Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

A Q&A with Expert Moshe Gershovich

Q: Considering all of the incredible stops on this journey and your two plus year’s residence in Morocco, what would you say is the single most breathtaking destination on the itinerary? 

A: Having to choose just one breathtaking spot in Morocco is almost akin to choosing one of your children as more beloved than the others. Once you get out and about into the countryside, the beauty of the landscape appears to pop up from every curve in the road. One of my favorite stretches of road is the fifteen-minute drive from Ifrane to Azrou. It is surrounded by lush evergreen forest of trees, the road twists and turns throughout the ride. Occasional breaks in the woods reveal magnificent scenery miles away in the distance. Another great vista point is the start of the Ziz Valley on the road to Erfoud. You can see thick groves of palm trees hugging the curve of the river below as it flows towards the Tafilalt Oasis.

Still, having to pick my ultimate breathtaking spot, I can think of no experience that could rival the majestic splendor of the sun setting behind the sand dunes at Merzouga. What better ending could there be to a busy day spent mostly at and around the Tafilalt with its bustling center of Risani, than the silence of the open dunes, climbed by foot or atop a camel just in time to see the twilight falling on the endless desert. The eerie silence engulfs you and the warm sand threatens to flood your shoes as you turn to descend back to your awaiting bus. 

Q: The history of the land that is Morocco is long (2000 BCE) and seems straightforward (Berbers-Romans-Arabs) until the 19th century, when various European countries began to involve themselves in this African country such a short distance from them. Can you please briefly shed light on this historical progression? 


A: In fact, the history of Morocco (and North Africa in general) can be seen as a long chain of foreign invasions and battles to preserve indigenous independence. From the Phoenicians and Greeks, through the Romans, Vandals, and Byzantines, to the Arabs and Turks, and finally the French and Spaniards, Morocco and its Imazighren (Berber) inhabitants have been constantly shaped and reshaped, while maintaining their unique and authentic voice.

European intrusion into Morocco started in the 15th century as part of the Spanish Reconquista. Without getting too much into historical detail, I will mention that for about a century Morocco was the target of both Iberian (Spain, Portugal) and Ottoman expansionist designs, only to emerge independent and defiant. Then, in 1830, France invaded and occupied neighboring Algeria. From that time on, the end of Morocco’s independence seemed only a matter of time.

France and Spain ultimately split Morocco between them in 1912 and for the next 44 years the kingdom was subjected to a dual "Protectorate" regime, from which it emerged independent again only after a fierce struggle for decolonization. 

Q: During your tenure at Al-Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco, what became your favorite way to spend a free day? Exploring medinas? Treks in the High Atlas Mountains? 


A: When free of teaching and other academic work for AUI, I used to travel to towns and villages in the Middle Atlas interviewing Moroccan veterans of the French Army who had fought in WWII and other wars. My travels brought me to places that few foreigners had ever heard about, let alone visited. In these research trips I came to know the "real" Morocco, the one rarely seen from the main roads and famous sites. 

For recreation and pleasure I used to wander the woods around Ifrane, where mighty cedar trees form the natural habitat of the Barbary Apes. A short distance from there is the quiet town of Azrou. There, I would frequent the shops of the marketplace and chat with the vendors. My absolute favorite shopping experience was on Saturday morning, during the local Farmer’s Market of Ifrane. I enjoyed strolling among the mountains of fresh fruits and vegetables and marveled at their quality and affordability. It gave me the opportunity to practice my conversational skills in Moroccan Arabic, peppered with French expression whenever I’d get stuck. What’s the perfect way to conclude such a morning? A chilled glass of freshly-squeezed orange juice made from locally-grown fruit from a nearby orchard. 

Q: How did tea—made from Chinese "gun powder" tea–become such a major part of Moroccan culture? Did the early Parisian salons de thé have anything to do with it? 

A: The manner in which tea became such an important staple of the Moroccan diet remains an open question, as is the time it happened. One thing is clear: the origins of tea’s popularity precede the arrival of French influence in the country. Most likely, it dates back to the 18th century if not earlier, and it’s linked to the opening of Morocco’s economy to foreign trade, mainly with Britain.

Tea drinking is a social ritual in Morocco. Whenever you visit a Moroccan home, regardless of how affluent or poor the household may be, you will always be offered a hot and steaming cup of tea. It is served in a silver (or tin) pot with thin, colorful glasses (always one more than the number of drinkers; the hostess would use it to pour tea back and forth to the pot to enhance the strength). No matter how hot the weather may be, or how full you are from your previous meal, refusal to drink is unthinkable, an affront to the host. The pouring of the tea is done while raising the pot higher and higher without a single drop of the trickling hot liquid missing the glass. 

On the third day of their trip, members of the "Moroccan Discovery" trip will get a unique tea drinking experience. Late in the afternoon, they will gather at the outdoor salon de teá in the Kasbah of Oudaias. There in the Andalusian Garden that faces the walls of Salé, the tour group will enjoy drinking sweet mint tea and munch on some of the yummiest pastries and cookies in all of Morocco (at least according to my mom, who visited Morocco nearly a decade ago and still savors the taste to this day). The view is beautiful as the last rays of the setting sun settle on the horizon. 

Q: Can you please describe what our travelers can look forward to seeing at the World Heritage Site, Volubilis? 

A: Volubilis served as the administrative center of the Roman province of Mauritania Tingitana. Long after the Romans had left North Africa it continued to function as a regional urban center. It was founded during the zenith of Roman grandeur, with all its greatness reflected by the impressive Third century arch de triumphe standing right next to the multi-column Forum. The opulence and refined taste of Volubilis’s Roman inhabitants is shown in the impressive mosaics found at the ruins of various homes. The site is well preserved with Stork nests atop the long thin columns making it the perfect backdrop for a romantic scene. 

Right next to Volubilis is another fascinating place that Smithsonian travelers will explore. The town of Moulay Idriss is named in honor of the founder of Morocco’s first Muslim dynasty, the Idrissids (8th-10th centuries). A direct descendent of the Prophet Muhammad, he had fled from Baghdad and traversed the entire Muslim empire until he reached Volubilis where he finally found refuge. Widely revered as a saint with great blessing powers (Baraka), Moulay Idriss’s mausoleum is a site of an annual visitation festival that attracts tens of thousands to the town. This will be an excellent opportunity to relate to Morocco’s early Muslim history as well as to the phenomenon of saint veneration. 

Q: What will be the most enduring effects of French colonial rule (other than language) that our travelers will experience in Morocco? 

A: In one word: accessibility. If it weren’t for the French, we could never visit the mountainous Moroccan countryside. Until the French had imposed their rule the area was known as Bilad al-Siba (land of anarchy). The imperial government had little authority there. It took the French army 27 years to conquer the Middle and High Atlas. When they finally subdued the last bastions of resistance they firmly incorporated them within a centralized state. The French provided security and disarmed the Berber tribes. They created an infrastructure, paved roads and connected remote villages with the rest of the country. In so doing, they made it possible for people to migrate to the large cities and inadvertently enhanced the sense of Moroccan nationalism, resulting in decolonization and independence.