Incredible Islamic sites
With over a thousand years of Islamic influence in the region, Morocco is home to some of the most amazing architectural sites in the Mediterranean world. Morocco’s buildings reflect the country’s diverse cultural and historical makeup: from the mudbrick fortresses of Berbers desert clans to the arches and tiling of Moorish Spain, and everything in between.
Ben Youssef Medersa
Be sure not to miss one of Morocco’s oldest and most splendid Quranic learning centers. Built in Marrakech by the Marinids in the 14th century, it was once the largest madrasa in all of North Africa. This magnificent structure features mosaic tiled walls, hand sculpted plasterwork and ornate woodwork. As you enter, the inscription over the archway reads: “You who enter my door, may your highest hopes be exceeded”.
This stunning marble and gold mausoleum chamber was constructed by the Saadian Sultan Ahmed al Mansour to house his tomb. Located just south of the famous Kasbah Mosque, the tombs comprise the interments of sixty members of the Saadi dynasty. The mausoleum is composed of three rooms, the most famous of which is the Hall of Twelve Columns. Amazingly, the tombs were only discovered in 1917, and have been a major attraction ever since.
At the heart of the beautiful mountain city of Fez sits Qarawiyyin, a huge working mosque that services an almost constant stream of worshippers. Its unmistakable green roof can be seen from the picturesque hills surrounding the city. Qarawiyyin is one of the world’s oldest universities and has historically been a major intellectual center of the Islamic Mediterranean. While you’re here, be sure to wander over to the Chaouwara Tanneries, where craftsman demonstrate a leather dying process that dates back over 500 years.
Hassan II Mosque
Known colloquially as the ‘Casablanca Hajj’, the Hassan II Mosque is the largest in Morocco and thought to be the third largest in the world after those in Mecca and Medina. It features the tallest minaret in the world, at 210m, and can accommodate 25,000 worshippers. In contrast to many of the other famous mosques in Morocco, the Hassan II was constructed relatively recently, in 1993. To see the interior, visitors need to be ‘decently and respectfully dressed’, though women are not required to wear a headscarf.
The Alaouite sultans have long maintained a palace in Rabat, which has since become the capital of modern day Morocco. The palace, known as Dar al-Makhzen, is the current official residence of King Mohammed VI. The building is surrounded by French-style landscape gardens, flowerbeds, antique canons and a central fountain.
This ancient minaret of an unfinished mosque in Rabat is another essential stop on any tour of Morocco. Begun in 1195, the tower was intended to be the tallest minaret in the world, but when the Sultan died, construction ground to a halt. The tower is ascended by ramps instead of stairs, which would have allowed the muezzin to ride a horse to the top to issue the call the prayer.
Marrakesh is an absolutely essential stop on any trip to Morocco. This enchanting city is a feast for the senses. From Marrakesh’s many rooftop terraces you can glimpse the magnificent Atlas Mountains and the spectacular Koutoubia Mosque. Its famous medina is a dazzlingly colourful maze of alleyways and shops. The labyrinthine streets are living monument to over a thousand years of urban history on the western edge of the Islamic world. Load up on delicious Moroccan foods, sample exotic African spices, marvel at the incredible silks and pottery and listen to hypnotic North African music. Traditional arab markets, called souks, are organised into different commodities: spices, silks, antiques, musical instruments, olives.
Marrakesh is the most important former imperial city of Morocco. Inhabited by Berbers since Neolithic times, the city itself was founded in 1062 by the Almoravid king Yusuf ibn Tashfin. The city’s famous red walls were built in 1122 using red sandstone, and Marrakesh is sometimes called the ‘Red City’ or the ‘Ochre City’. After a period of decline, it was reestablished as the capital of the kingdom by the wealthy Saadian sultans, who embellished it with beautiful buildings like the El Badi Palace. The city also became popular with Sufi pilgrims in the 17th century, who travelled to see Morocco’s seven patron saints.
Most Westerners know Casablanca as the setting for the legendary Hollywood romantic film of the same name starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. In reality, it is the place to go to if you want to feel like a local rather than a tourist. As Morocco’s most populous city, its charms are often hidden, and it pays to spend some quality time mixing with the locals. Architecturally, Casablanca ticks nearly every box: Islamic, Gothic, Art Deco, modern. Many of the city’s historic villas have been converted into art galleries and museums. Cinephiles will want to check out Rick’s Cafe, the real life version of the club made famous by Casablanca.
Before the modern city existed, Casablanca was once used as a base for pirates trying to raid Christian ships. The Portuguese eventually destroyed the base in 1468, before returning a few decades later to build a town they called Casa Branca, meaning ‘White House’. They abandoned it a few centuries later, but an Alawi sultan rebuilt the town in the late 18th century, and French colonists later turned it into Morocco’s main port city. It grew rapidly in the 20th century and is now the commercial capital of Morocco.
For over 1000 years, the inland city of Fez has been the spiritual heartland of Islamic Morocco. It is situated at the crossroads of all the important cities of the region. The old city, known as the medina or ‘Fez al-Bali’, is a web of narrow streets and alleys, mosques, madrasas and tanneries. As you wander through this maze of culture, the smell of incense, coffee and spices fills the air. Street sellers peddle their immaculate wood carvings from narrow carts and souks.
Morocco’s charming capital is far less touristy than some of the country’s bigger cities. Founded by Almohads in the 12th century as a fortified monastery from which to wage their holy war in Spain, it later became the home of many displaced Andalusian Moors who had been driven out of Spain. The old town hugs the coast, surrounded by its ancient fortifications. When the Almohads fell into decline, losing their Iberian and African territories, the city’s economic power shifted to Fez.
Rabat and the neighbouring town of Sale united in the 1627 to form the short-lived Republic of Bou Regreg, a city state run by Barbary pirates. The pirates, also known as corsairs, attacked Christian ships in order to capture slaves for the Ottoman slave trade. As such, the Atlantic coastline of Morocco is often referred to as the Barbary Coast. Various attempts by the Alaouite sultans to control the pirates failed, and the Republic did not fall until 1818.
Tangier lies on the southern side of the Straits of Gibraltar and acts as Europe’s gateway to Africa. It’s proximity to Europe has created cultural and architectural tradition unique from the rest of the country. The city’s formerly seedy reputation as a place for hustlers and eccentrics has given way to buzzing, confident modern metropolis at the crossroads of two continents.
Tangier’s history reflects its strategic importance: Berbers, Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Portuguese, Ottomans and French have all laid claim to this bustling port. The city is even recognised in Greek mythology, and the Caves of Hercules are an unmissable stop for travellers.