THE WAY THERE
There are countless Arab tales of evil Djinns who take the form of
sandstorms and hot winds to overwhelm exhausted travellers.
In spite of the new French road between Rabat and Marrakech the memory
of such tales rises up insistently from every mile of the level red
earth and the desolate stony stretches of the _bled_. As long as the
road runs in sight of the Atlantic breakers they give the scene
freshness and life, but when it bends inland and stretches away across
the wilderness the sense of the immensity and immobility of Africa
descends on one with an intolerable oppression.
The road traverses no villages, and not even a ring of nomad tents is
visible in the distance on the wide stretches of arable land. At
infrequent intervals our motor passed a train of laden mules, or a group
of peasants about a well, and sometimes, far off, a fortified farm
profiled its thick-set angle-towers against the sky, or a white _koubba_
floated like a mirage above the brush, but these rare signs of life
intensified the solitude of the long miles between.
At midday we were refreshed by the sight of the little oasis around the
military-post of Settat. We lunched there with the commanding officer,
in a cool Arab house about a flowery patio, but that brief interval
over, the fiery plain began again. After Settat the road runs on for
miles across the waste to the gorge of the Oued Ouem, and beyond the
river it climbs to another plain so desperate in its calcined aridity
that the prickly scrub of the wilderness we had left seemed like the
vegetation of an oasis. For fifty kilometres the earth under our wheels
was made up of a kind of glistening red slag covered with pebbles and
stones. Not the scantest and toughest of rock-growths thrust a leaf
through its brassy surface, not a well-head or a darker depression of
the rock gave sign of a trickle of water. Everything around us
glittered with the same unmerciful dryness.
A long way ahead loomed the line of the Djebilets, the Djinn-haunted
mountains guarding Marrakech on the north. When at last we reached them
the wicked glister of their purple flanks seemed like a volcanic
upheaval of the plain. For some time we had watched the clouds gathering
over them, and as we got to the top of the defile rain was falling from
a fringe of thunder to the south. Then the vapours lifted, and we saw
below us another red plain with an island of palms in its centre.
Mysteriously, from the heart of the palms, a tower shot up, as if alone
in the wilderness, behind it stood the sun-streaked cliffs of the Atlas,
with snow summits appearing and vanishing through the storm.
As we drove downward the rock gradually began to turn to red earth
fissured by yellow streams, and stray knots of palms sprang up, lean and
dishevelled, about well-heads where people were watering camels and
donkeys. To the east, dominating the oasis, the twin peaked hills of the
Ghilis, fortified to the crest, mounted guard over invisible Marrakech;
but still, above the palms, we saw only that lonely and triumphant
Presently we crossed the Oued Tensif on an old bridge built by Moroccan
engineers. Beyond the river were more palms, then olive-orchards, then
the vague sketch of the new European settlement, with a few shops and
cafés on avenues ending suddenly in clay pits, and at last Marrakech
itself appeared to us, in the form of a red wall across a red
We passed through a gate and were confronted by other ramparts. Then we
entered an outskirt of dusty red lanes bordered by clay hovels with
draped figures slinking by like ghosts. After that more walls, more
gates, more endlessly winding lanes, more gates again, more turns, a
dusty open space with donkeys and camels and negroes; a final wall with
a great door under a lofty arch--and suddenly we were in the palace of
the Bahia, among flowers and shadows and falling water.
Whoever would understand Marrakech must begin by mounting at sunset to
the roof of the Bahia.
Outspread below lies the oasis-city of the south, flat and vast as the
great nomad camp it really is, its low roofs extending on all sides to a
belt of blue palms ringed with desert. Only two or three minarets and a
few noblemen's houses among gardens break the general flatness; but they
are hardly noticeable, so irresistibly is the eye drawn toward two
dominant objects--the white wall of the Atlas and the red tower of the
Foursquare, untapering, the great tower lifts its flanks of ruddy stone.
Its large spaces of unornamented wall, its triple tier of clustered
openings, lightening as they rise from the severe rectangular lights of
the first stage to the graceful arcade below the parapet, have the stern
harmony of the noblest architecture. The Koutoubya would be magnificent
anywhere; in this flat desert it is grand enough to face the Atlas.
The Almohad conquerors who built the Koutoubya and embellished
Marrakech dreamed a dream of beauty that extended from the Guadalquivir
to the Sahara; and at its two extremes they placed their watch-towers.
The Giralda watched over civilized enemies in a land of ancient Roman
culture, the Koutoubya stood at the edge of the world, facing the hordes
of the desert.
The Almoravid princes who founded Marrakech came from the black desert
of Senegal, themselves were leaders of wild hordes. In the history of
North Africa the same cycle has perpetually repeated itself. Generation
after generation of chiefs have flowed in from the desert or the
mountains, overthrown their predecessors, massacred, plundered, grown
rich, built sudden palaces, encouraged their great servants to do the
same, then fallen on them, and taken their wealth and their palaces.
Usually some religious fury, some ascetic wrath against the
self-indulgence of the cities, has been the motive of these attacks, but
invariably the same results followed, as they followed when the Germanic
barbarians descended on Italy. The conquerors, infected with luxury and
mad with power, built vaster palaces, planned grander cities, but
Sultans and Viziers camped in their golden houses as if on the march,
and the mud huts of the tribesmen within their walls were but one degree
removed from the mud-walled tents of the _bled_.
This was more especially the case with Marrakech, a city of Berbers and
blacks, and the last outpost against the fierce black world beyond the
Atlas from which its founders came. When one looks at its site, and
considers its history, one can only marvel at the height of civilization
The Bahia itself, now the palace of the Resident General, though built
less than a hundred years ago, is typical of the architectural
megalomania of the great southern chiefs. It was built by Ba-Ahmed, the
all-powerful black Vizier of the Sultan Moulay-el-Hassan.[A] Ba-Ahmed
was evidently an artist and an archaeologist. His ambition was to
re-create a Palace of Beauty such as the Moors had built in the prime of
Arab art, and he brought to Marrakech skilled artificers of Fez, the
last surviving masters of the mystery of chiselled plaster and ceramic
mosaics and honeycombing of gilded cedar. They came, they built the
Bahia, and it remains the loveliest and most fantastic of Moroccan
[Footnote A: Moulay-el-Hassan reigned from 1873 to 1894.]
Court within court, garden beyond garden, reception halls, private
apartments, slaves' quarters, sunny prophets' chambers on the roofs and
baths in vaulted crypts, the labyrinth of passages and rooms stretches
away over several acres of ground. A long court enclosed in pale-green
trellis-work, where pigeons plume themselves about a great tank and the
dripping tiles glitter with refracted sunlight, leads to the fresh gloom
of a cypress garden, or under jasmine tunnels bordered with running
water; and these again open on arcaded apartments faced with tiles and
stucco-work, where, in a languid twilight, the hours drift by to the
ceaseless music of the fountains.
The beauty of Moroccan palaces is made up of details of ornament and
refinements of sensuous delight too numerous to record, but to get an
idea of their general character it is worth while to cross the Court of
Cypresses at the Bahia and follow a series of low-studded passages that
turn on themselves till they reach the centre of the labyrinth. Here,
passing by a low padlocked door leading to a crypt, and known as the
"Door of the Vizier's Treasure-House," one comes on a painted portal
that opens into a still more secret sanctuary: The apartment of the
Grand Vizier's Favourite.
This lovely prison, from which all sight and sound of the outer world
are excluded, is built about an atrium paved with disks of turquoise and
black and white. Water trickles from a central _vasca_ of alabaster into
an hexagonal mosaic channel in the pavement. The walls, which are at
least twenty-five feet high, are roofed with painted beams resting on
panels of traceried stucco in which is set a clerestory of jewelled
glass. On each side of the atrium are long recessed rooms closed by
vermilion doors painted with gold arabesques and vases of spring
flowers, and into these shadowy inner rooms, spread with rugs and divans
and soft pillows, no light comes except when their doors are opened into
the atrium. In this fabulous place it was my good luck to be lodged
while I was at Marrakech.
In a climate where, after the winter snow has melted from the Atlas,
every breath of air for long months is a flame of fire, these enclosed
rooms in the middle of the palaces are the only places of refuge from
the heat. Even in October the temperature of the favourite's apartment
was deliciously reviving after a morning in the bazaars or the dusty
streets, and I never came back to its wet tiles and perpetual twilight
without the sense of plunging into a deep sea-pool.
From far off, through circuitous corridors, came the scent of
citron-blossom and jasmine, with sometimes a bird's song before dawn,
sometimes a flute's wail at sunset, and always the call of the muezzin
in the night, but no sunlight reached the apartment except in remote
rays through the clerestory, and no air except through one or two broken
Sometimes, lying on my divan, and looking out through the vermilion
doors, I used to surprise a pair of swallows dropping down from their
nest in the cedar-beams to preen themselves on the fountain's edge or in
the channels of the pavement, for the roof was full of birds who came
and went through the broken panes of the clerestory. Usually they were
my only visitors, but one morning just at daylight I was waked by a soft
tramp of bare feet, and saw, silhouetted against the cream-coloured
walls, a procession of eight tall negroes in linen tunics, who filed
noiselessly across the atrium like a moving frieze of bronze. In that
fantastic setting, and the hush of that twilight hour, the vision was so
like the picture of a "Seraglio Tragedy," some fragment of a Delacroix
or Decamps floating up into the drowsy brain, that I almost fancied I
had seen the ghosts of Ba-Ahmed's executioners revisiting with dagger
and bowstring the scene of an unavenged crime.
A cock crew, and they vanished ... and when I made the mistake of asking
what they had been doing in my room at that hour I was told (as though
it were the most natural thing in the world) that they were the
municipal lamp-lighters of Marrakech, whose duty it is to refill every
morning the two hundred acetylene lamps lighting the palace of the
Resident General. Such unforeseen aspects, in this mysterious city, do
the most ordinary domestic functions wear.
Passing out of the enchanted circle of the Bahia it is startling to
plunge into the native life about its gates.
Marrakech is the great market of the south, and the south means not only
the Atlas with its feudal chiefs and their wild clansmen, but all that
lies beyond of heat and savagery, the Sahara of the veiled Touaregs,
Dakka, Timbuctoo, Senegal and the Soudan. Here come the camel caravans
from Demnat and Tameslout, from the Moulouya and the Souss, and those
from the Atlantic ports and the confines of Algeria. The population of
this old city of the southern march has always been even more mixed than
that of the northerly Moroccan towns. It is made up of the descendants
of all the peoples conquered by a long line of Sultans who brought their
trains of captives across the sea from Moorish Spain and across the
Sahara from Timbuctoo. Even in the highly cultivated region on the lower
slopes of the Atlas there are groups of varied ethnic origin, the
descendants of tribes transplanted by long-gone rulers and still
preserving many of their original characteristics.
In the bazaars all these peoples meet and mingle: cattle-dealers,
olive-growers, peasants from the Atlas, the Souss and the Draa, Blue Men
of the Sahara, blacks from Senegal and the Soudan, coming in to trade
with the wool-merchants, tanners, leather-merchants, silk-weavers,
armourers, and makers of agricultural implements.
Dark, fierce and fanatical are these narrow _souks_ of Marrakech. They
are mere mud lanes roofed with rushes, as in South Tunisia and
Timbuctoo, and the crowds swarming in them are so dense that it is
hardly possible, at certain hours, to approach the tiny raised kennels
where the merchants sit like idols among their wares. One feels at once
that something more than the thought of bargaining--dear as this is to
the African heart--animates these incessantly moving throngs. The Souks
of Marrakech seem, more than any others, the central organ of a native
life that extends far beyond the city walls into secret clefts of the
mountains and far-off oases where plots are hatched and holy wars
fomented--farther still, to yellow deserts whence negroes are secretly
brought across the Atlas to that inmost recess of the bazaar where the
ancient traffic in flesh and blood still surreptitiously goes on.
All these many threads of the native life, woven of greed and lust, of
fetichism and fear and blind hate of the stranger, form, in the _souks_,
a thick network in which at times one's feet seem literally to stumble.
Fanatics in sheepskins glowering from the guarded thresholds of the
mosques, fierce tribesmen with inlaid arms in their belts and the
fighters' tufts of wiry hair escaping from camel's-hair turbans, mad
negroes standing stark naked in niches of the walls and pouring down
Soudanese incantations upon the fascinated crowd, consumptive Jews with
pathos and cunning in their large eyes and smiling lips, lusty
slave-girls with earthen oil-jars resting against swaying hips,
almond-eyed boys leading fat merchants by the hand, and bare-legged
Berber women, tattooed and insolently gay, trading their striped
blankets, or bags of dried roses and irises, for sugar, tea or
Manchester cottons--from all these hundreds of unknown and unknowable
people, bound together by secret affinities, or intriguing against each
other with secret hate, there emanates an atmosphere of mystery and
menace more stifling than the smell of camels and spices and black
bodies and smoking fry which hangs like a fog under the close roofing of
And suddenly one leaves the crowd and the turbid air for one of those
quiet corners that are like the back-waters of the bazaars, a small
square where a vine stretches across a shop-front and hangs ripe
clusters of grapes through the reeds. In the patterning of grape-shadows
a very old donkey, tethered to a stone-post, dozes under a pack-saddle
that is never taken off; and near by, in a matted niche, sits a very old
man in white. This is the chief of the Guild of "morocco" workers of
Marrakech, the most accomplished craftsman in Morocco in the preparing
and using of the skins to which the city gives its name. Of these sleek
moroccos, cream-white or dyed with cochineal or pomegranate skins, are
made the rich bags of the Chleuh dancing-boys, the embroidered slippers
for the harem, the belts and harnesses that figure so largely in
Moroccan trade--and of the finest, in old days, were made the
pomegranate-red morocco bindings of European bibliophiles.
From this peaceful corner one passes into the barbaric splendor of a
_souk_ hung with innumerable plumy bunches of floss silk--skeins of
citron yellow, crimson, grasshopper green and pure purple. This is the
silk-spinners' quarter, and next to it comes that of the dyers, with
great seething vats into which the raw silk is plunged, and ropes
overhead where the rainbow masses are hung out to dry.
Another turn leads into the street of the metal-workers and armourers,
where the sunlight through the thatch flames on round flanks of beaten
copper or picks out the silver bosses of ornate powder-flasks and
pistols, and near by is the _souk_ of the plough-shares, crowded with
peasants in rough Chleuh cloaks who are waiting to have their archaic
ploughs repaired, and that of the smiths, in an outer lane of mud huts
where negroes squat in the dust and sinewy naked figures in tattered
loincloths bend over blazing coals. And here ends the maze of the
One of the Almohad Sultans who, during their hundred years of empire,
scattered such great monuments from Seville to the Atlas, felt the need
of coolness about his southern capital, and laid out the olive-yards of
To the south of Marrakech the Agdal extends for many acres between the
outer walls of the city and the edge of the palm-oasis--a continuous
belt of silver foliage traversed by deep red lanes, and enclosing a
wide-spreading summer palace and two immense reservoirs walled with
masonry, and the vision of these serene sheets of water, in which the
olives and palms are motionlessly reflected, is one of the most poetic
impressions in that city of inveterate poetry.
On the edge of one of the reservoirs a sentimental Sultan built in the
last century a little pleasure-house called the Menara. It is composed
of a few rooms with a two-storied loggia looking across the water to the
palm-groves, and surrounded by a garden of cypresses and orange-trees.
The Menara, long since abandoned, is usually uninhabited, but on the
day when we drove through the Agdal we noticed, at the gate, a group of
well-dressed servants holding mules with embroidered saddle-clothes.
The French officer who was with us asked the porter what was going on,
and he replied that the Chief of the Guild of Wool-Merchants had hired
the pavilion for a week and invited a few friends to visit him. They
were now, the porter added, taking tea in the loggia above the lake, and
the host, being informed of our presence, begged that we should do him
and his friends the honour of visiting the pavilion.
In reply to this amiable invitation we crossed an empty saloon
surrounded with divans and passed out onto the loggia where the
wool-merchant and his guests were seated. They were evidently persons of
consequence: large bulky men wrapped in fresh muslins and reclining side
by side on muslin-covered divans and cushions. Black slaves had placed
before them brass trays with pots of mint-tea, glasses in filigree
stands, and dishes of gazelles' horns and sugar-plums, and they sat
serenely absorbing these refreshments and gazing with large calm eyes
upon the motionless water and the reflected trees.
So, we were told, they would probably spend the greater part of their
holiday. The merchant's cooks had taken possession of the kitchens, and
toward sunset a sumptuous repast of many courses would be carried into
the saloon on covered trays, and the guests would squat about it on rugs
of Rabat, tearing with their fingers the tender chicken wings and small
artichokes cooked in oil, plunging their fat white hands to the wrist
into huge mounds of saffron and rice, and washing off the traces of each
course in the brass basin of perfumed water carried about by a young
black slave-girl with hoop-earrings and a green-and-gold scarf about her
Then the singing-girls would come out from Marrakech, squat round-faced
young women heavily hennaed and bejewelled, accompanied by gaunt
musicians in bright caftans; and for hours they would sing sentimental
or obscene ballads to the persistent maddening twang of violin and flute
and drum. Meanwhile fiery brandy or sweet champagne would probably be
passed around between the steaming glasses of mint-tea which the slaves
perpetually refilled; or perhaps the sultry air, the heavy meal, the
scent of the garden and the vertiginous repetition of the music would
suffice to plunge these sedentary worthies into the delicious coma in
which every festive evening in Morocco ends.
The next day would be spent in the same manner, except that probably the
Chleuh boys with sidelong eyes and clean caftans would come instead of
the singing-girls, and weave the arabesque of their dance in place of
the runic pattern of the singing. But the result would always be the
same: a prolonged state of obese ecstasy culminating in the collapse of
huge heaps of snoring muslin on the divans against the wall. Finally at
the week's end the wool-merchant and his friends would all ride back
with dignity to the bazaar.
ON THE ROOFS
"Should you like to see the Chleuh boys dance?" some one asked.
"There they are," another of our companions added, pointing to a dense
ring of spectators on one side of the immense dusty square at the
entrance of the _souks_--the "Square of the Dead" as it is called, in
memory of the executions that used to take place under one of its grim
It is the square of the living now, the centre of all the life,
amusement and gossip of Marrakech, and the spectators are so thickly
packed about the story-tellers, snake-charmers and dancers who frequent
it that one can guess what is going on within each circle only by the
wailing monologue or the persistent drum-beat that proceeds from it.
Ah, yes--we should indeed like to see the Chleuh boys dance, we who,
since we had been in Morocco, had seen no dancing, heard no singing,
caught no single glimpse of merry-making! But how were we to get within
sight of them?
On one side of the "Square of the Dead" stands a large house, of
European build, but modelled on Oriental lines: the office of the French
municipal administration. The French Government no longer allows its
offices to be built within the walls of Moroccan towns, and this house
goes back to the epic days of the Caïd Sir Harry Maclean, to whom it was
presented by the fantastic Abd-el-Aziz when the Caïd was his favourite
companion as well as his military adviser.
At the suggestion of the municipal officials we mounted the stairs and
looked down on the packed square. There can be no more Oriental sight
this side of the Atlas and the Sahara. The square is surrounded by low
mud-houses, fondaks, cafés, and the like. In one corner, near the
archway leading into the _souks_, is the fruit-market, where the
red-gold branches of unripe dates[A] for animal fodder are piled up in
great stacks, and dozens of donkeys are coming and going, their panniers
laden with fruits and vegetables which are being heaped on the ground in
gorgeous pyramids: purple egg-plants, melons, cucumbers, bright orange
pumpkins, mauve and pink and violet onions, rusty crimson
pomegranates and the gold grapes of Sefrou and Salé, all mingled with
fresh green sheaves of mint and wormwood.
[Footnote A: Dates do not ripen in Morocco.]
In the middle of the square sit the story-tellers' turbaned audiences.
Beyond these are the humbler crowds about the wild-ringleted
snake-charmers with their epileptic gestures and hissing incantations,
and farther off, in the densest circle of all, we could just discern the
shaved heads and waving surpliced arms of the dancing-boys. Under an
archway near by an important personage in white muslin, mounted on a
handsome mule and surrounded by his attendants, sat with motionless face
and narrowed eyes gravely following the movements of the dancers.
Suddenly, as we stood watching the extraordinary animation of the scene,
a reddish light overspread it, and one of our companions exclaimed:
In that very moment it was upon us: a red cloud rushing across the
square out of nowhere, whirling the date-branches over the heads of the
squatting throngs, tumbling down the stacks of fruits and vegetables,
rooting up the canvas awnings over the lemonade-sellers' stalls and
before the café doors, huddling the blinded donkeys under the walls of
the fondak, and stripping to the hips the black slave-girls scudding
home from the _souks_.
Such a blast would instantly have scattered any western crowd, but "the
patient East" remained undisturbed, rounding its shoulders before the
storm and continuing to follow attentively the motions of the dancers
and the turns of the story-tellers. By and bye, however, the gale grew
too furious, and the spectators were so involved in collapsing tents,
eddying date-branches and stampeding mules that the square began to
clear, save for the listeners about the most popular story-teller, who
continued to sit on unmoved. And then, at the height of the storm, they
too were abruptly scattered by the rush of a cavalcade across the
square. First came a handsomely dressed man, carrying before him on his
peaked saddle a tiny boy in a gold-embroidered orange caftan, in front
of whom he held an open book, and behind them a train of white-draped
men on showily harnessed mules, followed by musicians in bright dresses.
It was only a Circumcision procession on its way to the mosque; but the
dust-enveloped rider in his rich dress, clutching the bewildered child
to his breast, looked like some Oriental prince trying to escape with
his son from the fiery embraces of desert Erl-maidens.
As swiftly as it rose the storm subsided, leaving the fruit-market in
ruins under a sky as clear and innocent as an infant's eye. The Chleuh
boys had vanished with the rest, like marionettes swept into a drawer by
an impatient child, but presently, toward sunset, we were told that we
were to see them after all, and our hosts led us up to the roof of the
The city lay stretched before us like one immense terrace circumscribed
by palms. The sky was pure blue, verging to turquoise green where the
Atlas floated above mist; and facing the celestial snows stood the
Koutoubya, red in the sunset.
People were beginning to come out on the roofs: it was the hour of
peace, of ablutions, of family life on the house-tops. Groups of women
in pale tints and floating veils spoke to each other from terrace to
terrace, through the chatter of children and the guttural calls of
bedizened negresses. And presently, on the roof adjoining ours,
appeared the slim dancing-boys with white caftans and hennaed feet.
The three swarthy musicians who accompanied them crossed their lean legs
on the tiles and set up their throb-throb and thrum-thrum, and on a
narrow strip of terrace the youths began their measured steps.
It was a grave static dance, such as David may have performed before the
Ark; untouched by mirth or folly, as beseemed a dance in that sombre
land, and borrowing its magic from its gravity. Even when the pace
quickened with the stress of the music the gestures still continued to
be restrained and hieratic, only when, one by one, the performers
detached themselves from the round and knelt before us for the _peseta_
it is customary to press on their foreheads, did one see, by the
moisture which made the coin adhere, how quick and violent their
movements had been.
The performance, like all things Oriental, like the life, the patterns,
the stories, seemed to have no beginning and no end: it just went
monotonously and indefatigably on till fate snipped its thread by
calling us away to dinner. And so at last we went down into the dust of
the streets refreshed by that vision of white youths dancing on the
house-tops against the gold of a sunset that made them look--in spite of
ankle-bracelets and painted eyes--almost as guileless and happy as the
round of angels on the roof of Fra Angelico's Nativity.
THE SAADIAN TOMBS
On one of the last days of our stay in Marrakech we were told, almost
mysteriously, that permission was to be given us to visit the tombs of
the Saadian Sultans.
Though Marrakech has been in the hands of the French since 1912, the
very existence of these tombs was unknown to the authorities till 1917.
Then the Sultan's government privately informed the Resident General
that an unsuspected treasure of Moroccan art was falling into ruin, and
after some hesitation it was agreed that General Lyautey and the
Director of Fine Arts should be admitted to the mosque containing the
tombs, on the express condition that the French Government undertook to
repair them. While we were at Rabat General Lyautey had described his
visit to us, and it was at his request that the Sultan authorized us to
see the mosque, to which no travellers had as yet been admitted.
With a good deal of ceremony, and after the customary _pourparlers_ with
the great Pasha who controls native affairs at Marrakech, an hour was
fixed for our visit, and we drove through long lanes of mud-huts to a
lost quarter near the walls. At last we came to a deserted square on one
side of which stands the long low mosque of Mansourah with a
turquoise-green minaret embroidered with traceries of sculptured terra
cotta. Opposite the mosque is a gate in a crumbling wall; and at this
gate the Pasha's Cadi was to meet us with the keys of the mausoleum. But
we waited in vain. Oriental dilatoriness, or a last secret reluctance to
admit unbelievers to a holy place, had caused the Cadi to forget his
appointment, and we drove away disappointed.
The delay drove us to wondering about these mysterious Saadian Sultans,
who, though coming so late in the annals of Morocco, had left at least
one monument said to be worthy of the Merinid tradition. And the tale
of the Saadians is worth telling.
They came from Arabia to the Draa (the fruitful country south of the
Great Atlas) early in the fifteenth century, when the Merinid empire was
already near disintegration. Like all previous invaders they preached
the doctrine of a pure Islamism to the polytheistic and indifferent
Berbers, and found a ready hearing because they denounced the evils of a
divided empire, and also because the whole of Morocco was in revolt
against the Christian colonies of Spain and Portugal, which had
encircled the coast from Ceuta to Agadir with a chain of fortified
counting-houses. To _bouter dehors_ the money-making unbeliever was an
object that found adherents from the Rif to the Sahara, and the Saadian
cherifs soon rallied a mighty following to their standard. Islam, though
it never really gave a creed to the Berbers, supplied them with a
war-cry as potent to-day as when it first rang across Barbary.
The history of the Saadians is a foreshortened record of that of all
their predecessors. They overthrew the artistic and luxurious Merinids,
and in their turn became artistic and luxurious. Their greatest Sultan,
Abou-el-Abbas, surnamed "The Golden," after defeating the Merinids and
putting an end to Christian rule in Morocco by the crushing victory of
El-Ksar (1578), bethought him in his turn of enriching himself and
beautifying his capital, and with this object in view turned his
attention to the black kingdoms of the south.
Senegal and the Soudan, which had been Mohammedan since the eleventh
century, had attained in the sixteenth century a high degree of
commercial wealth and artistic civilization. The Sultanate of Timbuctoo
seems in reality to have been a thriving empire, and if Timbuctoo was
not the Claude-like vision of Carthaginian palaces which it became in
the tales of imaginative travellers, it apparently had something of the
magnificence of Fez and Marrakech.
The Saadian army, after a march of four and a half months across the
Sahara, conquered the whole black south. Senegal, the Soudan and Bornou
submitted to Abou-el-Abbas, the Sultan of Timbuctoo was dethroned, and
the celebrated negro jurist Ahmed-Baba was brought a prisoner to
Marrakech, where his chief sorrow appears to have been for the loss of
his library of 1,600 volumes--though he declared that, of all the
numerous members of his family, it was he who possessed the smallest
number of books.
Besides this learned bibliophile, the Sultan Abou-el-Abbas brought back
with him an immense booty, principally of ingots of gold, from which he
took his surname of "The Golden"; and as the result of the expedition
Marrakech was embellished with mosques and palaces for which the Sultan
brought marble from Carrara, paying for it with loaves of sugar from the
sugar-cane that the Saadians grew in the Souss.
In spite of these brilliant beginnings the rule of the dynasty was short
and without subsequent interest. Based on a fanatical antagonism against
the foreigner, and fed by the ever-wakeful hatred of the Moors for their
Spanish conquerors, it raised ever higher the Chinese walls of
exclusiveness which the more enlightened Almohads and Merinids had
sought to overthrow. Henceforward less and less daylight and fresh air
were to penetrate into the _souks_ of Morocco.
The day after our unsuccessful attempt to see the tombs of these
ephemeral rulers we received another message, naming an hour for our
visit; and this time the Pasha's representative was waiting in the
archway. We followed his lead, under the openly mistrustful glances of
the Arabs who hung about the square, and after picking our way through a
twisting land between walls, we came out into a filthy nettle-grown
space against the ramparts. At intervals of about thirty feet splendid
square towers rose from the walls, and facing one of them lay a group of
crumbling buildings masked behind other ruins.
We were led first into a narrow mosque or praying-chapel, like those of
the Medersas, with a coffered cedar ceiling resting on four marble
columns, and traceried walls of unusually beautiful design. From this
chapel we passed into the hall of the tombs, a cube about forty feet
square. Fourteen columns of colored marble sustain a domed ceiling of
gilded cedar, with an exterior deambulatory under a tunnel-vaulting also
roofed with cedar. The walls are, as usual, of chiselled stucco, above
revêtements of ceramic mosaic, and between the columns lie the white
marble cenotaphs of the Saadian Sultans, covered with Arabic
inscriptions in the most delicate low-relief. Beyond this central
mausoleum, and balancing the praying-chapel, lies another long narrow
chamber, gold-ceilinged also, and containing a few tombs.
It is difficult, in describing the architecture of Morocco, to avoid
producing an impression of monotony. The ground-plan of mosques and
Medersas is always practically the same, and the same elements, few in
number and endlessly repeated, make up the materials and the form of the
ornament. The effect upon the eye is not monotonous, for a patient art
has infinitely varied the combinations of pattern and the juxtapositions
of color; while the depth of undercutting of the stucco, and the
treatment of the bronze doors and of the carved cedar corbels,
necessarily varies with the periods which produced them.
But in the Saadian mausoleum a new element has been introduced which
makes this little monument a thing apart. The marble columns supporting
the roof appear to be unique in Moroccan architecture, and they lend
themselves to a new roof-plan which relates the building rather to the
tradition of Venice or Byzantine by way of Kairouan and Cordova.
The late date of the monument precludes any idea of a direct artistic
tradition. The most probable explanation seems to be that the architect
of the mausoleum was familiar with European Renaissance architecture,
and saw the beauty to be derived from using precious marbles not merely
as ornament, but in the Roman and Italian way, as a structural element.
Panels and fountain-basins are ornament, and ornament changes nothing
essential in architecture; but when, for instance, heavy square piers
are replaced by detached columns, a new style results.
It is not only the novelty of its plan that makes the Saadian mausoleum
singular among Moroccan monuments. The details of its ornament are of
the most intricate refinement: it seems as though the last graces of the
expiring Merinid art had been gathered up into this rare blossom. And
the slant of sunlight on lustrous columns, the depths of fretted gold,
the dusky ivory of the walls and the pure white of the cenotaphs, so
classic in spareness of ornament and simplicity of design--this subtle
harmony of form and color gives to the dim rich chapel an air of
And how can it seem other than a dream? Who can have conceived, in the
heart of a savage Saharan camp, the serenity and balance of this hidden
place? And how came such fragile loveliness to survive, preserving,
behind a screen of tumbling walls, of nettles and offal and dead beasts,
every curve of its traceries and every cell of its honeycombing?
Such questions inevitably bring one back to the central riddle of the
mysterious North African civilization: the perpetual flux and the
immovable stability, the barbarous customs and sensuous refinements, the
absence of artistic originality and the gift for regrouping borrowed
motives, the patient and exquisite workmanship and the immediate neglect
and degradation of the thing once made.
Revering the dead and camping on their graves, elaborating exquisite
monuments only to abandon and defile them, venerating scholarship and
wisdom and living in ignorance and grossness, these gifted races,
perpetually struggling to reach some higher level of culture from which
they have always been swept down by a fresh wave of barbarism, are
still only a people in the making.
It may be that the political stability which France is helping them to
acquire will at last give their higher qualities time for fruition; and
when one looks at the mausoleum of Marrakech and the Medersas of Fez one
feels that, were the experiment made on artistic grounds alone, it would
yet be well worth making.