The Bahia Palace was originally built in 1866–7 for Si Moussa, a former slave who had risen to become Moulay Hassan’s chamberlain, and then grand vizier. His son, Bou Ahmed, who himself held the post of chamberlain under Moulay Hassan, became kingmaker in 1894 when Hassan died while returning home from a harka (tax-collecting expedition). Ahmed concealed news of the sultan’s death until he was able to declare Hassan’s fourteen-year-old son Moulay Abd el Aziz sultan in his place, with himself as grand vizier and regent (see The last sultans). He thus gained virtually complete control over the state, which he exercised until his death in 1900. He began enlarging the Bahia (meaning “brilliance”) in the same year as his coup, adding a mosque, a hammam and even a vegetable garden. When he died, his servants ransacked the palace, but it was restored and, during the Protectorate, housed the French Resident General.
The small riad
Visitors enter the palace from the west, through an arcaded courtyard which leads to a small riad (enclosed garden), part of Bou Ahmed’s extension. The riad is decorated with beautiful carved stucco and cedarwood, and salons lead off it on three sides. The eastern salon leads through to the council room, and thence through a vestibule – where it’s worth pausing to look up at the lovely painted ceiling – to the great courtyard of Si Moussa’s original palace. The rooms surrounding the courtyard are also all worth checking out for their painted wooden ceilings.
The large riad
South of the great courtyard is the large riad, the heart of Si Moussa’s palace, fragrant with fruit trees and melodious with birdsong, approaching the very ideal of beauty in Arabic domestic architecture. To its east and west are halls decorated with fine zellij fireplaces and painted wooden ceilings. From here, you leave the palace via the private apartment built in 1898 for Ahmed’s wife, Lalla Zinab, where again you should look up to check out the painted ceiling, carved stucco, and stained-glass windows.