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On the trail of Sultan Moulay Ismail
Elegance magazine, Issue 03, 2010

I have been travelling to and through Morocco for thirty three years now and, like the deepening lines on my face, I carry within me a kaleidoscopic confusion of Moroccan experiences: vision-like mountain landscapes from walks in the Atlas, the confused scents of memorable meals - vast elaborate palatial dinners as well as humble picnics - haunting individual encounters with shepherds and saints, ecstatic swims in cool streams and the turbulent surf of the Atlantic and desert nights of camels, snakes, tambourines and dazzling bright stars. I have also acquired a fair bit of baggage over the decades: dozens of rolled up carpets, bashed brass candlesticks, old bowls and previously-loved kaftans litter both house, cottage and camper-van. Even my office is stacked with hundreds of books on Morocco and North Africa, some dozen of which I have either written myself or published within the Eland list. When I am asked which is my favourite destination - a habitual question at literary festivals - I can still honestly reply that though I love Syria, Turkey, Egypt and the Sahara, my heart is still pledged to Morocco. Sometimes I wonder just why and how this all happened…

Just the other day I found a copy of Black Sunrise and I was plunged straight back into the excitement, quest and mystery that infected me as a seventeen-year-old and first sent me south across the Straits of Gibraltar. I had stumbled upon this book in the cavernous shelves of the Garrison Library in Gibraltar, a place otherwise filled with ancient dark-suited figures playing cards in silent shuttered rooms and then noisily gossiping in three languages as they took tea on a terrace overwhelmed by a vast jungle of wisteria. Black Sunrise is a biography of Sultan Moulay Ismail who bestrode Morocco at the same time as Louis XIV dominated France and our own Charles II strolled down Piccadilly. It was written by an unlikely admirer, Wilfrid Blunt, a gentle English art-historian, bachelor and teacher, who was the younger brother of Sir Anthony Blunt of Poussin and “fourth man” fame. From the very first page I was caught up by this story, which begins when young prince Ismail is suddenly propelled onto the throne after his fearsome elder brother kills himself, Absalom-like, while galloping one night after a victory banquet through the low orchards of the palace gardens. So it was left to Moulay Ismail to reign as Sultan from 1672-1727, and to continue his brother’s task of imposing order on the tumultuous tribes and emirates of Morocco. This he would only finally achieve by creating a Black Sparta within his kingdom - a devotedly loyal army recruited exclusively from West African slaves. To add to this already exotic cocktail, like some Moorish version of Ivan the Terrible, Moulay Ismail was the sole squire to hundreds of concubines, but remained devoted to his four wives (at least two of whom were rumoured to be witches) whilst serving as admiral-in-chief of the Barbary Corsairs and waging war on England, France and Spain by turn. He was revered in his own lifetime for his piety, his orthodox faith and his holy bloodline, for he was a Sharif, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. He also built with a ferocious passion, which provides a fascinating trail for a traveller to sleuth after, taking them from Morocco’s north-western tip to its south-eastern corner.

The wicked old port-city of Tangier which guards the northern coast of Morocco is forever linked in popular culture with decadent exiles, smugglers, spies and beat poets. Once you have cut your way through this literary mist and penetrated the reality of the old walled city, you are in a dreamscape of alleys, piazzas, mosques and palaces that was entirely created during the reign of Moulay Ismail. For the previous occupants, a disorderly garrison of drunk English soldiers, had burned and blown up the city before evacuating the place after they had twice been worsted by the Moroccan army.

To the west of Tangier the Atlantic surf takes control from the milder tides of the Mediterranean. With the wilder seas, you also fortunately lose sight of the beach resorts that hug the Mediterranean shore. Instead vast stretches of sand alternate with cliffs studded with a chain of white-washed fishing ports: Asilah, Moulay Bousselham and Larache. But it is within the modern capital of Rabat that one can next stare upon the works of Moulay Ismail. For overlooking the tidal estuary between the twin cities of Rabat and Sale, he built a walled garden studded with pavilions to overlook the sea. This, the Museum of Oudaia, is one of the most enchanting and accessible of the royal palaces in Morocco. The neighbouring whitewashed terrace of the Café Maure provides the perfect environment to sip a glass of scaldingly hot mint tea and imagine how the estuary looked when it was safe anchorage of the Sale Rovers, who plundered the Atlantic trade routes. Portugese merchants returning from Gao, Dutch traders from the East Indies, Spanish fleets returning from South America, and English merchant-venturers all made good prey. So much so that a secondary stream of diplomats and agents begged leave to petition the Sultan, to buy back their goods and ransom captives.

Within one of the many walled palace compounds of Moulay Ismail’s great capital city of Meknes (standing pretty much dead in the centre of northern Morocco and inland from Rabat) you can still enter the carved and tiled pavilion where these discussions took place, the Koubbet el Khiyatin. Moulay Ismail was a canny negotiator, and on occasion ordered that the nearby underground cellars (which one can also inspect) be filled with Christian prisoners, so that their cries of despair might greet the foreign ambassadors. You need the intimate details of the Koubbet and the Oudaia to help you fill in the details of Moulay Ismail’s imperial building projects which still dominate the modern city of Meknes. The cumulative weight of miles upon miles of city walls, of ruined palaces, isolated forts, Imperial gateways, vast echoing djinn-filled arsenals, lake-like water tanks and a near-endless arcade of stable arches is like entering the dream world of a Moorish Piranesi– a fusion of Versailles with Verdun, or the Forbidden City with the Great Wall of China. The Sultan’s ghost also walks this way, whether he is directing his slave army of labourers, reviewing his regiments, being drawn between an avenue of double walls on a carriage pulled by overweight concubines or fulfilling the advice of a wife by inaugurating yet another new palace compound by sacrificing a wolf at midnight by the light of the full moon. Before we leave Meknes, we must visit the Sultan himself, in one of the very few mosques that a non-Muslim is allowed to enter in Morocco. A series of three, ever-more-serene courtyards provides a processional way for both pilgrim and visitor. Gradually you leave the bustling world behind and concentrate on the simplicity of enclosed space, aching blue skies and geometric tiles. This form of meditation is broken by the tinkling of a fountain and the view into the prayer hall where the marble tomb of Moulay Ismail lies between two clocks sent as gifts by King Louis XIV.

Travelling south from Meknes, the traveller can ebb in and out of the vast rising plateau of the Middle Atlas, dotted with remnants of the ancient Cedar forest and the black tents and herds of Berber nomads. This was one of Moulay Ismail’s most hard fought frontiers, for a previous dynasty (that his brother had toppled) had been backed by the tribes of these mountains.

Even the world-renowned city of Marrakech owes much of its soul to the great Sultan. For he reverently restored the tomb-shrines of the seven Muslim saints, which to this day serve as spiritual lodestones for the citizens and continue to serve as refuges for the poor, the old, the spiritually lost and the hungry. He is also credited with creating the Jemaa el Fna square, forever filled with a dazzling theatre of musicians, cooks, fortune tellers, acrobats, traders and beggars. For he demolished the foundations of an abortive mosque that had been half built by a previous Sultan to give the bustling triangular square its name, ‘the mosque that came to nothing.” Like all stories connected with this magical piazza (which is nothing by daylight but total enchantment at dusk), there are always a dozen variant tales.

On the last leg of our quest we pass through the fecund orchards of olives and oranges that encircle the walls of Marrakech and climb up through the towering peaks of the High Atlas mountains. Here, however harsh the scree slopes, however windswept the Alpine pastures, however precipitous the slopes, you find the impeccably constructed hamlets and villages of the native Berber people of Morocco. South of the snow line begins the long, twisting descent into the pre-Sahara, through oasis valleys that are like little Niles, gashes of vivid green flowing down through a red and gold wilderness of bare mountain. The valleys of the Ziz, Dades and Draa, decorated with the ruins of thousands of earth-built kasbahs (fortified and castellated farm-houses), all drain south towards the Sahara. Like other visitors, we will also camp beside the dunes at Merzouga, to witness the magic of a desert dusk, a campfire, the searing beauty of the night sky and a desert dawn. But we will push one stage further south, on the first leg of the old trans-Saharan trade route. The beggars, the flies, the dessicating wind, the over excitable crowds of school children test the tempers of even the most experienced travellers. But the dark, populated alleys of Ksar Abou Aam, the silent courtyards of Ksar al-Fida, built by Moulay Ismail in his ancestral oasis in the Tafilalt for a favoured son, and the ruins of Ksar Abbar are to me like a species of time travel. Here we can understand Moulay Ismail’s identity, born into a holy Alaoui dynasty that kept the peace on one of the most vital trade routes of the ancient world, where gold, ivory, ebony and caravans of black slaves came up from West Africa. Moulay Ismail’s descendants still rule Morocco today, indeed yesterday I found myself in a long line waiting to plant a kiss on the fingers of the King of Morocco’s intelligent sister who is the current Ambassador in London. One never knows where youthful historical enthusiasms might lead you – and as friend warned me recently, “be careful what you choose to show your children between the ages of 17 and 21.”

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