Casablanca

My introduction to Morocco begins in Casablanca, the largest city in the country with about 31 million people. The city was originally Berber, and was destroyed at least twice over the past 8-9 centuries. In addition to Arabic and Berber, we will also find French, Spanish and a smattering of other languages spoken here. Morocco gained its independence in 1956, although its cultural history traces its lineage to pre-Roman times.

I and the 3 other members of our group start a walking tour of Casablanca with Nezha Sebti, our local guide. Nezha leads us down Boulevard Mohammed V, which slices through the city from its center to the waterfront, past a number of colonial era and Art Deco landmarks, including the Rialto Cinema, still in operation. Josephine Baker and Edith Piaf both performed here. We pause at the Main Post Office to admire its stunning blue and green mosaic tile facade — an example of “Mauresque” architecture, a blending of Moorish elements, European Art Deco and Art Nouveau, which gives Casablanca its distinctive architectural flavor. The style dates back to the French Protectorate period (1906 – 1930s). We end our walking tour at Rick’s Cafe, inspired by the film Casablanca which was actually shot entirely at Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank, California.

Blue and green mosaic tile facade
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

The next morning, we visit the buildings that will make up the meat of this article.

Architectural aesthetics of buildings in the Arab world help to define the practical space, with dramatic gateways and enclosed courtyards. A central fountain in the courtyard offers respite from the heat and a place for contemplation. “Often paved or tiled in mosaics, with walls and pillars supporting a gallery of carved stucco or wood, the courtyard is open to the sky and the rooms that look out onto [the courtyard].” Source: Insight Guides: Morocco, pg. 89.

The Municipal Building, located on the Muhammad V Square, is the City Hall for Casablanca. It was built between 1928-37 and strikes me as a miniature version of the Lion Courtyard from the Alhambra (which I had visited on a previous trip to Granada in Spain). It consists of three internal courtyards with fountains surrounded by archways. Wikipedia says there is a Venetian inspired clock tower that escaped my notice.

Casablanca City Hall
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

The building is crawling with police today because the King is in residence, so I take care to aim my camera away from them, especially noting the heavily guarded door leading to some apparently very important place.

Heavily guarded door
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

As we are leaving, I noted the interesting combination of both banana and evergreen trees planted in the outer courtyard. There is a souk nearby, where I make my first purchase of traditional Moroccan clothing, to replace the contents of my carefully packed suitcase that never arrived when we landed.

A short drive out of the city brings us to the Hassan II Mosque, the largest in Morocco and the 7th largest in the world. Building began in 1989 to honor King Hassan II on his 60th birthday, and was finished in 1993, funded by mostly volunteer contributions and payroll deductions. The building was designed by Michelle Pinseau, a French architect, and built by 35,000 Moroccan craftsmen from cedar and marble from in-country sources. The minaret is 210 meters, making it the 2nd tallest religious building in the world. The complex includes a library, museum, steam baths, a conference center and a madrasa (a university for Koranic studies). The building has a retractable roof and the prayer room is said to have a glass floor that extends over the sea and can accommodate 25,000 worshippers.

Hassan II Mosque
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

In Morocco, only Muslims can enter working mosques, so we aren’t able to go inside (when I visited in 2017), but I explored as much of the exterior as we had time for. We also got to watch workmen doing restoration work on both a fountain and the mosaic work over one of the side doors. (Guided tours for non-Muslims are now available in several languages, from Saturday through Friday from about 9 AM – 3 PM. Check for schedule changes during Ramadan. Head coverings are not required but please cover your shoulders and knees, and remove your shoes upon entry.)

Hassan II Mosque
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

We walk from the mosque and to another plaza where the madrasa is located. I commented to Doug on the plantings which included palm, snake plant, and surprisingly, prickly pear. Doug said that prickly pear was brought here from Spain during the time of Columbus, and that it’s used throughout rural Morocco as organic fencing.

We end our visit in the Hassan II Mosque Museum which displayed architectural pieces that were not included in the mosque, and examples of the craftwork that we would see up close and personal throughout this trip. Inaugurated in October 2012, the museum dates back to 1989-90 when master craftsmen presented King Hassan II with samples they designed for each traditional Moroccan art, including carved wood, stone and plaster, as well as copper and mosaic work.

Samples of Moroccan art
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

Of all the displays, I found most interesting, showing a detailed progression of carved plasterwork from top to bottom. It was especially interesting to learn the process, after seeing the finished fretwork on the exterior of the Hassan II Mosque.

Plaster in progress
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

For more information about the Hassan II complex, please visit https://www.fmh2.ma/en.

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Heather Daveno

Heather Daveno is from Seattle, Washington, where she works as an office manager by day and a self taught hatmaker by night. She spent most of her pandemic lockdown in 2020-2021 creating 800 masks for the Masks4Millions project.

In a normal year, her travels inspire her hats, which she handcrafts from reclaimed textiles and found objects. You can find her hats and masks for sale at August Phoenix Hats. She is currently reissuing her original journals as “Director’s Cuts” with expanded text and previously unpublished photos, which you can read for free at Daveno Travels.