Morocco – Minarets And Palaces

THE great square of Marrakesh, so strangely called the “Meeting Place of the Dead,” has been the center of life in the city ever since the austere Almoravide sultan, Youssef Ben Tachefyn, of the tribe of the Lemtouna (May Allah be merciful to him!) came from “the Region of Fear,” and pitched his tent in the midst of the vast plain, and joined with his own masons in the building of a mosque, in the year of the Prophet 454, which is, in the reckoning of us Nazarenes, 1062. For centuries Marrakesh was the greatest city of western Islam, the capital of the Moorish Empire, to which war-like sultans returned after triumphant campaigns in Tunis and Portugal and Andalusia, Algeria and Soudan. Toward the end of the twelfth century, Yaccoub El Mansour, “The Victorious,” built two great mosques with marvellous minarets, a palace, and a fortified city, within the walls of Marrakesh, and then had spent but a fifth of the spoil from his victory in Spain. Ahmet El Man-sour, the great Saadian sultan, brought precious marbles from Carrara,—paid for, pound for pound in sugar from the Souss,—artizans from Europe, gems from the east, and so much gold from the despoiled treasuries of Timbuktu that he was surnamed “The Golden,” and enriched his beautiful capital. And then faineant princes who lived in decadent times built themselves gorgeous palaces and lived in barbaric dreams of opulence and splendid lusts.

The stories of all these wonderful things in the old past of Marrakesh, the glories, the conquests, the intrigues, and the eclipses, the comets and the plagues, the Arab historians have told in books with fascinating titles like, “The Chaplet of the History of the Prophets, Caliphs, and Kings,” “The Garden of Stray Leaves,” “The Recreation of the Camel Driver.” Even in the sixteenth century, in the day of its decline, Leo the African marvelled at the grandeur of Marrakesh; he called it “one of the greatest cities which there are on earth, and one of the most noble in Africa,” even in his time a city of a hundred thousand homes.

And then its glory departed; Fez became the capital of the shrunken empire, and the metropolis of the south fell to decay. And now its gorgeous palaces are dust, its great mosques are crumbling, their precious treasures are gone, and there remain but a few sadly beautiful minarets, old fountains, lovely fragments of mosaic and enamel, and exquisite forgotten tombs. If old ghosts of earthbound lovers of life wander in lost streets and deserted squares on these moonlit African nights, what heart-breaking regrets must be theirs for the beauty and action and glory and love that now are but ruined memories in silent places.

With these thoughts the strange name of the great square, “The Meeting Place of the Dead,” takes a new significance. But in the morning hours the square is the meeting place of living Morocco, busy with picturesque commerce, a confusion of graceful flowing garments, red sheishias, white turbans, huge baskets on the heads of negro slaves, little asses buried under mountain of precious fire-wood, bundles of Moorish women swathed to the eyes in dirty white cotton, and reaching over all these heads, the long, bobbing necks of heavy-lidded, ill-natured camels. Here emerges from the crowd a dignified sheik in an immaculate long djellaba, that falls in elegant lines over his crimson saddle of carved leather; behind his white mule trot two of his ragged black servants on foot. A long train of pack asses loaded with sugar and tea and cloth, headed patiently for the southern gate, on their way toward the defiles of the Great Atlas and the romantic regions beyond, meets another caravan loaded with jars of oil and bags of salt from the far-off Valley of the Souss.

This is the same commercial Morocco that in the middle ages enriched great princes who loved beauty and luxury, and made living itself a perfect art. But the monuments they have left, crumble and decay before the heedless eyes of modern Morocco, which merely murmurs that these changes are fated, that the glories of nations rise and fade even as the lives of men, and that all things must come to pass as they are written in the Book of God. This was what Abdullah Ben Hoseyn, a young Arab functionary in the employ of the Protectorate, said to me as we stood on the tower of the government office, which is on the great square, and looked out over the roofs of the city: “When Fortune has brought great happiness, it is followed by great sorrow; when a thing comes to be perfect, it soon begins to fade.”

This complete sense of resignation to fate which is felt through all the pages of the Arab historians, permeates the whole life of Morocco from pashas and caïds to beggars and slaves, and contact with Europe cannot change it. In fact, the fatalism of the east throws its influence even over western minds that live under its shadow.

This morning, as Abdullah and I step out on top of the wooden tower, from the comfortable half-gloom of the old Moorish house, we are drowned in glorious white sunlight ; it envelops us in a blinding penetrating radiance; we seem to be breathing pure light. The low-roofed city spreads out miles in extent, huddled cubes of rose-brown mud-built houses, a confusion of square flat house-tops and parapets, broken by sharp black shadows of walls and square doorways. Wedged here and there are low octagonal domes of marabout shrines, very white and very holy and mysterious ; and every-where in unexpected places are square minarets of countless mosques. Scattered in various quarters are six or seven large green patches, the famous gardens that stretch their opulence of fruit trees over great spaces of the city; and when a light wind ruffles the leaves of the olive groves, silvery waves sweep over their green sunny surfaces.

Dominating the whole city is the wonderful minaret of the Mosque of the Koutoubia, a superb square tower of proportions so perfect as to suggest an exact balance of solidity and graceful beauty. Its richly decorative windows are different on different sides, and have the bold design of the Almohade builders, in contrast with the subtle elaboration of later Moorish art. Around the top, fragments of a band of rich blue-green enamel glow in the warm sunshine, a rare and exquisite green, wonderful as the sunlit curve of a wave breaking. On the lantern top flash four golden balls which an old historian says are apples of solid gold, the spoils of the victory of Alarcos. The mosque itself is very great in extent, but its green tiled roofs, four pyramidal and three of them square, seem crowded around the base of the great minaret. Koutoubia means the “Mosque of the Booksellers,” for once the illuminators and makers of manuscripts had their stalls around its doors, but to-day the only bookseller in all Marrakesh is my friend the old Algerian with a whistling tooth, who sells wretched little printed leaflets of prayers.

One wonders what goes on in the great mosque, for no Nazarene is permitted to enter. Here in the past, the war against the infidel has been preached a hundred times, the last one only eight years ago; and one wonders what is going this Friday morning. I ask Abdullah, who is standing beside me, and his Semitic almond-shaped eyes smile vaguely as he answers, “Just prayers.” But I wonder. For there is a mystery in the fanaticism of these puritan Moslems of Morocco, to us to whom religion matters so little that we boast of our tolerance.

Abdullah points out another great square minaret to the south. It is the Mosque of the Kasba, of the same period as the Koutoubia. The enamel around the top is a band of warm green turquoise, more perfect and more lovely than that of the larger minaret near us. Its colour is one that nature reserves only for a few exquisite gems, but which old Persian and Arab artists with princely extravagance lavished over their marvellous potteries, mosaics, and enamels. Abdullah tells me that the name of the artist who dreamed this colour and who planned the proportions of the Koutoubia has not been recorded. “But,” he adds, “it has pleased Allah to preserve for us the names of the sultan’s ministers, judges, secretaries, and doctors, and also the trivial fact that the sultan was ambidextrous, and that his teeth were far apart. Truly the ways of the Most Merciful are hard to under-stand!”

Then Abdullah points out reverently the many little sanctuaries of the city. They are lost among the surrounding roofs or buried behind cypresses and date palms, and I am never sure that I am looking in the right place, but their names fascinate me,—El Tebba, Mimoun Es Sahraoui, Moulay All Ech Shereef, holy men who led most austere lives and who now doubtless enjoy the highest bliss in the Paradise of the Prophet. As we talked of them I could not help quoting the rubai of Omar,

They tell me houris throng in Paradise,

And wine makes glad our hearts within the skies; Why then am I denied these joys on earth, Since wine and damsels there shall be my prize?

Abdullah frowned at this impertinence and said: “The Persians are not good Moslems; they are worse than unbelievers. They shall have their re-ward,” and he went on pointing out shrines and mosques,—Ben Youssef, Sidi Abd El Aziz, Sidi Ben Slimane El Djazouli. I once peeped into one of these little sanctuaries at Rabat; it was filled with a hundred European clocks, the favourite votive offering of Moorish Moslems,—clocks of every size and every imaginable shape, and each one pointed to a different hour of the day. Time, after all, is a purely relative manner, and in Morocco it is no matter at all.

“And there,” continued Abdullah indicating the very northern extremity of the city, where the red-brown roofs are lost in the green sea of palms beyond the walls, “is the very holy mosque of Sidi Bel Abbas. In that quarter live all the blind beggars of the city, and beyond them live hundreds of lepers and sufferers of terrible diseases, miser-able outcasts, all companions in woe.” And we pass down the wooden stairway out of the heat and glare of sunshine, stumbling and blinded, thinking of the glories of Marrakesh in the past. And one wonders what may be written in the Book concerning the fate of our own cities when the new world is old. Abdullah, whose ancestor three hundred years ago, as vizir to a great sultan, had ruled over this once splendid city, went quietly back to his desk in the Bureau, and I went to sit in the French café and watch the world go by..

To one who loves oriental life there is a never wearying pleasure in wandering through the strange, winding streets and byways of Marrakesh. One passes a quarter of deserted, half-ruined houses with gaping vacant doorways and with withered grasses clinging to broken roofs; and then there are great desolate open spaces and rubbish heaps, where perhaps a lone ass brays miserably, and a very old and human-looking stork, perched on one leg, looks down from the top of a broken parapet and broods darkly on hidden mysteries. And then, unexpectedly, you discover a charming little mosque with a minaret built of glazed yellow bricks and surmounted by gem-like enamels of the Prophet’s colour. While you are under the spell of its charm a little black figure appears at the top, and, breaking the white noon-day silence with his beautiful high-quavering chant, proclaims ‘the greatness and oneness of God. There is a strangeness in the imam’s call that seizes the imagination like the romance of a distant light off an unknown shore in some foreign sea. And the ragged blind beggars, huddled in the few inches of shade under the mosque wall, stand up and grope for a land-mark by which to orient themselves, and turning toward Mecca, they fall prostrate in prayer. Then they go to sleep again, and I wander on alone down the street, my footfalls smothered in the hot, powdery dust. And the dark cypresses and great gaunt palms stand uncannily immovable in burning sunshine, and though it is broad noon, the world is as silent as midnight. The mood of unusualness in the scene and the silence, brings a momentary disquieting glimpse of one’s self as something remote and apart from this world of the old east; the strangeness, after all, is in me! These things belong here from eternity, while I am but a part of the ephemeral present.

As one wanders through these quarters deserted at midday, one never stops wondering what goes on behind the high walls. To the foreigner, native life must always be a mystery. Even to a European who spends years in the east, the inmost oriental soul remains hidden behind walls and lattices that permit only an occasional glimpse. But even the external life has an infinite fascination, and perhaps its very baffling suggestiveness constitutes its unwearying charm.

One morning I turned aside from the thronging confusion of one of the busy little covered streets, lined with hundreds of shops, and found myself in the dim portico that leads to the Medersa of Sidi Ben Youssef, a very ancient mosque that has been turned into a Moslem college for training young men. At the end of the long corridor sat a guardian half asleep, occasionally exchanging a word with two friends reclining on the mat beside him. He rises with indolent dignity and ushers me into a beautiful old courtyard, and leaves me to enjoy it alone, in an atmosphere four hundred years from the present and a thousand miles from the noisy commerce of the little streets.

The cracked marble slabs of the pavement are worn unevenly by years and years of pious feet in shuffling slippers, and the curbing stones of the long glassy pool for ablutions, where cooing doves dip and admire, are chipped and broken, and their old whiteness stained with patches of black moss.

The marred arabesques of the walls are but vague hints of colour, and the carved patterns in plaster and the honeycombed Moorish intricacies and clustered stalactites pendant from corbels and false arches, are all tinted in palest old rose, with the wan delicacy of the cheeks of fading beauty. Huge beams of ancient blackened cedar carved with texts from the Holy Book support an upper gallery where students lodge; and below this, on two sides of the Medersa, are deep porticos carpeted with mats of reeds. The portico facing the east has an exquisitely carved prayer-niche ; the other is the lecture hall of the learned Moslem doctors. This is the month following the fast of Ramadan, when all the young aspirants to learning are away on their vacation, and the college is deserted but for the mourning doves that coo from the high corbels and the spirit of beauty that never leaves old loveliness. A place to sit and listen to the doves and dream sad old tales and hear the tears of the world falling.

But I am not alone in the Medersa. In a corner of the portico on one of the shabby mats is a saintly figure reading. His rusty black djellaba is gathered around his crossed legs, and his scant turban forms a thin ragged halo about his shaven head, bent over a very thumby book printed in microscopic Arabic character. The book is an anachronism, for such a figure should read only a manuscript. As I walk under the portico to trace the long bands of carved designs, I purposely pass close to him, and as he looks up, I salute him with deep respect. To my surprise he not only returns my salute, but begins a conversation.

“My son, thou lingerest long in our old Medersa. Thou dost well, for it has been said that he who admires a beautiful thing pays a tribute to God. We have few visitors here; we live apart. We see little of the world, for a scholar has no time. One of our wise men has said, `He who seeks learning without study will attain his end when the raven becomes gray with age.’ ”

Then I asked the old man of the subjects of study in the college.

“When they come to us they must know much of the Holy Book by heart. Most of them are here to become proficient in our law, and to these I ex-pound the texts on which the law is based. It is a long task and never ended.”

I asked whether his students were eager and apt to learn, and he shook his head sadly and his furrowed parchment face remained impassive, but his old eyes smiled as he remarked what I myself have often observed:

“Verily, my son, God covers the hearts of the young with a veil, and their ears are sharper to catch the twanging of lute strings than to hear wise words. The proverb is true which says that training youth is like chewing stones.”

Then I asked him whether he was working on at his studies during the vacation period, and he replied, patting his book,

“This is my recreation. When I am free from expounding the law I have a little space to meditate on the vexing passages in the Holy Book.”

“And would it be a discourtesy, master, to inquire the subject of thy meditation this morning?”

“By no means, my son. I was considering whom the Prophet might mean by the Mysterious Stranger who built the wall of red hot iron and molten brass for the people who could scarce understand what was said. He is written of in the eighteenth chapter of the Koran.”

I felt unable to continue the conversation in this direction, for this is a subject on which I have absolutely no opinion. And so I asked him to sum up the qualifications of a good Moslem. He answered by reciting this verse from the second chapter of the Koran, “It is not righteousness that ye turn your faces in prayer toward the East and the West, but righteousness is of him who believeth in God and the last day, and the angels and the scriptures, and the prophets; who giveth money for God’s sake unto his kindred, and unto orphans, and the needy, and the stranger, and those who ask, and for redemption of captives; who is constant at prayer and giveth alms ; and of those who perform their covenant, when they have covenanted, and who behave themselves patiently in adversity, and hardships, and in time of violence : These are they who are true and these are they who fear God.”

I remarked that these were the qualities that we are taught make a good Christian, but he did not hear me. He seemed to have forgotten my presence ; his eyes had the visionary gleam of one who seeks the mysteries that lie beyond “the flaming ramparts of the world.” I bade him good-bye, and as I turned to leave him, I was startled by a whirr of wings behind me. I half expected to see the Mysterious Stranger himself, but it was only a brown dove fluttering down to drink from the old pool.

When one reads in the ancient Arab historians of the marvellous glory and luxury of the lives of Moorish princes in the past, he hopes that in one corner may survive something more than a crumbling memorial of the days when these magic dreams were real. One may wander at sunset within the red crenelated walls that once enclosed the gorgeous palace of El Mansour the Golden, and find nothing to suggest the wonder of marble, mosaic, and enamel, within which men lived amid the luxuries of the Thousand and One Nights,—nothing but a waste of rubbish and withered reeds, where a camel driver and an unveiled Berber girl look into each other’s animal eyes and make love among the ruins. But there is still a great modern palace in Marrakesh, of an exquisite beauty, with blends of rich colours and tones and moods to minister to a great Moor’s love of sensuous life.

It was built, this harmonious beautiful dream, some twenty-five years ago by the Grand Vizier Ba Ahmet Ben Moussa, who at a dangerous time concealed the death of his sultan, until by a clever stroke the young Abd El Aziz was proclaimed. And during the minority of the foolish, worthless prince, this vizir, the hybrid offspring of a negro and a Jewess, grotesque, ugly, gross, barbarously cruel and savagely ambitious,—reigned here as the real ruler of Morocco.

After the shrill white morning glare and the flickering shadows of the street, the Palace of the Bahia envelops one in a soft quiet light and an air of luxury and restful solitude. Here, at last, is the background of the Arabian Nights. It has no plan; it is a delightfully casual assemblage of courtyards, broad spaces, gardens, fountains, unexpected vistas and dim, hushed chambers. I follow the sleepy Arab attendant down a long green-latticed cloister, across a courtyard paved with white marble, and through narrow-arched passages into a marvellous tropical garden. Here is a luxuriant green profusion of tall, dark cypresses and mighty banana trees, with drooping fringed leaves that overshadow young almonds, lemons, and oranges loaded with green fruit, here and there a ripe one making a splash of colour, “Like golden lamps in a green night”; and every-where, waxy-leaved vines tangle and twine and hang in festoons and strangle the trees like strange, immovable serpents. Broad walks of mosaic in bold, coloured stars and hexagons lead to a Iittle marble fountain in the center. Off from this eastern garden where Scheherezade might have woven her wild fantasies through perfumed languid nights, there are great state chambers of solemn richness, where sheiks and caïds once thronged on high ceremonial days. These rooms have no furniture but carpets, for the Arabs have no use for our cluttered confusion of tables, chairs, bric-a-brac, and pictures. The finely blended colours of beautiful modern rugs from Rabat and Fez, with an occasional wild bit of weaving from the mountains, are echoed in the arabesque designs on painted ceilings and in resplendant tile mosaics of cornices and portals. The eye revels in the gorgeous colour rhythms that are the glory of east-ern art, and the mind wonders at the infinitely patient elaborateness and intricate symmetry.

We pass through more and more richly deco-rated rooms, more courtyards, corridors and lofty ornate doorways, till one is lost and bewildered with a sense of too much luxury. Everywhere I am amazed by marvellous, ever new patterns in faïence and mosaic, repeated lines and stars of a hundred forms, and lozenges and polygons, all in bright green and yellow, orange, and rose and turquoise, balanced and blended in colour harmonies. These wonderful geometric designs lure and fascinate the eye and create moods of romantic unreality, for this is an art quite remote from nature and wholly dissociated from idea or sentiment.

In one of the smaller, more intimate rooms I loiter for a while and lie on a divan heaped with soft leather cushions and striped silk scarves from Fez. The tall doors, painted in interlaced designs, are open; and beyond the deep shaded portico, the sunlight steeps the white paved court and the brilliant green tiles on the opposite roof. But the light within the room filters through two wooden screens delicately pierced with subtle designs, giving them a pale translucence, and softens the glowing colour in the Moorish carpets. I lie on my back and listen to the jet of water that spatters musically in the little basin meant for flowers, and I trace the recurrence of a certain little blue star in the repeated design of the high, painted ceiling.

And then I am led into the very heart of the lovely labyrinth, and given a glimpse into the apartments of the vizir’s favourite, where in the painting of the ceiling and the faïence of the door-way there is the highest, most perfect artistry of the modern Moor. But all these lovely places are hushed and empty ; there is an atmosphere of dead joy that has gone with the roses of yesterday. I go through these beautiful vacant rooms like the hero of the Second Kalendar’s Tale wandering through the great underground palace, and I look about for the hidden prince whom I am fated to slay.

And in this beautiful palace, as everywhere else in Morocco, there are already signs of fading beauty and decay. The gifted artizans who built it are not yet dead, but the painted stucco has begun to crumble, the marbles of some of the fountains are cracked, and the fine designs on doorways and shutters have become a little pale and washed; for the delicate beauties of Moorish art have in them a fragile evanescence that cannot withstand the wearing down of time. The Moslems build, but they never repair.

There is no place in Marrakesh that so fills one with this sense of the impermanence of Moorish culture and the transitory greatness of the Moroccan empire as the long forgotten and neglected mausoleum of the Saadian sultans. I visited it one hot, indolent July morning with the grave young philosopher Abdullah from the government office. We sauntered slowly through the quiet sunny streets, now grown so familiar with their rose-brown walls, and rose-brown dust, a straggling palm, the sleeping children, and the dreaming beggars. “A land where all things always seemed the same.” And as we walked, Abdullah told me terrible stories of these Saadian sultans who reigned in the decadence of Morocco, from the middle of the sixteenth century on, for a hundred bloody and turbulent years. It was a tale of rivalries, jealousies, harem intrigues, of poisoning, strangling, the gouging out of eyes, wholesale murder, and ghastly blood-madness; fearful deeds that had for their setting the luxury of the old east, the wealth of Ormus and of Ind. Every accession to the throne meant a fresh civil war, rebellions of ambitious factions, the slaughter of recalcitrant vizirs, the murder of nephews and brothers. Some of these princes wrote books of prayers, or dabbled in poetry, or sought the hidden secrets of alchemy, and some spent their lives in the wild joys of the wine cup and the harem. One of them murdered a rival relative, seized his throne, and married his sister; and she, like Judith, stabbed him in his drunken sleep, and then married his son. And so the tale went.

“By Allah,” said Abdullah, “the chroniclers had to write fast in those days to get all down! And it was the will of Allah that these princes should all die by the hand of violence, and here they are behind that old wall.”

We had come into the part of the town called the Kasba which was once a fortified imperial city within the city. Beyond the clay wall rose the square tower of the Mosque of Moulay Yazid with its wonderful band of turquoise. Within the mosque enclosure, hidden away in a walled desolation of humble graves, amid heaps of debris and gaunt dusty palms, is the loveliest gem of art in all Morocco.

With no transition from the wretched ugliness without, we pass through a ruined Moorish arch immediately into a sombre twilight of sad magnificence. Tall stained marble columns clustered in threes and crowned with square capitals hold up an arcade of great and small arches darkly over-canopied by a high pyramidal roof of ancient cedar. Every surface of the marble capitals, of the arches dripping with stalactites, and of the lofty, gloom-shadowed walls, is covered with intricate lacy carvings in regular designs like the million little hexagons in honeycombs. Fragments of coloured mosaic squares are scattered over the floor or heaped in corners; a band of arabesques of a thousand coloured stars and triangles and polygons runs around the lower wall ; and high above, in the overglooming roof, gleam little specks of tarnished gold. Half imbedded in the floor lie the long sarcophagi of old marble, yellow as aged ivories, minutely carved and wrought like precious reliquaries. Over the walls and round the tombs, run long legends of ancient Cufic letters intertwined and marvellously interlaced, words woven into strange patterns that blend into beautiful design.

And even the meaning of the inscriptions in Moorish art is as purely romantic as the designs. As we feel our way about in the soft sad light, Abdullah reads me here and there a phrase which he can decipher, and he smiles as he recalls the things he told me about these sultans.

“Light of the Century, King of the Age, Most Fortunate by the Grace of Allah!”

“The fire of his hospitality never went out; he was the refuge of those in trouble, and came to the aid of the doctors and saints.”

“May the Most Highest crown him with rewards in the Eternal Garden, in the midst of the most beautiful houris !”

The minutely carved letters that cover the tomb of the Golden El Mansour read,

Here is the resting place of one who made Glory itself to be proud, Ahmed, whose standards were ever victorious, and who knew all the splendours of the world ! O Divine Pity, come roll thy waves over him forever, Water this tomb with the rain of thy loving-kindness that bath no end ! Perfume this earth with a balm as lasting as his memory. At the very moment of his death these words were true: Verily he rests in the bosom of the Almighty Lord of Earth and Heaven.

Off from this central mausoleum are other chambers, where one vaguely glimpses columns and dim-lovely arches and more marble tombs of princes and old kings. And some are the tombs of queens whose beauty old poets have sung, and others of young children, the ill-fated offspring of royalty, murdered by jealous successors. And I peer blindly into one great chamber utterly dark, dark as the night of nothing, cold as the dreams of the dead.

From the peace and the shadowed beauty of the shrine we pass out again into the sunlit desolation of walls and graves. And reluctantly I slip back into present reality after an hour of dreaming in the terrible and beautiful past called up by these tombs, “silently expressing old mortality, the ruins of forgotten times.” Morocco no longer feels the intense passion for life and power, and the joy of creating beauty that was hers in the past. The Moors live on in their decadent present, and only strangers remember their former greatness and admire their old monuments. As it was written in the Book of God, the cycle of their glory is over and the fatal period of the nation has come. “They trampled upon the flowers of the earth, the men of old; the people of today, they live in the autumn of time.”