The Great Hassan II Mosque of Casablanca

Play it again, Sam.

Is there a more enduring image of Casablanca than the landmark Warner Brothers movie of the same name? Romantic in a noirish sort of way yet memorable. It was a cultural phenomenon in the U.S. America had just entered the second World War; the film tackled the subjects of resistance to the Nazis and personal sacrifice for a greater cause.

But, would you believe there really is a Rick’s Cafe? It was built in 2004. The interior looks just like the one in the classic 1942 movie. What is it but a way to attract tourists?

Otherwise, Casablanca, the largest city in the kingdom of Morocco, is cars, motor bikes, industrial buildings, urban sprawl. We got stuck in commuter traffic when our tour driver Mustapha (who’ll be with us the whole time) drove both from the airport to the hotel and out of town the next morning. All guide books seem to agree, there’s not much to interest tourists in Casablanca.

Except one: the Hassan II Mosque.

Like the café, it’s a modern construction, completed in 1993. This is not a classic medieval mosque like the ones in Fez, but a super-duper, modernized place of worship, holding thousands of worshippers under a retractable roof, laser beam atop its minaret pointing directly to Mecca at night. It took thousands of workers six years to complete its construction.

It’s also the only mosque in the country that can be entered by non-Muslims (except during times of prayer). There are only two requirements: visitors must dress modestly (however, women do not have to wear scarves) and shoes removed on entering.

The approach to the mosque is impressive. From the entrance gate to the mosque doors is easily a quarter mile, if not more. The expanse serves two purposes, it seems. The first is to accommodate up to 80,000 worshippers on the outside grounds (25,000 inside); the other is to fully appreciate the size of the building, especially its 210m (670ft) minaret, as you approach it.

The inside is not unlike the feeling one gets from entering a great cathedral, its soaring spaces meant to convey the ineffable. The interior space is larger than St. Paul’s in the Vatican.

I took one of the guided tours but found it chaotic, mostly because tours in different languages were being led simultaneously, and my wife and I had a hard time trying to follow the English-speaking guide among a mass of people. But, I did appreciate the architectural masterpiece that the mosque represents. If it weren’t for this visit, we would’ve hightailed it out of Casablanca directly for Rabat.

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