MOROCCO IN A NUTSHELL
Morocco is an exotic gateway to Africa; its mountains, desert and coast are populated by Berbers and nomads, and its ancient medina lanes lead to souqs and riads. Morocco is in many ways a country apart. It nestles on the northwestern tip of Africa, separated from the rest of the continent by the towering Atlas Mountains and by the Sahara itself. Its climate, geography, and history are all more closely related to the Mediterranean than to the rest of Africa, and for this reason visitors are often struck by the odd sensation of having not quite reached Africa in Morocco. In the north, its fine beaches, lush highland valleys, and evocative old cities reinforce this impression. Yet, as one moves south and east, into and over the starkly beautiful ranges of the Atlases, Morocco’s Mediterranean character melts away like a mirage. The Sahara stretches out to the horizon, and forbidding kasbahs stare.
Morocco is a fine gem with many facets. There’s something and more for every traveler and it’s all wrapped in a historical and cultural blanket that is sure to keep you warm and mesmerized where ever your journeys may take you. It’s as if Morocco has been tailor-made just for travelers.
Morocco : Location & Geography
Morocco is situated on the extreme northwestern corner of Africa and is bordered by Mauritania and Algeria, both to the south and east. Morocco’s varied geography includes no less than four separate mountain ranges, in addition to lush river valleys, beautiful sandy coasts, and wide expanses of desert. The three most prominent mountain ranges, which run parallel to each other from the southwest to the northeast, are the Middle Atlas, the High Atlas, and the Anti-Atlas. The ascent of the country’s highest peak, Jebel Toukbal (13,665 ft./4,165 m.), is a spectacular and not particularly difficult. High Atlas trek. The Moroccan coastline, which fronts onto both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, offers plenty of great beaches as well as a number of fascinating old coastal cities. In the southeast, Morocco’s mountain ranges yield inexorably to the desolate expanse of the Sahara. The rivers that flow down this side of the High Atlas support long, narrow, and lush river valleys that resemble linear oases. Originating from melt water high up in the snowfields of the Haute Atlas, the river cuts a steep gorge, known as the Dadès Gorge, with its unparalleled display of the geological history of this region. A one or two day trip through adjoining Valley of One Thousand Kasbahs reveals the true and rich cultural history of Southern Morocco.
Morocco’s history began with the Berbers, the aboriginal people who have inhabited the country since the end of the 2nd millennium BC. Rome extended its rule over the area after defeating Carthage in 146 BC, and testimony to its presence still exists in the fine Roman ruins at Volubilis. When Rome fell into decline Morocco was invaded first by the Vandals and then, in the 7th century, by the Arabs. Although external Arab rule lasted little more than a century, the arrival of Islam proved to be a permanent addition to Moroccan culture. In the ensuing centuries a series of ruling dynasties came to power, including the Idrissids, the Almoravids, and the Almohads, but none seemed capable of long maintaining the critical support of the Berbe leaders.
By the 15th century Spain and Portugal began to intrude into Morocco, after having expelled the Moors from their own lands. Although Morocco successfully repulsed these invasions, the tide of European imperialism eventually proved too great. By the middle of the 19th century Morocco’s strategic importance had become evident to all of the European powers, and they engaged in a protracted struggle for possession of the country. Finally, in 1911, France was formally acknowledged as protector of the greater part of the country, with Spain receiving a number of isolated locales. French rule came to an end in 1953, although its cultural influence on Morocco remains strongly in evidence. Today the country is ruled by King Mohammed VI. He appears to be leading Morocco toward both long-term stability and a greater degree of economic prosperity.
Morocco has a population of nearly 33 million. Most people live west of the Atlas Mountains, a range that insulates the country from the Sahara Desert.
Casablanca is the center of commerce and industry and the leading port; Rabat is the seat of government; Tangier is the gateway to Morocco from Spain and also a major port; Fez is the cultural and religious center; and Marrakech is a major tourist center.
Morocco is a nation with a rich culture and civilization. It has always been a land of cultural exchanges and encounters given its strategically-located position between the Mediterranean and Atlantic, Europe and Africa. Morocco hosted many people coming from these areas; all of them have had an impact on the social and cultural structure of the country. The richness of the Moroccan culture comes from the various civilizations that Morocco encountered trough different eras in its history. From the Byzantine civilization to the Roman influence to the Arab civilization, then the Spanish and French, Morocco is now a panorama of genuine values of tolerance and multiculturalism and gets its unity in its diversity. The Kingdom is well knownto be a center for interfaith dialogue among Muslims, Christians and Jews and today provides an arena for open dialogue. The country is constantly off ring innovating solutions to contemporary problems through progressive applications of Islamic principles. The country’s long-standing history has undoubtedly contributed to the emergence of a rich, authentic and diversified culture that takes several forms and manifestations, such as literature, architecture, clothing, handicrafts, traditional music and folklore and gastronomy.
The Standard Arabic is the official language in Morocco. However, French is widely used as business is conducted in French. In the north of Morocco and the Deep South, Spanish is widespread. Staff in hotels is multilingual. In tourist cities like Rabat, Fez, Marrakech and Agadir, merchants and guides speak several languages. The “Tamazight” has its origin in North Africa back 10,000 years ago and is the language Berbers speak today. The Tamazight in its historical and cultural aspects is part of the Moroccan identity.
Two main features characterize the contemporary Moroccan literature. First, it is a bilateral literature since it is expressed in Arabic, Berber, French, Spanish and English. Second, although it is young- hardly 70 years of existence – it has grown and evolved tremendously. Some of the literature in Morocco is written in Arabic, French, Berber and even in Spanish or English. The diversity of Moroccan literature is truly amazing, as are the writers who pen these literary masterpieces.
The visual style of Morocco’s decorative arts has enthralled visitors for centuries. Common themes are a deep commitment to complex geometric, floral and calligraphic visual pattern, pared with simple, bright, and often whitewashed colors. A walk through any medina will reveal extraordinarily complex tile, or zellij mosaics, covering public fountains, walls, and furniture. A visit to any riad “house” or medrasa “school” will reveal stone and wood carved calligraphic patterns taken from the Holly Koran, against a background of near-infinite geometric complexity. The architecture of Morocco consists of more or less the Islamic style of construction. However the designs show signs of being profoundly influenced by Spanish styles of the mid centuries.
Moroccan architecture has witnessed an extraordinary renaissance in recent years as architects and interior designers from Morocco and around the world have taken an interest in Moroccan design elements big (courtyards) and small (lamps), rethinking and updating them.
One of the finest examples of architecture in Morocco is found in the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca. It ranks second in size, behind the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, the tallest mosque in the world, in addition to being one of the most beautiful. A great portion of the Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca is built on the water of the Atlantic Ocean. There is a saying that the mosque reflects a line of Qur’an, « the throne of God was built on the water ». The interior of the mosque is even more impressive than the exterior with an amount of detail in the work unheard of at this scale, with beautiful ceramic mosaics on the walls, luxurious marble and rugs on the floor, and beautifully carved wood ceilings.
But it’s the medinas of Morocco that really speak to the heritage of most cities. Most of the cities in Morocco have preserved at least portions of their medieval medinas. The streets in these areas are very narrow, and they are, for practical reasons, substantially car free. The most famous is the medina in Fes. Situated in the very heart of the city it is a nearly intact medieval city. With a 2002 population of 156,000, it is believed to be the largest contiguous car free area in the world today. The entire medina was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981, with 13,380 historic buildings and a reputed 10,539 retail businesses which remains a prime commercial center of the city of Fes with a population of over 1,000,000. The rule of thumb is to wander the narrow streets and alleys, get lost all the while comforted by a friendly Moroccan with direct you to your riad, a traditional
Moroccan house or palace with an interior courtyard that has been restored and remodeled for travelers while retaining its ambiance of yesteryear.
Another noteworthy medina can be found in Marrakesh a city of nearly one million people located in the south central areas of Morocco. The medina it is also a symbol of the Morocco that once was, and which still survives here. The streets of the old and pink city have been too narrow to allow the introduction of cars, and tourists searching for the « real » Morocco have turned the medieval structures of Marrakech into good business. The famous town square of Marrakech, Jemaa l-Fna, owes little of its fame to its own beauty, but to the continuous day and night life and famous for the large number of spectacles going on all around all the time. Snake charmers, singers, story tellers, healers, fakirs attract a dominantly Moroccan audience. It’s surrounded by hundreds tiny shops and a super-sized outdoor food court with exotic and authentic dishes that are much appreciated by Moroccans and brave tourists. A good rule for eating in Morocco: eat where the Moroccans eat — they know where to get good food!
Traveling and discovering Morocco
The attractions of Morocco are found in its three primary mountain ranges–the middle, high, and anti-Atlas–and the Sahara. Trekking in the High Atlas is especially popular. No traveler, however, should pass up the opportunity to visit Morocco’s great old cities. Tangiers and Casablanca, long associated with expatriates and French colonial charm can still be fascinating. However, they are ultimately much less appealing than the ancient imperial cities of the interior: Fes, Meknes, and Marrakesh. In Fes and Marrakesh in particular, the labyrinthine streets and passages of the centuries-old medinas offer endless possibilities for exploration.Trekking in the High Atlas is not to be passed up. The experience will reward visitors with some of the most spectacular scenery and views in Africa. The summit of Jebel Toukbal, Morocco’s highest mountain is an excellent choice, offering stunning panoramic views of the surrounding country. Although the two-day trek is suitable for anyone who is reasonably fit, you will need to bring boots and warm clothes–it can be hard going and cold on the way up to 4165 meters, especially in the desert night. Fortunately there is a lodge at Toukbal, located a little more than halfway up. Although Toukbal is the most popular of the Atlas treks, there are plenty of others available, and you can arrange trips of virtually any length. For longer treks, and for walking in more remote regions, a guide is strongly recommended.
The Sahara, whose name itself conjures up romantic images of vast unending sands, charming desert oases, and of course the sheltering sky is another not to be missed adventure in Morocco. If visitors to Morocco really want to lose themselves and get away from it all, there is no more extreme way to do so than to set off across the great desert. An overnight camel ride to a Berber encampment is a highlight and unforgettable experience.
Morocco is at its best in spring (mid-March to May), when the country is lush and green, followed by autumn (September to November), when the heat of summer has eased. At other times, don’t underestimate the extremes of summer heat and winter, particularly in the High Atlas, where snowcapped peaks persist from November to July. If you are travelling in winter, head for the south, although be prepared for bitterly cold nights. The north coast and the Rif Mountains are frequently wet and cloudy in winter and early spring. Apart from the weather, the timing of Ramadan (the traditional Muslim month of fasting and purification) is another important consideration as some restaurants and cafés close during the day and general business hours are reduced.
To get the very most out of a trip to Morocco a little homework to gather and understand of the history and it many cultures is highly recommended. Consult the local experts to learn about what, when and how to make this trip magical. Anyastravel is anxious to assist and to help you plan your trip to exotic Morocco.