccan stew served in an inverted cone-shaped pot. It is eaten with three fingers holding bread).
Nouri speaks of his marriage.
“My sister introduced us. After three meetings, we had our parents make the arrangements,” he says. “This is the way it is done.”
Some Moroccan ways are inexplicable to outsiders. For example, it is the young children who work the potter’s wheels and weave carpets. Hassan, the rug salesman, tells us, “No matter how hard I work, I can never become the store owner. That is the way in Morocco.”
Nouri quotes the Koran to describe his country, “Embrace the modern but cling to the past.”
That phrase describes the imperial cities of Rabat, Fez, Meknes and Marrakech. Their Ville Nouvelle sections are wide palm-lined boulevards bordered by European architecture built between 1912 and 1956. Then Morocco was a French Protectorate. Though satellite dishes and TV antennas stretch above ancient walls, centuries-old minarets dominate the landscape. Marrakech’s 800-year-old, 70-meter Koutoubia Minaret is an imposing reminder of Moroccan’s reverence to Islam.
In Rabat, storks soar above us at the Chellah ruins. They have for a millennium. Youngsters scamper past the ancient Hassan Tower next to the modern mausoleum of Mohammed V, the father of Moroccan independence
Ancient gates to the imperial cities are intricately stuccoed and geometrically designed. We stop to examine the exquisite Bab al-Mansour, the main gate to Meknes. This structure, the pool and the enormous stables built for the Sultan Moulay Ismail’s 12,000 horses are all that survives the old age.
Close to Meknes is the provincial Roman capital of Volubulis. A Triomphal Arch and Temple of Jupiter are still formidable after two-thousand years. Delicate, well preserved mosaics, like the Labours of Hercules, are scattered among the remnants of the olive mills, forum, basilica, private residences and baths. Once ruled by the son-in-law of Anthony and Cleopatra, these ruins are a testimony of a once elegant Roman life.
Decorating the hilly countryside and visible from Volubulis are the green roofs of the northern town of Moulay Idriss. Named for the great-grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, he created the first Arab dynasty and brought Islam to Morocco. The faithful make pilgrimage to his sacred tomb to seek baraka, spiritual blessing.
Another day we weave through the dark, narrow mazes of the Fes (or Fez) medina. Crowded with shoppers making their way to stalls of pottery, spices, fabrics, coppersmiths, tanneries, fish, and meat, all move aside with cries of “Balaak, balaak!” (watch out). Mules laden with wares or food have the right-of-way.
Entwined within these tunnels are multi-leveled residences. Sounds of preschool children reciting Koranic verses reverberate through the passageways. The faithful make their way to the Kairaouine Mosque or the Zaouia Moulay Idriss II tomb where intricate bronze engraving, plaster sculpture and woodworking are so evident.
While Fes’ charms are hidden within, modern Marrakech’s are external – pink buildings, palaces, gardens, horse-drawn carts and the High Atlas Mountains. I will never be able to smell orange blossoms without thinking of springtime in Marrakech.
Winston Churchill loved it too. The La Mamounia Hotel, his old haunt, is a study in 1920’s Art Deco elegance. Its gardens are a peaceful refuge from the city’s clamor.
The 19th century Bahia Palace celebrates the splendor of Moroccan architecture. Stained-glass windows of the women’s quarters reveal a huge courtyard. Larger than a football field, it contains beautiful gardens.
Marrakech’s most magnificent gardens are Jardin Majorelle. Set around cobalt-blue buildings, there are thousands of multi-colored flora. The bougainvilla, geraniums, date palms, cacti and lily-pools look like exploding rainbows.
Rivaling the tranquility of the gardens is the chaos of Djemaa el Fna Square. The multitude of snake charmers, acrobats, watermen, storytellers, magic potion salesman, and hustlers surround us so quickly, our heads spin. Dancers move to the rhythm of atonal Berber music. From behind tooth-laden tables, dentists, pliers in hand, wait for their next victim. At night the square is aglow with braziers as it becomes a huge open-air, couscous, tajine, and kebob restaurant.
Located south of Marrekech, the Draa Valley was once an important transit point on the trans-Saharan caravan trading route. Today it is the scene of verdant palm trees, sand dunes, Berber villages and the Draa River. The snow-capped Atlas Mountains are its backdrop. Prehistoric cave paintings and sculptures document Its rich early history which includes Venus of Tan-Tan, the oldest, known prehistoric sculpture. During the 17th and 18th century, it was often a battlefield for nomadic tribes. Built to endure intense heat and cold, mud and straw Kasbahs are still inhabited. Now the valley is a popular tourist attraction.
But the Sahara beckons. The way to the desert is over the Atlas Mountains through cedar forests, where Barbary apes, looking for a handout, cause a roadblock. The air chills as our route passes lakes, waterfalls and over snowcapped mountains. Ifrane, a French ski village, more resembles the Alps than a tea stop on the way to sand dunes.
As we head south, the French influence disappears, the temperature rises, and the Sahara begins. Nomadic tents, tattooed Berber women, grazing camels, and Touareg Berbers, wrapped in sky blue sheets, make the present alien and exotic. In dusty, sand-colored villages, men wearing fabric wrapped hats and women, totally veiled in black except for one eye, stare at us.
Atop noisy camels at the Merzouga Dunes, we ride into the desert as shadows shift on the sand. The sun sets. Only the Land Rover’s lights and the sporadic fires from nomadic tents light the ebony desert on the trip back to Erfoud.
West of Erfoud, our car passes pisé – adobe Moorish architecture – colorful tents, Persian rose hedgerows of the Skoura Oasis and a winding green river amid barren land.
Southern Morocco was once controlled by the Berber Glaoui clan. Between the late 19th century and 1956, these self-appointed pashas dominated trade routes with their iron-hand rule and lavish lifestyle. The Glaoui stronghold, Aït Benhaddou, was the setting for the film, Lawrence of Arabia.
We find great contrasts between the desert and the High Atlas Mountains. Brightly dressed Berber women maintain a higher profile than their lower altitude sisters. Pueblos are pasted into the mountains, more reminiscent of Tibet than of North Africa.
At 4,267 meters, Toubkal is the highest mountain in Morocco. The route to it is over foothills, along the Mizane River and to a roadblock of donkeys where auto traffic ends. The mountain goats desert us on the two-hour hike up to our lodgings.
Our room, an empty cell, is quickly filled with couches, a table and High Atlas Berbers. Though life is hard and conditions primitive, friendliness abounds among them. One by one, they shyly drift into our room. Communication is a hodgepodge of Arabic, Berber, French, English, and Spanish. They bring babies and pictures. Laughter echoes through our room.
At night Toubkal glows in the moonlight. Nothing else is visible in the black void except the stars.
Trekking at about 2,743 meters Toubkal offers ever-changing vistas. Like the rest of Morocco, landscapes and people are mesmerizing. www.visitmorocco.com/en/contact