Rabat is the capitol of Morocco and its 7th largest city. The city was founded in the 12th century and received its name from it’s 2nd ruler, Caliph Yacoub el-Mansour, who named the city Ribāṭ al-Fatḥ (“Camp of Conquest”). It is home to the Hassan II Tower and Mosque (ruins), the Mausoleum of Mohammed V, and the Chellah Necropolis.
My first view of the Hassan Tower was through the partially ruined wall that surrounds the complex. The holes in the red wall accommodated scaffolding during the construction process, and were left open afterwards to allow for air circulation.
Caliph Yacoub el-Mansour started construction of the mosque in 1196, but he died 3 years later, and the mosque was never finished. What had been built up to that point was destroyed in the earthquake of 1755 (which destroyed much of Morocco), leaving only the unfinished minaret standing. Had the mosque been completed it would have had the capacity for 40,000 worshippers and would have been the second largest mosque in the world behind the Samarra in Iraq.
The Hassan Tower stands at about half of its planned height. There is an internal ramp which allowed donkeys to carry building materials during its construction. The ramps also allowed the muezzin to ride a horse to the top for the call to prayer. The tower is usually open and offers an excellent vantage point of the surrounding area, but was closed for construction when I was there.
In the 20th century, French and Moroccan archaeologists fully excavated the site and reconstructed what they could. In the 1960s, the ruins of the mosque were moved to accommodate the building of Mohammed V’s Mausoleum, which stands on the other side of the plaza.
Herein lies Mohammed V, the father of Moroccan Independence. Mohammed V conducted the first Friday prayers at this site after Morocco gained its independence in 1956.
The mausoleum was commissioned in 1962 by his son, Hassan II. It was designed by Vietnamese architect Cong Vo Toan, and was built by 400 Moroccan craftsmen using white Italian marble. Its stained glass windows and dome hail from France. The building was finished in 1971.
I believe this prayer room (pictured at top) may have been part of the original mosque. They were replacing the prayer rugs that day, so the doors were open and rolls of carpet were laying outside. Tempted as I was to walk in, I knew that I could not enter any working mosque in Morocco unless I was Muslim.
The pebble mosaic work surrounding this fountain near the Mohammed V Mausoleum courtyard reminded me of similar stone walkways at both the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, and the Alhambra Fortress in Spain. Upon arriving home, I learned that it’s a common paving style in hot climates. The stones are set on edge, and when water is dumped on them, the crevices hold the water for evaporative cooling.
The mausoleum complex is located in the Quartier Hassan, about 2km from the Rabat medina. It is open from dawn to dusk. Royal guards are mounted on horseback and stand at attention at the gates in full dress uniforms. Visitors are expected to dress respectfully (long clothes, covered shoulders and ideally a headscarf for women).
The Chellah Necropolis dates to 1339 and was built by Sultan Abou Yacoub Youssef as the site for a mosque and burial place for his wife. The outer wall was built sometime before 1351, possibly as a reconstruction of the original Roman walls. It became the burial place for the Merinid rulers, for which there are now at least 50 tombs. The site was destroyed during the 1755 earthquake that destroyed many historical sites in this region.
Originally the Roman Port of Sala, it must have been spectacular, with its gardens and buildings housing bakeries, hamams, artisans and royalty. The gardens were undergoing significant restoration while I was there in 2017. It houses over 70 storks in the biggest bird nests I have ever seen.
Travel tip: Bring a dirham or two to give to the woman who sits at the pond. She will reach into her basket for a boiled egg, which she peels and feeds the whites to the eels, and the yolks to the cats who are already circling her ankles in anticipation of a treat. Legend says that if you feed eggs to the eels, your chance of conceiving children is improved.
Additional photos of the necropolis, as well as other sites in Rabat including the fabulous riad I stayed in, can be viewed at Daveno Travels.
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Heather Daveno hails from Seattle, Washington, where she works as an office manager by day and a self taught textile artisan by night. In her spare time she is a “hobby historian” and is currently researching the female side of her family history for a book she plans to write, titled: “The Matriarch Diaries.”
You can see her current textile projects at August Phoenix Mercantile and her travels at Daveno Travels.