Exploring Rabat

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If you have asked me a year back what the capital of Morocco is, I would have answered confidently - “Marrakech.” Only after we booked our Morocco trip, I realized that the capital of Morocco is a lesser-known city called Rabat. Rabat is only an hour’s drive from Casablanca, the economic capital of Morocco. Except for the fabulous Hassan II mosque, Casablanca does not boast a ton of tourist attractions. Thus, many Morocco-bound tourists skip Casablanca-Rabat altogether. As our G adventure trip started from Casablanca, we decided to take the opportunity to visit Rabat. We added an extra day on our itinerary. We had a wonderful private day trip with Navett tours to the capital of Morocco.

Morocco capitals

Fez, Meknes, Marrakesh, and Rabat- are collectively referred to as the “imperial cities of Morocco.” At some point in Morocco's history, all of them have been the capital of this country. The oldest of them is Fez, it became capital in the ninth century under Sultan Idriss II. Almoravides  shifted its base to Marrakesh. In12th century, Almohads took control of Morocco and built Rabat as their capital. For a brief stint, during the rule of Moulay Ismael, Meknes was the center of power. In 1912, Rabat again became capital under the French protectorate and retained the title after independence in 1956. The city has a cosmopolitan, dynamic vibe resulting from extensive urban, economic, and socio-cultural developments in the recent past. Kasbah area is the old historical part of Rabat, where we spent most of our time.

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Things to see in Rabat

Yacoub al Mansour square is the biggest attraction of Rabat. It houses two prominent landmarks of Rabat. Hassan Tower and the Mausoleum of King Mohammed V. Royal guards on horses guard the entrance to the square and yes…you can take pictures with them!

Mausoleum of King Mohammed V is the final resting place of three significant members of the royal family - past Moroccan king Mohammed V (1909-1961), his sons’ king Hassan II (1961-1999), and prince Abdallah. It is a superb example of the Alaouite dynasty's architectural style. The exterior of the mausoleum has white walls of marble and green-tiled roof. Inside the tomb, there are elegant works of white marble and tiles. All four doors to the chamber are secured by royal guards in red uniforms.The adjacent mosque is equally stunning. Unfortunately, non-muslims are not permitted to go inside the mosque.

Hassan tower has a fascinating history. Sultan Yacoub al-Mansour, the mastermind behind the iconic Kutubiyya Mosque at Marrakech and The Giralda in Seville, wanted to build the biggest mosque in the Arab world. At its completion, the minaret of the mosque was supposed to be the largest in the world. Unfortunately, upon his death in 1150, construction was stalled, and this 45-meter-high Hassan tower, half of its intended height, is all that remains today. The rest of the mosque was also left unfinished. The incomplete foundation of the mosque, its walls, and the columns is a testament to his grand plan.

Our next destination was the Kasbah district in the old town of Rabat. It is located on an Atlantic coast at the mouth of the Bou Regreg river. The Kasbah of the Udayas played a vital role in the Republic of Salé. In the 16th century, the Moors were expelled from Spain by King Philip II. Some of them settled in Rabat. Piracy and the slave trade were their principal livelihood. In 1624, these Moors rebelled against the Moroccan king. They created the Republic of Salé, which consisted of Rabat and Salé, a neighboring city of Rabat. This republic was extremely short-lived. In 1668, Sultan Al-Rashid of the Alaouite dynasty, (current rulers of Morocco) conquered them and united the kingdom. However, Barbary pirates continued to operate from Rabat and remained active even in the early 19th century. In 2012, it was granted the status of World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Inside the fortress walls of the Kasbah lies a quiet neighborhood of winding white-and-blue alleys and Andalusian-style dwellings. A perfect place for desultory, meandering strolls.

Our last destination at Rabat was Chellah- a medieval fortified town located in the center of Rabat looking down on the river. It houses both Roman ruins and a medieval Muslim necropolis. The Chellah was built by the Romans in around 40 AD and they inhabited this town until 250 AD. By the 12th century, as its occupants moved to Salé, the city was abandoned. Later the Almohad dynasty used it as a cemetery. In the 14th century, the Marinids did quite a bit of renovation - added the main gate, defensive wall and towers, a mosque, a madrasa, and other monuments. Present-day Chellah is a collection of collapsing ruins, littered with Roman marble columns and statues. It is overgrown with hedges, bushes, olive, and fig trees, and is residence to storks that nest on the top of the ruins. There is a small entrance fee that can be paid at the main gate.

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A quick tip

We took a guided tour, which started from Casablanca. Our car drove through the Casablanca - Rabat highway, the first expressway built in Morocco. If you want to take a taste of high-speed railway in Africa, taking the train from Casablanca to Rabat is a great opportunity.

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