So the real journey begins today. I suspect that if you were to poll your friends and acquaintances, a fair number would tell you that Casablanca is the capital of Morocco, but the real capital is Rabat. Rabat occupies the left bank of the Bou Regreg river, while the ancient city of Salé occupies the right bank. One gets the impression that there is a fair amount of competition between the two, such that they are now constructing an entertainment complex along the river on the Salé side to answer questions as to why Rabat gets everything. Many people live in Salé and work in Rabat. Rabat is one of the four imperial cities of Morocco, a list which also includes Fes, Marrakech, and Meknes. We will visit all.
Rabat had some sort of settlement somewhat earlier, but came to more prominence in the mid-12th century when Abd al-Mu'min established a fortress as a base for attacks on what is now Spain. Moulay Jacoub established Rabat as his capital in the late 12th century, but following his death in 1199 the area went into decline. Later, for a time Rabat and Salé served as a base for Barbary pirates who
had no governing constraint over them. These pirates, operating from Salé, Tunis, Algiers, and Tripoli, were sufficiently powerful that in 1800 the USA spent 20% of its annual expenditure in ransoms and tribute. The threat to shipping resulted in the founding of the permanent U.S. Navy in 1794, two wars against the pirates in the early 1800's, and a hell of a good line in the the Marine Corps hymn ("From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli"). The French invaded in 1912 and established Morocco as a French protectorate following an uprising in Agadir of tribes against the somewhat weak Alaouite dynasty (this sounds much like the USA "protecting" Hawaii). This was done ostensibly to protect French and other nations' commercial interests. The French made Rabat the capital, and the sultan moved his capital there as well. King Mohammed V gained independence for Morocco in 1956 following a brief period of exile, and he and his successors have kept Rabat as their capital.
Salé, on the other hand, is very ancient city, dating back to at least 700-800 BCE. It has never been an imperial city, however, and serves to a significant extent today as a
bedroom community for Rabat.
Our day began with the short 86 km ride from Casablanca to Rabat along the Atlantic coast. Every 200 yards or so there was a guard and there were lots of police present in various areas. Apparently the king was going to be using the route that day. Otherwise, the ride was fairly featureless. Our visit to Rabat started with the Musée Mohammed V, which houses some modern artworks as well as a collection of ancient artifacts. Our enjoyment of the exhibits was somewhat limited due to the signage being all Arabic and French, but we could make out enough of the French to get the gist of things. I don't know if there are better museums of the Moroccan history and archaeology, but if not then this was a shockingly limited collection. Following a pleasant luncheon at the museum, we paid a short visit to the Royal Palace complex and the attached administrative center for the country, then headed to the medina.
A medina has to be experienced to be appreciated. There is simply no way to convey in words the sounds, the smells, the warren of alleyways with no guiding signs, the
souks with their wares artfully arranged or carelessly strewn about. The smell of drying meat is followed by the sweet scent of frankincense or sandalwood. The scent of saffron gives way to the aromas of herbs and mint. A cacophony of sound virtually assaults you, and then you turn a corner and all is hushed. There is simply no analogous experience in the United States. In the Rabat medina, there are scattered areas of merchants, but no overwhelming souk as in Marrakech or Fes. As you wind your way toward the sea, you eventually come to the Casbah of the Udayas, dating to the late 12th century. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it terminates in a large upper plaza overlooking much of Rabat, the mouth of the river, and parts of Salé. On a sand flat along the Salé side of the river they were constructing a large entertainment venue. We stopped for mint tea and cookies in the medina, visited a beautiful garden just inside the main gate of the medina, and then head to the mausoleum of Mohammed V.
Mohammed V is giving credit for gaining independence for Morocco, and his tomb is simply stunning. It is
built immediately beside the fragmentary remains of what was to be the world's largest mosque. Its construction was begun in 1195, but work stopped in 1199 upon the death of Sultan Yacub al-Mansour who had started the construction. What was there was largely destroyed by the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755. A number of columns have been partially re-erected to give you a sense of its size, but all else that remains is the 140 ft Tour Hassan and some wall fragments. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The mausoleum is approached through a gate guarded by two guards on horseback. The structure itself is of white marble with a green tiled roof. The interior is fantastically decorated with intricate tilework, and the tomb contains the remains of Mohamed V and both his sons, King Hassan II and Prince Abdallah. Nearby is another tomb building which it is conjectured will someday hold Mohammed VI. The mausoleum is both a mosque and a tomb, making it one of the few mosques in Morocco that can be visited by non-Muslims. (This edict came from a law passed during the French protectorate. It is not clear to me whether it is a
religious issue or perhaps had other political input, but it is fair to say that entry into mosques by non-Muslims is an issue that is debated within the Muslim community.)
Our day concluded with a wonderful dinner at a riad in Salé called the Villa Sbihi. This Spanish-Moorish architecture home is now a restaurant and event center, and both the food and the architecture were fantastic.
By the way - despite the Muslim prohibition on alcohol, it was available everywhere we went.
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