Friendly Planet Blog

Imperial Cities, a peaceful people… and mint tea!

Beneath the hot, North African sun ancient metropolises bloomed from the desert among the diverse landscape of jagged mountains, lush valleys, and pristine coastline. Over the centuries, political powers and empires from Europe created fluidity among the people and borders, and Morocco first entered the scene in 225 BC as the Berber Kingdom of Mauretania. Since then, the country has seen many changes—from the formation of its imperial cities (Marrakesh, Fez, Meknes, and Rabat) to the development of a complex culture with fascinating cuisine and focus on peace and knowledge. And together, along with the stunning diversity of landscapes that make up this incredible country, each of these elements is a beautiful thread in the intricate tapestry of present day Morocco and worth taking the time to explore when you visit!

Old Rabat Morocco by xiquinhosilva Flickr

Morocco’s history is a sharp contrast to its neighbors. While nearby countries boast a past of victory through war, much of Morocco’s history is a story of peaceful unity, a theme reflected in the Moroccan people today. According to legend, the territory became an independent country when Idris ibn Abdallah, seeking sanctuary from violence in Iraq, persuaded local tribes to break their allegiances to Baghdad. He formed the Idrisi dynasty in 788 AD and named Fez as Morocco’s first capital city. Under his leadership Morocco became the center of learning and discovery of the region. The University of Al Quaraouiyine was established in Fez in 859 AD and is still open today, outstripping Oxford University by more than two centuries!

Notably, Morocco was the first to recognize America as an independent country, offering supply ships safe passage as they transported goods from France during the American Revolution. Additionally, the city of Rabat holds the mausoleum of Sultan Mohammed V, famed for refusing to impose Vichy France’s anti-Jewish laws that would have deported 250,000 Jews to Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust.

Al Quaraouiyine University Details, Fez ©Mike Prince & Chico Boomba/Flickr

Despite Morocco’s control of much of the Western Sahara Desert, it’s far from a desert country. Rather, Morocco is home to both the towering Rif and Atlas mountain ranges and supports a lush, green Mediterranean forest. Its climate is mild and sunny, similar to that of Southern California, making Morocco pleasant to visit in all seasons! Rabat is located on the Atlantic coast, with wide boulevards lined with verdant palm trees and a beautiful turquoise ocean beyond white sandy shores.

Fez, in the northern foothills of the Atlas Mountains, offers much more urban views. Startlingly romantic sunsets over the medina and a historic cityscape thrown into sharp relief of orange and purple from atop the Merenid tombs make for incredible photo ops. Just north of Toubkal National Park, Marrakesh is world renowned for its beautiful courtyards and gardens, including the Majorelle Garden, created by French artist Jacques Majorelle in 1923, which includes a cubist villa as well as the Islamic Art and Berber Museums on its three acres.

Atlas Mountains, Morocco ©ErWin/Flickr

With an enviable location bordering the Strait of Gibraltar, Morocco is a portal for European influences melding with Africa and the Middle East. With a unique culture and distinctive art, music, and literature, Morocco seamlessly blends elements from all three regions! Rabat, youngest of all the imperial cities, was conceived during the French Protectorate and shows heavy French influences in its architecture and design. In Fez, the Jewish quarters known as the Mellah took inspiration from Moorish Spain, its northern neighbor across the strait. Essence of the Middle East permeates throughout, with large ornate archways and intricate mosaic-adorned buildings, and the crowded, sprawling labyrinth of the souks.

The medina in Fez, an UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the world’s largest pedestrian urban zone and the best conserved historic town of the Arab world! You could find yourself lost among the beautiful Moroccan wares of leather, spices, and handcrafts in its enormous souk. In Marrakesh you can view the resplendent sepulchers of the 16th century Saadian tombs, only rediscovered in the early 20th century. Or make a stop at the Bahia Palace, intended to be the greatest palace of its time and boasting a two-acre garden courtyard.

In Meknes you’ll find the stunning imperial headquarters of Sultan Moulay Ismael, a fortified city-within-a-city holding several palaces, dungeons, gardens and courtyards. Its royal stables were outfitted to hold 12,000 horses and the complex included granary silos that once stored enough food to feed the entire city for a year! And with a history as rich and storied as Morocco’s, there’s no shortage of museums to be found either, including the Belghazi Museum in Fez established inside a 17th century townhouse known as a riad, and Rabat’s Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art.

Majorelle Garden in Marrakesh ©SnippyHolloW/Flickr

To discuss the beauty of Morocco without a mention of its food would be criminal! Moroccan cuisine features strong, flavorful spices that don’t impart a lot of heat to the tongue, and beef and lamb are the most common red meats consumed. With nearly 2,000 miles of coastline, seafood is also abundant in the country. Tagine, named after the flat clay pot with conical lid that it’s cooked in, is one of the most popular dishes in the country and is served everywhere from cozy cafes and private homes to grand restaurants and street food stalls. It usually consists of beef or chicken seasoned with bold spices and then slow-cooked with vegetables and dried fruits—served with warm, freshly baked bread.

Of course, Moroccan cuisine is all about the sensory experience and vibrant flavors, with many dishes combining taste profiles such as sweet and savory in unexpected, delicious ways! For example, pastilla is meat pie traditionally made of pigeon (though most commonly today, chicken) with layers of phyllo dough and onions, which is often given a dusting of cinnamon and powdered sugar before serving.

And you certainly cannot discuss Moroccan cuisine without mentioning mint tea. Mint tea bars are to Morocco what pubs and alcoholic drinks are to Westerners! A large part of the community’s social scene revolves around the drinking of sweetened mint tea and special tea ceremonies are often performed for friends and family as well as tourists. Morocco even has its own traditional style of teapots with long narrow spouts for making mint tea!

Moroccan Food ©Twin-Loc France/Flickr

The beauty of Morocco is something that can’t be denied, from its majestic landscapes to the kindness and hospitality of its people and the rich cultures they share. A visit to this welcoming country will leave you feeling as though you just dropped in on a beloved distant relative, where streets and houses are new and exciting, yet still feel somehow familiar. Whether you visit during the spring blooming, the sunny summertime or the mild and chilly winter, Morocco will be ready to welcome you home.

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