The most beautiful of Moroccan ruins, Chellah is a startling sight as you emerge from the long avenues of the Ville Nouvelle. Walled and towered, it seems a much larger enclosure than the map suggests. The site has been uninhabited since 1154, when it was abandoned in favour of Salé across the Bou Regreg. But for almost a thousand years prior to that, Chellah (or Sala Colonia, as it was known) had been a thriving city and port, one of the last to sever links with the Roman Empire and the first to proclaim Moulay Idriss founder of Morocco’s original Arab dynasty. An apocryphal local tradition maintains that the Prophet himself also prayed at a shrine here.

Under the Almohads, the site was already a royal burial ground, but most of what you see today, including the gates and enclosing wall, is the legacy of “The Black Sultan”, Abou el Hassan (1331–51), the greatest of the Merenids. The main gate has turreted bastions creating an almost Gothic appearance. Its base is recognizably Almohad, but each element has become inflated, and the combination of simplicity and solidity has gone. An interesting technical innovation is the stalactite (or “honeycomb”) corbels which form the transition from the bastion’s semi-octagonal towers to their square platforms; these were to become a feature of Merenid building. The Kufic inscription above the gate is from the Koran and begins with the invocation: “I take refuge in Allah, against Satan.”

To your left if coming from the entrance, signposted “Site Antique”, are the main Roman ruins. They are of a small trading post dating from 200 BC onwards, are well signposted and include a forum, a triumphal arch, a Temple of Jupiter and a craftsmen’s quarter.

The Sanctuary

From the main gate, the Islamic ruins are down to the right, within an inner sanctuary approached along a broad path through half-wild gardens. The most prominent feature is a tall stone-and-tile minaret, a ludicrously oversized stork’s nest usually perched on its summit. Indeed, Chellah as a whole is a good spot for birdwatching, especially in nesting season.

The sanctuary itself appears as a confusing cluster of tombs and ruins, but it’s essentially just two buildings: a mosque, commissioned by the second Merenid sultan, Abou Youssef (1258–86), and a zaouia, or mosque-monastery, added along with the enclosure walls by Abou el Hassan. You enter directly into the sahn, or courtyard, of Abou Youssef’s Mosque, a small and presumably private structure built as a funerary dedication. It is now in ruins, though you can make out the colonnades of the inner prayer hall with its mihrab to indicate the direction of prayer. To the right is its minaret, now reduced to the level of the mosque’s roof.

Behind, both in and outside the sanctuary enclosure, are scattered royal tombs – each aligned so that the dead may face Mecca to await the Call of Judgement. Abou Youssef’s tomb has not been identified, but you can find those of both Abou el Hassan and his wife Shams ed Douna. El Hassan’s is contained within a kind of pavilion whose external wall retains its decoration, the darj w ktaf motif set above three small arches in a design very similar to that of the Hassan Tower. Shams ed Douna (Morning Sun) has only a tombstone – a long, pointed rectangle covered in a mass of verses from the Koran. A convert from Christianity, Shams was the mother of Abou el Hassan’s rebel son, Abou Inan, whose uprising led to the sultan’s death as a fugitive in the High Atlas during the winter of 1352.

The Zaouia

The Zaouia is in a much better state of preservation, its structure, like Abou el Hassan’s medersas, that of a long, central court enclosed by cells, with a smaller oratory or prayer hall at the end. There are fragments of zellij tilework on some of the colonnades and on the minaret, giving an idea of its original brightness, and there are traces, too, of the mihrab’s elaborate stucco decoration. Five-sided, the mihrab has a narrow passageway (now blocked with brambles) leading to the rear – built so that pilgrims might make seven circuits round it. This was once believed to give the equivalent merit of the hadj, the trip to Mecca: a tradition, with that of Mohammed’s visit, probably invented and propagated by the zaouia’s keepers to increase their revenue.

Off to the right and above the sanctuary enclosure are a group of koubbas – the domed tombs of local saints or marabouts – and beyond them a spring pool, enclosed by low, vaulted buildings. This is held sacred, along with the eels which swim in its waters, and women bring hard-boiled eggs for the fish to invoke assistance in fertility and childbirth. If you’re here in spring, you’ll get additional wildlife, with the storks nesting and the egrets roosting.

At the far end of the sanctuary, you can look down a side valley to the Bou Regreg estuary. From here, you can appreciate that this site was destined, from early times, to be settled and fortified. The site was easy to defend and the springs provided water in times of siege.