Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

The Evolution of Rabat

In a country where almost half the population lives in rural areas, it is Morocco’s cities which attract the most attention from international visitors. Fez and Marrakesh are certainly the best known, and the most dramatic in putting forward living images of Moroccan traditional life. No visit to the country would be complete without spending some time in each of them.  But fabulous as they are, neither is my favorite Moroccan urban center. That is Rabat. The modern part of the city was conceived by the first French resident general, Hubert Lyautey, but constructed in consultation with the architect and urban planner Henri Prost.  The intent was to shift the political focus from the traditional capitals of the interior (Fez, Marrakesh, and Meknes) to the Atlantic coast, thus making the center of Moroccan government more accessible to the West and its ideas and less prone to disruption by the tribal forces of the interior. Rabat’s compact downtown, with its early twentieth century building designs, could just as well be anywhere in the south of France or elsewhere in southern Europe. Lyautey and Prost insisted on a distinct separation between this modern city and the old traditional medina, thereby enshrining a pattern apparent in all Moroccan urban centers of the traditional walled city physically separated from the modern European one. The resident general justified his decision on the grounds that it would preserve traditional arts, crafts, and practices, which it did, but at the cost of creating two distinct worlds which later critics interpreted as the imposition of a colonial apartheid.  Similar thinking led the fiercely Roman Catholic Lyaytey to ban Christians from entering mosques – a prohibition later adopted by independent Morocco and honored (with the colossal Hassan II mosque in Casablanca the sole exception) to the present day.

As the national capital, Rabat has always hosted a diverse diplomatic community which has contributed to its cosmopolitan flavor. Today, the currents of globalization have underscored that characteristic.  One example can be seen in the Catholic Cathedral dating to the 1920s. The mix of diplomats from all over the world at a Sunday morning Mass are now joined by large numbers of sub-Saharan African migrants from former French colonies who have come to Morocco in search of employment, or perhaps as a stopping off point in their anticipated journeys to Europe.

Rabat’s link with Europe is by no means new and evidence of it abounds in the city, whose signature landmark, the Tour Hassan, was built by a twelfth century ruler who presided over a domain that included Andalucía and much of North Africa all the way south to the Sahara and beyond. The tower stands guard over the mausoleum of Sultan Mohammed V, widely seen by Moroccans as the father of the independent nation. Every time I visit this site, I am struck by at the number of Moroccans, and especially Moroccan families, who come there. The monarchy enjoys a position of respect in the country similar to the situation in Great Britain and this burial place, not only of Mohammed V, but of his son, Hassan II, who ruled the country from his father’s death in the 1960s until his own in the 1990s, is a vivid reminder of the ongoing prestige (and power) the institution enjoys.

Both the tower and the mausoleum stand on a plateau overlooking the river Bou Regreg, recently the focal point of a tremendous revival. A decade ago, the most direct way to visit Rabat’s sister city of Salé was to be rowed across by one of a fleet of boatman who plied the river. They are gone; their former bailiwick now a marina for pleasure boats. Less than a mile further downstream, the river empties into the Atlantic Ocean near a cluster of sandbars that once served to protect its banks from European naval vessels pursuing the swift and elusive corsair ships of the so-called Salé Rovers whose victims included Daniel Defoe. Hardly any tourist visits Salé these days, but one of the highlights of this trip was a luncheon in a private home in that city as guests of its owners, descendants of the government official who built it as the first structure outside the city walls,  in the 1930s.  Driving back across the river on the bridge carries not only vehicular traffic, but also the carriages of the light railway that now serves Rabat and its suburbs, including Salé  – another recent addition to the cityscape – serves as a reminder of Rabat’s constant evolution, which values heritage, history, and progress in equal measures.


To learn more about our Splendors of Morocco tour, click here.