Morocco & Andalusia: Rabat & Casablanca
While the political and the economic capitals of Morocco lie but an hour’s drive away from each other, they are separated literally by centuries of history, Rabat founded in the 11th C. as a camp of monastic warriors (though on the site of a 6th-C. B.C. Phoenician settlement, later built up by Rome), while Casablanca only dates to the French era in the early 20th C.
Rabat’s prominence first came to fore at the end of the 12th C., when Yaqub al Mansour, the then sultan of the Berber Almohad dynasty, decided to build it up as his main center of power, as it lay roughly half-way from Marrakech, the capital of the southern domains, to Seville, from where the Almohads ruled over Spain. For over 7 centuries after Mansour’s death the center of power shifted from Rabat to the city of Salé, on the other side of the Bou Regreg river. Between the 16th and early 19th C. both cities were an infamous hub of Barbary Coast pirates, initially acting out of revenge for being exiled from their “paradise” of Andalusia, later turned “corsairs” under the sultans’ patronage, enriching the royal coffers. (George Washington’s appeals to the sultan to stop pirate attacks on American ships resulted in a treaty of friendship, the longest we have with any nation.) The power didn’t shift back to Rabat until the 1950s, when it was again made capital of the Kingdom.
What to do
Rabat’s has two outstanding early examples of the purely Moroccan architectural style developed under the Almohad dynasty: the Oudaïa Gate, a “reference” of Almohad art, and the unfinished minaret of the Hassan mosque, meant to have been the world’s largest in the 12th C. The Gate takes you to the Oudaïa Casbah, the city’s most picturesque spot, with its cobblestoned alleys winding between whitewashed buildings and blue doors. Within there is an Andalusian-style garden a well as a good museum of Moroccan crafts (albeit opening hours are fickle). In the early 14th C. the Merinids (see Fes) built the Chellah citadel atop the former Roman town of Sala and one can still see some of the Roman vestiges as well as the ruins of the Merinids’ mosque and tombs, with enough detail preserved to marvel at their former intricate decor. Rabat has the country’s sole archaeological museum, with artifacts covering paleontology to the Roman period, including a magnificent bronze head of Roman governor Juba II. There is also Morocco’s sole zoo, where you can see the indigenous lions that roamed the Atlas mountains into the 1950s, and, a half-hour North, the Jardins Exotiques, a vast, once private garden with plant species from Asia, Africa and the Americas.
Salé across the river is an overlooked gem, primarily because it is overlooked (most national guides don’t even know their way around!). In its center is a beautiful 14th-C. Koranic school, where you’ll likely be the sole visitor, while to reach it you pass native bazaars empty of tourists and souvenir shops, one of the few experiences of an authentic Moroccan town.
Casablanca, from an architectural point of view, has a smattering of French-era art deco buildings scattered downtown, while its most majestic structure is the recent Hassan II mosque, Africa’s largest. Its decor might not be the most intricate but its dimensions astounding (the prayer hall accommodates 25,000 worshippers!, more than any cathedral). Guided tours only 4 times a day. The city also has worthy Jewish sites, most notably the Museum of Moroccan Judaism, the sole institution of its kind in the Arab world. But what attracts most to the city are its superb eateries, primarily for fresh seafood, and naturally the recently opened Rick’s Café Casablanca.