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Moulay Idriss: Morocco's Most Holy City

Vocabulary Box

semblance - appearance

feign - to pretend or fake

subjugated - conquered; enslaved

flank - side of something

Up until 70 years ago, non-Muslims couldn't even visit the town of Moulay Idriss, here in the mountains near Meknés, Morocco. Fortunately, I didn't have to go through the long process of converting to Islam just to visit Morocco's most holy city and tell you about it! They still won't let me spend the night, though, so I'd better make this a quick trip! I jump out of the back of the pick-up truck giving me a ride, careful not to catch my long skirt on the tailgate. It's hard for me to feign modesty sometimes! I wear long skirts and shirts with sleeves, and sometimes even cover my head with a scarf in order not to offend anyone or attract unwanted attention from the men. I can't count the number of times now that I've gotten my skirt caught in something or stepped on it on my way up the stairs! I know that modesty is an important part of the Muslim religion, and it definitely has its benefits, but for a woman who is accustomed to being very active and self-sufficient, it can be annoying!

Anyway, I manage to get out of the pickup with a semblance of grace, and find myself in the center of an old mountain town, all the buildings painted white and glowing in the sun. The town was built by, was named after, and now houses the remains of a man named Moulay Idriss. Idriss founded the first dynasty in Morocco, known as the Idrissid dynasty.

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The holy
city of Moulay Idriss
Moulay Idriss came to Morocco around 780 AD from Mecca, Islam's most holy city, located in present-day Saudi Arabia. He was the great-grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, and had been involved in a struggle for power. The Abbasid Caliphate, a Muslim religious leader from Baghdad, won the struggle, and Moulay Idriss fled to keep from being killed.

Arab invaders had come to Morocco years before, bringing both Islam and their oppressive style of rule. They treated the local Berbers as second-class citizens in their own country. The Berbers liked the new religion, Islam, but they didn't like the mean guys who brought it to them. In the year 740, they kicked all the Arabs out of Morocco, but they continued practicing Islam.

So Moulay Idriss, a direct descendent of Mohammed and a dynamic leader, showed up in Morocco. Soon, all the major Berber tribes had pledged allegiance to him, and the others, the books say, were "subjugated" (what do you suppose that means?). So anyway, the dude gets proclaimed "Imam," (both their religious and political leader) in 789, right here in this town he created. Not bad for the new kid, eh?

I find myself walking up the hill towards the mausoleum where Moulay Idriss is buried, surrounded by a tour bus full of Americans. Culture shock! The old lady next to me is wearing a jogging suit and tennis shoes, and speaking in a Southern accent. She's from my home state of Virginia! I chat with them a while, and listen to what their guide has to say as we wander through the entrance of the mausoleum and mosque.

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Idriss watches over everyone who enters his mausoleum
Hanging over the walkway is a huge picture of Moulay Idriss, flanked on either side by smaller pictures of Hassan II, the king of Morocco who just died a few months ago. "This is as far as non-Muslims can go," the guide tells us, pointing towards a sign. We're looking down an outside walkway, with men and women walking quietly to and from prayer. "In 791, the Abbasids from Baghdad had Moulay Idriss poisoned. He died, but that only increased the reverence that Moroccans have towards him. Now, every August, Moroccans make the great moussem or pilgrimage to come here, where his body lays. They buy candles to light in memory of someone or with a special prayer, a lot like the Catholics do."

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"Interesting," I think, "but I'm hungry and tired of these tourists!" I go back a stall where they sell candles for people entering the mosque, and candies for those of us who can only look from afar. Armed with homemade cashew and peanut brittle, I decide to try to find the lookout platform where you can look down and see the whole town, and even catch a glimpse into Moulay Idriss's mausoleum and mosque.

Up and up, I weave and wander down the thin passageways of the medina. "Es salaem alekum," people say the traditional greeting of "Peace be upon you," as I round the corner. They're not used to lone foreign women wandering through their village. "Wa alekum es salaem," I reply the traditional reply, "And upon you, peace." Then they smile, even more surprised, and leave me to getting myself lost.

I follow one passage up, only to end at a set of locked doors. I go back down a bit, then up another set of stairs -- the same thing. Then another·and another. Finally, I give up. I've been wandering down the thin cobblestone paths, just wide enough for a donkey, with white houses on either side, for a good half-hour or so. I am thoroughly lost. So it's back down, down, down for me, until I finally come out just down the road from where I started.

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my guide, is in between his friends, who are also named Mohammed. It must be confusing!
Okay, I'll try again, and this time with a guide! I find 10-year-old Mohammed hanging out in the square and enlist his help. Soon, he's leading me up and up again, through twisty streets and hidden stairways. His friends follow behind, partially because they're curious about me, and partly because they think I may give them a tip, too, if they stick around. Finally, just when I think I can't climb anymore, I arrive, panting, at the terrace overlooking the city. "Wow!" I exclaim. It's really impressive, this white ancient city covering a little hill. The mosque and the mausoleum sit side by side with dark green roofs and a tall minaret. Next to them is the large courtyard that is one of the many royal palaces of the Morocco.
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pretty impressive alright
A man passing by stops to explain, in French, that this is a very holy city. It seems like he's talking as much for me as for a lesson to the boys, who try to listen politely but are squirming with energy the whole time. For the poor people in Morocco who cannot make the Haj, (the pilgrimage to Mecca which is required once in every Muslim's life) they can make the great moussem, the pilgrimage to Moulay Idriss's mausoleum. Five pilgrimages here is the equivalent of one I the man told me. I wonder if B counts for anything, since I'm not Muslim!

I thought going up was fun, but running DOWN the winding streets and stairways is a blast! The boys and I laugh and race through the old medina -- no time for "es salaem alekum's" or modesty. We reach the bottom in record time, celebrate our journey with some tasty peanut brittle and a few dirhams for everyone. Time was running out as I had to be out of town before nightfall. Remember, foreigners are not allowed to spend the night in Moulay Idriss. I felt like Cinderella and my coach was going to turn back into a pumpkin. So, I said a quick "es salaem alekum's" to my new friend Mohammed and rode out of Moulay Idriss into the sunset. Although I was not allowed into the mausoleum, the warmth of the people and the beauty of the town made it clear to me why Moulay Idriss is Morocco's holiest city.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

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