The Magnificent Town of Moulay Idriss Zerhoun, Morocco

A young boy riding a donkey in one of the narrow alleyways

photography by: Omri Westmark

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Throughout its existence, Morocco was ruled by several Islamic dynasties which made it one of the most culturally, religiously and historically significant entities in the Arab world to date. The first of which, the Idrisid dynasty, was established in the aptly named town of Moulay Idriss at the north of the country, from where it spread its influence to all over Morocco. While its days of glory are long gone, the small town of Moulay Idriss Zerhoun is nothing short of mesmerizing, offering a rare glimpse of rural Morocco’s centuries old traditions.

A Bit of History

Often dubbed as the founder of modern-day Morocco, Idris ibn Abdullah was born in the Arabian Peninsula somewhere around the 8th century. Legend has it that Idriss was the great grandson of Hasan who himself was the grandchild of Prophet Muhammad.


Following a series of tribal skirmishes that culminated in the Battle of Fakhkh in Mecca, Idriss was forced to flee Arabia and seek refuge in the Maghreb region. Due to his respected lineage as a descendant of Prophet Muhammad, he quickly managed to gain the support of local Berber tribes and henceforth, controlled much of Northern Morocco.


Initially, Idriss set his base of operations in the former Roman town of Volubilis, from where he launched and conducted his large-scale military campaigns across the region. At one point, the site of Volubilis was deemed indefensible. To protect it from any possible attack, Idriss’ headquarters was relocated further south, to a more mountainous location, which according to the lore, eventually developed into the current town of Moulay Idriss Zerhoun.


Only two years after his rose to prominence, Idriss died in 791, presumably poisoned by his long-time adversary, the Abbasid Caliphate. A couple of months after Idriss’ death, his wife, Kenza, gave birth to his son and the heir to the throne, Idriss the II. After reaching the minimum age to become an Emir, Idriss Junior followed in his father’s footsteps and gained a foothold over the territory that encompasses much of Today’s Morocco.


During his reign, the town of Moulay Idriss lost much of its political importance as Idriss the II established Fez as the emirate’s capital (which was originally founded by his father, Idriss the elder). Despite being overshadowed by the newly built capital, the town became a prominent spiritual center as it was home to the tomb of Idriss, who was widely revered as a Muslim saint.


Initially, the tomb was situated within a simple qubba building, soon becoming a pilgrimage site for Moroccans from all echelons of society. A millennia later, the then sultan of Morocco, Moulay Ismail, commissioned the demolition of the old complex and the subsequent construction of a brand-new, massive mausoleum, where the city’s congregational mosque was built as well.


Up until as recently as 1912, non-Muslims weren’t allowed to visit Moulay Idriss due to its perceived holiness. Additionally, a townwide ban on overnight tourist stays was lifted in 2005, prompting a surge in the number of accommodation options across the area. Be that as it may, the town still remains well off the beaten path, rarely frequented by foreign visitors.

Notable Places to Visit

Located about 50 kilometers west of Fez and 20 kilometers north of Meknes, the town of Moulay Idriss is awash with interesting places to explore, especially so given its relatively small size. Standing out as the town’s unrivaled center of gravity is the main square. This open plaza is home to a plethora of shops where one can find essential groceries, but also locally crafted souvenirs, including traditional garments and tagine pots.


The town main square is centered around the Zawiya, otherwise known as the Mausoleum of Moulay Idriss. It is difficult to overstate the mausoleum’s religious and cultural importance not only to the residents of Moulay Idriss, but to all Moroccans. Entered via an archway that branches off the main square, the complex consists of the town’s Friday mosque and most importantly, Idriss’ alleged tomb, easily recognizable by its green, pyramid-shaped roof. Every August, the mausoleum is swarmed by zillions of pilgrims, when the moussem festival takes place. Local elders zealously claim that attending 5 pilgrimages to the site is equivalent to a single Hajj to the holy city of Mecca. Take note that unless you are a Muslim, you wouldn’t have the chance of verifying that assertion as entrance to non-Muslims is strictly forbidden.


Constructed in 1939 by a local Hajji, the town’s Sentissi Mosque is often referred to as the country’s only mosque whose minaret is cylindrical, rather than square. The minaret’s green tilework is beautifully decorated with a series of Quranic surahs, all of which are written in a Kufic script.


As the town straddles across a pair of hills, there are dozens of lookouts bestowed with spectacular views of the old medina’s patchwork of houses, mosques and alleyways. Perhaps the best scenic points of all are La Grande Terrasse and La Petite Terrasse (the big and the small balconies), both of which are simply an empty void in the otherwise densely packed neighborhood, overlooking the town’s historic district as well as the surrounding bucolic landscape.


Surprising as it might seem, Moulay Idriss is also home to a couple of modern-style buildings, including a commercial complex adjacent to the town’s main gate. Occupied by a medley of small workshops and businesses, the gritty building provides a glimpse to the town’s lesser-known facets, where ordinary people carry out their daily routines. While obviously lacking the charm of its nearby older counterparts, the edifice’s contemporary Islamic architecture makes it an unusually intriguing place to explore.


Alongside the old medina’s narrow alleys is also a decent number of hiking trails and sites on the outskirts of town, most notably the aforementioned Volubilis, the remnants of a 3rd century BC Roman city, which at its heyday had more than 20,000 inhabitants. The recently restored archeological site is best-known for its lavish triumphal arch, temple and well-preserved mosaics. Another iconic vestige of Moulay Idriss’ rich past is the Haroune Aqueduct, erected to supply the town with water from the close-by mountains.

The Village's Day to Day Life

In somewhat stark contrast to its nationwide reputation as a sacred place, Moulay Idriss is first and foremost a laid-back town with around 12,000 inhabitants. Whilst the town is a far cry from Morocco’s iconic cities, it is nonetheless a place where visitors can witness the country’s more rural side. It is pointless to deny that the town along with almost any cranny of the country embraced some of what modernity has to offer, and yet, it also kept a great deal of authenticity, preserving old and traditional customs.


Probably one of the most striking aspects about Moulay Idriss is the large range of activities that take place around the streets, alleys and squares. Whereas in most of the developed world, streets often serve as a mere mean to get from point A to B, the public space across town is brimming with social gatherings, particularly mini soccer matches, where children often use the abundant arches as makeshift goalposts. Similar to other old medinas in Morocco, every house is within a walking distance to a public fountain, regularly frequented by residents who fill their plastic containers with drinking water for domestic use, or less regularly, people wash their dishes outside in front of passersby.


Since the old medina perches on a hilly terrain, most streets are not accessible to either cars or motorcycles. Instead, the only viable mean of transportation which manages to cope with the steep, narrow alleyways and the multiple steps are donkeys. In fact, it is nearly impossible to wander around town for more than ten minutes without stumbling upon one of those equine beasts carrying groceries or gas tanks further uphill. As it turns out, donkeys are far from being the only animal roaming throughout this hectic labyrinth, as goats and sheep frequently graze on the town’s small patches of lawn.