Get to Know Rabat Before You Go

Manny Jones By Manny Jones, 29th Aug 2013 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
Posted in Wikinut>Travel>Africa>Morocco>Rabat & Around

Don't let the sophisticated atmosphere of the city the king calls home fool you -- hints of Rabat's bloody history can still be found within Morocco's capital.

Get to Know Rabat Before You Go

Rabat is the lesser known, but in some ways more refined, younger sister of Casablanca. The capital of Morocco since 1912, it has been compared to Paris, the capital of France. A number of ex-patriots and foreigners call Rabat home, and the influence of their cultures is evident throughout the town. Make no mistake, however; Rabat is wholly Moroccan.

Rabat began its proud history during the Roman era, but truly began to take shape during the Almohad dynasty, when a permanent camp was established that grew into a small but permanent settlement. This was mainly due to Caliph Yacoub el-Mansour, who built and fortified the infrastructure of the town, which was to be a standing testament to his victory over Spanish kings at the Battle of Alarcos in 1195. Only four years later, however, the Caliph died, and although much work on his beloved city ceased, many of the structures erected during his time still stand.

If the walls lining the shores of Rabat and its sister city Salé could talk, they would most certainly speak of the droves of pirates that made their way through the area throughout the 15th and 16th centuries. During this time, the region where Rabat stood was nearly autonomous, and its economy depended on these ‘privateers.’ Even after the ‘Republic of Bou Regreg,’ named after the river that today separates the cities of Rabat and Salé, was added to the kingdom in the mid 17th-century, piracy was so vital to the region that it wasn’t fully gone until the mid-1800‘s.

Overlooking the Bou Regreg where these pirates once congregated is the Kasbah of the Oudayas. Once the site of a great fortress built by Yacoub el-Mansour, the kasbah now houses an Andalusian garden, private residences, a mosque, Rabat’s Museum of Moroccan Arts, a café, and numerous other monuments and places of interest.

Adjoining the Kasbah to the south is the medina, known especially for its carpets. They are auctioned off at a square in the Rue de Consuls, a street where every consul and ambassador to Morocco was once required to live. Also vying for attention are cloth merchants and tailors, many of whom learned their trade from their parents, who in turn learned it from theirs. One can grab a bit to eat in the Marché Central, a covered food market.

Rabat’s rich artistic history dates back to the Inquisition, where Muslims and Jews alike settled after fleeing from Spain, bringing their artistry of embroidery, woodworking, and other talents with them. The city’s 18th-century medina is noted for its carpets; so much so, in fact, that carpets having a formal and/or urban design are said to be ‘Rabat carpets.’ It is a testimony of Rabat’s cross-culturalism that many of its famous carpets reflect Oriental themes and composition.

Today, Rabat is the financial and political capital of Morocco. Walking through the streets of Rabat, there is a different sensibility to this city than any other in the country. Perhaps it is on its best behavior for the royal family. Perhaps it wishes to respect the final resting places of Mohammed V and Hassan II, its former kings. For a nation so steeped in seemingly contradictory values and customs, however, Rabat is undoubtedly the capital of the cross-culturalization that is the signature trait of Morocco. Its independent spirit dates back to a time when it was an autonomous region, and its beauty to the confluence of artisans and craftsmen that have sought refuge in the city.

What to Buy -- and Where to Buy It -- in Morocco

Anyone who visits Morocco and does not feel at least tempted to take home a piece of it is a cool customer indeed – especially when it is so easy to do so! Creating handcrafted items and traditional artworks is so ingrained to the culture of Morocco that over 7 percent of the country’s population are employed in such fields. Additionally, most of the craft work produced is made to be utilized in some way, be it leather, wood, textiles, metal, or ceramic.

Leather working is so important to the Moroccan culture that entire districts in Fes and Marrakech are devoted to tannery. One does not need to look far to see why: nearly every person walking down the street is wearing leather sandals or babouche, donkeys are laden with leather saddles and saddlebags, and leather attaches and knapsacks are commonly seen being carried by those passing by.

There are two types of metal most often crafted into goods in Morocco. Cast iron can be seen everywhere from the street, from balconies to window decorations called mousharabies to street lights and lamps. Inside the home, the metal of choice is copper, as it is a great reflector of light.

Carpets and Rugs
Of all the artisan traditions of Morocco, carpet weaving goes back perhaps the farthest. Carpets can be recognized and priced according to their age, place of origin, and density of the knots. The most renowned are the Rabat carpets, due to their high thread density (about 10,000 per square meter). Carpets known as “royals” or “orientals” are similar to Rabat carpets, and usually boast rich shades of red and blue. Some carpets are of Berber origin, and are made from camel hair. It is said that 15 camels are needed to make one small rug.

Silver is the most abundant precious metal of rural Moroccan jewelry, while gold is most valued in the urban areas. Rural pieces also tend to feature coral and amber, and have a heavy and somber look to them. Of course, other precious stones such as emeralds, pearls, and turquoise are also common. Such jewels are not simply confined to rings, necklaces, pendants, diadems, bracelets, and anklets; gold and silver daggers inlaid with precious stones are also a sign of wealth and prestige.

Many Moroccan carpenters and woodworkers ply their trade with aromatic cedar wood, although thuya and lemon-tree is also used. Craftsmen in Essaouira specialize in inlaid-work, while those in Fez and Tetouan work mainly with painted boxes and cradles. The neighboring cities of Fes and Meknes specialize in mousharabies and lattice work of sophisticated, geometrical designs.

Pottery and Ceramics
No visitor travels far in Morocco without spying one of the most traditional of Moroccan pottery items: the tagine. Used for creating savory stews and other dishes, tagines used for cooking are constructed of terra cotta, while presentation tagines that are used for serving only are made of painted and glazed ceramic. While Fez, Meknes, and Marrakech all lay claim to highly skilled potters, it is the town of Safi that is most known throughout the country for turning out high-quality ceramics.

One of the most versatile, yet most difficult to master, of all the Moroccan crafts is embroidery. It can be seen on tablecloths, caftans, napkins, scarves, and handkerchiefs, brightly colored, and sometimes bearing the name of the place in which it was created. Watching women in the souk performing their art of embroidery is reminiscent of watching a spider weaving her intricate web.

Stones and Fossils
One of the most ubiquitous sites in the rural countryside of Morocco is the fossil stand, in which a humble shopkeeper has set up a booth featuring rocks carved directly out of the Atlas Mountains. Within the rocks are fossilized crionids, trilobites, and annemones, reminders of creatures that inhabited the area long before man. In the south, the soft stone of Taroudant is used in carving boxes and paperweights, chiseled into geometrical designs. The High Atlas, between Marrakech and Ouazazate, is rich in semi-precious stones like amethyst, topaz, and cobalt.

Hand-woven baskets, boxes, and trays are found in nearly every town and village in Morocco. In the northern mountain range of the Rif, Berber women are often seen wearing large straw hats decorated with colorful threadwork and pom-poms. Fes, Marrakech, and Sale feature entire souks dedicated to basket weaving.


Battle Of Alarcos, Bou Regreg River, Carpets, Hassan Ii, Kasbah Of The Oudayas, Mohammed Vi, Moroccan Travel, Morocco, Moulay Ismail, Pirates, Rabat, Rue Consuls, Sal, Yacoub Al Mansour

Meet the author

author avatar Manny Jones
Manny enjoys writing, but isn't necessarily a writer in the same way that not everyone who slaps paint on a canvas is an artist. She enjoys writing about, and slapping paint on, a variety of topics.

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author avatar Mark Gordon Brown
31st Aug 2013 (#)

Rabat would be a fantastic place to visit, thank you for the guide.

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author avatar Sivaramakrishnan A
31st Aug 2013 (#)

Very well told, Manny - a country and cities with a rich past and plying same trade still through their mastery - siva

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