There is no guidebook to Morocco, and no way of knowing, once one has left Tangier behind, where the long trail over the Rif is going to land one, in the sense understood by any one accustomed to European certainties. The air of the unforeseen blows on one from the roadless passes of the Atlas.
I recently visited the Kingdom of Morocco for the first time. Looking for reading material before my trip, I discovered a book about Morocco by Edith Wharton. This came as a deep surprise to me, a longtime Wharton fan. I thought that I had read every Edith Wharton publication in print, from her ghost stories right down to her interior design book (I wrote a paper on that one in college). I knew, of course, that she had written some travel books; I had even read some of them. But until I saw it listed as a free title on Kindle, I had never heard of In Morocco.
Published in 1920 (the same year as Age of Innocence), In Morocco is widely considered the first travel guide to Morocco. (Wharton certainly thought so, as she states, “Having begun my book with the statement that Morocco still lacks a guide-book, I should have wished to take a first step toward remedying that deficiency.”)
I’ve always admired Wharton’s highly descriptive style, which lends itself exceptionally well to travel writing. In Morocco is the account of Wharton’s motor trip across Morocco in the fall of 1917, at the tail end of the First World War. Much of Morocco had become a French protectorate in 1912, so she made the trip at the invitation of the French Resident-General Hubert Lyautey. It is no secret that Wharton was a committed supporter of French imperialism (she described herself as a “rabid imperialist”) and this comes across strongly in In Morocco. (Unless you want read a love letter to colonialism, skip the chapter on Gen. Lyautey’s Work In Morocco.) Equally hard to take is her paternalistic attitude towards and use of racist terminology to describe Moroccans and their culture.
In spite of this, I enjoyed the historical perspective provided by In Morocco. More than anything, In Morocco is a series of sketches of a place where past and present are intermingled, at a moment when the country was on the verge of change. Wharton was very cognisant of the fact that post-war tourism would alter Morocco forever.
Morocco is too curious, too beautiful, too rich in landscape and architecture, and above all too much of a novelty, not to attract one of the main streams of spring travel as soon as Mediterranean passenger traffic is resumed.
Visiting Morocco nearly 100 years after Wharton, I found it interesting to read her admiring documentation of this specific moment in time, which she has preserved in prose as solidly as if in amber.
To see Morocco during the war was therefore to see it in the last phase of its curiously abrupt transition from remoteness and danger to security and accessibility …
Yet I also found the Morocco of 2013 to be a place where the boundaries between past and present are still slightly blurred. Visiting many of the same places that Wharton had visited nearly a century before, I discovered that her descriptions were, in many cases, still brilliantly apt. The following photographs were taken by me but the words were written by Edith Wharton.
This feeling of adventure is heightened by the contrast between Tangier – cosmopolitan, frowsy, familiar Tangier, that every tourist has visited for the last forty years – and the vast unknown just beyond.
The European town of Rabat, a rapidly developing community, lies almost wholly outside of the walls of the old Arab city. The latter, founded in the twelfth century by the great Almohad conqueror of Spain, Yacoub-el-Mansour, stretches its mighty walls to the river’s mouth. Thence they climb the cliff to enclose the Kasbah of the Oudayas…. Great crenallated ramparts, cyclopean, superb, follow the curve of the cliff.
Salé the white and Rabat the red frown at each other over the foaming bar of the Bou-Regreg, each walled, terraced, minareted, and presenting a singularly complete picture of the two types of Moroccan town, the snowy and the tawny. To the gates of both, the Atlantic breakers roll in with the boom of northern seas, and under a misty northern sky.
It is one of the surprises of Morocco to find the familiar African pictures bathed in this unfamiliar haze. Even the fierce midday sun does not wholly dispel it – the air remains thick, opalescent, like water slightly clouded by milk.
Kasbah of the Oudayas
Inside the gate of the Kasbah one comes on more waste land and on other walls – for all Moroccan towns are enclosed in circuit within circuit of battlemented masonry. Then, unexpectedly, a gate in one of the inner walls lets one into a tiled court enclosed in a traciered clositer and overlooking an orange-grove that rises out of a carpet of roses. This peaceful and well-ordered place is the interior of the Medersa (the college) of the Oudayas.
The Tower of Hassan
The “Tower of Hassan,” as the Sultan’s tower is called, rised 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 stand on the edge of a 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 its fellow, the Koutoubya of Marrakech, one wonders if the genius of the builder could have carried such perfect balance of massive wall-spaces and traceried openings to a triumphant conclusion.
Near the tower, the red-brown walls and huge piers of the mosque built at the same time stretch their roofless alignment beneath the sky. This mosque, before it was destroyed, must have been one of the finest monuments of Almohad architecture in Morocco: now, with its tumbled red masses of masonry and vast cisterns overhung by clumps of blue aloes, it still forms a ruin of Roman grandeur.
The founder of Rabat, the great Yacoub-el-Mansour, called it, in memory of the battle of Alarcos, “The Camp of Victory” (Ribat-el-Path), and the monuments he bestowed on it justified the name in another sense, by giving it the beauty that lives when battles are forgotten.
On the west coast, especially, where the Mediterranean peoples, from the Phenicians to the Portuguese, have had trading-ports for over two thousand years, the harm done to such seaboard towns as Tangier, Rabat and Casablanca is hard to estimate. The modern European colonist apparently imagined that to plant his warehouses, cafes, and cinema-palaces within the walls which for so long had fiercely excluded him was the most impressive way of proclaiming his domination.