Thursday, May 26, 2016


Our next destination was Morocco's holiest city and most important pilgrimage destination: Moulay Idriss. If a Moroccan comes here seven times in his/her lifetime, it makes up for never making the very expensive pilgrimage to Mecca.

What makes this city so important is that it surrounds the mausoleum of Moulay Idriss himself, the great-grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and the man who brought Islam to Morocco in 789 AD. Idriss was heir to the caliphate in Damascus, but after a civil war there that led to the Shia-Sunni divide, he fled to Morocco and established the first Arab dynasty there.  He also began building the city of Fes, which was finished by his son, Moulay Idriss II.  Idriss I was poisoned in 792 by his enemies in the East, but he left behind a pregnant wife, and when his son was old enough, he followed in his father's footsteps.

Moulay Ismail rebuilt the tomb of Moulay Idriss I in the late 17th/early 18th century, creating today's grand pilgrimage mausoleum. The eponymous town is often referred to as Moulay Idriss Zerhoun (Zerhoun being the name of the mountain upon which it is built). I'm guessing that's to distinguish it from the man himself.

You would think a city of such great importance to Moroccans would be large and noisy and glamorous, but it's a quiet, humble, compact place with a population of about 12,000. Built on the side of a hill, it almost feels like Tuscany--almost. Like most Moroccan towns, it has a large central square, but at least when we were there, it was pretty quiet:

The tomb of Moulay Idriss I is at the end of this long corridor:

Unfortunately (but completely understandably for such a holy site), "Access is not permitted fro non-Muslims": 
In fact, non-Muslims were not even permitted to stay overnight in this holy city until 2005. When the American author Edith Wharton visited here in 1919, she had to be out of the city by 3:00 PM.  

A heavy wood bar blocks the entrance, perhaps to stop tourists from inadvertently wandering in when no one is watching, or perhaps to keep out the omnipresent donkeys. People can bend and crawl under, but not donkeys.

We stayed for a while and watched the people coming and going. Photos are allowed, but it's always uncomfortable to take a picture of a stranger, so you'll notice that most of the people in these pictures are facing the other way:

I admired this minaret and the line-up of classic Moroccan lanterns. I'll bet this passageway is beautiful at night:

Nearby there were also the ubiquitous-but-never-commonplace-to us carved wall decorations and tiles to ooh and aah over:

After a while, our guide Hassan took us on a walking tour of the medina.  We learned that many doorways are made short to keep out the donkeys:
Note the "hand of Fatima" good luck talisman in the top right corner of the door above.
Here it is close-up:

I was intrigued by the design on this door and the tile fish on the ground in front of the door. I'm getting ideas for my own front door:

I love this photo of the laden donkeys in front of the mural in front of the city in front of the hllside:

I've never seen animals work as hard as the Moroccan donkeys:

Hassan took us to the local communal bakery, a literal hole in the wall:

The locals bring their bread dough here to be baked. 

Somehow the baker remembers whose loaves are whose, and he puts the right loaves on the right trays once they are baked and returns them to the people who brought them:

We asked permission to take pictures, and the baker acquiesced, but he made sure to turn his back so that his face wasn't in the shot. Can't say that I blame him. Tourists (including us) are a nosy bunch.

My favorite thing about Moulay Idriss, however, was the painted walls in the medina. As we had already learned, the narrow alleys of the old sections of Moroccan cities can be dark and gloomy. That was NOT the case in Moulay Idriss, where the walls are whitewashed and have been been highlighted with incongruous swaths of pastel colors. They (Idrissites? Idrissians?) seem to be especially fond of seafoam green:

We also enjoyed the healthy population of cats:

People who paint their steps in rainbow colors are people I'd like to get to know:


  1. I wish we could have spent more time in Moulay Idriss. Walked more through town and up on to the hill. The donkeys of Morocco keep the rural economy going - they are literally the work horses of the economy.

  2. I like the idea of letting the baker bake everyone's bread dough. A nice service, particularly in summer when you don't want your kitchen to get so hot.
    The pastel painted walls and stairs are fun--and seem to belong to a different place, one without intricate tiled walls and fancy doors.