Travels in Morocco, by James Richardson

Chapter 5

Description of the Imperial Cities or Capitals of the Empire. — El–Kesar. — Mequinez. — Fez. — Morocco. — The province of Tafilett, the birth-place of the present dynasty of the Shereefs.

The royal or capitals of the interior now demand our attention, which are El–Kesar, Mequinez, Fez, and Morocco.

El–Kesar, or Al–Kesar, 63 styled also El–Kesue-Kesar, is so named and distinguished because it owes its enlargement to the famous Sultan of Fez, Almansor, who improved and beautified it about the year 1180, and designed this city as a magazine and rendezvous of troops for the great preparations he was making at the time for the conquest of Granada. El–Kesar is in the province of the Gharb, and situate on the southern bank of the Luccos; here is a deep and rapid stream, flowing W. 1/4 N.W. The town is nearly as large as Tetuan, but the streets are dirty and narrow, and many of the houses in a ruinous condition, This fortified place was once adorned by some fifteen mosques, but only two or three are now fit for service. The population does not exceed four or five thousand souls, and some think this number over-estimated.

The surrounding country is flat meadowland, but flooded after the rains, and producing fatal fevers, though dry and hot enough in summer. The suburban fields are covered with gardens and orchards. It was at El–Kesar, where, in A.D. 1578, the great battle of The Three Kings came off, because, besides the Portuguese King, Don Sebastian, two Moorish princes perished on this fatal day. But one of them, Muley Moluc, died very ill in a litter, and was not killed in the fight; his death, however, was kept a secret till the close of the battle, in order that the Moors might not be discouraged. With their prince, Don Sebastian, perished the flower of the Portuguese nobility and chivalry of that time. War, indeed, was found “a dangerous game” on that woeful day: both for princes and nobles, and many a poor soul was swept away

“Floating in a purple tide.”

But the “trade of war” has been carried on ever since, and these lessons, written in blood, are as useless to mankind as those dashed off by the harmless pen of the sentimental moralist. El–Kesar is placed in Latitude, 35° 1 10” N.; Longitude, 5° 49’ 30” W.

Mequinez, 64 in Arabic, Miknas (or Miknasa), is a royal residence, and city of the province of Fez, situate upon a hill in the midst of a well-watered and most pleasant town, blessed with a pure and serene air. The city of Miknas is both large and finely built, of considerable interest and of great antiquity. It was founded by the tribe of Berbers Meknâsab, a fraction of the Zenatah, in the middle of the tenth century, and called Miknasat, hence is derived its present name. The modern town is surrounded with a triple wall thirteen feet high and three thick, enclosing a spacious area. This wall is mounted with batteries to awe the Berbers of the neighbouring mountains. The population amounts to about twenty thousand souls, (some say forty or fifty thousand) in which are included about nine thousand Negro troops, constituting the greater portion of the Imperial guard. Two thousand of these black troops are in charge of the royal treasures, estimated at some fifty millions of dollars, and always increasing. These treasures consist of jewels, bars of gold and silver, and money in the two precious metals, the greater part being Spanish and Mexican dollars.

The inhabitants are represented as being the most polished of the Moors, kind and hospitable to strangers. The palace of the Emperor is extremely simple and elegant, all the walls of which are embroidered with the beautiful stucco-work of Arabesque patterns, as pure and chaste as the finest lace. The marble for the pillars was furnished from the ruins adjacent, called Kesar Farâoun, “Castle of Pharoah” (a name given to most of the old ruins of Morocco, of whose origin there is any doubt).

During the times of piracy, there was here, as also at Morocco, a Spanish hospitium for the ransom and recovery of Christian slaves. Even before Mequinez was constituted a royal city, it was a place of considerable trade and riches. Nothing of any peculiar value has been discovered among the extensive and ancient ruins about a mile distant, and which have furnished materials for the building of several royal cities; they are, however, supposed to be Roman. Scarcely a day’s journey separates Mequinez from Fez. It is not usual for two royal cities to be placed so near together, but which must render their fortunes inseparable.

Fez, or Fas. According to some, the name Fas, which signifies in Arabia a pickaxe, was given to it because one was found in digging its foundations. Others derive it from Fetha, silver. It is no longer the marvellous city described by Leo Africanus, yet its learning, wealth, and industry place it in the first rank of the cities of Morocco. During the eighth century, the Arabs, masters of Tunis, of all Algeria, and the maritime cities of Morocco, seemed to think only of invading Europe and consolidating their power in Spain; but at this epoch, a descendant of Ali and Fatima, Edris Ben Abdalluh, quitted Arabia, passed into Morocco, and established himself at Oualili, the capital, where he remained till his death, and where he was buried. His character was generally known and venerated for its sanctity, and drew upon him the affectionate regard of the people, and all instinctively placed themselves near him as a leader of the Faithful, likely to put an end to anarchy, and establish order in the Mussulman world. His son, Edris–Ben-Edris, who inherited his virtues and influence, offering a species of ancient prototype to Abd-el Kader and his venerable father, Mahadin, was the first bona-fide Mussulman sovereign of the Maroquine empire, and founded Fez.

Fez is a most ancient centre of population, and had long been a famed city, before Muley Edris, in the year A.D. 807 (others in 793), gave it its present form and character.

From that period, however, Fez 65 dates its modern celebrity and rank among the Mahometan capitals of the world, and especially as being the second city of Islamism, and the “palace of the Mussulmen Princes of the West.” That the Spanish philologists should make Fut, of the Prophet Nahum, to be the ancient capital of Fez, is not remarkable, considering the numerous bands of emigrants, who, emerging from the coast, wandered as far as the pillars of Hercules; and, besides, in a country like North Africa, the theatre of so many revolutions, almost every noted city of the present period has had its ancient form, from which it has been successively changed.

The modern capital is placed in a valley upon the gentle slope of several hills by which it is surrounded, and whose heights are crowned with lovely gardens breathing odoriferous sweets. Close by is a little river, or a branch of the Tebou, named Wad-el-Juhor, or “streamlet,” which supplies the city with excellent water.

The present buildings are divided into old and new Fez. The streets are so narrow that two men on horseback could scarcely ride abreast; they are, besides, very dark, and often arched over. Colonel Scott represents some of the streets, however, as a mile in length. The houses are high, but not handsome. The shops are numerous and much frequented, though not very fine in appearance. Fez contains no less than seven hundred mosques, fifty of which are superb, and ornamented with fine columns of marble; there is, besides, a hundred or more of very small and ill-built mosques, or rather, houses of prayer. The most famous of these temples of worship is El–Karoubin (or El–Karouïin), supported by three hundred pillars. In this is preserved the celebrated library of antiquity, where, it is pretended, ancient Greek and Latin authors are to be found in abundance with the lost books of Titus Livy.

This appears to be mere conjecture. 66 But the mosque the more frequented and venerated, is that dedicated to the founder of the city, Muley Edris, whose ashes repose within its sacred enclosure. So excessive is this “hero-worship” for this great sultan, that the people constantly invoke his name in their prayers instead of that of the Deity. The mausoleum of this sacro-santo prince is inviolable and unapproachable. The university of Fez was formally much celebrated, but little of its learning now remains. Its once high-minded orthodox mulahs are now succeeded by a fanatic and ignorant race of marabouts. Nevertheless, the few hommes de lettres found in Morocco are congregated here, and the literature of the empire is concentrated in this city. Seven large public schools are in full activity, besides numbers of private seminaries of instruction. The low humour of the talebs, and the fanaticism of the people, are unitedly preserved and developed in this notorious doggerel couplet, universally diffused throughout Morocco:—

Ensara fee Senara
Elhoud fee Sefoud

“Christians on the hook
Jews on the spit,” or

“Let Christians be hooked,
And let Jews be cooked.”

The great division of the Arabic into eastern and western dialects makes little real difference in a practical point of view. The Mogrebbin, or western, is well understood by all travellers, and, of course, by all scholars from the East.

The palace of the Sultan is not large, but is handsome. There are numerous baths, and an hospital for the mad or incurable. The population was estimated, not long ago, at 88,000 souls, of which there were 60,000 Moors and Arabs (the Moors being chiefly immigrants from Spain), 10,000 Berbers, 8,000 Jews, and 10,000 Negroes. But this amount has been reduced to 40,000, or even 30,000; and the probability is, the present population of Fez does not by any means, exceed 50,000, if it reaches that number. Nearly all the Jews reside in the new city, which, by its position, dominates the old one. The inhabitants of Fez, in spite of their learning and commerce, are distinguished for their fanaticism; and an European, without an escort of troops, cannot walk in the streets unless disguised. It was lately the head-quarters of the fanatics who preached “the holy war,” and involved the Emperor in hostilities with the French.

The immense trade of every kind carried on at Fez gives it almost the air of an European city. In the great square, called Al–Kaisseriah, is exhibited all the commerce of Europe and Africa — nay, even of the whole world. The crowd of traffickers here assemble every day as at a fair. Fez has two annual caravans; one leaves for Central Africa, or Timbuctoo; and another for Mecca, or the caravan of pilgrims. The two great stations and rendezvous points of the African caravan are Tafilett and Touat. The journey from Fez to Timbuctoo occupies about ninety days. The Mecca caravan proceeds the same route as far as Touat, and then turns bank north-east to Ghadames, Fezzan, and Angelah, and thence to Alexandria, which it accomplishes in four or five, to six months. All depends on the inclination of the Shereef, or Commandant, of the caravan; but the journey from Fez to Alexandria cannot, by the quickest caravan, be accomplished in much less time than three months and a half, or one hundred days. The value of the investments in this caravan has been estimated at a million of dollars; for the faithful followers of the Prophet believe, with us, that godliness is profitable in the life that now is, as well as in that which is to come.

Fez is surrounded with a vast wall, but which is in decay. What is this decay! It applies almost to every Moorish city and public building in North Africa. And yet the faith of the false prophet is as strong as ever, and with time and hoary age seems to strike its roots deeper into the hearts of its simple, but enthusiastic and duped devotees!

The city has seven gates, and two castles, at the east and west, form its main defence. These castles are very ancient, and are formed and supported by square walls about sixty feet in front, Ali Bey says, subterraneous passages are reported to exist between these castles and the city; and, whenever the people revolt against the Sultan, cannon are planted on the castles with a few soldiers as their guard. The fortifications, or Bastiles, of Paris, we see, therefore, were no new invention of Louis Philippe to awe the populace. The maxims of a subtle policy are instructive in despotism of every description.

The constituted authorities of Fez are like those of every city of Morocco. The Governor is the lieutenant of the sovereign, exercising the executive power; the Kady, or supreme judge, is charged with the administration of the law, and the Al–Motassen fixes the price of provisions, and decides all the questions of trade and customs. There are but few troops at Fez, for it is not a strong military possession; on the contrary, it is commanded by accessible heights and is exposed to a coup-de-main.

Fez, indeed, could make no bonâ-fide resistance to an European army. The manufactures are principally woollen haiks, silk handkerchiefs, slippers and shoes of excellent leather, and red caps of felt, commonly called the fez; the first fabrication of these red caps appears to have been in this city. The Spanish Moorish immigrants introduced the mode of dressing goat and sheep-skins, at first known by the name of Cordovan from Cordova; but, since the Moorish forced immigration, they have acquired the celebrated name of Morocco. The chief food of the people is the national Moorish dish of cuscasou, a fine grained paste, cooked by steam, with melted fat, oil, or other liquids poured upon the dish, and sometimes garnished with pieces of fowl and other meat. A good deal of animal food is consumed, but few vegetables. The climate is mild in the winter, but suffocating with heat in the summer. This city is placed in latittude 34° 6’ 3” N. longitude 4° 38” 15’W.

Morocco, or strictly in Arabic, Maraksh, which signifies “adorned,” is the capital of the South, and frequently denominated the capital of the Empire, but it is only a triste shadow of its former greatness. It is sometimes honoured with the title of “the great city,” or “country.” Morocco occupies an immense area of ground, being seven miles in circumference, the interior of which is covered with heaps of ruins or more pleasantly converted into gardens. Morocco was built in 1072 or 1073 by the famous Yousel–Ben-Tashfin, King of Samtuna, and of the dynasty of the Almoravedi, or Marabouts. Its site is that of an ancient city, Martok, founded in the remotest periods of the primitive Africans, or aboriginal Berbers, in whose language it signifies a place where everything good and pleasant was to be found in abundance.

Bocanum Hermerum of the Ancients was also near the site of this capital, Morocco attained its greatest prosperity shortly after its foundation, and since then it has only declined. In the twelfth century, under the reign of Jâkoub Almanzor, there were 10,000 houses and 700,000 souls, (if indeed we can trust their statistics); but, at the present time, there are only some forty to fifty thousand inhabitants, including 4,000 Shelouhs and 5,000 Jews. Ali Bey, in 1804, estimates its population at only 30,000, and Captain Washington in 1830 at 80, or 100,000. This vast city lies at the foot of the Atlas, or about fourteen miles distant, spread over a wide and most lovely plain of the province of Rhamma, watered by the river Tensift, six miles from the gates of the capital.

The mosques are numerous and rich, the principal of which are El–Kirtubeeah, of elegant architecture with an extremely lofty minaret; El–Maazin, which is three hundred years old, and a magnificent building; and Benious, built nearly seven hundred years ago of singular construction, uniting modern and ancient architecture. The mosque of the patron saint is Sidi Belabbess. Nine gates open in the city-walls; these are strong and high, and flanked with towers, except on the south east where the Sultan’s palace stands. The streets are crooked, of uneven width, unpaved, and dirty in winter, and full of dust in summer.

There are several public squares and marketplaces. The Kaessaria, or commercial quarter, is extensive, exhibiting every species of manufacture and natural product.

The manufactures of this, as of other large places, are principally, silks, embroidery, and leather. The merchants of Mogador have magazines here; this capital has also its caravans, which trade to the interior, passing through Wadnoun to the south.

The Imperial palace is without the city and fortified with strong walls. There are large gardens attached, in one of which the Emperor receives his merchants and the diplomatic agents. The air of the country, at the foot of the Atlas, is pure and salubrious. The city is well supplied with water from an aqueduct, connecting it with the river Tensift, which flows from the gorges of the Atlas. But the inhabitants, although they enjoy this inestimable blessing in an African climate, are not famous for their cleanliness; Morocco, if possessing any particular character, still must be considered as a commercial city, for its learning is at a very low ebb. Its interior wears a deeply dejected, nay a profoundly gloomy aspect.

“Horrendum incultumque specus.”

and the European merchants, when they come up here are glad to get away as soon as possible.

Outside the city, there is a suburb appropriated to lepers, a Lazar-house of leprosy, which afflicting and loathsome disease descends from father to son through unbroken generations; the afflicted cannot enter the city, and no one dare approach their habitations. The Emperor usually resides for a third portion of his time at Morocco the rest at Fez and Mequinez. Whenever his Imperial Highness has anything disagreeable with foreign European powers, he comes down from Fez to Morocco, to get out of the way. Occasionally, he travels from town to town of the interior, to awe by his presence the ever restless disaflfection of the tribes, or excite their loyalty for the Shereefian throne.

Morocco is placed in Lat. 31° 37” 31’ N. and Long. 7° 35” 30’, W.

Tafilett consists of a group of towns or villages, situate on the south-eastern side of the Atlas, which may he added to the royal cities, being inhabited in part by the Imperial family, and is the birth-place of their sovereign power — emphatically called Beladesh–Sherfa, “country of the Shereefs.” The country was anciently called Sedjelmasa, and retained this name up to 1530 A.D., when the principal city acquired the apellation of Tafilett, said to be derived from an Arab immigrant, called Filal, who improved the culture of dates, and whose name on this account, under the Berber form of Tafilett, was given to a plantation of dates cultivated by him, and then passed to the surrounding districts.

At the present time, Tafilett consists of a group of fortified or castle-built villages, environed by walls mounted with square towers, which extend on both sides of the river Zig. There is also a castle, or rather small town, upon the left side of the river, called by the ordinary name of Kesar, which is in the hands of the Shereefs, and inhabited entirely by the family of the Prophet. The principal and most flourishing place was a long time called Tafilett, but is now according to Callie, Ghourlan, and the residence of the Governor of the province of Ressant, a town distinguished by a magnificent gateway surrounded with various coloured Dutch tiles, symmetrically arranged in a diamond pattern. This traveller calls the district of Tafilett, Afile or Afilel.

It is probable that from the rains of the ancient Sedjelmasa, some of the modern villages have been constructed. The towns and districts of Tafilett once formed an independent kingdom. The present population has been estimated at some ten thousand, but this is entirely conjectural. Callié mentions the four towns of Ghourlan, L’Eksebi, Sosso and Boheim as containing eleven or twelve thousand souls. The soil of Tafilett is level, composed of sand of an ashy grey, productive of corn, and all sorts of European fruits and vegetables. The natives have fine sheep, with remarkably white wool. The manufactures, which are in woollen and silk, are called Tafiletes.

Besides being a rendezvous of caravans, radiating through all parts of the Sahara, Tafilett is a great mart of traffic in the natural products of the surrounding countries. A fine bridge spans the Zig, built by a Spaniard. When the Sultan of Morocco finds any portion of his family inclined to be naughty, he sends them to Tafilett, as we are wont to send troublesome people to “Jericho.” This, at any rate, is better than cutting off their heads, which, from time immemorial, has been the invariable practice of African and Oriental despots. The Maroquine princes may be thankful they have Tafilett as a place of exile. The Emperors never visit Tafilett except as dethroned exiles. A journey to such a place is always attended with danger; and were the Sultan to escape, he would find, on his return, the whole country in revolt.

Regarding these royal cities, we sum up our observations. The destinies of Fez and Mequinez are inseparable. United, they contain one hundred thousand inhabitants, the most polished and learned in the Empire. Fez is the city of arts and learning, that is of what remains of the once famous and profound Moorish doctors of Spain. Mequinez is the strong place of the Empire, an emporium of arms and imperial Cretsures. Fez is the rival of Morocco. The two cities are the capitals of two kingdoms, never yet amalgamated. The present dynasty belongs not to Fez, but to Morocco; though a dynasty of Shereefs, they are Shereefs of the south, and African blood flows in their veins.

The Sultan generally is obliged to give a preference to Fez for a residence, because his presence is necessary to maintain the allegiance of the north country, and to curb its powerful warparty, his son in the meanwhile being left Governor during his absence. But all these royal cities are on the decline, the “sere and yellow leaf” of a well nigh defunct civilization. Morocco is a huge shell of its former greatness, a monster of Moresque dilapidations. France may awaken the slumbering energies of the population of these once flourishing and august cities, but left to themselves they are powerless, sinking under their own weight and uncouth encumbrances, and will rise no more till reconstructed by European hands.

63 El–Kesar is a very common name of a fortified town, and is usually written by the Spaniards Alcazar, being the name of the celebrated royal palace at Seville.

64 Marmol makes this city to have succeeded the ancient Roman town of Silda or Gilda. Mequinez has been called Ez–Zetounah, from the immense quantities of olives in its immediate vicinity.

65 Don J. A. Conde says — “Fes or sea Fez, the capital of the realm of that name; the fables of its origin, and the grandeur of the Moors, who always speak of their cities as foundations of heroes, or lords of the whole world, &c., a foible of which our historians are guilty. Nasir–Eddin and the same Ullug Beig say, for certain, that Fez is the court of the king in the west. I must observe here, that nothing is less authentic than the opinions given by Casiri in his Library of the Escurial, that by the word Algarb, they always mean the west of Spain, and by the word Almagreb, the west of Africa; one of these appellations is generally used for the other. The same Casiri says, with regard to Fez, that it was founded by Edno Ben Abdallah, under the reign of Almansor Abu Giafar; he is quite satisfied with that assertion, but does not perceive that it contains a glaring anachronism. Fez was already a very ancient city before the Mohammed Anuabi of the Mussulmen, and Joseph, in his A. J., mentions a city of Mauritania; the prophet Nahum speaks of it also, when he addresses Ninive, he presents it as an example for No Ammon. He enumerates its districts and cities, and says, Fut and Lubim, Fez and Lybia, &c.

66 I imagine we shall never know the truth of this until the French march an army into Fez, and sack the library.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:59