More about the Merinids

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An old man, resting in one of the Qarawiyyin Mosque doors. The Merinids did not build Fes, but they made it their capital.

The Merinids created one of the dynasties that contemporary, Ibn Khaldun, was surely writing about in his Muquddimah. As the Almohads lost the confidence of their supporters and allies, the Merinids waited in the wings with fresh energy. By the end of the Almohad dynasty, Al Andalous was reduced to the Nasirid kingdom of Granada. The Merinids took in the refugees from Spain, but confined their interests mostly to Africa. They made Fes their capital, but left their mark across North Africa.

The Almohads (and the dynasty before them, the Almoravids) were Berbers who came out of the Atlas, full of religious fervor and zeal, to establish themselves in as rulers of Morocco and cross the straits to intervene in Spain. The birthplace of the Almohads, whose name derives from the oneness of God, is near Tinmel on the road to Tizi n Test in the High Atlas. Today Tinmel is nothing but a village, but it boasts the ruins of a beautiful mosque from Almohad times.

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The mosque at Tinmel
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On the road to Tizi n Test and the Souss
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Camel thorn blocks this entry door. The mihrab is visible
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The mihrab at Tinmel
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Decoration on an arch at Tinmel

The Almohads left an indelible architectural imprint on Morocco. They built the Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakech, famous for its minaret, as well as two other massive minarets, modeled after it: the unfinished Tour Hassan in Rabat, and the Giralda Tower in Sevilla, Spain.

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The Koutoubia minaret. Approaching Marrakech from any direction, the Koutoubia can be seen for miles and dominates the old city
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Decoration on one side of the Tour Hassan minaret
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The Giralda Tower in Sevilla. Note the fine decoration. The minaret now serves as a bell tower for the cathedral

All are noted for their proportions and fine decoration as well as their size: each is large enough inside for a ramp that would allow a horse to be ridden to the top. The Giralda, in my opinion, was not improved by the Renaissance bell tower, added to grace the cathedral that replaced the grand mosque.

The Tour Hassan was never finished, nor was the mosque it was supposed to serve, and the latter was further damaged in the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Nearly 50 meters high, the Tour Hassan was for many years one of the highest structures in Rabat.

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Little remains of the huge mosque beside the Tour Hassan, which, like the minaret, was never completed

When I first visited it in 1968, there were no barriers on the top, and one could sit, if one dared, with feet dangling over the edge.

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No fence, just a 50 meter drop. But what a view! Sale is across the river in the background. The minaret far in the distance is from the Almohads predecessors, the Almoravids.
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There is no finer view of the Ouidayas. Walk through the cemetery out to the end of the jetty, and experience the Atlantic surf. The Ouidayas constituted the chief settlement on this side of the Bou Regreg in Almohad times, and the name Rabat is derived from its fortifications

Unfortunately a rash of accidents and suicides led to erection of an ugly chain link fence on the top of the minaret. What remains of the mosque is simply marble slabs and ruined pillars. On the south end of the site is a newly constructed tomb for Mohammed V, a beloved ruler of the current dynasty, who led Morocco to independence. I wonder if he might have preferred a simpler tomb.

The Tour Hassan has stunning views of the Casbah of the Ouidayas, the Bou Regreg River, and the city of Sale. A fortified enclosure, built by the Almohads, the Casbah of the Ouidayas dominates the river as it enters the Atlantic.

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The Almohad gateway to the Ouidayas.
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The view from the Ouidayas gate across Rabat

Its massive entryway is another classic example of Almohad architecture. In March of 1973, I became severely ill in Sefrou, and ended up recuperating in the house of friends who lived in the Ouidayas and spent several weeks there. The Ouidayas has a small medina, and it had great south facing views that attracted foreign residents. There is also a museum and walled gardens below the residential area.

On the Atlantic side of the Ouidayas is a large cemetery by the ocean.

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The cemetery behind the Oudayas

Paths run down to the jetties that protect the Bou Regreg. People fish from them, and if you walk out to the end of one, you will be rewarded with terrific views of the Atlantic Ocean swells.

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A calm day at the end of the jetty. Beyond the lighthouse is a section of the city known as l’Océan

South of the Ouidayas, the Almohads created a necropolis with royal tombs, known today as the Chellah, on the slopes of the Bou Regreg’s valley.

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The Chellah, a Merinid necropolis

The site they chose was a Phoenician trading post, and later Roman site, Sala Colonia.

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Roman and pre-Roman ruins

It had already been mostly abandoned when its Byzantine governor, Count Julian of Ceuta, surrendered to the Arab general, Oqba Ben Nafi in 683. The latter is supposed to have ridden his horse into the Atlantic, calling for God to witness that he had brought Islam to the end of the world. True or not, it is a romantic image as well as one speaking to the pride of Moroccan Muslims.

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The Merinid gate to the Chellah

Today the Chellah is surrounded by the modern city of Rabat. A wall, built by the Merinids, encloses the ruins of the various civilizations that occupied the site, and the Merinids further endowed the Chellah with a mosque and tombs, now also in ruins.

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The minaret of the ruined Merinid Mosque within the Chellah. Storks winter in Morocco, and often choose minarets for nesting sites

The Chellah is an interesting place to explore. When I was there, there was a pool with eels. Women would come to it and feed them, possibly hoping for success in getting pregnant. Cats often surrounded the pool, begging for food.

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These kids are looking at the eels…
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…and the cats hope to get what the eels don’t.

Rabat was also the home of Barbary Pirates, who are often associated with Sale, Rabat’s sister city across the mouth of the Bou Regreg. Sale was founded by the Almoravids. I lived there for a while in 1973 with a Peace Corps volunteer and a Moroccan friend, Ali, who was attending the University in Rabat. Most people cross the bridge between the cities, but there is an ancient ferry service that perseveres and can save time depending where you live in Sale.

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The Sale-Rabat ferry service, on the Sale side. The Ouidayas are across the river. The ride used to cost pennies

Author: Dave

Retired. Formerly school librarian, social studies teacher, and urban planner.

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