Morocco: A Land Between the Worlds
10 July, 2019
December is harvest time in Morocco. There is an abundance of fresh olives and mandarins. The days are luminous, the sunlight dazzling, but there is a chill in the air which grows as night draws in - especially if you choose to sleep in a tent on the edge of the Sahara desert.
The desert was one of the reasons I came here: pure and elemental, the silence of the sands will fill your ears. Camels are patient, their stoicism is humbling. The people of the desert are equally resilient, quietly strong. "You can shake the sand from your shoes, but not from your soul," a man told me.
Berbers have inhabited North Africa for millennia. They call themselves "Amazigh", meaning "free people" in the indigenous Tamazight language. Perhaps freedom is the biggest draw of the desert. With sands always moving, boundaries are an abstract concept.
Countless ksars have been built along the routes of the nomadic Tuareg Berbers from Marrakech to Timbuktu. Mud, sand, water and straw were used to create these impressive structures - Ait Ben Haddou, now a Unesco Heritage Site, is one of the best-preserved examples.
Volubilis, an ancient Berber settlement once under Roman rule, was once resplendent with its triumphal arch, floor mosaics and surrounding olive groves. In the eighth century it served as the seat of Idris ibn Abdallah, founder of Moroccan state and the great-great-great-grandson of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad. Three hundred years later, Morocco's seat of power had transferred to Fez.
Today Morocco's second largest city, Fez is fascinating. Its ancient medina is the main draw, a labyrinth of narrow passageways lined with houses that have been inhabited for 12 generations. Time here ticks to a different clock. Traditional crafts and industries thrive; the stone wells of the Chouara Tannery have been in use since the 11th century. The city is also home to the world's oldest, continually operating university, Al Quaraouiyine, founded by Fatima al-Fihri in 859.
Of course, most people visiting Morocco will make a beeline for Marrakech - and rightly so. You can savour street food and admire snake charmers in the bustling market Jemaa el-Fna, explore beautiful palaces or hike the nearby Atlas Mountains.
Morocco is a country of great natural beauty, unique culture and long history. It's at once a Mediterranean country, an African country and a Muslim country, spread across majestic mountains and romantic desert. Traditions here are living ones and the people welcome visitors warmly. Morocco defies definition.