Rabat, Morocco – Hassan Tower + dreams of world’s biggest mosque 2

Rabat came into the world as sweet and innocent as a newborn babe. Over the centuries it slowly grew in size, it developed its own unique character, it had its share of ups and downs; it even hit the big time for a few years. But the high was followed by a calamitous low.

And it was at that point that Rabat turned to a life of crime.

The founding of Rabat

Rabat, Morocco

Photo credit: Benjamin White

Sometime between 3,200 and 2,800 years ago a Phoenician craft sailed five kilometres or so up the broad Bou Regreg River, and there established a basic trading post.

And thus Rabat was born – although it was given the name Sala at the time.

Sala Colonia

Chellah, Rabat, Morocco

The Roman city of Sala Colonia. Photo credit: Benjamin White

When the Romans took control of the region, following the death of the last Ptolemaic king of Mauretania in 40 CE, they built a port city directly on top of the Phoenician trading post.

The Roman port city was given the name Sala Colonia. It was one of just two Roman naval ports on the Atlantic Coast (the other being Lixus, also in Morocco).

Chellah, Rabat, Morocco

Photo credit: Benjamin White

Sala Colonia was an important city, and was connected by a Decumanus Maximus (principal roadway) to several other important Roman cities in North Africa.

The remains of Sala Colonia can still be seen today, though much of the archaeological fabric was destroyed by the Almohads in the 12th – 13th Century CE.

The Almohads

Kasbah of the Udayas, Rabat, Morocco

The Kasbah of the Udayas on the horizon. Photo credit: Benjamin White

In the 11th Century CE, the Almoravid dynasty (whose capital was Marrakesh) rose to power across northwestern Africa. The Almoravids built an enormous empire, stretching from Morocco to Senegal, with a foothold on the Iberian Peninsula.

But their empire was just a hundred years old when they were blind-sided by the Almohads – the names of these two dynasties are confusingly similar – who executed the Almoravid king, destroyed the Almoravid dynasty, and created a caliphate of their own across North Africa.

The Kasbah of the Udayas, Rabat

Kasbah, Rabat, Morocco

Andalusian Gardens inside the kasbah. Photo credit: Benjamin White

The Almohads constructed a mighty kasbah (fortress) at the mouth of the Bou Regreg River.

Rabat became their capital – the word Rabat comes from the Arabic word ribat, a term used to describe a small fortification built on a frontier.

Kasbah of the Udayas, Rabat, Morocco

Inside the kasbah. Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

Hassan Tower, Rabat

Abū Yūsuf Ya‘qūb al-Manṣūr, the third Almohad caliph, had grand plans for Rabat. He wanted his capital to contain the biggest mosque the world had ever seen.

Hassan Tower, Rabat, Morocco

The remains of the partially-built mosque. Photo credit: Benjamin White

Construction of al-Manṣūr’s mosque began in 1195, but stopped in 1199 when the caliph suddenly died. The minaret – now known as Hassan Tower – reached a height of 44 metres before the project stalled.

Al-Manṣūr wanted the minaret to reach a height of 86 metres, which would have made it the tallest minaret in the world if it had been completed – the current tallest is the minaret attached to Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, Morocco, at 210 metres.

Hassan Tower, Rabat, Morocco

Hassan Tower. Photo credit: Benjamin White

Chellah, Rabat

The Almohads didn’t stop there. While looking around for other ways in which to improve their capital their eyes landed upon the old Roman city of Sala Colonia.

Now that, one Almohad said to himself, would make a splendid royal necropolis.

And so, Sala Colonia was converted into an illustrious burial ground. It was given the named Chellah.

Chellah, Rabat, Morocco

Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

Chellah was heavily fortified, and enhanced with a mosque (now ruined), a minaret (still standing), a madrasah (ruined), and royal tombs (mostly ruined).

The royal necropolis is currently a breeding ground for White Storks.

Chellah, Rabat, Morocco

Photo credit: Benjamin White

The Almohads met their demise in 1244. They were overthrown by their arch-enemies, the Marinids, who made Fez their new capital.

Rabat was abandoned. By 1515 there were as few as 100 people living in the city.

And it was at this low point that Rabat turned bad.

Rabat, Morocco

Tombstones and sun umbrellas on the beaches of Salé. Photo credit: Benjamin White

Rise of the Barbary Pirates

In the early 17th Century thousands of Mariscos (Spanish Muslims) fled Spain – where practising Islam had just been outlawed – and sailed to Rabat to start a new life.

The Mariscos needed to establish themselves somehow. They needed a trade. But what? Rabat at the time was ruled by none, and essentially lawless. Surely they could use that to their advantage?

Rabat, Morocco

Photo credit: Benjamin White

The answer was obvious. Join the legions of Barbary pirates, and make money raiding ships and selling slaves.

Piracy was a lucrative business, and it had great long-term prospects. Rabat ended up being used as a headquarters of the Barbary Pirates for the next 200 years.

Mausoleum of Mohammed V, Rabat, Morocco

Inside the Mausoleum of Mohammed V. Photo credit: Benjamin White

French protectorate

Things finally turned around for Rabat when the the French invaded in 1912. Morocco was made a French protectorate, and Rabat was reinstated as capital.

And from then on Rabat has kept its nose out of the dirt. Its days as a wild lawless pirate den were over. The city had grown into a mature, stable capital.

Rabat, Morocco

Photo credit: Benjamin White

Practical information and how to reach Rabat:

Rabat is connected by train to Casablanca (a major transport hub with a busy international airport). Trip time is 1 – 2 hours depending on connections. More transport info here.

Read more on Rabat in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.

More on Morocco:

Aït Benhaddou – ancient ksar featured in Game of Thrones

Marrakesh – you can skip the shopping, but don’t miss the souqs

More incomplete monuments:

Kalta Minor, Khiva, Uzbekistan

Farhad Tarash, Bisotun, Iran

El Gigante, the Moai Quarry archaeological site, Easter Island, Chile

Mingun, Myanmar – the greatest stupa ever, almost

Posts on West Africa:


Île de Gorée – Maison des Esclaves and the Door of No Return

Sierra Leone:

Freetown – haven for freed slaves becomes West African capital

Bunce Island – the decaying remains of a slave trading castle

Birds of Freetown

Beaches of the Freetown Peninsula

The Gambia:

Kachikally Crocodile Pool – the crocs are safe?

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