Encounters with lions

Henri-Jean Moreau’s lion in Ifrane. The green-tiled royal palace, atop the hill in the background, overlooks the town. Cedars adorn the hilltops. 1968.

With such a title, one might think that I were writing about a safari. The reality is more prosaic. Living in the city of Sefrou, Morocco, the small town of Ifrane lay close by, but higher up in the Middle Atlas mountains. Ifrane was initially a creation of the French. During the Protectorate, the French administration expropriated land and began to build a garden town, then in fashion in Europe. When the original plans changed, the French simply built a retreat. At an altitude of 5,500 ft., Ifrane receives frequent winter snowfalls and nearby higher areas have enough relief and snow to satisfy the needs of skiers who are willing to be satisfied by modest facilities and short runs.

Michliffen after a fresh snowfall. The proximity to Rabat, an easy four-hour drive away, enhances the site’s popularity. 1970.

In the summer, the temperature in Ifrane never reaches that of the torrid plains surrounding Meknes and Fes. With easy access from those large cities, Ifrane became a counterpart of the Himalayan hill town, filled with European style chalets, country homes, and even a royal palace. With Atlas cedars replacing the Deodar-filled mountainsides of the Indian subcontinent’s summer retreats, Ifrane, with its cool, fresh, cedar-scented air might be mistaken for an Indian hill town in miniature.

Great forests of Atlas cedars once covered the Middle Atlas. The Ifrane area has many beautiful groves inhabited by boars and macaques. 1968

Today, Ifrane serves as the administrative capital of an eponymous province, and hosts an English-language university, Al-Akhawayn, to boot, but when I first went there, less than a dozen years after independence, Ifrane was more of a sleepy hamlet, its tall and grand chalet-style houses mostly shuttered. Only on the rare visit of the king, Hassan II, did the place jump to life. Commerce and tourists passed through Ifrane on the main road north and south, but I never saw people on the streets. Ifrane had been built for a culture that had gone home, and the new Moroccan elites were slow to integrate it into the new culture that was emerging in postcolonial Morocco. The rich bought houses but didn’t use them. Mountains were for the monkeys and the shepherds.

A typical colonial chalet-style dwelling in Ifrane, surrounded by cloud-enveloped cedars. 1969.

Sefrou had no direct road connection to Ifrane, despite its proximity, and I only visited the place perhaps a half-dozen times between 1968 and 1977. Nothing seemed to change over the period, and the town appeared to be mothballed, despite the presence of some summer camps for children.

On one or two occasions, I took photos of the sculpted lion, prominently situated in a large open park-like area. When I asked about it, I remember being told that German prisoners of war had created it. Ifrane did have a penitentiary for war prisoners during the war so the story was plausible, and it was related to me more than once. In the Lonely Planet Guide to Morocco, for instance, one finds that:

“Ifrane’s landmark is the stone lion that sits on a patch of grass near the Hôtel Chamonix. It was carved by a German soldier during WWII, when Ifrane was used briefly as a prisoner-of-war camp, in exchange for the prisoner’s freedom – or so the story goes – and commemorates the last wild Atlas lion, which was shot near here in the early 1920s. Having your picture taken with the lion is something of a ritual for Moroccan day trippers.”

Sometimes the lion is attributed to Italian prisoners, too, but the reality is that a French artist and sculpture, Henri-Jean Moreau created it before the war, sometime in the 1930s. Moreau, a minor but not untalented artist, came to Morocco from his native northern French city of Libourne in 1925, and his paintings still fetch good prices at auctions.

Prisoners of war sometimes did do extraordinary things, however. Here where I live, German prisoners, who had a surprising amount of freedom, painted murals in the officers’ mess of the military base where they were held. In Africa, two Italian climbers, interned in Kenya during WWII escaped from their prison camp and climbed Mt.Kenya, making all the necessary gear such as rope, ice axes, and crampons from materials scavenged from their camp. Mt. Kenya’s twin peaks, not simply endurance treks as is the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, require climbing skills. Successful, the Italians returned to their camp. The adventure is retold in their book, No Picnic on Mount Kenya.

Returning to northwest Africa and lions, the reader may remember my writing about them in an earlier post, Trout Fishing in America, where an 18th century English sailor, held captive as a slave in the time of Moulay Ismaïl, describes what to do when one meets a lion on the road.

The lion has been adopted as the official animal of Morocco, though the last one recorded seen was shot by a French hunter in the 1940s, and nowhere near Ifrane, contrary to what the Lonely Planet guide says. Barbary lions are now considered to be extinct in Morocco as well as in all North Africa, but as a symbol they still have meaning. The national soccer team bears the name, Atlas Lions, and the King has lions on his coat of arms. One version of a popular adage has it that the Tunisian is a woman, the Algerian is a man, and the Moroccan is a lion, but the Moroccans have another proverb that may be more apt and universal that I have always liked: “Everyone is a lion in his own forest.”

One of the last photos of a wild lion in Morocco, taking from a flight from Casablanca to Dakar in 1925. Photo by Marcelin Flandrin@Wikimedia Commons.

In the past, Middle Atlas tribesmen captured lions and offered them as tribute to the sultan, whose palaces contained menageries. As punishment for his insurrection, based on his false claim to be the true sultan, Bou Hamara, the Rogui, was allegedly offered as food to the sultan’s lions in Fes in 1909, though that is but one of several stories told about his painful demise.

His name, Bou Hamara, came from his entry into Morocco from Algeria on a donkey. Alas, he was carted in a cage on the back of a camel into Fes for public display before execution.

Bou Hamara, “El Rogui.” Anonymous@Wikimedia Commons.

Bou Hamara’s cage. Gabriel Boussuge@Wikimedia Commons.

On the other hand, the sultan Abd er-Rahman offered a lion and lioness as a present to President Martin Van Buren of the US in 1839. The gift presented a serious problem for the consular officials in Tangier, who tried to refuse, but were finally forced to accept the animals for fear of offending the sultan. In those days, the American government was serious about the rule that presidents could not receive gifts from foreign rulers. The lions were temporarily housed in the Legation in Tangier, and their story ended in 1840 in the Philadelphia Naval Yard, where the hapless beasts were sold at auction for $375.

Lions once ranged widely across Africa, southeast Europe, and large parts of Asia. Today, they are extinct through most of their former range, and their numbers are dwindling quickly in Africa, where several populations are endangered or on the edge of extinction.

The lion’s regal appearance and its sobriquet, King of the Beasts, have fascinated humans for centuries. My high school symbol was the rampant lion, reminiscent of medieval heraldry and British royal traditions, but lions make good publicity, too.

In my travels, admittedly limited, lions have appeared in sculptured forms in many places from the steps of the New York Public Library to those of the palace of Alexander the Great in Persepolis.

A lion attacking a bull. Bas-relief from the palace steps at Persepolis. 1974.

Despite Islamic injunctions against representation of animals and people, sculptured lions appear from the Alhambra in Spain to the Ali Qapu palace pavilion in Isfahan and beyond.

These highly stylized beasts grace a fountain in the center of the Patio of the Lions in the Alhambra Palace in Grenada, Spain. 1968.
This lion and others like him support the pillars of the Ali Qapu palace pavilion, overlooking the great maidan in Isfahan, Iran. 1974.

In Europe and America lions are ubiquitous, often gracing formal gardens and public buildings.

A tender moment in the gardens of Vaux-le-Vicomte, outside Paris. 1992
A lion decked with Christmas garlands in the gardens of the Biltmore Estate, once home of the Vanderbilts, in Asheville, North Carolina. 2018.

Sadly, lions may be a beast for another time, which is the way I begin to see myself these days, and it isn’t hard to imagine a world without them—or me, though I think that the lions would certainly be the greater loss. There has been talk of reintroducing lions to the wild in Morocco, but it strikes me as doubtful that such an effort will ever be made. There are too many people, and there is too little wild. People make bad neighbors. Ask any bear in the Pyrenees these days!

Footnote: December 6, 2022

The Atlas Lions are alive

Well, the Moroccan national team has notched a notable triumph. Morocco earned a well-deserved win over a strong opponent and will move on in the World Cup. Moroccans everywhere are celebrating. They are the first team from an Arab country and, only the fourth country from Africa, to reach this milestone. They will now play the world’s elite. I wish them luck.

Author: Dave

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

One thought on “Encounters with lions”

  1. Interesting take on Moroccan culture – thanks for posting. Isn’t it interesting how the taboo on depiction of living things is broken so often by various people – like statues of Salahadin and Sadam Hussein in Iraq, or in this case the Lion of Islam?


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