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Chapter 2




One day before sunrise we set out from Rabat for the ruins of Roman

From the ferry of the Bou-Regreg we looked backward on a last vision of
orange ramparts under a night-blue sky sprinkled with stars; ahead, over
gardens still deep in shadow, the walls of Salť were passing from drab
to peach-colour in the eastern glow. Dawn is the romantic hour in
Africa. Dirt and dilapidation disappear under a pearly haze, and a
breeze from the sea blows away the memory of fetid markets and sordid
heaps of humanity. At that hour the old Moroccan cities look like the
ivory citadels in a Persian miniature, and the fat shopkeepers riding
out to their vegetable-gardens like Princes sallying forth to rescue
captive maidens.

Our way led along the highroad from Rabat to the modern port of Kenitra,
near the ruins of the Phenician colony of Mehedyia. Just north of
Kenitra we struck the trail, branching off eastward to a European
village on the light railway between Rabat and Fez, and beyond the
railway-sheds and flat-roofed stores the wilderness began, stretching
away into clear distances bounded by the hills of the Rarb,[A] above
which the sun was rising.

[Footnote A: The high plateau-and-hill formation between Tangier and

Range after range these translucent hills rose before us, all around the
solitude was complete. Village life, and even tent life, naturally
gathers about a river-bank or a spring; and the waste we were crossing
was of waterless sand bound together by a loose desert growth. Only an
abandoned well-curb here and there cast its blue shadow on the yellow
_bled_, or a saint's tomb hung like a bubble between sky and sand. The
light had the preternatural purity which gives a foretaste of mirage: it
was the light in which magic becomes real, and which helps to understand
how, to people living in such an atmosphere, the boundary between fact
and dream perpetually fluctuates.

The sand was scored with tracks and ruts innumerable, for the road
between Rabat and Fez is travelled not only by French government motors
but by native caravans and trains of pilgrims to and from the sacred
city of Moulay Idriss, the founder of the Idrissite dynasty, whose tomb
is in the Zerhoun, the mountain ridge above Volubilis. To untrained eyes
it was impossible to guess which of the trails one ought to follow; and
without much surprise we suddenly found the motor stopping, while its
wheels spun round vainly in the loose sand.

The military chauffeur was not surprised either; nor was Captain de M.,
the French staff-officer who accompanied us.

"It often happens just here," they admitted philosophically. "When the
General goes to Meknez he is always followed by a number of motors, so
that if his own is stuck he may go on in another."

This was interesting to know, but not particularly helpful, as the
General and his motors were not travelling our way that morning. Nor was
any one else, apparently. It is curious how quickly the _bled_ empties
itself to the horizon if one happens to have an accident in it! But we
had learned our lesson between Tangier and Rabat, and were able to
produce a fair imitation of the fatalistic smile of the country.

The officer remarked cheerfully that somebody might turn up, and we all
sat down in the _bled_.

A Berber woman, cropping up from nowhere, came and sat beside us. She
had the thin suntanned face of her kind, brilliant eyes touched with
_khol_, high cheek-bones, and the exceedingly short upper lip which
gives such charm to the smile of the young nomad women. Her dress was
the usual faded cotton shift, hooked on the shoulders with brass or
silver clasps (still the antique _fibulae_), and wound about with a
vague drapery in whose folds a brown baby wriggled.

The coolness of dawn had vanished and the sun beat down from a fierce
sky. The village on the railway was too far off to be reached on foot,
and there were probably no mules there to spare. Nearer at hand there
was no sign of help, not a fortified farm, or even a circle of nomad
tents. It was the unadulterated desert--and we waited.

Not in vain; for after an hour or two, from far off in the direction of
the hills, there appeared an army with banners. We stared at it
unbelievingly. The _mirage_, of course! We were too sophisticated to
doubt it, and tales of sun-dazed travellers mocked by such visions rose
in our well-stocked memories.

The chauffeur thought otherwise. "Good! That's a pilgrimage from the
mountains. They're going to Salť to pray at the tomb of the _marabout_;
to-day is his feast-day."

And so they were! And as we hung on their approach, and speculated as to
the chances of their stopping to help, I had time to note the beauty of
this long train winding toward us under parti-colored banners. There was
something celestial, almost diaphanous, in the hundreds of figures
turbaned and draped in white, marching slowly through the hot colorless
radiance over the hot colorless sand.

The most part were on foot, or bestriding tiny donkeys, but a stately
CaÔd rode alone at the end of the line on a horse saddled with crimson
velvet, and to him our officer appealed.

The CaÔd courteously responded, and twenty or thirty pilgrims were
ordered to harness themselves to the motor and haul it back to the
trail, while the rest of the procession moved hieratically onward.

I felt scruples at turning from their path even a fraction of this pious
company; but they fell to with a saintly readiness, and before long the
motor was on the trail. Then rewards were dispensed; and instantly those
holy men became a prey to the darkest passions. Even in this land of
contrasts the transition from pious serenity to rapacious rage can
seldom have been more rapid. The devotees of the _marabout_ fought,
screamed, tore their garments and rolled over each other with sanguinary
gestures in the struggle for our pesetas; then, perceiving our
indifference, they suddenly remembered their religious duties, scrambled
to their feet, tucked up their flying draperies, and raced after the
tail-end of the procession.

Through a golden heat-haze we struggled on to the hills. The country was
fallow, and in great part too sandy for agriculture, but here and there
we came on one of the deep-set Moroccan rivers, with a reddish-yellow
course channelled between perpendicular banks of red earth, and marked
by a thin line of verdure that widened to fruit-gardens wherever a
village had sprung up. We traversed several of these "sedentary"[A]
villages, _nourwals_ of clay houses with thatched conical roofs, in
gardens of fig, apricot and pomegranate that must be so many pink and
white paradises after the winter rains.

[Footnote A: So called to distinguish them from the tent villages of the
less settled groups.]

One of these villages seemed to be inhabited entirely by blacks, big
friendly creatures who came out to tell us by which trail to reach the
bridge over the yellow _oued_. In the _oued_ their womenkind were
washing the variegated family rags. They were handsome blue-bronze
creatures, bare to the waist, with tight black astrakhan curls and
firmly sculptured legs and ankles; and all around them, like a swarm of
gnats, danced countless jolly pickaninnies, naked as lizards, with the
spindle legs and globular stomachs of children fed only on cereals.

Half terrified but wholly interested, these infants buzzed about the
motor while we stopped to photograph them; and as we watched their
antics we wondered whether they were the descendants of the little
Soudanese boys whom the founder of Meknez, the terrible Sultan
Moulay-IsmaŽl, used to carry off from beyond the Atlas and bring up in
his military camps to form the nucleus of the Black Guard which defended
his frontiers. We were on the line of travel between Meknez and the sea,
and it seemed not unlikely that these _nourwals_ were all that remained
of scattered outposts of Moulay-IsmaŽl's legionaries.

After a time we left _oueds_ and villages behind us and were in the
mountains of the Rarb, toiling across a high sandy plateau. Far off a
fringe of vegetation showed promise of shade and water, and at last,
against a pale mass of olive-trees, we saw the sight which, at whatever
end of the world one comes upon it, wakes the same sense of awe: the
ruin of a Roman city.

Volubilis (called by the Arabs the Castle of the Pharaohs) is the only
considerable Roman colony so far discovered in Morocco. It stands on the
extreme ledge of a high plateau backed by the mountains of the Zerhoun.
Below the plateau, the land drops down precipitately to a narrow
river-valley green with orchards and gardens, and in the neck of the
valley, where the hills meet again, the conical white town of Moulay
Idriss, the Sacred City of Morocco, rises sharply against a wooded

So the two dominations look at each other across the valley: one, the
lifeless Roman ruin, representing a system, an order, a social
conception that still run through all our modern ways, the other, the
untouched Moslem city, more dead and sucked back into an unintelligible
past than any broken architrave of Greece or Rome.

Volubilis seems to have had the extent and wealth of a great military
outpost, such as Timgad in Algeria; but in the seventeenth century it
was very nearly destroyed by Moulay-IsmaŽl, the Sultan of the Black
Guard, who carried off its monuments piece-meal to build his new capital
of Meknez, that Mequinez of contemporary travellers which was held to be
one of the wonders of the age.

Little remains to Volubilis in the way of important monuments: only the
fragments of a basilica, part of an arch of triumph erected in honour of
Caracalla, and the fallen columns and architraves which strew the path
of Rome across the world. But its site is magnificent; and as the
excavation of the ruins was interrupted by the war it is possible that
subsequent search may bring forth other treasures comparable to the
beautiful bronze _sloughi_ (the African hound) which is now its
principal possession.

It was delicious, after seven hours of travel under the African sun, to
sit on the shady terrace where the Curator of Volubilis, M. Louis
Ch‚telain, welcomes his visitors. The French Fine Arts have built a
charming house with gardens and pergolas for the custodian of the ruins,
and have found in M. Ch‚telain an archaeologist so absorbed in his task
that, as soon as conditions permit, every inch of soil in the
circumference of the city will be made to yield up whatever secrets it



We lingered under the pergolas of Volubilis till the heat grew less
intolerable, and then our companions suggested a visit to Moulay Idriss.

Such a possibility had not occurred to us, and even Captain de M.
seemed to doubt whether the expedition were advisable. Moulay Idriss was
still said to be resentful of Christian intrusion: it was only a year
before that the first French officers had entered it.

But M. Ch‚telain was confident that there would be no opposition to our
visit, and with the piled-up terraces and towers of the Sacred City
growing golden in the afternoon light across the valley it was
impossible to hesitate.

We drove down through an olive-wood as ancient as those of Mitylene and
Corfu, and then along the narrowing valley, between gardens luxuriant
even in the parched Moroccan autumn. Presently the motor began to climb
the steep road to the town, and at a gateway we got out and were met by
the native chief of police. Instantly at the high windows of mysterious
houses veiled heads appeared and sidelong eyes cautiously inspected us.
But the quarter was deserted, and we walked on without meeting any one
to the Street of the Weavers, a silent narrow way between low
whitewashed niches like the cubicles in a convent. In each niche sat a
grave white-robed youth, forming a great amphora-shaped grain-basket out
of closely plaited straw. Vine-leaves and tendrils hung through the reed
roofing overhead, and grape-clusters cast their classic shadow at our
feet. It was like walking on the unrolled frieze of a white Etruscan
vase patterned with black vine garlands.

The silence and emptiness of the place began to strike us: there was no
sign of the Oriental crowd that usually springs out of the dust at the
approach of strangers. But suddenly we heard close by the lament of the
_rekka_ (a kind of long fife), accompanied by a wild thrum-thrum of
earthenware drums and a curious excited chanting of men's voices. I had
heard such a chant before, at the other end of North Africa, in
Kairouan, one of the other great Sanctuaries of Islam, where the sect of
the AÔssaouas celebrate their sanguinary rites in the _Zaouia_[A] of
their confraternity. Yet it seemed incredible that if the AÔssaouas of
Moulay Idriss were performing their ceremonies that day the chief of
police should be placidly leading us through the streets in the very
direction from which the chant was coming. The Moroccan, though he
has no desire to get into trouble with the Christian, prefers to be left
alone on feast-days, especially in such a stronghold of the faith as
Moulay Idriss.

[Footnote A: Sacred college.]

But "Geschehen ist geschehen" is the sum of Oriental philosophy. For
centuries Moulay Idriss had held out fanatically on its holy steep;
then, suddenly, in 1916, its chiefs saw that the game was up, and
surrendered without a pretense of resistance. Now the whole thing was
over, the new conditions were accepted, and the chief of police assured
us that with the French uniform at our side we should be safe anywhere.

"The AÔssaouas?" he explained. "No, this is another sect, the Hamadchas,
who are performing their ritual dance on the feast-day of their patron,
the _marabout_ Hamadch, whose tomb is in the Zerhoun. The feast is
celebrated publicly in the market-place of Moulay Idriss."

As he spoke we came out into the market-place, and understood why there
had been no crowd at the gate. All the population was in the square and
on the roofs that mount above it, tier by tier, against the wooded
hillside: Moulay Idriss had better to do that day than to gape at a few
tourists in dust-coats.

Short of Sfax, and the other coast cities of eastern Tunisia, there is
surely not another town in North Africa as white as Moulay Idriss. Some
are pale blue and pinky yellow, like the Kasbah of Tangier, or cream and
blue like Salť, but Tangier and Salť, for centuries continuously subject
to European influences, have probably borrowed their colors from Genoa
and the Italian Riviera. In the interior of the country, and especially
in Morocco, where the whole color-scheme is much soberer than in Algeria
and Tunisia, the color of the native houses is always a penitential
shade of mud and ashes.

But Moulay Idriss, that afternoon, was as white as if its arcaded square
had been scooped out of a big cream cheese. The late sunlight lay like
gold-leaf on one side of the square, the other was in pure blue shade,
and above it, the crowded roofs, terraces and balconies packed with
women in bright dresses looked like a flower-field on the edge of a
marble quarry.

The bright dresses were as unusual a sight as the white walls, for the
average Moroccan crowd is the color of its houses. But the occasion
was a special one, for these feasts of the Hamadchas occur only twice a
year, in spring and autumn, and as the ritual dances take place out of
doors, instead of being performed inside the building of the
confraternity, the feminine population seizes the opportunity to burst
into flower on the housetops.

It is rare, in Morocco, to see in the streets or the bazaars any women
except of the humblest classes, household slaves, servants, peasants
from the country or small tradesmen's wives; and even they (with the
exception of the unveiled Berber women) are wrapped in the prevailing
grave-clothes. The _filles de joie_ and dancing-girls whose brilliant
dresses enliven certain streets of the Algerian and Tunisian towns are
invisible, or at least unnoticeable, in Morocco, where life, on the
whole, seems so much less gay and brightly-tinted; and the women of the
richer classes, mercantile or aristocratic, never leave their harems
except to be married or buried. A throng of women dressed in light
colors is therefore to be seen in public only when some street festival
draws them to the roofs. Even then it is probable that the throng is
mostly composed of slaves, household servants, and women of the lower
_bourgeoisie_; but as they are all dressed in mauve and rose and pale
green, with long earrings and jewelled head-bands flashing through their
parted veils, the illusion, from a little distance, is as complete as
though they were the ladies in waiting of the Queen of Sheba; and that
radiant afternoon at Moulay Idriss, above the vine-garlanded square, and
against the background of piled-up terraces, their vivid groups were in
such contrast to the usual gray assemblages of the East that the scene
seemed like a setting for some extravagantly staged ballet.

For the same reason the spectacle unrolling itself below us took on a
blessed air of unreality. Any normal person who has seen a dance of the
AÔssaouas and watched them swallow thorns and hot coals, slash
themselves with knives, and roll on the floor in epilepsy must have
privately longed, after the first excitement was over, to fly from the
repulsive scene. The Hamadchas are much more savage than AÔssaouas, and
carry much farther their display of cataleptic anaesthesia, and, knowing
this, I had wondered how long I should be able to stand the sight of
what was going on below our terrace. But the beauty of the setting
redeemed the bestial horror. In that unreal golden light the scene
became merely symbolical: it was like one of those strange animal masks
which the Middle Ages brought down from antiquity by way of the
satyr-plays of Greece, and of which the half-human protagonists still
grin and contort themselves among the Christian symbols of Gothic

At one end of the square the musicians stood on a stone platform above
the dancers. Like the musicians in a bas-relief they were flattened side
by side against a wall, the fife-players with lifted arms and inflated
cheeks, the drummers pounding frantically on long earthenware drums
shaped like enormous hour-glasses and painted in barbaric patterns; and
below, down the length of the market-place, the dance unrolled itself in
a frenzied order that would have filled with envy a Paris or London

In its centre an inspired-looking creature whirled about on his axis,
the black ringlets standing out in snaky spirals from his haggard head,
his cheek-muscles convulsively twitching. Around him, but a long way
off, the dancers rocked and circled with long raucous cries dominated
by the sobbing booming music, and in the sunlit space between dancers
and holy man, two or three impish children bobbed about with fixed eyes
and a grimace of comic frenzy, solemnly parodying his contortions.

Meanwhile a tall grave personage in a doge-like cap, the only calm
figure in the tumult, moved gravely here and there, regulating the
dance, stimulating the frenzy, or calming some devotee who had broken
the ranks and lay tossing and foaming on the stones. There was something
far more sinister in this passionless figure, holding his hand on the
key that let loose such crazy forces, than in the poor central whirligig
who merely set the rhythm of the convulsions.

The dancers were all dressed in white caftans or in the blue shirts of
the lowest classes. In the sunlight something that looked like fresh red
paint glistened on their shaved black or yellow skulls and made dark
blotches on their garments. At first these stripes and stains suggested
only a gaudy ritual ornament like the pattern on the drums; then one saw
that the paint, or whatever it was, kept dripping down from the whirling
caftans and forming fresh pools among the stones, that as one of the
pools dried up another formed, redder and more glistening, and that
these pools were fed from great gashes which the dancers hacked in their
own skulls and breasts with hatchets and sharpened stones. The dance was
a blood-rite, a great sacrificial symbol, in which blood flowed so
freely that all the rocking feet were splashed with it.

Gradually, however, it became evident that many of the dancers simply
rocked and howled, without hacking themselves, and that most of the
bleeding skulls and breasts belonged to negroes. Every now and then the
circle widened to let in another figure, black or dark yellow, the
figure of some humble blue-shirted spectator suddenly "getting religion"
and rushing forward to snatch a weapon and baptize himself with his own
blood; and as each new recruit joined the dancers the music shrieked
louder and the devotees howled more wolfishly. And still, in the centre,
the mad _marabout_ spun, and the children bobbed and mimicked him and
rolled their diamond eyes.

Such is the dance of the Hamadchas, of the confraternity of the
_marabout_ Hamadch, a powerful saint of the seventeenth century, whose
tomb is in the Zerhoun above Moulay Idriss. Hamadch, it appears, had a
faithful slave, who, when his master died, killed himself in despair,
and the self-inflicted wounds of the brotherhood are supposed to
symbolize the slave's suicide; though no doubt the origin of the
ceremony might be traced back to the depths of that ensanguined grove
where Mr. Fraser plucked the Golden Bough.

The more naÔve interpretation, however, has its advantages, since it
enables the devotees to divide their ritual duties into two classes, the
devotions of the free men being addressed to the saint who died in his
bed, while the slaves belong to the slave, and must therefore simulate
his horrid end. And this is the reason why most of the white caftans
simply rock and writhe, while the humble blue shirts drip with blood.

The sun was setting when we came down from our terrace above the
market-place. To find a lodging for the night we had to press on to
Meknez, where we were awaited at the French military post; therefore we
were reluctantly obliged to refuse an invitation to take tea with the
CaÔd, whose high-perched house commands the whole white amphitheatre
of the town. It was disappointing to leave Moulay Idriss with the
Hamadchas howling their maddest, and so much besides to see; but as we
drove away under the long shadows of the olives we counted ourselves
lucky to have entered the sacred town, and luckier still to have been
there on the day of the dance which, till a year ago, no foreigner had
been allowed to see.

A fine French road runs from Moulay Idriss to Meknez, and we flew on
through the dusk between wooded hills and open stretches on which the
fires of nomad camps put orange splashes in the darkness. Then the moon
rose, and by its light we saw a widening valley, and gardens and
orchards that stretched up to a great walled city outlined against the



All that evening, from the garden of the Military Subdivision on the
opposite height, we sat and looked across at the dark tree-clumps and
moonlit walls of Meknez, and listened to its fantastic history.

Meknez was built by the Sultan Moulay-IsmaŽl, around the nucleus of a
small town of which the site happened to please him, at the very moment
when Louis XIV was creating Versailles. The coincidence of two
contemporary autocrats calling cities out of the wilderness has caused
persons with a taste for analogy to describe Meknez as the Versailles of
Morocco: an epithet which is about as instructive as it would be to call
Phidias the Benvenuto Cellini of Greece.

There is, however, a pretext for the comparison in the fact that the two
sovereigns took a lively interest in each other's affairs. Moulay-IsmaŽl
sent several embassies to treat with Louis XIV on the eternal question
of piracy and the ransom of Christian captives, and the two rulers were
continually exchanging gifts and compliments.

The governor of Tetouan, who was sent to Paris in 1680, having brought
as presents to the French King a lion, a lioness, a tigress, and four
ostriches, Louis XIV shortly afterward despatched M. de Saint-Amand to
Morocco with two dozen watches, twelve pieces of gold brocade, a cannon
six feet long and other firearms. After this the relations between the
two courts remained friendly till 1693, at which time they were
strained by the refusal of France to return the Moorish captives who
were employed on the king's galleys, and who were probably as much
needed there as the Sultan's Christian slaves for the building of
Moorish palaces.

Six years later the Sultan despatched Abdallah-ben-AÔssa to France to
reopen negotiations. The ambassador was as brilliantly received and as
eagerly run after as a modern statesman on an official mission, and his
candidly expressed admiration for the personal charms of the Princesse
de Conti, one of the French monarch's legitimatized children, is
supposed to have been mistaken by the court for an offer of marriage
from the Emperor of Barbary. But he came back without a treaty.

Moulay-IsmaŽl, whose long reign (1673 to 1727) and extraordinary
exploits make him already a legendary figure, conceived, early in his
career, a passion for Meknez; and through all his troubled rule, with
its alternations of barbaric warfare and far-reaching negotiations,
palace intrigue, crazy bloodshed and great administrative reforms, his
heart perpetually reverted to the wooded slopes on which he dreamed of
building a city more splendid than Fez or Marrakech.

"The Sultan" (writes his chronicler Aboul Kasim-ibn-Ahmad, called
"Ezziani") "loved Meknez, the climate of which had enchanted him, and he
would have liked never to leave it." He left it, indeed, often, left it
perpetually, to fight with revolted tribes in the Atlas, to defeat one
Berber army after another, to carry his arms across the High Atlas into
the Souss, to adorn Fez with the heads of seven hundred vanquished
chiefs, to put down his three rebellious brothers, to strip all the
cities of his empire of their negroes and transport them to Meknez ("so
that not a negro, man, woman or child, slave or free, was left in any
part of the country"); to fight and defeat the Christians (1683), to
take Tangier, to conduct a campaign on the Moulouya, to lead the holy
war against the Spanish (1689), to take Larache, the Spanish commercial
post on the west coast (which furnished eighteen hundred captives for
Meknez); to lay siege to Ceuta, conduct a campaign against the Turks of
Algiers, repress the pillage in his army, subdue more tribes, and build
forts for his Black Legionaries from Oudjda to the Oued Noun. But
almost each year's bloody record ends with the placid phrase: "Then the
Sultan returned to Meknez."

In the year 1701, Ezziani writes, the indomitable old man "deprived his
rebellious sons of their principalities; after which date he consecrated
himself exclusively to the building of his palaces and the planting of
his gardens. And in 1720 (nineteen years later in this long reign!) he
ordered the destruction of the mausoleum of Moulay Idriss for the
purpose of enlarging it. And to gain the necessary space he bought all
the adjacent land, and the workmen did not leave these new labors till
they were entirely completed."

In this same year there was levied on Fez a new tax which was so heavy
that the inhabitants were obliged to abandon the city.

Yet it is written of this terrible old monarch, who devastated whole
districts, and sacrificed uncounted thousands of lives for his ruthless
pleasure, that under his administration of his chaotic and turbulent
empire "the country rejoiced in the most complete security. A Jew or a
woman might travel alone from Oudjda to the Oued Noun without any one's
asking their business. Abundance reigned throughout the land: grain,
food, cattle were to be bought for the lowest prices. Nowhere in the
whole of Morocco was a highwayman or a robber to be found."

And probably both sides of the picture are true.

What, then, was the marvel across the valley, what were the "lordly
pleasure-houses" to whose creation and enlargement Moulay-IsmaŽl
returned again and again amid the throes and violences of a nearly
centenarian life?

The chronicler continues: "The Sultan caused all the houses near the
Kasbah[A] to be demolished, _and compelled the inhabitants to carry away
the ruins of their dwellings_. All the eastern end of the town was also
torn down, and the ramparts were rebuilt. He also built the Great Mosque
next to the palace of Nasr.... He occupied himself personally with the
construction of his palaces, and before one was finished he caused
another to be begun. He built the mosque of Elakhdar; the walls of the
new town were pierced with twenty fortified gates and surmounted with
platforms for cannon. Within the walls he made a great artificial lake
where one might row in boats. There was also a granary with immense
subterranean reservoirs of water, and a stable _three miles long_ for
the Sultan's horses and mules; twelve thousand horses could be stabled
in it. The flooring rested on vaults in which the grain for the horses
was stored.... He also built the palace of Elmansour, which had twenty
cupolas; from the top of each cupola one could look forth on the plain
and the mountains around Meknez. All about the stables the rarest trees
were planted. Within the walls were fifty palaces, each with its own
mosque and its baths. Never was such a thing known in any country, Arab
or foreign, pagan or Moslem. The guarding of the doors of these palaces
was intrusted to twelve hundred black eunuchs."

[Footnote A: The citadel of old Meknez.]

Such were the wonders that seventeenth century travellers toiled across
the desert to see, and from which they came back dazzled and almost
incredulous, as if half-suspecting that some djinn had deluded them with
the vision of a phantom city. But for the soberer European records, and
the evidence of the ruins themselves (for the whole of the new Meknez is
a ruin), one might indeed be inclined to regard Ezziani's statements as
an Oriental fable; but the briefest glimpse of Moulay-IsmaŽl's Meknez
makes it easy to believe all his chronicler tells of it, even to the
three miles of stables.

Next morning we drove across the valley and, skirting the old town on
the hill, entered, by one of the twenty gates of Moulay-IsmaŽl, a long
empty street lined with half-ruined arcades. Beyond was another street
of beaten red earth bordered by high red walls blotched with gray and
mauve. Ahead of us this road stretched out interminably (Meknez, before
Washington, was the "city of magnificent distances"), and down its empty
length only one or two draped figures passed, like shadows on the way to
Shadowland. It was clear that the living held no further traffic with
the Meknez of Moulay-IsmaŽl.

Here it was at last. Another great gateway let us, under a resplendently
bejewelled arch of turquoise-blue and green, into another walled
emptiness of red clay, a third gate opened into still vaster vacancies,
and at their farther end rose a colossal red ruin, something like the
lower stories of a Roman amphitheatre that should stretch out
indefinitely instead of forming a circle, or like a series of Roman
aqueducts built side by side and joined into one structure. Below this
indescribable ruin the arid ground sloped down to an artificial water
which was surely the lake that the Sultan had made for his
boating-parties; and beyond it more red earth stretched away to more
walls and gates, with glimpses of abandoned palaces and huge crumbling

The vastness, the silence, the catastrophic desolation of the place,
were all the more impressive because of the relatively recent date of
the buildings. As Moulay-IsmaŽl had dealt with Volubilis, so time had
dealt with his own Meknez; and the destruction which it had taken
thousands of lash-driven slaves to inflict on the stout walls of the
Roman city, neglect and abandonment had here rapidly accomplished. But
though the sun-baked clay of which the impatient Sultan built his
pleasure-houses will not suffer comparison with the firm stones of
Rome, "the high Roman fashion" is visible in the shape and outline of
these ruins. What they are no one knows. In spite of Ezziani's text
(written when the place was already partly destroyed) archaeologists
disagree as to the uses of the crypt of rose-flushed clay whose twenty
rows of gigantic arches are so like an alignment of Roman aqueducts.
Were these the vaulted granaries, or the subterranean reservoirs under
the three miles of stabling which housed the twelve thousand horses? The
stables, at any rate, were certainly near this spot, for the lake
adjoins the ruins as in the chronicler's description; and between it and
old Meknez, behind walls within walls, lie all that remains of the fifty
palaces with their cupolas, gardens, mosques and baths.

This inner region is less ruined than the mysterious vaulted structure,
and one of the palaces, being still reserved for the present Sultan's
use, cannot be visited; but we wandered unchallenged through desert
courts, gardens of cypress and olive where dried fountains and painted
summer-houses are falling into dust, and barren spaces enclosed in long
empty faÁades. It was all the work of an eager and imperious old man,
who, to realize his dream quickly, built in perishable materials, but
the design, the dimensions, the whole conception, show that he had not
only heard of Versailles but had looked with his own eyes on Volubilis.

To build on such a scale, and finish the work in a single lifetime, even
if the materials be malleable and the life a long one, implies a command
of human labor that the other Sultan at Versailles must have envied. The
imposition of the _corvťe_ was of course even simpler in Morocco than in
France, since the material to draw on was unlimited, provided one could
assert one's power over it; and for that purpose IsmaŽl had his Black
Army, the hundred and fifty thousand disciplined legionaries who enabled
him to enforce his rule over all the wild country from Algiers to

The methods by which this army were raised and increased are worth
recounting in Ezziani's words:

"A _taleb_[A] of Marrakech having shown the Sultan a register containing
the names of the negroes who had formed part of the army of El-Mansour,
Moulay-IsmaŽl ordered his agents to collect all that remained of these
negroes and their children.... He also sent to the tribes of the
Beni-Hasen, and into the mountains, to purchase all the negroes to be
found there. Thus all that were in the whole of Moghreb were assembled,
from the cities and the countryside, till not one was left, slave or

[Footnote A: Learned man.]

"These negroes were armed and clothed, and sent to Mechra Erremel (north
of Meknez) where they were ordered to build themselves houses, plant
gardens and remain till their children were ten years old. Then the
Sultan caused all the children to be brought to him, both boys and
girls. The boys were apprenticed to masons, carpenters, and other
tradesmen; others were employed to make mortar. The next year they were
taught to drive the mules, the third to make _adobe_ for building; the
fourth year they learned to ride horses bareback, the fifth they were
taught to ride in the saddle while using firearms. At the age of sixteen
these boys became soldiers. They were then married to the young
negresses who had meanwhile been taught cooking and washing in the
Sultan's palaces--except those who were pretty, and these were given a
musical education, after which each one received a wedding-dress and a
marriage settlement, and was handed over to her husband.

"All the children of these couples were in due time destined for the
Black Army, or for domestic service in the palaces. Every year the
Sultan went to the camp at Mechra Erremel and brought back the children.
The Black Army numbered one hundred and fifty thousand men, of whom part
were at Erremel, part at Meknez, and the rest in the seventy-six forts
which the Sultan built for them throughout his domain. May the Lord be
merciful to his memory!"

Such was the army by means of which IsmaŽl enforced the _corvťe_ on his
undisciplined tribes. Many thousands of lives went to the building of
imperial Meknez; but his subjects would scarcely have sufficed if he had
not been able to add to them twenty-five thousand Christian captives.

M. Augustin Bernard, in his admirable book on Morocco, says that the
seventeenth century was "the golden age of piracy" in Morocco; and the
great IsmaŽl was no doubt one of its chief promoters. One understands
his unwillingness to come to an agreement with his great friend and
competitor, Louis XIV, on the difficult subject of the ransom of
Christian captives when one reads in the admiring Ezziani that it took
fifty-five thousand prisoners and captives to execute his architectural

"These prisoners, by day, were occupied on various tasks; at night they
were locked into subterranean dungeons. Any prisoner who died at his
task was _built into the wall he was building_." (This statement is
confirmed by John Windus, the English traveller who visited the court of
Moulay-IsmaŽl in the Sultan's old age.) Many Europeans must have
succumbed quickly to the heat and the lash, for the wall-builders were
obliged to make each stroke in time with their neighbors, and were
bastinadoed mercilessly if they broke the rhythm; and there is little
doubt that the expert artisans of France, Italy and Spain were even
dearer to the old architectural madman than the friendship of the
palace-building despot across the sea.

Ezziani's chronicle dates from the first part of the nineteenth century,
and is an Arab's colorless panegyric of a great Arab ruler; but John
Windus, the Englishman who accompanied Commodore Stewart's embassy to
Meknez in 1721, saw the imperial palaces and their builder with his own
eyes, and described them with the vivacity of a foreigner struck by
every contrast.

Moulay-IsmaŽl was then about eighty-seven years old, "a middle-sized
man, who has the remains of a good face, with nothing of a negro's
features, though his mother was a black. He has a high nose, which is
pretty long from the eyebrows downward, and thin. He has lost all his
teeth, and breathes short, as if his lungs were bad, coughs and spits
pretty often, which never falls to the ground, men being always ready
with handkerchiefs to receive it. His beard is thin and very white, his
eyes seem to have been sparkling, but their vigor decayed through age,
and his cheeks very much sunk in."

Such was the appearance of this extraordinary man, who deceived,
tortured, betrayed, assassinated, terrorized and mocked his slaves, his
subjects, his women and children and his ministers like any other
half-savage Arab despot, but who yet managed through his long reign to
maintain a barbarous empire, to police the wilderness, and give at
least an appearance of prosperity and security where all had before been

The English emissaries appear to have been much struck by the
magnificence of his palaces, then in all the splendor of novelty, and
gleaming with marbles brought from Volubilis and Salť. Windus extols in
particular the sunken gardens of cypress, pomegranate and orange trees,
some of them laid out seventy feet below the level of the palace-courts;
the exquisite plaster fretwork; the miles of tessellated walls and
pavement made in the finely patterned mosaic work of Fez; and the long
terrace walk trellised with "vines and other greens" leading from the
palace to the famous stables, and over which it was the Sultan's custom
to drive in a chariot drawn by women and eunuchs.

Moulay-IsmaŽl received the English ambassador with every show of pomp
and friendship, and immediately "made him a present" of a handful of
young English captives; but just as the negotiations were about to be
concluded Commodore Stewart was privately advised that the Sultan had no
intention of allowing the rest of the English to be ransomed. Luckily a
diplomatically composed letter, addressed by the English envoy to one of
the favorite wives, resulted in IsmaŽl's changing his mind, and the
captives were finally given up, and departed with their rescuers. As one
stands in the fiery sun, among the monstrous ruins of those tragic
walls, one pictures the other Christian captives pausing for a second,
at the risk of death, in the rhythmic beat of their labor, to watch the
little train of their companions winding away across the desert to

On the way back through the long streets that lead to the ruins we
noticed, lying by the roadside, the shafts of fluted columns, blocks of
marble, Roman capitals: fragments of the long loot of Salť and
Volubilis. We asked how they came there, and were told that, according
to a tradition still believed in the country, when the prisoners and
captives who were dragging the building materials toward the palace
under the blistering sun heard of the old Sultan's death, they dropped
their loads with one accord and fled. At the same moment every worker on
the walls flung down his trowel or hod, every slave of the palaces
stopped grinding or scouring or drawing water or carrying faggots or
polishing the miles of tessellated floors, so that, when the tyrant's
heart stopped beating, at that very instant life ceased to circulate in
the huge house he had built, and in all its members it became a carcass
for his carcass.

Edith Wharton

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