While in many people’s minds, Morocco (rightfully) elicits images of the exotic desert and mysterious kasbahs, in reality it’s so much more. Here’s a brief overview of some of Morocco’s great treasures, although this list only begins to scratch the surface.
Fez is the spiritual and culinary heart of Arabic Morocco. The city, one of the oldest medieval cities in the world, is one of the holiest in Islam. In fact, so precious is Fez’s history, architecture, and culture that the entire city has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is, simply, the soul of the Moroccan kingdom.
Fez was founded by Moulay Idriss, grandson of the prophet Mohammed in the 9th century, as the capital of his Islamic kingdom, and has served at various times as the capital of the country, and the principal residence of Morocco’s kings.
As important as its role in Morocco’s national origins, for more than a millennium Fez has been one of the lights of knowledge, learning, culture and spirituality. Its Kairyaoune University is argued to be the oldest in the world, dating to 850 c.e., and was one of the places responsible for keeping alive the light of ancient knowledge during Europe’s dark ages.
The medina of Fez, the largest in Morocco, houses some 60,000 residents, and is organized around trade. Fez is known for the extraordinary quality of its imperial crafts, such as fassi pottery, extraordinary leatherwork, and incredible complex zellij tile mosaics.
In the end, Fez is both sacred and mysterious, its spirit both evocative and elusive, even to those that know her well.
Marrakesh is the jewel of the south, one of the four Imperial cities of Morocco, and an important cultural and commercial center set at the foot of the High Atlas mountains.
Marrakesh is a city of vibrancy and solemnity, souk and square, palace and riad, mosque and garden. It is a city wrapped in faded red, ochre walls, and dominated by the Koutoubia mosque, visible from throughout the city.
It is also a crossroads – where ancient Arab culture of the valley and the Berber culture of the mountains meet. At its center is the deservedly famous Djemaa el Fna – a public space unlike any found in any city in Morocco, or the world. In the evenings, as dusk approaches, the square hums with the activity of musicians, food vendors, storytellers, snake charmers, the curious, the odd. The spirit in the square is one of mystery, magic and possibility.
The High Atlas
Long the province of the Berber tribes that fiercely resisted all efforts at external governance, the High Atlas are less than an hour’s drive from Marrakesh. Two mountain passes, the Tiz n’ Tichka, and the Tizn n Test, cut through these mountains, past breathtaking vistas, spectacular rock formations, and river valleys in their beauty rivaling, if not surpassing, any others in the world. Hikers and climbers from around the world come to the Atlas.
The people of these extraordinarily beautiful, romantic mountains were, even until quite recently, wholly untouched by modernity, still live largely as they have for millennia, in small, self-sufficient communities.
The Sahara Desert
“The Sahara is priest, mage, and confessor, a place so purely itself, we can finally see ourselves clearly.”
– William McBride
Sahara: the greatest desert in the world, rending Africa in two, with its endless mountains of sand, dunes that stretch beyond the imagination. Evenings of such clarity one can see the literal dome of the earth, and fall asleep counting the innumerable stars – one forgets how many there are. This is the land of camels, and nomads, of ancient songs and the great winds.
The Sahara is a challenge, not easily reached, but richly rewarding those who make the journey. To get there, one travels along ancient river routes, lined with oases, blooming, green lifelines that extend like veins into the heart of the desert. Along these ancient paths are constructed the ksar and kasbahs, mudbrick fortresses and towns that rise mysteriously out of the very earth, only to return, in time, like melting sandcastles.
Most famous of these is the Draa Valley, the land of a thousand kasbahs, starting point for trans-Saharan camel routes of old, when tens of thousands of camels would make the perilous, many-months journey across the sands to bring back treasures from the East.
If Fez is the spiritual heart of Arabic Morocco, then Meknes, her smaller twin, located a short distance to the west, is a center of Berber culture and learning. Like Fez, Meknes has also served as the capital of Morocco during a later point in the long dynastic struggles of its Arabic and Berber leaders.
Meknes occupies a plateau overlooking the Boufekrane River, and is less trafficked than Fez, giving the city a more laid-back and relaxed air.
The sights of Meknes are extraordinary in their own right.
More than 40 kilometers of walls, each more than 12 feet thick, encircle the city in three giant, concentric rings. Set in the walls are exquisite gates, including the Bab Mansour, widely considered to be the most beautiful gate in all of North Africa. One of the four sacred sites open to non-Muslims, the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail (the founder of Meknes) is located here, one of the most stunning sights in Morocco.
Once the capital of the Roman province of Mauritania, as the region was then known, the ruins of Volubilis are near-perfectly preserved, providing a clear window into Roman urban planning and design. The entire site was perfectly preserved for thousands of years, until some of the marble was removed to build nearby Meknes. What remains is still some of the most stunning Roman ruins outside of Rome, with exquisitely impressive mosaics preserved, literally where they were built.
Nestled along the southwestern Atlantic coast of Morocco, Essaouiera is a beautiful, white and quite coastal town, founded in the 16th century as a trading post for the Portuguese. It is located amidst some of the most spectacular seashore; virtually untouched beaches lie only a few miles away from the heart of the town.
Now home to 50,000, Essaouira is one of the most beautiful cities in Morocco. There are few things in Morocco more pleasurable than a stroll along its whitewashed streets and crenellated ramparts, looking out over the Atlantic ocean. And given its location, it boasts some of the very best seafood in the country.
Essaouira is also home to an annual festival of Gnaoua music, a powerful tribal music wildly popular throughout Morocco.
In the North of the country, nestled in the Rif mountains, and a short trip from Tangier is the small picturesque town of Chefchaouen. Founded in 1492 by Moorish exiles from Spain, the town is decorated in a mixture of whitewash and every shade of blue, from pastel sky tones to deep indigos. The effect is dreamlike, making this an extremely romantic place to rest for a few days.
Rabat and Casablanca
The completely modern city of Casablanca, Morocco’s industrial center, bears little resemblance to its famous movie namesake. (No scenes for the famous film were even filmed here!) Like any other major city in the world, Casablanca is filled with bustle and energy, and most flights in and out of Morocco travel through its busy airport.
Casablanca is deservedly famous for the Hassan II Mosque, one of the largest in the world, and one of the few mosques open to non-Muslims in the country. It is one of Morocco’s most extraordinarily beautiful statements to faith.
Rabat, the great capital of Morocco, is unlike any other city in the country. It is a country that reveals itself slowly, and one gets the sense that it holds secrets of great value – and indeed it does. For as imposing as the Royal Palace gates are, and as beautiful as the city’s great gardens, the real treasures are hidden from view.
Rabat’s treasures include wonders wonders both ancient and modern, from the ruins of Chellah to the Mausoleum of the great King Mohamed V, who brought independence to Morocco and is credited with saving Morocco’s Jews from Nazi deportation during World War II.