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Capital of the nation since 1912, elegant and spacious RABAT is the very image of an orderly administrative and diplomatic centre. Lacking the frenetic pace of Morocco’s other large cities, Rabat is sometimes harshly referred to as “provincial”. Sure enough, there are times when it’s hard to find a café open much past ten at night, but there’s other times when the city comes out from its conservatism and even makes a little noise, such as the during the Festival of Rhythms each May. Befitting its regal status, Rabat – along with neighbouring Salé – has some of the most interesting historic and architectural monuments in the country, and the fact that the local economy does not depend on tourist money makes exploring these attractions a great deal more relaxed than cities like Fez and Marrakesh.
The Phoenicians established a settlement at Sala, around the citadel known today as Chellah. This eventually formed the basis of an independent Berber state, which reached its peak of influence in the eighth century, developing a code of government inspired by the Koran but adapted to Berber customs and needs. It represented a challenge to the Islamic orthodoxy of the Arab rulers of the interior, however, and to stamp out the heresy, a ribat – the fortified monastery from which the city takes its name – was founded on the site of the present-day kasbah. The ribat’s presence led to Chellah’s decline – a process hastened in the eleventh century by the founding of a new town, Salé, across the estuary.
The Almohads rebuilt the kasbah and, in the late twentieth century, Yacoub el Mansour (“the Victorious”) created a new imperial capital here. His reign lasted almost thirty years, allowing El Mansour to leave a legacy that includes the superb Oudaïa Gate of the kasbah, Bab er Rouah at the southwest edge of town, and the early stages of the Hassan Mosque. He also erected over 5km of fortifications, though it is only in the last sixty years that the city has expanded to fill his circuit of pisé walls.
After Mansour’s death, Rabat’s significance was dwarfed by the imperial cities of Fez, Meknes and Marrakesh, and the city fell into neglect. Sacked by the Portuguese, it was little more than a village when, as New Salé, it was resettled by seventeenth-century Andalusian refugees. In this revived form, however, it entered into an extraordinary period of international piracy and local autonomy. Its corsair fleets, the Sallee Rovers, specialized in the plunder of merchant ships returning to Europe from West Africa and the Spanish Americas, but on occasion raided as far afield as Plymouth and the Irish coast – Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe began his captivity “carry’d prisoner into Sallee, a Moorish port”.
The Andalusians, owing no loyalty to the Moorish sultans and practically impregnable within their kasbah perched high on a rocky bluff above the river, established their own pirate state, the Republic of the Bou Regreg. They rebuilt the Medina below the kasbah in a style reminiscent of their homes in the Spanish city of Badajoz, dealt in arms with the English and French, and even accepted European consuls, before the town finally reverted to government control under Moulay Rachid, and his heavy-handed successor, Moulay Ismail.
Unofficial piracy continued until 1829 when Austria took revenge for the loss of a ship by shelling Rabat and other coastal towns. From then until the French made it their colonial capital, moving it from the more conservative and harder to defend Fez, Rabat-Salé was very much a backwater. Upon independence in 1956, and perhaps also concerned about the influence wielded by Fez, Mohammed V decided to keep Rabat as the country’s capital. It’s taken a few generations, but the city now seems comfortable with this weighty responsibility and, of late, has begun to promote itself as more than just a residence for the diplomatic and governmental corps. A number of large-scale developments, including a revamped riverside promenade and a new tramway system, were pushed through specifically to benefit the local people.
Rabat carpets, woven with very bright dyes (which, if vegetable-based, will fade), are a traditional cottage industry in the Medina, though they’re now often made in workshops, one of which you can see on the kasbah’s plateforme. Some of the traditional carpets on sale, particularly in the shops, will have come from further afield. They are officially graded at a special centre just off Rue des Consuls – to the right as you climb towards the kasbah.
The upper, terraced end of Rue des Consuls, in Rabat’s Medina, is a centre for rug and carpet shops. On Monday and Thursday mornings, a souk for carpets new and old takes place here, and on the adjoining street of Souk es Sebbat.
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.
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 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.
The most ambitious of all Almohad buildings, the Hassan Mosque was, in its time, the second largest mosque in the Islamic world, outflanked only by the one in Smarra, Iraq. Though little remains today apart from its vast tower, or minaret, its sheer size still seems a novelty.
The mosque was begun in 1195 – the same period as Marrakesh’s Koutoubia and Seville’s Giralda – and was designed to be the centrepiece of Yacoub el Mansour’s new capital in celebration of his victory over the Spanish Christians at Alarcos, but construction seems to have been abandoned on El Mansour’s death in 1199. Its extent must always have seemed an elaborate folly – Morocco’s most important mosque, the Kairaouine in Fez, is less than half the Hassan’s size, but served a much greater population. Rabat would have needed a population of well over 100,000 to make adequate use of the Hassan’s capacity, but the city never really took off under the later Almohads and Merenids; when Leo Africanus came here in 1600, he found no more than a hundred households, gathered for security within the kasbah.
The mosque’s hall, roofed in cedar, was used until the Great Earthquake of 1755 (which destroyed central Lisbon) brought down its central columns. Never rebuilt, some of the columns have been partially restored and at least offer some sense of the building’s size. The imposing tower has remained standing, and dominates almost every view of the capital. It is unusually positioned at the centre rather than the northern corner of the rear of the mosque. Some 50m tall in its present state, it would probably have been around 80m if finished to normal proportions – a third again of the height of Marrakesh’s Koutoubia. Despite its apparent simplicity, it is arguably the most complex of all Almohad structures. Each facade is different, with a distinct combination of patterning, yet the whole intricacy of blind arcades and interlacing curves is based on just two formal designs. On the south and west faces these are the same darj w ktaf motifs as on Bab Oudaïa; on the north and east is the shabka (net) motif, an extremely popular form adapted by the Almohads from the lobed arches of the Cordoba Grand Mosque – and still in contemporary use.
The existence of so many ancient, walled Medinas in Morocco – intact and still bustling with life – is largely due to Marshal Hubert Lyautey, the first of France’s Resident Generals, and the most sympathetic to local culture. In colonizing Algeria, the French had destroyed most of the Arab towns, and Lyautey found this already under way when he arrived in Rabat in 1912, but, realizing the aesthetic loss – and the inappropriateness of wholesale Europeanization – he ordered demolition to be halted and had the Ville Nouvelle built outside the walls instead. His precedent was followed throughout the French and Spanish zones of the country, inevitably creating “native quarters”, but preserving continuity with the past. Lyautey left Morocco in 1925 but when he died in 1934 he was returned and buried in a Moorish monument in Rabat until 1961, when his body was “repatriated” to Paris.