Morocco – an oriental wonder for the discerning tourist
The fabulous Sahara Desert, the world’s sweetest mandarins, unique argan oil, the legendary cities of Fez, Marrakech, Casablanca, which even those who have never been to Africa, have heard of – all this can be found in Morocco. The country, which is located on the border of two continents, attracts tourists with its Oriental exoticism, spicy flavors, luxurious nature and fascinating works of architecture. It is here where you can fully dive into the magical world of the East.
GENERAL INFORMATION ABOUT THE COUNTRY
The name of the state of Morocco comes from the name of one of its cities, Marrakech. “Morocco” is a distorted pronunciation of the city in Spanish, and that is how people in other countries call the country.
Modern Arabs refer to the kingdom as El Maghreb. In the Middle Ages, Arab historians and geographers used the name “Maghreb al-Aqsa”, which means “the most western land”.
The origin of the original word “Marrakech” is not entirely clear. According to one version it means “land of the gods,” another it means “country of the sons of Kush.”
Morocco, located in the northwest of Africa, is very close to Europe. Its coasts are washed by the Mediterranean Sea to the north (separated from Spain by just 14 km of the Strait of Gibraltar) and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. In the east and southeast, the country borders Algeria, and its southern neighbor is the Western Sahara.
Interestingly, on the Mediterranean coast of the kingdom are the cities of Ceuta and Melilla, which are sovereign territories of Spain. Several small islands to the north of Morocco are also Spanish.
The state has a fairly large size – its area is more than 710 thousand km². 15% of the territory is located above 2 thousand km above sea level.
Morocco is a country with a diverse natural landscape. So, the Mediterranean coastline of 530 km has an abundance of rocks and caves, and the Atlantic (2800 km) is an endless sandy beach and dunes. Throughout the country from south-west to northeast stretches a mountain system – the Rif, the Middle Atlas, the High Atlas (its highest point – Mount Toubkal over 4 thousand km) and the Anti-Atlas. To the south and southeast of Morocco (towards the Algerian border) are barren steppes, turning into the famous Sahara Desert, sandy and rocky in different sections.
There are quite a few rivers flowing through the country, of which the largest are the Um-er-Rbia and Cebu, with wide valleys. Their fertile lands are ideal for the development of agriculture: olives, citrus fruits, sugar cane, cereals and grapes are grown here.
Administratively, the Kingdom of Morocco is divided into regions (there are more than a dozen). They, in turn, include provinces and urban prefectures. The capital city since 1912 is Rabat.
The residents of Morocco speak many languages, but the two official ones are Arabic and Tamazight (Berber dialect). And also in the country is very common French (because it used to be a French colony) – usually in the economy, trade, education.
Interestingly, the Moroccan version of Arabic has many differences from the classical Arabic used in the Middle East.
In the northern areas, Spanish is popular: this is not surprising, since Spain is very close. Young people as well as service personnel in the popular resort towns speak English.
African state has its own currency – the Moroccan dirham. It is divided into 100 centimes.
Islam is the official religion of the kingdom (it is practiced, according to data of 2009, by 98.7% of the population). The word itself means “submission” and reflects the pervasive influence of this faith in Moroccan society. The king here is the leader of the faithful.
Every village in the country has a mosque, and the voice of the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer several times daily. Friday is a holy day: by half past twelve o’clock almost all institutions and establishments are closed, and at noon there is a general prayer.
It is forbidden for a non-Muslim to enter mosques in Morocco.
The main center of pilgrimage in the kingdom is the city of Moulay Idris. It is named after a descendant of Mohammed, who founded the first Muslim state in this region. The remains of the ruler are in the mausoleum, where the faithful come during the festival of mussem (August-September).
Only 1% of the inhabitants of the state are Christians. There are only 3 Orthodox churches in the country, the oldest of which is the Church of the Resurrection, located in Rabat (built in 1832).
The Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Casablanca (built in 1958) is rarely open: there is no permanent priest, and services are held by a chaplain from the capital, who comes here periodically.
There are also very few Catholic churches in the country, based in the cities of Rabat and Tangier.
THE DIFFERENCE WITH MOSCOW TIME
The difference with Moscow time in Morocco is – 2 hours in summer and – 3 hours in winter (the new day there comes later).
CITIES ATTRACT TOURISTS
Cities of Morocco are exotically attractive, each of them represents the culture and the long history of development of the kingdom.
Rabat has been the capital of Morocco since 1912: it was then that France, according to the Treaty of Fez, established a protectorate over the country and took away the status of the main city from Fez. The reason for relocating the capital was that the city was threatened by Berber uprisings, which made it dangerous for the government to remain there. On behalf of Hubert Liote, head of the French administration, administrative buildings began to be built in Rabat. In 1956 the independence of Morocco was declared, but King Mohammed V left Rabat as capital.
The city was founded in the twelfth century, there was once an ancient settlement of Sale. In ancient times it was a Roman port, a stronghold of the Almohads (Berber dynasty) and a pirate base. The defensive walls made of clay are still standing. Tourists can also see the tombs, the former Forum and the Capitol.
The name of the city of Rabat means “camp of victory”.
Rabat is a purely Oriental city and a center of Arab culture. There are many museums (Museum of Moroccan Art, Museum of Folk Art, National Museum of Crafts, Museum of Antiquities, the Archaeological Museum), which reflect the various aspects of life of the Moroccan people.
The old part of the capital (it is called Medina and separated from the new part of town by a wall) lives by its customs and crafts. Here they weave carpets by hand, spin lace, make fine pouffes and crockery made of copper and silver. The streets resemble paths winding among low houses, shops and mosques. In the center of the Medina is a fountain created in the 14th century in the Andalusian style.
Medinas in Africa are called the ancient quarters of cities.
Rabat is rich in historical sights: it is fortresses Shellah and Kasbah Udaja, the mausoleum of Mohammed V, the Tower of Hassan a height of 69 meters. In the city there are many educational institutions, green parks and mosques. This is the residence of the king who every Friday solemnly leaves the palace for the mosque to perform namaz.
Within the city limits on the Atlantic coast there is a wonderful beach.
Fes, which is also called the heart of Morocco, the capital of its culture and religion, should definitely be included in the tour itinerary of tourists. The city is the symbolic center of Islam, because its architecture is dominated by green tones, sacred to Islam. In its central part is located the world’s oldest university, Al-Qarawin, one of the greatest schools of Islam in the Arab world.
You can walk around all the buildings of Al Qarawiyin University in Fez, thanks to the large number of doors, of which there are more than thirty
Fez was founded in the 8th century. Its two ancient centers are Fez el Bali, with its labyrinthine streets, and Fez Jdid, where the magnificent palace of the Emir is located. There are two Medinas in the city: the old one is more than 1,000 years old and the new one is about 700 years old. The new Fez, west of the old city, is enclosed by fortress walls with gates.
The city is also called “African Athens”. The appearance of the old quarters here has not changed since medieval times, and family crafts are handed down from generation to generation (e.g., tannery).
A large golf course and many spas are some of the modern features of Fez.
Another cultural center of Morocco is the city of Marrakech, founded in the 11th century and located at the foot of the Atlas Mountains. Over the centuries, it has constantly competed with Fez for the status of the capital.
Although Marrakech is not located on the coast, it is very picturesque. The High Atlas Mountains are particularly beautiful in winter with their snow-capped peaks. This is where movies like “The Mummy” and “Prince of Persia” were filmed. Marrakech is also famous for its green parks and gardens.
The medina of Marrakech is called the “red city” because the earthen buildings have a reddish hue. In the center of the old city is the Djema el-Fna Square where tourists can see performances of acrobats, dancers, musicians, magicians, snake tamers, sword swallowers, etc. In the ancient city tourists can admire the beautiful palaces of Bahia and el-Badi.
The city of Casablanca, located on the Atlantic coast, is as popular as the imperial cities of Morocco (those that have or previously had the status of the capital). Its distinctive feature is the abundance of white buildings.
In the Middle Ages Casablanca was called Anfa and was a wealthy city. After that, it was repeatedly destroyed both by people and by natural disasters. The city grew rapidly under French rule.
Casablanca’s Hassan II Mosque is an architectural marvel and one of the largest Islamic temples in the world. The tall twin towers of the business center, which symbolize the economic prosperity of Morocco, also deserve the attention of tourists. The city is also the Catholic Church of Notre Dame de Lourdes, which was built in the XX century and the quarter Habous, built by the French.
Meknes is a Moroccan city combining Islamic and European features in its architecture. Founded in the 8th century, it reached its climax in 1673 when Sultan Ismail ordered the construction of luxury palaces, gardens with exotic plants, fountains and swimming pools, and fortified walls.
At the same time a huge number of mosques were built in Meknes (another name for it is the “city of a thousand minarets”).
One of the main attractions of the city is the monumental Bab al-Mansour Gate, the most beautiful in Morocco. The grandeur of the structure is given by the side arcades on pillars of marble.
Agadir is the most popular resort in the kingdom. Its sandy beach on the Atlantic coast stretches for 10 km. The shallow bay, sheltered from the waves, the water is well heated. Taghazut beach is a favorite place for surfers, where you can catch waves without disturbing other vacationers.
However, Agadir attracts not only lovers of sunbathing. On a high hill rises the Kasbah, a fortified combat built in the 16th century. Berber Museum surprises with artifacts of the ancient people. In the Park of birds you can see the feathered inhabitants, as well as some animals. And El Ahad market is the largest in the region, which is the third largest in North Africa.
The city of Urzazate is the capital of the Moroccan film industry (its second unofficial name is Walliwood). More than 50 films have been made here, including “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Gladiator,” “The Adventures of Asterix and Obelix,” “Game of Thrones,” and the famous Brazilian TV series “Clone.
The city reached its cinematic heyday in the twentieth century, before that it was simply a fortress, an entrepot on the route of trade caravans from the Sahara into the interior of Morocco.
Morocco is a very old monarchy of the Muslim world. And it is only natural that history can be found here at every step. Architectural buildings are monumental and mysterious, they give the tourist the opportunity to touch the secrets of thousands of years of Eastern culture.
EL BADI PALACE
In Marrakech, you can see the impressive ruins of the El Badi Palace (the name translates as “incomparable”). It traces its history back to the 16th century, when Sultan Ahmad al-Mansour defeated the Portuguese troops who were trying to establish themselves in North Africa. The ruler forced the Europeans to pay a huge tribute, with which the palace was built. From all over the world were delivered the most expensive materials: gold and marble, granite and crystal, turquoise and onyx, as well as valuable woods. The residence was surrounded by a spacious courtyard with a swimming pool, immersed in flowers and orange trees.
However the history of the palace was short-lived. A century later, the new sultan ordered the building to be dismantled and the precious materials used to build a new palace. Today El Badi is in a state of neglect, but it still preserves its former grandeur as a masterpiece of Moorish architecture. It has 360 rooms, there are underground tunnels and a large courtyard which makes the buildings look narrow. Near each building there are small pools to collect rainwater.
Since the mid-twentieth century, every June, the Moroccan National Folklore Festival has been held at El Badi Palace, bringing together song and dance performers from all over the country.
THE BAHIA PALACE
Another architectural gem is the Bahia Palace, also in Marrakech. The history of its construction is interesting. Grand Vizier Sy Ahmed ben Moussa wanted to surprise his beloved wife by constructing a palace for her. The gift was so grandiose that the ruler decided to settle there all his three wives and over 20 concubines. During the construction, because of the vizier’s whims the architect was constantly completing the almost finished building, so it turned out to be like a labyrinth.
In the spirit of Arab tradition, the exterior of the building is quite modest so as not to arouse unnecessary envy. However, inside the palace is luxurious: paintings and mosaics on the walls and ceiling, carvings on the doors made of cedar wood, decoration with precious materials.
There are many houses in Morocco with patios, which are called patios. They are needed to organize personal space, to take a break from neighbors and crowds. In the Bahia Palace, a huge tiled area is set aside for this purpose, with a green garden and small fountains, and a swimming pool in the center.
After the death of the ruler, the palace was looted but has now been partially restored and has the status of a museum, where concerts of oriental music are also given.
In the south of Morocco lies the rugged and fabulous fortress city of Ait Ben-Haddou. In ancient times, it belonged to the warlike Berber tribes and served to protect the caravan route. The fortress is very colorful: the many tiers of clay buildings of rectangular shape with flat roofs, surrounded by date palms in the middle of the sultry desert. Until the middle of XX century this place was not particularly known to anyone, the fortress guarded the way of caravans to the sacred city of the Arabs Timbuktu.
The site became popular after 1962, when it interested filmmakers. The film “Lawrence of Arabia” was filmed here. The wall and some of the buildings were restored for the filming. The remaining ruins were restored in 1977 for the filming of “Jesus of Nazareth”. And also the panorama of the fortress was used for more modern films: “Gladiator”, “Alexander”, “The Kingdom of Heaven”. For example, in the latter film the fortress was turned into the biblical Calvary.
Interestingly, you can get to the casbah by the bridge in the village or by the sacks that stick out of the water, resembling turtle shells.
MAHKAMA DU PASHA
Casablanca also has a magnificent palace, the Oriental appearance of which is combined with features of a French medieval castle. It was built relatively recently (in the middle of the XX century) and performed a rather prosaic function – it was the building of the city municipality and the court.
Numerous spacious halls amaze with their luxury: traditional Moroccan tiles on the walls, fine carvings on the arches and vaults of the domes. In the cozy courtyards the fountains gurgle and the fragrance of flowers is fragrant.
The most famous sight in Marrakech is the Koutoubia Mosque.. It is designed in the traditional Moorish style and incorporates elements of Spanish architecture. Its 77-meter-high minaret serves as a landmark for travelers lost among the city’s narrow streets.
The staircase that leads to the top of the tower is quite wide: it is designed to allow the muezzin to climb it on horseback.
HASSAN II MOSQUE
Another monument to Islam, the Great Mosque of Hassan II in Casablanca was built in the 1990s. It is named after King Hassan II who ruled at the time. Its minaret is of record height for a religious building – 210 meters.
Interestingly, this mosque can be visited not only by Muslims, but also by people of other faiths, which is surprising for Morocco.
The magnificent building is located on the ledge, which is washed by the waters of the Atlantic. Therefore, the mosque offers a very picturesque view, and it seems as if the mosque is floating on water. Another original detail of the structure is a powerful laser spotlight on the tower. In addition, the prayer hall has a heated floor, and the roof can extend. The luxurious interior of the mosque is striking: columns of pink granite, picturesque wall mosaics, crystal chandeliers, each weighing 50 tons. It is striking that all this grandiose construction was erected with the donations of the faithful.
NATURAL ATTRACTIONS IN MOROCCO
The country of Morocco is remarkable for its colorful nature, amazing in its beauty landscapes.
THE SAHARA DESERT
Sahara is the main natural pride of Morocco, a true legend. It is the largest desert in North Africa and, moreover, the largest on the planet. With a total area of 8.6 million km² (about 30% of Africa), it is comparable in size, for example, with Brazil.
The Sahara partially occupies the territory of several African states. In addition to Morocco, these are Egypt and Algeria, Libya and Mauritania, Mali and Niger, Sudan and Tunisia, Chad and the disputed territory of Western Sahara.
There are no rivers at all in the desert, except for small sections of the Nile and Niger. During the year, it rains no more than 50 mm of rainfall here.
The landscape of the Sahara varies throughout its length. But in the Moroccan part, it is mostly rocky. Sand dunes can be seen only to the east of the Ziza valley and to the south of the Draa valley. There are also oases, picturesque islands of greenery surrounded by rocks and sands.
GARDENS OF MENARA
One of the most romantic spots in Morocco are the Menara Gardens, in the center of Marrakech. Compared to the bustling streets and squares, they are an oasis of silence. There are fruit and olive trees, fish swimming in the lake and a wonderful panorama of the Atlas Mountains.
160km from Agadir lies an unrealistic beauty spot on the Atlantic coast. It is the secluded beach of Lezgira with its amazing arches in the rocky cliffs. They begin on the shore and descend into the ocean. Ocean waves and currents have created them over the centuries. The cliffs look especially fabulous at sunset, when they take on a terracotta hue.
The entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar is framed by rocks called the Pillars of Hercules. The southern pillar is on the Moroccan side. Scientists can not give an exact answer as to how these natural objects appeared, but on this account the African people have a beautiful legend. The ancient Greek hero Heracles managed to reach the “limit of the world”. Thanks to his inhuman strength, he pierced through the mountain – this is how the Strait of Gibraltar was formed, and the mountains that frame it, were named after the hero. For ancient seafarers, the Pillars of Hercules served as a boundary beyond which the netherworld began. In addition, the son of Zeus narrowed the strait so that monsters could not enter the Mediterranean Sea.
THE WATERPAD OF UZOOD
Located 150km north of Marrakech, the 110m-high Ouzoud waterfall is one of the most beautiful in Africa. Its crystal waters cascade down in three great streams. This natural wonder is especially fascinating at sunset: white splashes sparkle against the reddish background of the rocks. By the way, there are olive trees growing right on them (in the local language “usud” means “olive tree”).
In the area of the waterfall is equipped with a small recreation center. On the grounds you can enjoy the views of nature, including the rainbow, which periodically appears above the splashing water. In the evenings, yellow macaws appear here: they are attracted by the fruits of figs and carob trees. Tourists can also approach the base of the waterfall by boat.
WHEN IT’S BEST TO COME TO THE COUNTRY
Travelers who care about beach vacations (in the cities of Casablanca, Agadir, Essaouira) can come to Morocco from late May to early October. Summers here are dry and hot, but the ocean warms up slowly. Therefore it is most comfortable to swim in July, August and September – the velvet season: the air temperature during this period reaches +32 ° C, and the water temperature – +25 ° C.
Surfing in Morocco is possible year round. Just in summer you can do it “naked”, and in winter you will have to wear a wetsuit. By the way, in the cold season and the waves are the biggest. But in general, the waves in the country are not very big – this is ideal for beginners.
For tourists, aimed at the cultural program, the best period in the kingdom is autumn. Outside it will not be so hot (+20 – 23 ° C).
As for winter, at this time of year is quite possible high humidity combined with a cold wind, it may also rain and fog, though as such there is no rainy season in the country. Fans of skiing can come to the country in January and February. For this purpose will suit the resorts of Ifrane and Ucaymeden, where there are many slopes for skiing.
TOURIST OPTIONS FOR A SHORT VACATION
Of course, if the tourist goes to Morocco for at least a week, it would be optimal to organize a tour of cities with rich history and visit Casablanca, Fez, Rabat, Marrakech, Meknes.
If the duration of the trip is limited, for example, three days, you can choose two or three of these interesting places. Alternatively, you can arrange a trip to the Sahara Desert or visit some other natural attraction (eg, the waterfall of Ouzoud).
When it comes to just one day of travel, it is best to choose Casablanca, as this is where most of the planes land.