In my last post, I left you standing at the crossroads of history — among the vineyards of Jerez de la Frontera, to be exact — contemplating the centuries of conquest and upheaval in the Iberian peninsula, as well as the flowering of science, astronomy, architecture, and medicine that occurred during periods of calm.
In case you were wondering what happened to the Moors of Al-Andalus following the end of the Reconquista in 1492, many of them fled across the Strait of Gibraltar into the Maghreb, what is now modern-day Morocco.
At its narrowest point, the Strait of Gibraltar (the English name is a derivation of the Arabic ‘Jabal Tariq’ — Tariq’s mountain — named for the military commander responsible for the Islamic conquest of the Iberian peninsula in 711-718 AD) separates Europe from Africa by only 14 km and, these days, the crossing can be accomplished in as little as 35 minutes by fast ferry between Tarifa and Tangier.
On a clear day, it’s theoretically possible to see both Europe and Africa at the midpoint of the crossing, something I hoped to witness myself on two different ferry crossings when I stood out on deck in a strong wind, waiting — in vain — for both coasts to shimmer on the horizon. A hopelessly romantic confluence of geography in my mind at the time, but it was thrilling enough to see the Northern coast of the Africa rise into view over the blue waters of the strait…
After disembarking in Tangier, you can board a train and continue your journey in the footsteps of the fleeing Moors — destination: Rabat. A fitting place to reconnoitre and connect the strands of history. Founded in the 12th century as a ribāṭ (fortress), from which the city takes its name, Rabat was built by the first Almohad ruler, Abd Al-Mu’min, as a launching pad for sending troops to Spain in the ongoing skirmishes.
Under Almohad rule, the imposing Kasbah des Oudaias was built on a hill overlooking the Atlantic and the mouth of the Bou Regreg river, and the construction of a mosque got underway (commissioned by the Almohad Sultan, Yacoub al Mansour, in 1195), which — had it been completed — would have been the world’s largest. The unfinished mosque and minaret (Hassan Tower), with its expansive views over the Atlantic Ocean, is an evocative place to explore in this imperial coastal city.
Kasbah des Oudaias – Rabat, Morocco
Hassan Tower – Rabat, Morocco
Just outside the modern city of Rabat, the ruins of Chellah bake under a hot sun. The Almohads converted the remains of this Roman port city (Sala Colonia) into a necropolis. While under Merenid rule, Sultan Abou el Hassan (1331-1351) added monuments and the impressive main gate to the walled enclosure. Pass through the gate into a secret garden of wildflowers and vines growing among the ruins, the most picturesque of which is a tiled minaret, now the province of storks who have cleverly commandeered the perch as their own nesting site.
What better reminder of the inevitable rise and fall of the powers that be, than to wander through these atmospheric ruins on a spring afternoon, accompanied by the chirp and rustle of the bird life whose sanctuary this has become.
Rabat declined considerably after the Almohads lost control of Spain, as well as much of its territory in Africa. Following the Reconquista, an influx of fleeing Moors helped to revive the city, with the original medina built by refugees from Badajoz in Spain, who brought their architectural style along with them.
In its modern incarnation, Rabat is a tidy and cosmopolitan administrative capital, a city of gardens and flowering trees, as well as home to the country’s ruling monarch, Mohammed VI. Less well known and visited than its more glamorous (and chaotic) sister cities, Fez and Marrakesh, it’s well worth going off the beaten path to spend some time wandering the compact medina, to peruse the carpet-sellers’ wares along the Rue des Consuls, and to partake of mint tea and pastries at the Café Maure in the Kasbah des Oudaias with its picturesque view across the river of Salé (established by the Phoenicians, Salé is a much older city than Rabat and — in the 17th century — a haven for the notorious Barbary pirates).
As the heat of the day subsides and the streets fill with strolling locals, cross the boulevard from the pretty train station (Rabat Gare) and have a drink on the terrace of the Balima Hotel as the sun goes down. I can’t think of a better place to contemplate the tides of history — and watch the world go by.