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One reason why my experience of Moulay Idriss undoubtedly stuck in my mind, is because of the epic viewpoint that our tour group was blessed to experience at sunset. Our tour leader, Said Elhansali (founder of Indigo Expedition), and local guide in the town, Abd Imoghit, timed things just right for us to view a beautiful sunset over the horizon. The town is set on two hills, so our view from one hill overlooking the other rocky outcrop, was incredibly photogenic. I have been lucky enough to see some great sunsets in my life to date, and this one is certainly up there as one of the best. The evening Call to Prayer was just happening too – adding the acoustic sound which created an incredible travel memory to savour forever.
From the viewpoint, there’s a splendid look at the green tiled roof of the Zawiya of Moulay Idriss I. This is a religious complex at the heart of the town – home to a mosque and famously the mausoleum of the man who this town is named after. The zawiya is off-limits to non-Muslims, however the aforementioned view gives a great perspective of this special place. Also, on the ground by the entrance to the complex, there’s a great view of the richly decorated passage leading up to zawiya. You can see clearly the point where you are respectfully asked not to pass.
Moulay Idriss can be called simply Zerhoun, or Moulay Driss Zerhoun as well. This links to the mountain to where this settlement is located: at the base of Mount Zerhoun. Known as Moulay Idriss, Idriss I of Morocco was the founder of the first Arab-Muslim dynasty of Morocco. It was in the nearby Roman ruins of Volubilis (also known as Oualili), where Idriss I used to find a safe haven, after he fled persecution from the Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad. Having arrived in Morocco, Idriss I created good relations with the local Amazigh (Berber) people who were settled in Volubilis, like the Awraba tribe, and Idriss’s historic links as being a descendant from the revered Prophet Muhammad saw him become of prime importance as a religious leader in the region.
Volubilis is set on an open plain and is rather exposed to the elements and somewhat vulnerable, therefore, Idriss and the people who he settled with, moved up towards the present day town of Moulay Idriss. In doing so, Volubilis was abandoned ancient ruins once more. Idriss I passed away in the year 791, and he is laid to rest in a tomb in the aforementioned zawiya. He is believed to have died a few years before his son, Idriss II, was born. In 803, Idriss II took over the duties and aspirations of his father and ultimately contributed hugely to Morocco being the Islamic country that we see today. What is now known as the Idrisid Dynasty, also founded the city of Fès. It’s believed by most that Idriss II is buried in the Zawiya of Moulay Idriss II in Fès, but some do believe he’s also been laid to rest in Zerhoun. Either way, he too has had a huge legacy in Morocco.
Both Idriss I and Idriss II are commonly looked at as walis (Muslim saints), and important national figures for many Moroccans. The town has been a place of pilgrimage for centuries, and I remember the local guide explaining that if people are not well enough or cannot afford to conduct the Hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca, which is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, then making the effort to visit Moulay Idriss is looked upon very fondly. The Almoravids established themselves in the 11th century, and they followed the Idrisid Dynasty in Morocco. They were much stricter in terms of the reverence of the cult of saints, so there were over two centuries whereby ‘pilgrimage’ paused at Moulay Idriss. The Berber Muslim Marinad Sultanate though, who attained control from the Almoravids in the 14th century, once again allowed the celebration of the Idrisid founders.
There’s a religious festival called a ‘moussem’ which celebrates Moulay Idriss. This takes place in August, and it dates back to the time of the Marinids. In the later eras in Moroccan history, the Saadians and the Aloauites were both sharifian dynasties (claiming to have descended from the Prophet Muhammad). Therefore over their rule, both Idriss I’s and Idriss II’s reputations grew and they became key figures in the historical context of Morocco. And, with their links to the Prophet as well – it enhanced these dynasties historic ties sharing that similarity across the ages. It’s a fascinating timeline how many dynasties have ruled Morocco and developed Moulay Idriss.
In more recent centuries particularly, huge changes have happened to the structures in the town. In fact, the existing mausoleum was ordered to be demolished by Moulay Ismail, who was an Alaouite sultan. He was very powerful, and he decided to do this in order to re-build the building on a grander scale. This construction happened between 1719 to 1721, and it included the purchase of adjoining properties to create Ismail’s vision. Just over a century later, more developments took place: fellow Alaouite Sultan Moulay Abderrahman bought another adjoining property to enhance the mosque to an even bigger stature. This happened in 1822, before under Moulay Sultan Mohammad IV (ruling 1859 to 1873), decoration was added – with ceramic tile-work implemented by Ibn Makhlouf, who was an artisan from the nearby imperial city of Meknès.
King Mohammad V and Hassan II refurbished and developed the zawiya further, following the Moroccan independence which was declared in 1956. As alluded to before, this is a pilgrimage site to this day, and it was so sacred as a holy city, that it wasn’t until 1912, when non-Muslims were allowed to enter the town. And it wasn’t until 2005 that non-Muslims could stay overnight. The gold-embroidered covering on Moulay Idriss’s tomb is often replaced (every few years), in a ritual that’s attended by both political and religious figures. I’m honoured to have been able to receive an evening of fantastic hospitality and also stay a night in Moulay Idriss.
The history of Moulay Idriss is one that I find so interesting – it’s developed so much over time over the many dynasties which have shaped the Morocco that we see today. The fact that it’s a place of pilgrimage whereby the tomb of Idriss I is still being looked after so well – well over 1,000 years on after his death – shows just how significant a role he (and his son too) had in the history of Morocco. I feel a special sense of peace at places of pilgrimage, and once I was able to truly understand the sacredness of this place, it means that I reminisce on my visit to Moulay Idriss with a great sense of thankfulness. I feel privileged to experience this place; I highly recommend requesting including it in an itinerary exploring the northern areas of Morocco. Shukran bezzaf, Moulay Driss Zerhoun!
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