Saturday, June 22, 2013

"In Morocco" with Edith Wharton

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Waiting for the train, Casablanca
Wasn't certain what book to read while in Morocco. The Sheltering Sky (by Paul Bowles, 1949) was an obvious choice, but since I wasn't going near Tangier, it seemed less relevant. Some others in my group were reading The Caliph's House (by Tahir Shah, 2006) which sounded good, so I'll have to read that.

My choice, however, was In Morocco, by Edith Wharton. A mix of travelogue, apology for the French protectorate, and history book, it was amusing and interestingly enough, it remained very accurate in many of the descriptions of locals.

Arriving via a very comfortable Air France flight from Washington (via Paris), I didn't experience the troubles of the crossing from Spain or the other inconveniences Wharton had on her trip, just after WW I:
There is infinite sadness in this scene under the fading sky, beside the cold welter of the Atlantic. One seems to be not in Africa itself, but in the Africa that northern crusaders may have dreamed of in snow-bound castles by colder shores of the same ocean. This is what Moghreb must have looked like to the confused imagination of the Middle Ages, to Norman knights burning to ransom the Holy Places, or Hansa merchants devising, in steep-roofed towns, of Barbary and the long caravans bringing apes and gold-powder ... (Wharton, In Morocco)
Here are a few relevant passages from the book, with pictures of the places as they are now:

Fes
Many-walled Fez rose up before us out of the plain toward the end of the day. The walls and towers we saw were those of the upper town, Fez Eldjid (the New), which lies on the edge of the plateau and hides from view Old Fez tumbling down below it into the ravine of the Oued Fez. Thus approached, the city presents to view only a long line of ramparts and fortresses, merging into the wide, tawny plain and framed in barren mountains.
At first the eye takes in only this impression of a great city over a green abyss, then the complex scene begins to define itself. All around are the outer lines of ramparts, walls beyond walls, their crenellations climbing the heights, their angle fortresses dominating the precipices. Almost on a level with us lies the upper city, the aristocratic Fez Eldjid of painted palaces and gardens, then, as the houses close in and descend more abruptly, terraces, minarets, domes, and long reed-thatched roofs of the bazaars, all gather around the green-tiled tomb of Moulay Idriss and the tower of the Almohad mosque of El Kairouiyin, which adjoin each other in the depths of Fez.
Fez is sombre, and the bazaars clustered about its holiest sanctuaries form its most sombre quarter. Dusk falls there early, and oil-lanterns twinkle in the merchants' niches while the clear African daylight still lies on the gardens of upper Fez.

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Volubilis
Volubilis (called by the Arabs the Castle of the Pharaohs) is the only considerable Roman colony so far discovered in Morocco. It stands on the extreme ledge of a high plateau backed by the mountains of the Zerhoun. Below the plateau, the land drops down precipitately to a narrow river-valley green with orchards and gardens, and in the neck of the valley, where the hills meet again, the conical white town of Moulay Idriss, the Sacred City of Morocco ...
Little remains to Volubilis in the way of important monuments: only the fragments of a basilica, part of an arch of triumph erected in honour of Caracalla, and the fallen columns and architraves which strew the path of Rome across the world. But its site is magnificent; and as the excavation of the ruins was interrupted by the war it is possible that subsequent search may bring forth other treasures...
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Rabat
The European town of Rabat, a rapidly developing community, lies almost wholly outside the walls of the old Arab city. The latter, founded in the twelfth century by the great Almohad conqueror of Spain, Yacoub-el-Mansour ...
The "Tower of Hassan," as the Sultan's tower is called, rises from the plateau above old Rabat, overlooking the steep cliff that drops down to the last winding of the Bou-Regreg. Truncated at half its height, it stands on the edge of the cliff, a far-off beacon to travellers by land and sea. It is one of the world's great monuments, so sufficient in strength and majesty that until one has seen its fellow, the Koutoubya of Marrakech ...

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