Marvelling at Morocco’s modern cities
Our first full day in Morocco and we love the place already! The people are so friendly, the food is fantastic and the scenery ain’t bad either. To top it all off the streets are clean; we are able to walk down the streets unharassed by touters and hawkers; drivers seem to grasp the concept of road rules and speed limits; and the roads (so far) have been awesome. After 2 weeks in Egypt, being in such a civilised place is leaving us with a bit of culture shock! Tagines, mosques, ancient ruins and beautiful monuments – that’s what our first day in Morocco was all about.
We arrived into Casablanca’s Mohammed V International Airport late yesterday and saw little of the city last night. This morning however we set out bright and early to see Casablanca’s most famous sight: the Hassan II Mosque. Named after the country’s late king, this immense mosque is one of the largest in the world.
Completed in 1993, the mosque was built on a promontory that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean. It can accomodate over 100,000 worshipers – 25,000 inside and a further 80,000 in the mosque’s courtyard. At 210m, its minaret is the world’s tallest. The mosque is also beautiful. The repeating geometric patterns wrought of tiles were especially stunning – reminiscent of a captivating, multicoloured fractal pattern.
Located on the Atlantic coast, Casablanca is Morocco’s largest city of Morocco; it is also the country’s economic and business capital and one of the country’s most modern cities. With its sky scrapers, wide boulevards and shopping malls, Casablanca looked more like a modern European city than an African port town! Talking to Tariq*, our guide, we learnt that the city is the largest port city in North Africa. Apparently Casablanca has been an important sea port for thousands of years, with the Phoenecians, Romans, Arabs, Portuguese, Spanish, French and Berbers all using its coastal location to their advantage. It was the Spanish that gave the city its name – naming it after the whitewashed homes built by local fishermen.
*We’re touring Morocco on a private tour organised by a friend in Australia who used to live here and now runs tours here from Australia on a regular basis. We got an amazing deal on the tour and basically have our own guide and driver for the 3 weeks we’re here – it’s AWESOME!
For most people the city is known only as the backdrop against which the 1942 film by the same name was set. Casablanca (the movie) was set during the years Morocco was a French colony (1912-1956). The movie romanticises a time in Moroccon history that Tariq says the locals do not remember fondly. His grandmother was part of the underground Moroccon resistance that fought to over-throw the French colonialists and from what he told us, the war for independence was a bloody one. The success of the fight for independence saw the modern state of Morocco established, with King Mohamed V at the helm. Part of the Alaouite Dynasty, who have ruled Morocco since 1631, Mohamed V was much loved and is now commonly referred to here as the “King of Independence”.
His son, Hassan II, was dubbed the “King of Peace” due to wide-reaching efforts made during his rule towards securing peaceful international relations for Morocco. And the current king, Mohamed VI, has ruled since 1999 (when Hassan II passed away) and is commonly known as the “King for the Poor” due to all the social reforms he has put in place to improve the standard of living and quality of life for all Moroccons – not just the rich ones. Some of the projects initiated by Mohamed VI include the provision of subsidised housing for slum-dwellers, introduction of new divorce and women’s rights laws, and improvement of general infrastructure (e.g. electricity, water, sewerage, roads) in some of the poorest parts of the country. The results of this multi-generational enlightened rule are apparent to us after even just 2 days – Morocco is thriving at a time when other countries in North Africa and the Middle East are struggling. Certainly there are still improvements to be made in terms of sanitation, education and healthcare, but from what we’ve seen so far, Morocco is on the up! As we drove the 100km from Casablanca to Rabat we saw lots of evidence of the changes Morocco is experiencing – new factories, new apartment buildings, new roads and lots of farms. The good impressions continued when we arrived in Rabat – Morocco’s capital city and political centre.
In Rabat we headed straight to the ruins of Sala. Sala was a Roman port city built at the mouth of the Bou Regreg River around 200BC. It’s believed the city was built atop an older Phoenician town, though there’s not much left of either city today. It was still interesting seeing how the various civlisations have left their mark on Morocco’s landscape. It was also funny to see how many of the ruined towers are now used by storks for nesting – we saw dozens of stork nests around the ruins!
From Sala we drove into town to see the Hassan Tower – the minaret of an incomplete mosque built in 1195. The tower was intended to be the largest minaret in the world and its mosque was intended to be the world’s largest. In 1199 however, Sultan Yacoub al-Mansour, whoc comissioned the building of the mosque, died and construction on stopped. The tower reached 44m, about half of its intended 86m height, and the rest of the mosque was also left incomplete, with only the beginnings of several walls and 200 columns being constructed.
Just nearby we saw the Alaouite Mausoleum which contains the tombs of Mohamed V (the King of Independence) and his son Hassan II (the King of Peace). The building was beautiful, both inside and outside and obviously reflects the respect the Morrocon people have for their kings.
Finally, we headed across to Rabat’s 12 th century kasbah (translation = fortress). Built by the ruling dynasty* at the time (the Almohads), the kasbah is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a great example of Medieval Moroccon architecture. The houses within the kasbah are still inhabited and it was great wandering through the narrow alleys past the white and blue houses. We even got invited into the home of a local elder for a cup of Moroccon mint tea and a chat. He was lovely – very passionate about Morocco and what an amazing country this is, and keen to ensure we felt welcome here. His home was tiny (just 4 rooms clustered around a small central courtyard), but clean, tidy and obviously loved. Tea with a local? Totally awesome!
*Moroccon history seems quite complicated – there have been so many foriegn civilisations who tried to establish themselves here over the centuries (e.g. Carthagians, Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Ottomans, Portugese, Spanish, French), and even when the Berbers ruled their own nation, there were power plays and changes in ruling dynasties. The result seems to be a tapestry of history as varied and fascinating as Morocco’s landscape.
To top off an awesome day we had the best dinner – 2 delicious tagines (translation = slow cooked meat and vegetable stew). Shane had a lamb and prune tagine and I had a chicken, sultana, olive and lemon one. We generally don’t go for dishes that contain cooked fruit (even pineapple on a pizza is just WRONG), but the whole sweet/sour/spicy combination of the tagines was great! Can’t wait for tomorrow so we can see (and taste) more of Morocco!
Last, but certainly not least, we want to wish my favourite little brother a most happy birthday! Hope you had an amazing day Rix! We’re thinking of you and even had an extra cup of Moroccan mint tea in your honour…..