I love medinas. Walk down their streets and you can find, oh, anything! I’m not talking magic lamps, but damn, you get close. The carpets may not fly, but they are made just as they were 1000 years ago. The jewels may not have come from Ali Baba’s cave, but that doesn’t make them any less sparkling.
They are also old. That right there gets my juices flowing. If I can walk on cobblestones laid down in the Middle Ages, I am so there. But medinas in particular have a secret. For all the trappings, they aren’t the oldest part of their city. Even older than they is the Kasbah.
It’s a story as old as Jericho: Cities beginning as forts. Rabat has two, which just goes to show, in another old story, that not all cities have nice, smooth, continuous timelines. The Phoenicians were the first to move in; their citadel-settlement, Sala, was later taken over by the Romans. Then things get bumpy — in ruins by the 7th Century, Sala was re-founded by a local dynasty, the Banu ‘Ashara, who were consumed by the Almoravid Empire. And when they fell, replaced by the Almohads, Sala, now “Chellah,” became a cemetery. That meant a new fortress had to be made. And so it was, perched high on an easily defendable promontory overlooking the Bou Regreg River, the Kasbah of the Udayas.
Founded in the 12th Century (and enveloping Chellah) and named after an Arab tribe that settled in southern Morocco in the 18th Century, the Kasbah of the Udayas is the kernel from which modern Rabat sprang. This city within a city is remarkably intact, if having seen a few facelifts over the years.
And I do mean “city within a city.” A Kasbah is not a single structure, not an Arabized Tower of London. Rather it is more like a fortified town, and in Rabat, those fortifications are the first thing you see. Turreted medieval walls run the entire length of the compound, and my entrance was announced by a particularly grand and filigreed gate in the classic pointed-horseshoe style that every tale of the Arabian Nights must have. Rabat is a modern city to be sure, and yet I felt the years fall away with a simple step over the threshold.
To a point, anyway. I don’t think the Kasbah-ians of yore went so bonkers for the blue-and-white color scheme. Whereas most Kasbahs wear their age and mystery with pride, the one in Rabat became Haight-Ashbury of Morocco. Artists from all over the country took up residence, and like all artistic communities are want to do, gussied up the place and sent property prices soaring. So while the meandering streets may go right back to the Middle Ages, the paint jobs come off as contemporary.
I ended up getting just as much of a walk in the Kasbah as I did in Rabat’s medina, since the former manages to be even more jammed together than the latter, and even more riven with paths, lanes, and the human equivalents of cattle chutes. That’s not an alleyway I was walking down, but a veritable thoroughfare — at least by Kasbah standards. And it was barely wider than my outstretched arms.
Unlike a medina, however, a Kasbah is often a bedroom community. The businesses that make the older corners of Middle Eastern cities so frenetic moved out long ago, and since there’s no hope for anything as big as a car in such close quarters, it’s actually pretty quiet. And considering I was there during business hours, it was really quiet. Kinda eerie, actually.
But it did make for some great photos — I didn’t have to wait for people to get out of the way. I also got some breathtakingly timeless shots like these:
Those have no filters, by the way.
Rabat was pretty much a backwater until 1925 when it became the capital. Consequently, the new part of town is particularly new (that is to say, kinda bland). The Kasbah of the Udayas gives desperately needed color and character to the city in a country chock-full of colorful and characterful cities, and its relative unknown outside Morocco mean touristy-ness is at a minimum. You can also do it in a day, and makes for a quick, fun cultural diversion if you’ve set up camp in the business hub of Casablanca, just down the road and even blander.
At least, it is in the daytime. But my adventures in Casablanca are another story.