medina in Salé

Medina – the soul of a Moroccan city, part II

Time to continue our walk around the medina in Salé. We’ve been to the Great Mosque and the Bou Inania madrasa, but I still have plenty of interesting things to tell you. There will also be something about pirates, as I promised.

Memory and history

The Great Mosque and the Bou Inania madrasa are not the only things reminiscent of Morocco’s past one can encounter in Salé. For medina is surrounded with walls leading straight to an old fort. They are hugely impressive, but more impressive still is the fort itself. Borj Adoumoue (the Bastion of Tears), a.k.a. Borj Sidi Benacher, was erected in 1261 by marinid sultan Abu Yusuf Yaqoob ben Abd al-Haqq. It was entrusted to marabout Sidi Benacher, currently considered among Islamic saints (hence the alternative name of the fort). After many rebuildings in the 18th and 19th centuries it was fully fortified and equipped with numerous cannons. A prison was set up in the cellars. Currently both the fort and the prison are just historic monuments.

A historical curiosity – four years ago Americans were shooting a movie in this very prison (unfortunately our guide didn’t know the title) and they renovated it for this purpose. Quickly after, however, it went back to its previous condition due to huge storms. The waves of the ocean can get so high as to break into bastion’s cellars – there’s a lot of sand and crushed sea-shells. Unfortunately it’s impossible to enter the fort without a guide.

An enormous Muslim cemetery is spreading around the fortifications. According to our companion, it was partly moved following a king’s order. The reason for it was supposedly city’s development needs and a countrywide program of various revitalizing works such as renovation of all mausoleums. They are burial places of saint Muslims and, at the same time, shrines dedicated to them where one can pray with a specific intent. In the middle of this great cemetery there is a mausoleum dedicated to Sidi Ibn Achir called “at-Taleb”, meaning “healer.” This enormous area with tombstones takes up ca. 1 km2 and is reminiscent of the city’s golden age. Salé’s medina had its finest hour during the rule Marinids, and later it became the Republic of Salé.

In the 17th century Salé, Morocco’s main harbor at the time, was a safe haven for many refugees from Spain, a center of intellectual and artistic life, and an important trading post. No wonder, then, that it soon attracted attention of pirates. That’s right! What’s more, pirates (Berber corsairs) took control of the city and proclaimed its independence from sultan’s rule. Being more precise, it took place in 1619. In spite of what one might expect, this self-proclaimed pirate rule turned out to work for Salé’s benefit. Plundered goods contributed to an even greater development and high living standards for inhabitants. In 1627 this small state stepped into union with Wadi Bou Regreg Rabat across the river, and together they formed the Bou Regreg Republic. It survived until 1666, when the Alawites took over (this dynasty still holds power in Morocco today). They began the process to rebuild centralized power.

Calm and silence

Of course Salé (and its medina) doesn’t only live in the past, even though decidedly overshadowed by Rabat. According to our guide it can even be called “Rabat’s medina”, where tourist come only to sleep and then head out to the country’s capital. I think it’s very unfair to this beautiful city. For it impresses not only with famous monuments, but first and foremost with peace and quiet. In no other Moroccan city have I felt so great. To roam around medina’s alleys without being bothered or feeling that you’re a weird sight is one of the most pleasurable things I can recall. Even in the souks no one was shouting Good price, my friend! Wanna come? and no one was trying to talk us into buying any goods – high quality, of course. This is a peculiarity of Moroccan markets in touristy cities – whenever you’re sighted by a merchant, you’re being picked on. It’s very hard not to draw attention even if you’re just simply walking.

Things are completely different in Salé. And even though it has cost me a lot to dare to take some pictures in the souks (I’d read a lot about how Moroccans don’t like to be in the photos, and I was too ashamed to ask anyone permission), I finally overcame my anxiety. It was just enough not to flash the camera lens churlishly in someone’s face. Our guide showed us lots of alleys in the marketplace, and they delighted us with their many colors, shapes, and scents. One of the interesting sights was a roofed commercial area, which is not a common thing. Most of souks, at least those we visited, aren’t roofed – each merchant has his own stand and part of the goods are standing in the street. That place was different. The roofing amazed me – a wooden roof full of delicate embellishments, complete with colorful stained glass and hanging lamps here and there. Just think how magnificently the corridor looks like whenever the sun is shining through such a roof!

Everyday life

Business is one thing. Daily life of the medina and its inhabitants is, however, focused around something else. It’s five elements: a school, a bakery, a fountain, a hammam, and a mosque. When you look around, you’ll notice these five spots are usually in close proximity to each other. What’s more, this is closely related to three things which are most important for a Muslim. These things find their reflection on top of many minarets. Upon a closer look one can see that there are always three spheres there. They are called jamour and are symbols of life. They represent water, flour, and salt, i.e. ingredients used to make bread, a man’s fundamental meal. Sometimes there’s only one sphere – then it represent water, without which no living organism can survive.

In spite of a difficult situation (the guide let us know that there is a huge problem with finding work and that he takes up whatever jobs he can find), Salé’s inhabitants get by somehow (especially those who run accommodations for tourists). They team up in cooperatives which provide various goods to specified groups of people. One of them, for instance, services only people living on a few nearby streets. Another one services another part of the medina, etc. Someone bakes bread, someone else weaves cloths… Salé’s medina is bursting with life!

PS. After we had paid the guide, we went down to the beach (obviously). Do you know how many sea-shells are there?! Needless to say I kept halting every two steps 😉 And by the way – there’s a fantastic view of Rabat from the riverbank. I really do love Salé!