Capital in blue and white
Rabat opens up only slowly to you. On the first day of your first arrival, you will discover that there is another atmosphere here, and compared to other Moroccan cities people are a bit shy and don’t start talking to you easily. Somehow, they don’t care about you.
Walking your lonely walks around town, the many gems of the capital of a magic country reveal themselves to you. And it isn’t always the things that are first seen that will keep your eyes entertained.
Modern Rabat is clean and open, perhaps a bit too open during the summer heat. But around it, there are both old Muslim quarters as well as beautiful remains from all periods of Moroccan history.
Being the capital, it has the actual royal palace and the Kings’ mausoleum. Its main attraction, however, is the weird Hassan tower, while Kasbah de Oudaïas is on the shortlist of having Morocco’s most picturesque streets. Almost mystical and very beautiful is the Chellah.
The royal palace lies right in the heart of Rabat, and its area in front of it is open to the public.
As a matter of fact, you can get quite close to the real palace before the guards start to feel uneasy. But quite honestly, what you see is only moderately impressive – the real beauty begins is behind the walls.
Right across from the Royal Palace, the King’s own mosque stands. Neither old nor terribly big, it still offers a fine example of Islamic architecture. Between it and the Royal Palace, there is nothing but the wide square.
The Almohad ruler, Yaqub al-Mansur, designed the minaret to become 80 meters tall, with a unique design for each of its facades. When he died in 1199, somehow the whole building process came to a dramatic halt. The minaret was then 50 meters high, the same size as it has today.
The mosque came into use, having its columns completed, and with a cedar roof. The gigantic earthquake of 1755, which also destroyed central Lisbon, destroyed the structure to the condition that it now is in.
The size of the mosque appears to have been quite out of proportion to the size of its city. Since it could receive up to 20,000 worshippers at a time, the city ought to have been one of 100,000 or more. Only in very modern times did Rabat climb to such a level. A few centuries after the building came to a halt, Rabat was merely a village.
Inaugurated in 1967, the mausoleum first housed independent Morocco’s first king, Muhammad 5 (who died 1961). Later, the second king, Hassan 2, and his brother, Moulay Abdallah have been buried here too.
The mausoleum is built with the finest materials and with the best craftsmen of its time. Yet, fascinatingly enough, it is designed by a Vietnamese architect. There is plenty to take in on a walkthrough, and is open to non-Muslims even if it has the status of being a Muslim shrine. Admission is free.
One of the more memorable parts of the Chellah is the old gate, with parts dating back 800 years in time.
Note the corbels in each corner under the towers, which is a central element to Merenid architecture.
The gate is striking with its location – you have to leave Rabat’s walls, and cross through an area of wild plants and flowers, while you can see the valley and river below Rabat growing in front of you.
The gate and walls are in good condition, but they owe a lot to a large number of modifications and repair rounds through the centuries.
Chellah: The garden
What appears to be just a luscious garden today is really the ground of ancient Rabt, or Bou Regreg as it was known. It was abandoned back in 1154 and was for some centuries used as a royal burial ground.
The garden today hides almost all of its past, but this s still a place that most certainly merits all the visits it gets by itself. The bushes and trees come in all colors and all around you, there is a continuous noise of birds.
Chellah: The sanctuary
The sanctuary is originally two buildings named after Merenid sultans: the 13th-century Mosque of Abu Youssef and the 14th-century Zawiyya of Abu al-Hassan.
Much of the original structure now lies in ruins, especially the mosque has fared poorly. Of the two minarets originally flying above the sanctuary, only one of the zawiyya remains. Thankfully, it is in very nice condition, with much of the original zellij mosaics intact. Its top has since long been taken over by storks, building their huge nests. Storks are in Moroccan culture considered a sign of good fortune. Something that may be called a miniature minaret tops the real minaret; it seems almost to have been added for the storks.
The mosque has a few graves lain out on the ground (see lower left photo), but the tomb of Abu Youssef has not been identified.
The Oudaïa gate dates back to the Almohad period and was erected in the same period as the Hassan tower (around 1200).
It is believed that the purpose of this gate, was ceremonial. Its style is one of great simplicity and effective contrasts. The gate expands through three levels before the circular shape is broken, and the squareness of the gate takes control. It is generally believed that the shapes of this, and other, gates are there to take control over your eyes and your total experience, but there is little symbolical value to find here.
This gate was more than just a huge door, it also has served in the function of an official building. It has been both a courthouse and staterooms. As you enter the gate, you will find yourself in one of Rabat’s most picturesque quarters.
Kasbah des Oudaïas
The Kasbah des Oudaïa is a beautiful and quiet spot in every increasingly busy Rabat. The standard of the streets and the houses is far above what you would expect to find in most other old cities in Morocco.
Everything evolves around white houses with blue painted parapets. It definitely has the air of just having been painted. There are very few people walking through the streets, so chances are that you will have it all more or less to yourself.
Far less impressive than most other medina’s of large Moroccan towns, the one of Rabat still has its share of stories to tell. The quarters were built by Muslim refugees from Badajoz, following the total Christian takeover of Spain. They tried to reconstruct as much as possible from their old life. Very much of this has survived into modern times.
Houses resemble much what is found in Tetouan and Chefchaouen. They are part stone and part whitewash. Doors are often grand in scale and dark-wood studded.
The medina is only partly aiming at tourists and seems to be rather on the affordable side, making Rabat a good place to do shopping of Moroccan souvenirs.
The platform view at the very northern end of the Kasbah des Oudaïas is a popular destination for locals and visitors out on a stroll.
After passing through the nice streets of the kasbah you end up in a place where you have a view over the Atlantic Ocean, the town beach, the harbor, the river and the neighbor town of Sale.
The Andalucian Gardens are not as old as they might give the impression of being — they belong to the 20th century and were laid out be the French colonial authorities. But despite that historical background, they do have a distinct non-French feeling today, especially with the dominance of Moroccans here.
The gardens have another attraction, the Museum of Moroccan Arts. While the indoor exhibition is laid out like most Moroccan museums, there are some nice arrangements with colorful and traditional antique doors in the walls near the entrance to the gardens.
Once again, the honor is General Lyautey’s. Being the Resident-General of French Morocco from 1912, he came just about in time to stop the ongoing demolition of the medina. Instead, he ordered the new quarters of Rabat to be built to its south; the north was already taken by the Oued Bou Regreg river.
The result of Rabat is highly successful. The French quarters are quite beautiful, very popular, and lively. Gardens and cafes dominate all across this friendly city. Through the new quarters run the Avenue Muhammad 5, almost parallel to the Almohad wall. Still, the scale everything has been built by is not that to match the capital of a country with a huge city like Casablanca.