5 years, 9 months ago
A young country that’s indescribably ancient, Morocco is fascinating and exotic and inescapably lovely. Not too much of surprise to find so many influences and cultures clustered across its landscape, Morocco has always been much coveted. Before Independence in the mid 1970’s the country had variously been home to the Ancient Romans, the French, the Portuguese and – in a less proprietorial fashion – some of the world’s most glamorous and famous writers, artists, designers and bon viveur.
The challenge for UNESCO in Morocco has always been to balance their commitment to protect and preserve with respect for the fact that most of the country’s ancient and historic sites are still living and working environments for many Moroccans. The magnificent Medinas, mosques and monuments don’t exist in aspic; they’re at the heart of the country’s culture and commerce.
So if staring in silent awe at perfectly restored architecture and art defines UNESCO World Heritage for you, I really feel you should give Morocco a chance to challenge your perceptions, you’ll be enthralled.
credit: Chico Boomba
Visitors to the ancient Roman colonial city of Volubilis often talk about feeling a sense of privilege as they wander through the spectacular ruins. Lying between Fes and Rabat, Volubilis covers over 100 acres and is a fascinating mix of grand civic architecture and intricate domestic detail. It’s beautifully preserved – all the more amazing because it’s withstood several cultures, dozens of centuries, earthquake, desecration and a fair bit of heavy handed excavation. Prosaic bathhouses and laundries and lavatories and hypocausts contrast starkly with the soaring columns of temples, huge triumphal arches, mighty paved streets and elaborate and astonishingly intact mosaics. Whether it’s down to the immensity of Volubilis or simply awe, inspired by its age and antiquity, the city always carries an air of serenity and peace even at its busiest. If you have time, you should visit twice: during the day to explore the ruins and at sunset or sunrise simply to stare.
Historic City of Meknes
credit: Gerry Balding
The historic city of Meknes lies between Middle Atlas and the Massif of Zerhoun. I admit I’ve paraphrased a bit for effect, but the otherworldly sound of its location describes this monumental UNESCO site perfectly. Immense fortified ramparts up to 15 metres high seem to stretch round the city for miles. Enter through the huge ‘Babel Mansour’ and enclosed within are 25 mosques, 10 hammams, granaries, ancient inns, palaces and homes. Magnificent Islamic architecture is intricate with symbols and signs, tiles and carving, minarets and towers, arches and gentle, lovely gardens and courtyards. Later 17th century buildings show a strong European influence. And the criss-crossing, winding, twisting streets snaking throughout the entire city tie everything to the present day with the exotic and normal business of lively trade and noisy, vigorous North African life.
Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou, Ounila Valley
From Gladiator to Game of Thrones, when a location calls for bleakly beautiful and definitely not of the 21st century, Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou ticks all the right boxes. And if the Ounila Valley on the southern slopes of the High Atlas doesn’t sound quite romantic enough, then I give you ‘ancient trans-Saharan trade route between Sudan and Marrakech’. The crenelated, carved and seemingly impossible structure of this fortified adobe village isn’t a strategic stop for camel caravans these days, but it’s still occupied by resilient desert dwellers and one of the most breath-taking Moroccan UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Natural erosion, a harsh climate and friable traditional building materials make this a fragile environment, so visit with care. The co-existence of a Jewish and Muslim cemetery at the Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou is particularly moving.
Medina of Essouira
Essouira was built in the mid-18th century and is one of the later of Morocco’s magnificent Medina. It’s on the Atlantic Coast and the dramatic ramparts look astonishing in the early morning and at sunset. The Medina itself is gorgeously colourful and fascinating. But the life here is mainly local, and for all its natural exoticism Essouira is delightfully unspoiled as if any visitors happened upon it by chance rather than by design – often true. Known for fresh seafood at the harbour, charming little restaurants, fragrant Sandarac carving, mysticism and an ancient tradition of faith healing.
Medina of Fes
The 9th century Medina of Fes is so strange and glamorous it’s almost impossible to believe it wasn’t just constructed to be admired. But for all its ancient beauty, the magnificent art and architecture, air of mysticism and intrigue, the Medina of Fes is very much alive. Traders sell everything here from fortunes to jewel coloured rugs and oils and cloth and food. Dye workers ply their trade over steaming cauldrons. Washing is strung in bright loops over tiny, narrow streets. Children run around in vivid packs of excitement. And you just have to give in, admire and let yourself be absorbed, it’s the only way and it’s wonderful.
Medina of Marrakech
Marrakech’s Medina is instantly recognisable. The iconic Minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque soars above it against the backdrop of the Atlas Mountains as if all were peace and serenity below. And quite oddly much of the endlessly vital Medina is tranquil. Lush, enchanting gardens suddenly surprise you. Bright tiles and paintwork are punctuated by elegant, creamy stonework and the dull sheen of dark, carved wood. For every bustling market stall and excitable trader there’s a moment of total silence created by gently splashing fountains in a shady courtyard. Bright glass lanterns filter the impossible Moroccan light flawlessly, splashing colour on the faded walls of snaking little alleys and streets. And people are everywhere. The Medina of Marrakech is busy, lively, noisy, relentless and perfectly timeless.
Finally, I have to give honourable mention to Morocco’s capital, Rabat. A bright, modern, diverse and enormously creative city where ancient art and architecture have been beautifully integrated – another example of working heritage that has a well-deserved place on UNESCO’s Moroccan list.