The countries of northwestern Africa have long been a part of the Islamic world, albeit with a unique culture and architecure that comes from being at the crossroads of European, African and Arabic influences. Local rulers built a series of casbahs, or citadels, from which to control and rule the region. These casbahs varied greatly in terms of size and usage, from small garrisons to royal castles to large walled cities. No country is home to more and better Casbahs that have survived to the present day than Morocco. Once the seat of a series of powerful empires, Morocco boasts some of the Islamic world’s best fortresses, citadels and small walled cities. With great difficulty, three were chosen as representative: the Casbahs of Rabat, Fes and Taroudant.
The western end of North Africa known as the Maghreb, which means “where the sun sets”, has seen a long succession of rulers and empires, from the Berbers and Phoenician to the Romans, Vandals and Byzantines. Islam arrived in the 7th century, when the whole region was absorbed into the original Islamic Caliphate that stretched from India to Spain. The area loosely came under Ummayad control in the 8th century, but was soon fractured into a number of smaller states that occasionally regrouped into temporary realms.
The great era of the casbahs began in the 16th century. Towards the end of the 1400s, the last of the Moors were driven from Spain by the forces of the Reconquista. Muslims in the tens of thousands fled to North Africa for safety. Morocco was the primary destination for the Muslim refugees of Spain, for two reasons. The first and most obvious reason is that Morocco was physically the easiest place to reach. The other reason is that Morocco had a long history as a strong state under a series of powerful rulers which managed to keep the European powers at bay until well into the colonial era.
To this end, the rulers of Morocco began to heavily fortify the cities, especially along the coast. This was both to defend against the potential threat of Europe, as well as to serve as strongholds for the Barbary pirates. Some were also built in the south to protect the Berbers and other local populations from the pirates. Morocco’s walled cities served the region well, at least until the collapse of the Barbary Empire in the 19th century. After this event, the Europeans finally moved in, and many of the casbah walls were pulled down.
Fortunately some of the best survived. The Casbah of Oudaias is the pride of the capital city of Rabat. Originally built in the 12th century, the casbah was rebuilt and greatly expanded in later centuries to accommodate the influx of refugees from Spain. The nearby Casbah of Fes, another former capital, is even older, which was also rebuilt and expanded during the Barbary era. Less famous but perhaps the most spectacular casbah of all is the walled city of Taroudant towards the southern end of the country. These three constitute some of the finest fortification architecture that Morocco has to offer.
The Casbah of Oudaias in Rabat is the most beautiful and best preserved of North Africa’s major casbahs. It is the quintessential Moroccoan casbah, boasting tall, sand-colored brick walls punctuated by perfect square towers and fronted by green lawns and date-laden palm trees. With parts dating from the Middle Ages, the Casbah is large, incorporating palaces, mosques and markets. Entrance to Oudaias is through a number of ancient gates into a maze of narrow, crowded streets beyond. The outer ramparts overlook Rabat’s beautiful beaches and offer a magnificent view of the sea. The Oudaias Palace, once the residence of the Moroccan monarchs, is now home to the Museum of Moroccan Arts.
The Casbah of Fes is even older than that of Rabat. The walls and fortifications of the Casbah of Fes are somewhat less impressive than Oudaias, with many sections crumbling. However, the Casbah of Fes enjoys a dramatic hillside setting, as well as a superior history. Many sections of the city’s fortifications are older, predating the Barbary Empire. There are in fact two walled sections in Fes: the Fez el Bali, which is older; and the Fez-Jdid, which is newer. The Fez el Bali is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Casbah of Taroudant is arguably the best walled citadel in Morocco, and among its least visited. Although smaller than other casbahs in the north, that of Taroudant encompasses almost the entire city. Whether this is a true casbah or a full-fledged walled city is a matter of debate. The brown-brick raparts, square towers and nine gates are nearly completely intact; and because very little of the city sprawls beyond the walls, Taroudant appears today very much as it did centuries ago. Also, thanks to its more remote location, Taroudant receives far fewer visitors than the cities of Northern Morocco, making it possibly the country’s best fortification to visit.
The Casbah of Rabat is located on the west side of the city an ocean side cliff. The old Casbah of Fes is located on the eastern end of the city, and is connected to the new Casbah to the west via the Bou Jeloud Gardens. The City of Taroudant is approximately 250 miles southwest of Rabat. All three casbahs are open sites. Web: www.visitmorocco.com/rabat (official website of Casbah Oudaias); www.visitmorocco.com/fes (official website of Casbah Fes); www.visitmorocco/taroudant (official website of Taroudant Casbah).
Morocco veritably overflows with small walled cities and citadels, holdovers from the ancient Islamic empires that once sprawled across northwest Africa. Of these that have survived to one degree or another, four are worth mentioning: the Casbah of Marrakesh, the Casbah of Meknes, the Casbah of Essaouira and the Casbah of Asilah. The Casbah of Tangiers, once among the most impressive walled cities in Africa, was largely destroyed in the 17th century. It survives only in part today.