Casablanca’s Masjid Hassan II is one of the great mosques of the 20th century. It is for all intents and purposes the national mosque of Morocco. More importantly, it holds several very impressive records. Aside from the fact that it is the largest mosque in Morocco, it is also the largest mosque in the world outside of Saudi Arabia. Only the Masjid Al-Haram in Mecca, and possibly the Masjid Al-Nabawi in Medina, are larger. It also boasts the world’s tallest minaret, a skyscraping behometh nearly seven hundred feet in height. To top it all off, the hulking Masjid Hassan II is built on land reclaimed from the Atlantic Ocean, and part of the floor is glass, allowing visitors to contemplate God’s greatness while pacing over the sea.
Of Morocco’s great cities, Casablanca is the biggest anomaly. Founded under the name Anfa by ancient Berber tribesmen, it has been around since before the arrival of Islam in West Africa. However, despite its long existence and prime location as a port, Anfa never achieved much prominence in the medieval Islamic world. It is interesting to note that while Anfa might have become an important transit station for vessels traveling from North Africa to West Africa, it was strangely ignored in favor of slow overland routes through the desert. Anfa was in fact largely neglected until the 1400s, when it suddenly took on a major strategic importance during the early European colonial period.
For a while Anfa was used as a base by Muslim pirates to raid European shipping. This led to the city’s eventual sacking and conquest by the Portuguese in the late 15th century, thus giving Anfa the dubious distinction of being the first Muslim city to be incorporated into the Portuguese Empire. The Portuguese established both a military outpost and expanded port facilities at Anfa, renaming it Casablanca. The city spent much of the next five centuries as a colonial possession of various European powers, or at least under their economic domination.
Despite its small size, no other city in Morocco, or all of North Africa for that matter, was as strongly influenced by European culture and architecture. Because of its easy accessibility to major Atlantic shipping lanes, Casablanca became the dominant commercial center of the Maghreb in the 19th and 20th centuries. Its population exploded during this period. By the time Morocco gained independence from France in the 1950s, Casablanca was the largest and at the same time the least typical city in North Africa.
Because of its divergent origins compared to the other cities of Morocco, Casablanca boasts some of Africa’s most diverse architecture and people. There are more non-Muslims in Casablanca than in any other city in North Africa. Casablanca has numerous cathedrals, churches and even synagogues, side by side with some of North Africa’s largest modern commercial buildings and skyscrapers. Interestingly, the city lacked a single, major iconic mosque. The Moroccan King Hassan II, who reigned from 1961-1999, decided to remedy that, and endeavored to construct one of the grandest mosques ever built. In 1993 this task was successfully completed, and with it Casablanca claimed its heritage as one of the great Muslim religious destinations of North Africa.
The Masjid Hassan II is massive. Partially built on land reclaimed from the Atlantic Ocean, it was designed to awe visitors arriving by air and by sea, a task which it more than accomplishes, almost like a Moroccan version of the Statue of Liberty. Its architectural style is a hard to define blend of traditional Moorish, ancient Mesopotamian and modern. The result is something spectacularly ziggurat-like. The most eye-catching feature, and the most traditionally Moorish in appearance, is the absolutely mind boggling minaret, which at nearly seven hundred feet in height is the world’s tallest.
The mosque interior is cavernous in size. It can accommodate up to twenty-five thousand visitors at prayer simultaneously, while another seventy-five thousand can squeeze in to the outer courtyards. The interior is expensively finished, with marble and tilework as far as the eye can see. It is in the interior where the modern elements of the mosque are more obvious. The marblework, for example, is more typical of 20th century European styles. The most interesting interior flourish is the partially glass floor which permits worshippers to pray over the sea, because, according to the Qur’an, the throne of God is built on water. This area is usually reserved for use by the royal family and important guests.
The Masjid Hassan II stands on a partially man-made promontory overlooking the Atlantic Ocean on the west side of Casablanca, approximately 45 miles southwest of Rabat. It is one of the few mosques in Morocco open to non-Muslims, though these are generally restricted to guided tours at non-worship times. It is open Saturdays through Thursdays from 9:00am-3:00pm. He cost of admission is DH100.00. Web: www.visitmorocco.com (official tourism website of Morocco)
Despite the fact that Casablanca is the largest city in North Africa and the commercial center of Morocco, it is surprisingly devoid of Islamic sites. This is largely due to the fact that Casablanca is a much younger city and much more influenced by western culture. The massive Masjid Hassan II aside, there is little else of genuine places of Muslim interest.