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Tissa Horse Festival

In front of a tent at Tissa, with a scalding glass of mint tea thrust into my hands, I came as close to the actual experience of battle as I ever wish to go. A dozen horseman galloped pell-mell to within a few yards of where I was sitting, simultaneously checking their horses, turning their horses on a sixpence, in order to deliver a volley of rifle fire.

I first came to the Tissa festival by mistake, escaping from a series of misadventures in the Riff mountains. My diligent inspection of every single isolated bay, every last tottering Spanish tower had been observed by both the customs posts and the hashish smuggling gangs with wry detachment. Driving an open top white Alfa Romeo with a boot full of history books made me a conspicuous figure. The difficulties only began when a British yacht was arrested for drug smuggling the very same night that I had innocently arrived in the totally isolated Riffi harbour of Kalah Iris, after which everyone wanted to speak with me. Some of them were most insistent.

Getting to Tissa was a great relief, though there was no real question of avoiding it. The festival advertised itself with backed up traffic of jubilant waving and singing villagers packed into trucks and coaches that stretched back up the twisting mountain road for miles. Duri

ng the horse festival Tissa becomes a vision of medieval splendour, like a precious illuminated manuscript brought back to life. Outside of the festival, the drab modern concrete of this simple market town just 50 km northwest from Fez, offer nothing to pull the traveller off the road. The regions rolling hills of this region which are almost treeless like the downs of southern England, have their own quiet beauty. The farm land around Tissa is good corn-growing country, especially when compared to the denuded mountain slopes of the Riff mountains that start climbing to the north. Just three generations ago this was a vast range of semi-nomadic steppeland, filled with herds and black tents guarded by the young horsemen of a handful of Arab clans. However whenever there was sufficient rain to support a crop these proud clansmen were quick to swop the noble dignity of a warrior-herdsman for the hard work of a farmer, and happily ploughed up small plots of grazing land to make fields of corn. Now tractors, settled villages and efficient irrigation schemes fed from dams along the Sebou river have turned the area into permanent ploughland. Fortunately however, the glamour and pride of a horseman has never left the land.

Ostensibly the horse festival was held in honour of the local patron saint, a fifteenth century man of God known as Sidi Muhammad ben Lahcen, though quite why he should have become the host of one of the great horse events of Morocco remains unclear. At the time of the festival the proud owners of pure-born Arab stallions, Barbary mares and the mixed Arab-Berber blood lines, be they Riff farmers, Middle Atlas landlords or stable hands from the Kings own stables at Meknes arrange for their favourite animals to be trucked into town. Being Morocco this is a colourful, vivid and noisy parade in itself, with three or four prized horses tethered in an open top truck each surrounded by a petting and comforting court of stable hands. This is not for anything as simple as a race, or as pagan as an opportunity for gambling, but for that distinctly Moroccan exercise known as a fantasia which is about speed, endurance, grace, discipline and manoeuvrability, all at the same time.

A rectangular exercise ground will has been prepared, defined by a great wall of white campaign tents whose interiors are lit up by the distinctive internal panelling of Sherifian Morocco. This provides a memory of how the Sultans used to customarily make their royal and military progression around the country, and in a succession of personal inspections, public audiences and council meetings, directly supervise the collection of taxes as well as the meting out of justice and administration of the tribes. Inside the tents, lightly embroidered reed mats directly cover the earth, upon which are piled the opulent killims and rich tufted carpets of Morocco. Nothing of the plain white external walls of the tents can be seen inside, for an internal skin formed of alternating panels of red and green, subdivided by stylized arches and battlements, creates palatial interiors. Of all the old Empires of the Islamic world, only Morocco continues this ancient tradition of the tented city, though in museums in Turkey and in the illuminated pages of Topkapi albums, the parallel traditions of the old Ottoman Sultans can also be discovered. Here in the Western Islamic Empire however the familiar Ottoman imagery, those stylized carnations and tulips that underwrite Iznik pottery designs just as much as court dress and manuscript decoration, were never deemed acceptable by the more austere Maliki scholars.

The fantasia will be staged within the rectangular court formed by these assembled tents. The renowned horse breeders, the powerful old landlords, local dignitaries and tribal sheikhs will not be dressed in Milanese suits, Harris tweed or slumming it, redneck-style, in jeans and baseball caps in the approved off-duty US fashion. They will be wearing spotless white gandouras and djellabas of Moroccan national dress, equally ready to pray to their God in the mosque, to address their monarch, to ride into battle, to meet their bride or embrace the tomb.

The fantasia is undeniably martial in character. So it was at Tissa that I first got a taste of how the crusading army of Don Sebastian of Portugal (then supported by all the resources of the worldwide Portugese Empire) must have perished at the battle of Ksar el Kebir, overwhelmed by the fiercely brave cavalrymen of central Morocco. Years later I came across a very similar description of the battle tactics of the North African cavalry from another of their baffled opponents - though this was from the pen of a Roman historian. At Tissa, and in the dozens of other annual fantasia festivals, Morocco keeps a vital memory of her history physically alive.

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