History

Traveling In Israel — Part Two

Traveling Israel in summer 2018, visiting and studying historic sites. Second part of two posts.

Israel takes time to get adjusted into. Grasping the historic, cultural, religious breadth and depth takes a while. Jerusalem is the holy city for three major religions, Jews, Christians and Muslims, no other place on earth has such significance.

Pro tip: when visiting Jerusalem, the old town in particular. Download Jerusalem Audio Waking Tour app from your app store. It has several interesting tours you can follow your own pace, and focusing things that interest you. Besides, it’s free.

Jewish Temples. Over the course of long history, Jews had two significant temples that are long since been destroyed, but hold a special place in hearts and minds of the Israelites. First temple was built during reign of King Solomon (reigned BC970–931), the most famous king of ancient Israel. Solomon’s predecessor King David had brought the Ark of Covenant into his new capital of Jerusalem. But it was Solomon that built the permanent temple for keeping the ark secure in a chamber called holy of holies. Solomons temple was destroyed by Babylonians (BC587) and Jews were sent into exile in Babylonia. Similar incidents occur throughout the Jewish history, Palestine being in a cross roads of three directions where major powers grew: Mesopotamia, Egypt and Greco-Roman world.


Large model in The Israel Museum, of Herod’s Jerusalem, circa AD70. Jewish Second Temple is domineering structure above rest of the city. Museum houses also famous Dead Sea Scrolls. Definitely worth a visit, but reserve enough time, 5hrs at least!


At Western Wall. Current 500meter wall was once a section of Herod’s Second temple.

Centuries after returning from Babylonia, a Second Temple built at the site of previous one. This was then largely improved and re-engineered during reign of Herod (reigned BC37–4). Herod wasn’t independent king like Solomon had been, but a Roman client king of Judea, and thus not as popular ruler. Although he did grand building projects, those were to be short lived. Judea would erupt into open revolt against Romans, and Herod’s temple would be destroyed as a retribution once rebel had been quelled. Other outcome of the civil war was Jewish dislocation into other countries, that would last almost 2000 years, until foundation of modern Israel in 1948. Herods Second Temple is still a source of pride and identity for Jews, especially after archeology has revealed how majestic it actually had been. Western Wall, known also as Wailing wall, is the only surviving part of the temple. Wall was the destination of Jewish pilgrims during all the centuries of diaspora. These trips were often dangerous and expensive, sometimes completely denied, when region was controlled either by Christian or Muslim rulers. After 1963 Six Day War, old city of Jerusalem and Western Wall returned to control of Israel.


Hurva Synagogue.

New-old synagogue of Hurva has been built many times over the centuries. Even it’s name means ruin, as most of the time it’s place has been vacated by rubbles. 19th century Hurva was neo-Byzantine style, construction was supervised by Assad Effendi, the sultan’s official architect. It was destroyed by Arab-legion in aftermath of Israeli independence war in 1948. Current synagogue is reconstruction of it and was completed in 2010. To my eye current building resembles also grand mosques of Istanbul.


Immovable ladder.

Christian holy sites. Once Christianity had became state religion in Roman Empire (AD324), and especially later in East Rome, state became active patron and guardian of the holy sites of Palestine. Members of Byzantine royal house and other notables helped to organize and fund improvements of churches, monasteries or facilities such as guesthouses that growing number of pilgrims needed. Emperor Justinian (reigned AD527–565) was famous for his grand building projects. For example the impressive Hagia Sophia of Constantinople was built during his reign. In Jerusalem magnificent Nea church (New Church of the Theotokos) was described as jewel of Byzantine Jerusalem. Nea church as long since disappeared to history, but its foundations are still visible today.


Via Dolorosa is famous route that Jesus supposedly walked into his crucification. Christian pilgrims have followed this route for centuries, from Garden of Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives, through Jaffa Gate into old town, and then to Golgatha, place of Church of the Holy Sepulchre.


Exterior of Church of the Holy Sepulchre.


Interior of Church of the Holy Sepulchre.


The Aedicule, which contains the Holy Sepulchre. The Aedicule has two rooms, the first holding the Angel’s Stone, the second is the tomb of Jesus itself.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre (consecrated 335AD) is perhaps the most important church of whole Christianity, and very impressive sight to this day. It’s built on a site where Jesus is said to have been crucified and buried. Golgotha, from pages of Bible, is actually inside the church, likewise is his grave and several other stages of the biblical legend. Because such an importance, six Christian religious orders claim rights over the use of the church. For centuries this caused friction of church affairs, until Ottoman sultan in 1852, tired of governing the various squabbling ordered the status quo: nothing in church to be changed or moved. Immovable ladder above the main entrance is seen as a symbol of this state of affairs. Christians also do not have control to the keys of the church. For centuries, it has been trusted for safe keeping by a local Muslim family.


Stone of Anointing, where Jesus’ body is said to have been anointed before burial.


Nazareth. Modern basilica is built above the sunken grotto which according to faith was the home of the Virgin Mary, and the place where she received the announcement of the imminent birth of Jesus.


Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem. It is one of the oldest churches in the world, original was completed sometime between AD333-339 (Armenian Etchmiadzin Cathedral is even older, being first built in AD301. See more here). Citadel-like structure of Church of the Nativity is built on top of the cave where Jesus was born to Mary. To reach Bethlehem, one has to cross the border to Palestinian side.

In usual Christmas imaginary, place of Jesus birth is often depicted as stable or barn. Place in Bethlehem is actually a cave.

What do the maps tell?

1400 year old Mabada Map and current satellite images. North is on the left side of both images.
Cardo maximus was main street in ancient Roman cities. Looking carefully, its outline is still visible in Jerusalem old town today. It is marked as blue in both maps, beginning from Damascus Gate (blue circle) as two parallel streets. It was also main thoroughfare for shops and markets. Mabada maps show location of Church of the Holy Sepulchre and site of New Church of the Theotokos (“N” in lower map) that does not exist anymore.


In red, Via Dolorosa, Christian pilgrim route to Golgatha (Church of the Holy Sepulchre) where Jesus was crucified. Green circle is Dome of the Rock, holiest site in the city for Muslims. Mabada map was made during centuries when Jewish Second Temple had been destroyed, but Muslim shrine hadn’t yet been built. And yellow line, Western Wall where Jews go to pray their God. Western Wall being only surviving section of Second Temple.

Interesting YouTube channel about historic Jerusalem: The Jerusalem Watch.

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In Holy Land — Part One

Traveling Israel in summer 2018, visiting and studying historic sites. First part of two posts.


Dome of The Rock is third holiest site for Muslims (after Mecca and Medina). Its not a mosque, but a shrine built on an ancient Jewish temple site. Nearby Al-Aqsa Mosque is also from the same period, when Muslims had first conquered the Palestine, late AD600.


Current walls around Jerusalem old town were rebuilt around 1535, when Jerusalem was part of the Ottoman Empire. History of east Jerusalem (old city) dates back least 3 millennia.

Zion Gate, scarred by riffle fire from 1948 Israeli Independence War.


Old port of Jaffa as a backdrop for easy going beach life. For centuries Jaffa was gateway to Palestine. Jerusalem is inland, and road from Jaffa gate leads all the way into this port. Nowadays Jaffa is historic neighbourhood and part of city of Tel Aviv.

Traveling in Israel is easy. Everything from transport to finding a way and getting around is convenient. Public transport is efficient, automated, and runs often (excluding during the Sabbath). Also because the area of Israel is so small, it doesn’t take long to travel across the country. Israelis embrace the digital to the fullest. Once I couldn’t even walk into a pizzeria and place my order, without needing get mobile app to my phone for it. People are skilled in languages. Besides domestic Hebrew and obvious English, they often master third or more languages.


Beersheba downtown. City is modern, although it has few historic sights to see.

Beersheba. Arrived to town in Negev desert after an hour bus drive from Jerusalem. Beersheba itself, is an hour drive from Dead Sea resorts such as Ein Bolek and Ein Gedi. Temperature there rises to tormenting heights, saw 45 Celcius in mid summer mid day sun. Sea is 350meters bellow the normal sea level. Swimming is interesting experience, water is very warm and because the salienation, human body is actually lighter than the water. It would be impossible to dive under, if someone would be crazy enough to try. Salty water in eyes is painful experience!


Dead Sea seen from Ein Bolek, two hour drive from Beersheba. Opposite coast belongs to Jordania.

Sabbath. Was caught off guard by Israeli weekend. I knew “everything will be closed” but didn’t expect it to be so thoroughly like-Christmas-night closed. Friday is day of rest and prayer for both Jews and Muslims. Everything from small kiosks to shops, restaurants and cafes are closed. Sabbath is family occasion above everything else, and streets are almost void of traffic.


Shrine of Baha faith in city of Haifa.


Old Akko (Acre). Like port of Jaffa, Akko was gateway to Palestine for centuries. It was important port during the time of Crusaders. 1799 Napoleon also tried to muscle his way in, but was stopped by local Ottoman forces helped by British navy. Today old Akko is popular tourist destination, while modern part of city can be seen as part of Haifa metropolitan area.


In West Jerusalem. This part of city started to grow in 19th century, outside the confines of over crowded East Jerusalem.


Dusk at Kidron Valley, seen from Jerusalem old town.

Israeli Defense Force Soldiers. Having strained relations with its neighbors, Israel is in constant state of military readiness. IDF soldiers can be seen everywhere and most seem around 19 or so. It’s strange to see kind youthful face, almost a child still, lugging an automatic weapon in public places. And, how normal this is considered by everyone. Soldiers usually wear green/brown uniforms and boots, but it’s not rare to see soldier on a holiday, wearing shorts, t-shirt, slippers, and carrying a weapon. Or a young lady, with a chic handbag slung over one shoulder, and assault riffle over another. After 2-3 year long military service, it’s a tradition to take a long vacation abroad. South East Asia, South America… Somewhere away from stressful army life.


West Bank Wall separating the Jewish and Palestinian neighbourhoods.


Graffitis in West Bank wall, tradition that has continued since 2005 by artist Banksy.

South India: Kerala, Cape Comorin, Madurai

Journal entry of traveling southern India in winter ’11-12 (Reblog with more images).

January — Crossed border of Tamil Nandu state, and arrived to Cape Comorin. Kanyakumari, as locals call the cape, is the most southern tip of Indian subcontinent. There are couple of temples and large statue of Thiruvalluvar, a celebrated Tamil poet, is standing on an island. This is the only place in India to see both sun rise from sea, and landing back there at dusk. Lot of tourists visit it also for this special feat.


Statue of Thiruvalluvar was built 1999.

Kerala was an interesting experience. One of the curiosities that caught my eye was the Communist posters and ads everywhere. Arriving north, I stopped first in Kannur, then Calicut, neither didn’t offer much to see. After arriving Kochi thought its the same story, but it turned out to be best visit in Kerala.


Gone fishing. Chinese fishing nets in background in Kochi.

Kochi is complex of islands, archipelagos and backwaters. Town in continent side is called Ernakulam, that’s also where bus and train stations are. Old Fort Kochi is next to the beach and Chinese fishing nets and provide interesting sights to explore and photograph.


Munnar, a picturesque hill region is famous for tea plantations.


Exploring Kochi backwaters.

Kathakali is dance performance particular to Kerala. It is storytelling by dance and gestures. Actors are men only, and do roles of women as well. They are covered in strong makeup and elaborate costumes, careful preparations before performances is part of show. Stories are ancient Kerala’s and south Indian folklore, mixed with legends from Hinduism. Shows are arranged frequently in Kochi for travellers to see. @ Kanyakumari


Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple in Trivandrum. Read fascinating history about this place: link.

February — Arrived to Madurai couple days ago to see its famous temples. Minakshi Sundareshvara Temple is in the center of the city. The complex is just as ancient as it is enormous. Spirituality and sounds from rites pulse through the thick stone walls. Temple itself is inside the several high walled perimeters, and there are numerous side shrines for various Hindu deities. Visitor can come across big elephant, or small mouse running at sides of corridor. And anything in between! @ Madurai


Photos from Meenakshi Temple in Madurai.

India in Miniature: Varanasi

Journal entry of visit to Varanasi, spring 2012. (Reblog with more images)

Varanasi is said to be first places on earth where light-bulb of human civilisation lit up. It is contemporary with cities such as Babylon, Niniveh and Thebes. While these civilisations have long since disappeared, Varanasi has been continuously inhabited during all this time, 3-4000 years. Travel guides describe Varanasi as India in miniature. Its good and not so good features, all compressed into one place. Colourful pilgrimages from all around the vast country, worshipping and purifying themselves in the holy river Ganges. But also, herds of tourists, touts, beggars and drug dealers. And not forgetting numerous cows, buffaloes, dogs, monkeys, and other tail-waggers.

March 17 — First day in Varanasi has been incredible, the place overwhelms even after several months in India and its hard to spare superlatives describing it. After dusty sweaty day; dusk surrounds the river, old town, ghats (washing and purification platforms), and all the life that goes on. As orange disk descends behind the buildings, sparrows race lower air, haze blurs the purplish horizon. Another day in the eternal city has come to an end, night ceremonies are awaiting to be started.

My night train from Siliguri (at foothill of Himalayas and Darjeeling) arrived well ahead of schedule. I was lucky to wake up around 1.15am when train motion stopped. Stepped outside my cabin to ask how many stations still to go for Varanasi, and thats actually where my train was standing! A miracle that didn’t forget anything in my cabin, while rushing out of train half asleep and unprepared. Finding accommodation at that time is another story, waiting morning at the station simply wasn’t an option. Local travelers had already camped the floor space, benches and everything. I was also surrounded by hotel touts and tuk-tuk driveres that seem to wait in the station at all hours. Circling around the station for a while, finally gave up to one of drivers who took me to hostel owned by his pal. Anyway, even just one day here, easy to see this is going to be one of highlights of my trip! @ Varanasi


OMG.

March 21 — Varanasi is an ancient maze of buildings, labyrinth of corridors, usually not more than 2-meters wide, full of people, scooters, cows, dogs, chicken, monkeys… After leaving the river front, it can reveal nice surprises like restaurants and shops. Knowing that river is never far away helps with fear of getting lost. Found a nice restaurant that serves personal South Indian favorite, Masala Dosa. Here in North its not so common, been missing it!

Varanasi is for Hindus what Mecca is for Muslims. Legends say it was found by Shiva, supreme God of Hinduism. One should visit least once in a lifetime, and to die here, will release a devout Hindu from the cycle of rebirth. Funerals are taking place in two cremation ghats by the river. Body of deceased and his/her relatives arrive to funeral from all around India. Carrying bodies (wrapped in cloth) to cremation site is yet another surprise unaware traveller can come across here. When cremation fires have burned, ashes are spread to Ganges. Not everyone needs purifying fire in their funeral though. Bodies of children and pregnant women are considered pure and can be buried to river without cremation! Praying and purifying rituals are ongoing by the river throughout the day, but main event is the sunrise around 6-7am.

Ganges water isn’t warm, noticed it last night when washing my feet and sandal after stepping in a darkness to a “mine” dropped by a passing cow. This morning, woke up at early to see sunrise, and while walking to ghats, cheerful young dog joined me. Spotting nice view by the river, left my camera bag on ground and started taking photos. When finished, saw my camera bag was promptly “marked”, and dog disappeared. So another wash at the cool waters was needed. Hindu’s consider every drop of Ganges holy. Pilgrimers fill bottles from the river before starting journey back home. Saw often people washing themselves, including washing their teeth in it. @ Varanasi


Prayer rituals at night time are spectacle of their own.


Ganges makes a long curve, and ghats are situated so that pilgrims face directly towards east where sun is coming at morning. Its easy to see why location was chosen for the prayer site all those millennias ago.

Rajasthan — India’s West

Visiting Golden and Blue City in Thar Desert, spring 2012. (Reblog with more images and information)

April 8 — Rajasthan sun is merciless. Hot dry breath of wind blows over the dunes and through the ancient desert town. Am in India’s western border. Jaisalmer used to be trade post between east and west, until sea trade replaced camel caravans. After independence and partitioning of India, 1947, Indian-Pakistani border closed much of the regional trade as well. Name Golden City comes from yellow sand stone that is building material for majority of buildings.


Jaisalmer Fort.

My guesthouse arrange camel safaris to the desert. Decided to go with a traveling pal I met in the train. Seemed then like a great idea then. Now am wondering how on earth am going to survive, when even the shade of town seems too much. After washing, clothes are dry after two hours of hanging. @ Jaisalmer


Visit to desert.

April 10 — Back from desert! Air is exhausting from 9am to 5pm and temperature hangs over and under 40 Celsius. At evening winds get cooler and night air is almost chilling. I slept outside in open desert. Its exhilarating feeling, lying in bed and gazing up to bottomless silent night sky. Stars shine as bright as they possibly can. All sounds are natures own: camel munching grass, fire rattling in campfire, night bird cocooing somewhere in darkness. At first its hard to catch a sleep, but eventually the inevitable happens… @ Jaisalmer


Mehrangarh fort.

April 14 — Continued my journey to Jodhpur, the Blue City. Weather here has been nice relief after Jaisalmer. It has rained every afternoon. Yesterday night winds were strong and thunderstorms did show of drum and light over the Mehrangarh fort. Fortification stands on a cliff, and city has grown around it. Houses are colorful and have more variety than in Jaisalmer. Areas in old town are painted blue, from which city has gotten its name. Tradition originates from cast divisions that dictated who were living where.


Rich merchants used to show off their wealth, by building their homes extravagantly. They are called Havelis in Jaisalmer.


Zenana Deodi. The inner courtyard of Mehrangarh fort was once guarded by eunuchs. This is where the Maharaja’s wives lived.

Fort is definitely worth visiting. Audio guides were excellent, and place is fascinating adventure to history both in and outside. Marwars of Jodhpur had semi-autonomous status during reign of Mughal centuries (1526–1857). Wild desert region and proud warriors living here proved too much for even mighty Mughals to repress entirely.

Sati and Jauhar Traditions of Rajasthan

While walking by the big entrance gate of Jodhpur castle, I noticed curious hand insignia’s carved by the gate wall. They were painted in red and had decoration of fresh flowers on them. This is a shrine for widows of Maharajahs that had committed a Sati (seti, suttee), a self immolation.

Sati was practiced among aristocrats, and was at the time accepted practice in Hindu religion. Michael Edwards, British India 1772-1947:

… In 1780, the deceased Raja of Marwar was joined in death by sixty-four wives. A Sikh prince of the Punjab took with him ten wives and no less than three hundred concubines

Jauhar had to do with harsh reality of desert life: isolated communities living where marauding armies could (and did) appear out of nowhere and without warning. Jauhar, for men meant fighting and dying a certain death in hands of enemy. These events repeated several times during the history of Rajasthan. British banned immolations in 1829 and later independent India continued the work. Sati Prevention Act from 1987 makes it criminal to aiding, abetting, and even glorifying the act of Sati.

Coincidentally, years later learned another angle about the topic. This time in a museum in Iran:

Paintings … include the scene of a banquet in Persian and Indian style in which the wedding ceremony of Reza Qoli Mirza, son of Nader Shah and an Indian princess is shown. Another part of the picture is “Seti” ritual in which some Indian princesses commit suicide by being burnt with the corpse of their deceased husbands and this is regarded as a sign of their intense love.

Aside the fact that such ritual was also known in Iran, during the rule of Shah Abbas the second an event happened which connected this ritual with Kandahar conquest episode. Probably the significance of the event for the Safavid culture system caused its illustration upon a Chehelsotoon wall.

One of the most important historical events during the reign of Shah Abbas the second was re-conquest of Kandahar by Iranian army from Indian Gurkanis (Mughals) in 1655 AD. As a story goes twenty days after the beginning of Kandahar siege by Iranian troops, one of the high ranked Rajas of Indian Gurkanis by the name of Matrodas … passed away suddenly. His distressed wife decided to observe the Seti ritual according to her ancient religion. Therefore, she adorned herself with various jewellery and got ready to set herself on fire. Afterwards she took her husbands body and went toward the fire accompanied by her relatives. At this time, Dolat Khan, governor of Kandahar tried to change her mind by giving advice but she remained silent and reluctant. When Dolat Khan and his attendants found out that she is very determined in her cause, they allowed her to go on. At this time the woman began taking off her jewellery on her way and throwing them toward the crowd. After reaching the destination she sat down and embraced the head of her husband. By this time, her relatives had brought a pile of firewood and after putting it around the dead man and the bereaved woman, had set it on fire. Rajput Hindus of the time believed that the words of anybody who was committing suicide in this way was trustworthy and would come true doubtlessly. Therefore, Dolat Khan sent a man to ask the dying woman whether the kind of India would dispatch any reinforcements to break Kandahar siege and whether the Qezelbash army would return to Iranian court empty handed?

The woman answered: “No reinforcement is on its way from Indian king, therefore the victorious Iranian army will conquer the castle in forty days. But about India it must be said that after eleven years a great languor will occur all over the land.”

At this point the woman was not able to talk anymore because the flames consumed her entirely. After this event the messenger of Dolat Khan told him what he had heard which made the governor and his attendants quite disappointed. After forty days her forecast came true and the Iranian army entered Kandahar.

Shah Abbas the second became very impressed by this story so he ordered the depication of it on the walls of Chehelsotoon in order to pay his respects to that courageous woman.


Cannon in Mehrangarh fort museum.

Moroccan Inland

Moroccan inland. This is second part of travel journal documenting trip around Morocco. Coastal regions in the first part can be found here.

December 2016. Marrakech. Djemaa el Fna square is an old Berber marketplace. It is intermingled with nearby souk’s, and a heart of the city. Snake charmers, touts, sellers and performers are attracting locals and tourists alike with their shows, stories and music. Both the market and souk’s are integral part of old town, and judging 100+ year old photographs, has not changed much in its general outlook. Large minaret of Koutoubia Mosque is towering nearby and providing scenic background of all the hustle and bustle in the square.

Saadis were Moroccan ruling dynasty in 16th century and Marrakech was their capital. This was the time when Ottoman Empire was pushing its borders from the east. Saadian Morocco became a region of contest between Ottoman expansionism and emerging Portuguese and Spanish Empires from the north. Christians had recently completed the Reconquista, the occupation of lands from Muslim Moors in southern part of Iberian peninsula.

Ruins of El Badi Palace, Marrakech. Atlas mountains can be seen in the horizon.

For Ottomans, Morocco was a distant land. Besides some military expeditions, occupation was never really attempted. Having a neutral state next to Ottoman North African coast was enough, and achieved with means of diplomacy and military support. Portugese crusade by king Sebastian I ended in defeat in Battle of Three Kings, 1578. Saadian Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur aided by Ottoman’s, decisively winning the battle. For Portugal, result was an unmitigated disaster. Despite the lack of a body, Sebastian was presumed dead, at the age of 24. In his piety, he had remained unmarried and had sired no heir. With the ransom money from Portugese, Saadi’s set out to improve their capital in Marrakech. El Badi Palace was largely funded with Portuguese gold.

Saadian Tombs were burial site that may have been used also before the period. Earliest known burial dates from 1557 and all the main buildings were constructed under Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur (1578-1603). Sultan was powerful ruler who fought several wars and started large building projects around his country, especially in the capital Marrakech.

Another Moroccan strongman, Ismail Ibn Sharif laid a bitter siege of Marrakech during the civil war in 1677. After siege, his forces sacked the city and destroyed many of its prominent buildings, including El Badi Palace of former rulers. It was perhaps superstition kept the burial ground in tact. Instead, entrances to Saadian Tombs were sealed up silence fell down for centuries.

Tombs lay hidden and forgotten until 1917, when they were discovered during a French aerial survey. Photographs revealed there was something at the centre of building complex, that nobody at streets knew and could not see. A new passageway was built from the side of the Kasbah Mosque. The tombs long neglect as well as dry climate ensured their preservation. Today Saadian Tombs have been fully restored to their original glory, and are not to be missed if visiting the city.

Another place worth the visit in Marrakech is Bahia Palace, it bears similar name as nearby ruins of El Badi, but is newer and was not destroyed during the turbulent history.

The Bahia Palace is a palace and a set of gardens located in Marrakech. It was built in the late 19th century and the name means “brilliance”.

Palace was built by grand vizier of the sultan for his personal use, craftsmen from Fes were brought to ensure the prominence of the building. The harem includes a vast court decorated with a central basin and surrounded by rooms intended for the concubines.

Menara Gardens, Marrakech.

Complex of souk’s is large and varying, and in Morocco its second to none except perhaps the one in Fes. Souk has spread through the medina and its hard to tell when one ends and other begins. On sale are literally everything, from modern plastic stuff made in China, old antique collectibles, Berber carpets and clothes, spices, fruits and food. Buildings are mostly in low height, also in new town adjacent to the medina.

While air is cold and one can see breath in the morning, its dry and sunny at day, laundry dries fast outside. Summer in Marrakech is a different story, temperature will raise above 40 Celcius!

Views from Marrakech souk and medina.

Leather tanneries of Marrakech. Google “Marrakech tannery scam” to avoid expensive “guided tour” by touts loitering and waiting for unaware tourists.

January 2017. Ouarzazate. Came today from Agadir to the edge of Sahara. Views are arid although true Sahara begins further south-east in Mhamid oasis town. Trip went fine and views from front of the bus were interesting. Had a dinner in tajine joint at the back alleys, went sleep early and tried to stay warm. Room is absolutely freezing, but least the WiFi works pretty well. In morning, sun fails to warm even at 10am although Saharan light is radiant. In the afternoon wind raises and brings dust from the desert, corners of my old hotel begin howl.

Aït Benhaddou is a ksar along the former caravan route between the Sahara and Marrakech (in present-day Morocco). Inside the walls are half a dozen merchants houses and other individual dwellings. Several films have also been filmed in Aït Benhaddou due to its fascinating appearance.

Bus through the Atlas mountains. Serpentine road is traversing the mountain region at above 2000 metres. Average elevation of the snow-covered mountains lies above 3000 metres. Passengers are having motion sickness, not having strong stomach myself either. Am leaving the region with a bit of sigh. There was whole world am feeling of having barely scratching the surface.

January 2017. Fes.

While approaching Fes in the afternoon, rainy weather, and sloping green fields and agriculture made me feel like traveling somewhere in France. Fes is ancient city with rich history behind it. It rivals Marrakech in prominence as centre and former royal capital. Medina resembles European medieval city, rather than African. Cold and rainy winter weather does its part to bring the image to mind. One can really photograph and walk oneself to exhaustion in narrow streets and alleys. Visual bombardment is coming from all directions.

Large Fes medina at night.

The University and Mosque of Al-Karaouine. It is the oldest existing, continually operating educational institution in the world and sometimes referred to as the oldest university. The Al-Karaouine mosque-madrasa (religious school) was founded by Fatima al-Fihri in 859AD, which subsequently became one of the leading spiritual and educational centres of the historic Muslim world. For such a historic sight, its a shame its closed for non-Muslims.

The Bab Bou Jeloud is a gate that leads to the old medina, and a local landmark everyone knows.

Leather tanneries in Fes.

January 2017. Chefchaouen — blue city.

Chefchaouen is a small picturesque town in the Rif Mountains, around 700meters above sea level. Its also called blue city, for its trademark colour that is painted every house in historic part of the town.

There are several theories as to why the walls were painted blue. One popular one is that the blue keeps mosquitos away. Heard the same story also elsewhere in the country where blue is the favourite colour, so it may hold some truth in it.

Travel practicalities in Morocco.

Trains in Morocco are reliable and affordable method of traveling, going from centre to centre. If choosing a bus instead, use established bus companies of Supratours and CTM. Just walk by the touts loitering at the entrances of bus stations. Their “service” can end up to a no-name company not driving to centre (despite what they agree to get your money), but instead leaving you by the road at city outskirts before continuing next destination. Happened to me once in Agadir.

How to catch a taxi correctly is easy to forget when actually doing it: Before jumping inside, have proper change because driver will pretend of not having a change for tourists. If still not having the change, ask driver about it before letting him to start driving. Moroccan drivers usually accept using their meter, but sometimes claim its broken and negotiate price instead. Again, agree price before sitting inside and go. Dont wait until you have arrived, then its too late.

Couple lines from Wikitravel Fes matches my experience as traveler in Morocco.

There are many other scams and annoyances trying to get you into a shop/restaurant/hotel with various degrees of lying in the stories people make up. If in doubt, be independent and look for yourself e.g. whether the hotel you want to go to is indeed closed or under construction. This is unfortunately one of the sad things about Morocco, that you get to distrust every one, even those people who are genuinely friendly and hospitable, because sometimes this is only a facade.

Even if some slight annoyances can be expected down the road, no country is perfect. Morocco is welcoming, safe and developing country with lots to offer for curious and open minded traveler. Go see it yourself! 🙂

Kingdom of Morocco

Travel journal and photography of two month journey around Kingdom of Morocco, north-west corner of Africa. December 2016 to February 2017. This first part consists of Moroccan coastel cities, from Gibraltar in north, to Agadir and Essaouira in south. Part two dives into Moroccan inland.

Morocco is part of Maghreb. Greater Maghreb is defined of the region of Northwest Africa, west of Egypt. The traditional definition as the region including the Atlas Mountains and the coastal plains of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya.

North African native Berber heritage have influenced distinctively Moroccan history and culture. Arab’s conquered the region early 8th century AD, but it was far away from centres of Arabia, Baghdad, Damascus and later Istanbul, and soon country break away to its own course. Successive local dynasties overthrow the Arab rulers and formed powerful regional empires of their own, such as Almoravids (10th century) and Almohads (until end of 13th century). Ottoman Turks and Europeans started arriving around 16th century.

With Arabs, bazaars common in Mid-East spread along the North Africa. Here they are called a Souk (find more about bazaar’s in Persia here and here).

Other common terms traveler soon will come across are: Ksar (fortified village), Kasbah (walled building where prominent local leader or tradesman and his family/court lived. A kasbah walls were high and usually without windows. They were often built on hilltops and/or near the entrance to harbours), Medina (labyrinth like old town), Riad (mansion, characterised by an open central garden courtyard surrounded by high walls. Recent times, old riads with good location have seen renovation and building boom around Morocco. These exotic houses are refurnished as hotels and houses for rent).

Tajine and Couscous. The main Moroccan dish most people are familiar with is couscous, the old national delicacy. Beef is the most commonly eaten red meat with a wide selection of vegetables. Chicken is also often used in tagines, or roasted. Both dishes are served in tangia, an urn-shaped terra cotta cooking vessel. It is also the name of the stew cooked in the pot.

Atlantic shores of Rabat.

December 2016. Rabat. As taxi from airport approach my apartment, warm 17 degrees wind, moist sea air from Atlantic were telling that chilly Europe was a thing of a past for now. Temperatures in coastal Morocco vary between 15-20 at day time at winter. Inland at night, temp can drop as low as freezing the water pools on streets.

Rabat is walkable developing city. Atlantic shore is magnificent with house size waves pushing against coastal rocks and wave breaker. More calm and pleasant waters can be found at river side of Bou Regreg, where fishermen are fixing their nets and boats, and people doing relaxing walkabouts at the shores.

Kasbah of the Oudaias is dominating the river mouth.

French coffee shops. Having a morning coffee in downtown cafes has quickly become my favourite past time during early morning. Coming here and sip the strong Moroccan drink, watch and chat with others, customers having their morning cafe noir and watch news on tv, reading papers, chatting. Waking to streets outside, traffic humming by and children walking to school, businesses opening.

December 2016. Casablanca.

City has given name for Hollywood block buster by Warner Bros Studios, starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. Today, center stage of the movie, Rick’s Cafe Americain can be visited by film noir nostalgia craving travelers.

Modern day Rick’s Cafe interior.

Casablanca is largest city and commercial center of the country. Although early settlements go long back in time, city really started as its current for in late 18th century. French style venues are long and wide. Building base is often not older than perhaps 100 years, although medina exists here too. Traffic police can be seen on foot on many street crossing and controlling busy traffic that passes by. Driving style on streets is fairly organised, although pedestrians are expected to give way to cars. Signpost and plaques are usually Arabic and French only, also in museums. Words boulangerie, patisserie, glacier, croissant, baguette come by everywhere.

Downtown Casablanca.

The Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca. It is the largest mosque in Morocco and the 13th largest in the world.

December 2016. Agadir.

Agadir’s is prosperity is emitting of being holiday and retirement destination. People arrive with family and friends, spend time relaxing at sun and sea and doing beach activities at day, clubbing and dining at night, and shopping in between. On its back streets and suburbs, poverty manifests itself in various forms. Agadir is fairly liberal city in Moroccan terms. Rhythms from salsa class are waving hips near the beach. Twenty meters apart devout Muslim men are doing their afternoon prayers, while bikini girls play beach volley and people are sipping caipirinhas like its Fortaleza Brazil. Winter morning light is strong and bright but air is cool. Jackets should be kept on while walking outdoors.

January 2017. Taghazout, north of Agadir. Atlantic waves are inviting surfers from over the world to enjoy waves. Small town has long since changed from sleepy Berber village to international Mecca for wave hunters, hipsters and nomads. All along the coast north from Agadir, large building projects are sprawling.

January 2017. Essaouira — town of trade winds.

Mogador island is the main island of the Iles Purpuraires near Essaouira. Island and its protection from Atlantic waves the reason why navigators have appreciated Essaouira as a natural harbor.

Essaouira medina.

Had a wonderful stay in Essaouira. The medieval town was originally founded by Portugese in early 1500’s. This fact is emphasised for tourists but not much from Portugese history is left standing today. Walled medina by the coast is two hundred years younger and built by local rulers. Nevertheless medina is the main drawing force to the town. Relatively compact and walkable in size, narrow labyrinth-like design provide fascinating experience for travellers. Corridors often lead to dead end at someones front door. Tunnel like streets are passing under peoples houses. Fishing harbour is another place not to miss. Every sunset fishing boats return from the sea with the daily catch. This ignites nervous activity in the harbour, as fish is processed and sold to local businesses and restaurants. It also awakes army of seaguls that have been impatiently awaiting the day. Irresistible smell of fish ignites chaos from the skies.


Hotel Des Iles, where Jimi Hendrix arrived to experience Essaouira in the late sixties.

February 2017. Tangier.

Tangier is probably oldest still habited city of Morocco. Wikipedia:

The history of Tangier is very rich, due to the historical presence of many civilisations and cultures starting from before the 5th century BC. Between the period of being a strategic Berber town and then a Phoenician trading center to the independence era around the 1950s, Tangier was a nexus for many cultures. In 1923, it was considered as having international status by foreign colonial powers, and became a destination for many European and American diplomats, spies, writers and businessmen.

American Legation in Tangier. Morocco was first foreign country to recognise independent United States of America. Legation complex contains the two-story mud and stone building presented to the United States in 1821 by Sultan Moulay Suliman. It is the first property acquired abroad by the United States government, it housed the United States Legation and Consulate for 140 years. Today building houses a museum with interesting display of exhibits from the past centuries.

Today, city is well connected to Europe, regular ferry lines operating to port of Tarifa in Spanish side of Gibraltar.

Sunset in Rabat.