We entered Africa via the port of Casablanca and fumbled our way onto a train to Rabat. On the line between the biggest city in Morocco and the capital of Morocco there were a few slums, with obvious poverty, but mostly just run-down apartment blocks with the roof covered by satellite dishes. The coastal area is surprisingly green and fertile, with tropical humidity rather than windswept wastelands, the thin strip of arable land that made the Maghreb a centre of civilisation.
Lydia used her blossoming French to get us to Chellah, an ancient ruin on the edge of Rabat. The site was used by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Romans from around 300 BCE with an important town of Sala Colonia being situated there. It was later abandoned, and used only as a necropolis by the Almohad dynasty. The site gained a revival in the 14th century, when the Merinid Sultans built mosques, madrassas, botanic gardens and tombs there, but it was abandoned again within 200 years. We had a wonderful guide, able to talk to us about every aspect of the site, from the Roman ruins to the Moorish walls, from Islamic art on the tombs to the functioning of a madrassa, from the plants in the now-wild gardens to the nesting storks covering the site (as an aside I asked him why there were so many storks, he said that this is common in Roman ruins, as the Romans tend to have picked sites near the river and leave behind large columns perfect for nesting, a clever explanation which so neatly recalled my experience of the single column remaining at Ephesus being topped by a nesting stork). A very insightful and intellectual meander across more than a thousand years of history.
After Chellah we entered Rabat proper to see the site of Hassan Tower. This brown block rises up from an empty square, an incomplete minaret from an incomplete mosque. The mosque was started in 1195 with the intent to be the world’s largest, but a change in dynasty left the site empty save for the minaret built to half the intended height and 200 transplanted Roman columns to form the pillars of the mosque. An interesting quirk is that the tower was built with wide ramps to allow a horseman to ride to the top to issue the call to prayer. Today a small mosque has been built on the other side of the site, standing without a minaret as it is not done to have two minarets competing with one another.
We caught the train back to Casablanca and walked down to Hassan II Mosque. The mosque was of course built for religious purposes, but as partially for the purpose of tourism, since Casablanca, despite having a name that rings with exotic appeal, has surprisingly little to attract tourists. The complex is enormous, the third largest mosque in the world (after Mecca and Medina) with room for 25,000, the tallest minaret (at 210 metres) and a courtyard able to fit another 80,000 people. The mosque sits out over the Atlantic Ocean, with a glass floor so that supplicants can see the ocean while praying. Construction took 13 years (1980-1993) with 2,500 construction workers and 10,000 artists, costing $800 million. The mosque is strikingly beautiful, with rich marble and elaborate detail in carvings and mosaics. Lydia and I spent hours there people watching. There were plenty of tourists, most Islamic, and more there for prayer. A heavily robed woman and her leather-jacket clad husband taking turns in posing in front of the doors. Young boys shuffling in play fights, young girls jumping in puddles. A teenage girl wearing a headscarf with her young man intimately hanging off her. Bored looking families trudging out the doors after prayer. A teenage guy sitting in a corner reading a book. A gaggle of girls, dressed to impress, talking to each other excitedly. Boys awkwardly watching the girls. Stern-eyed matriarchs guiding young children in the right direction. Men and women hanging around the exits after leaving, waiting to catch up with friends. I wish Islamophobes had the chance to watch the same scene with an open mind, to see that Muslims and Christians are no wiser or weirder than the other, just pretty much the same people going through the same motions the way they were taught to as children.