The Valley Temple and Osireion: Echoes of a Bygone World Culture?


Seeing is believing.

It was deja vu all over again, as a famous American Yogi once said. I gawked at the Valley Temple of Khafre in Giza and the Osireion in Abydos. Though they are in Egypt, they reminded me of monuments I saw in Peru, halfway round the world. Cyclopean blocks of unadorned stone were cut and tightly fitted to one another. Their sizes hint at an accomplished civilization that knew how to manipulate gigantic stones in ways that we can’t explain.

Here’s where current thinking becomes unbelievable, if not ridiculous. Stones of gigantic size were said to have been quarried, dragged or ferried over great distances, lifted into place and fitted with precision by sheer muscle, hammer, pounding stone and copper chisel. In places like Peru, where mountains and valleys present insurmountable obstacles, this explanation severely strains credibility. Was there a method of transportation and masonry that we haven’t yet discovered or identified? In our scientific and rational age, we think of historical engineering achievements relative to our own, that technology evolved from simple tools (Neolithic Age) to today’s advanced industrial technology in a linear fashion. Surely, the ancients didn’t have the wherewithal to use anything but unlimited human labor, rope and crude tools to build their magnificent edifices, did they?

And yet, we can’t prove, let alone reproduce, how some of the greatest ancient monuments of the world were built.

The Valley Temple and Osireion are such examples.

Valley Temple of Khafre

The Valley Temple sits a stone’s throw away from the Sphinx. We nearly didn’t have time to see it after a full day of taking in the Sphinx, Great Pyramid and Solar Boat Museum. With the second pyramid and the Great Sphinx, it forms a complex whose construction is attributed to King Khafre (4th dynasty). The sole evidence given to Khafre’s provenance is the famous statue of him, now in the Cairo Museum, that was found buried in the Valley Temple. (That the statue was carved from diorite, a very hard igneous rock, is wondrous in itself.)

Statue of Khafre, Cairo Egyptian Museum

This is hardly proof, as some point out, only that the statue was found there. A New Kingdom stone slab called the Inventory Stela (factually disputed by some), found in Giza and dating to the 26th dynasty, claims the Sphinx and Valley Temple (the pyramids are not mentioned) were built before Khufu, Khafre’s father. Some dispute its claim, complicated by the fact that it was written roughly 2,000 years after Khafre. If it is true however, the temple’s construction would be pushed back to pre-dynastic times, or at least the Early Dynastic Period.

Inner courtyard, Valley Temple of Khafre

Whatever the uncertainty regarding dates, its physical characteristics are quite amazing. There are two layers of stone construction, granite and limestone. Limestone was laid first. Hundreds of them in the form of megalithic blocks form a surrounding wall. Some weigh 200 tons and some were lifted as much as 40ft up the temple’s eastern side. Physical evidence suggests they suffered long-term damage from former, heavy pre-dynastic rains, much like the weathering around the Sphinx and its enclosure. The limestone had been extremely eroded before granite casing stones were molded onto the softer rock. Incredibly, they were cut (or manipulated?) to conform to the limestones’ erosional patterns, all their peaks and troughs, to become the temple’s inner and outer walls. How was this renovation, or restoration, ever done? Again, hammer and copper chisel aren’t the answer. This type of dressing is quite similar in technique to shaping casing stones over the Great Pyramid’s roughly cut limestone core blocks.

Note the limestone layer at the top and granite walls below.

In addition to the retaining walls, there are two rows of gigantic, parallel granite posts that are topped with equally gigantic lintels that define the temple’s core structure.

The workmanship on the granite walls is exquisite, fitting tightly together with seams scarcely able to admit a needle point.

Aswan red granite casing stones

Other incredible features of some stones are their irregular shapes. Some are shaped like parallelograms, others are notched, yet others curve around corners at right angles.

Note notching on second large granite block from the bottom and corner block above it. An upper stone is a parallelogram.
A closer look

I stood there in amazement. What could possibly be the reason for manufacturing stones with odd dimensions? Some say it was for earthquake-proofing. Maybe so. It surely wasn’t for simplicity.

The Osireion

The Osireion, which we visited several days later, is a complex directly behind the Temple of Seti I in Abydos. It is currently regarded as a cenotaph for Osiris. It’s striking that it has a stylistic similarity to Khafre’s Valley Temple, not only because of the megalithic stonework but its design of two parallel rows of pillars flanking a central hall. As far as is known, these two structures are the only ones in Egypt built in this massive post-and-lintel style. It also is the monument that at its base may sit in greenish water depending on the Nile (also see below). There is physical evidence that the floor of the Valley Temple likewise was submerged in water for a time. Today, the Osireion looks like an open-air structure. It used to be roofed over by two rows of thick granite stone slabs, before they collapsed, were removed by stone robbers or were destroyed by a natural catastrophe, damage that was curiously spared Seti’s temple.

I was disappointed that visitors aren’t allowed to get close to the Osireion. Our tour group had to be content with gazing at it from an overlook. It’s roped off for now, unfortunate for those of us who want a closer look.

Peru Connection?

Both the Valley Temple and Osireion reminded me of stonework I saw in Peru, if not in the details. While the Egyptians favored horizontal lines, Peruvian courses of equally large stone were often laid non-linearly yet with the same, exacting fit tolerances. There are similar examples all over the world. Echoes of a common stone-working technology seem to have reverberated across the ocean.

Pisac, Peru
Ollantaytambo, Peru
Sacsayhuaman, Cusco (Peru)

And, for good measure:

Megalithic blocks, Japan (screen capture from YouTube)

What the Nub is Going On?

The image below shows casing stones at the entrance to Menkaure’s pyramid in Giza, the smallest of the three. (Unfortunately, our tour group didn’t have the opportunity to visit it.) The stones have different characteristics than the casing stones used on the other two Giza pyramids, namely, their surfaces are not flat and knob-like appendages (nubs) protrude along the bottoms of many.

Pyramid of Menkaure (image from Pinterest)

One wall of the Osireion shows the same kind of nubs.

The stones on the rear wall have nub protrusions (image from hiveminer.com)

What’s intriguing is that this same stone feature is found abundantly in Peru.

Machu Picchu (Peru)
Ollantaytambo (Peru)
Stonework, including the famous 12-sided stone, Cusco (Peru)

No one has been able to figure out what those nubs were used for. They randomly appear along the bottom edges of some (not all) stones, which means they weren’t used for lifting or any other utilitarian purpose. They are a complete mystery. It’s safe to say they weren’t decorative and it would shock me if the masons went to the trouble of purposely carving them that way. Rather than a design element, they must be the by-products of an undiscovered process?

What’s intriguing is that nubs like these also appear on stones in India, China, Japan, Syria, Turkey and elsewhere, including Micronesia.

Stone nubs, Bulgaria (screen capture from YouTube)

Am I missing something, or are there hints of a global phenomenon, a worldwide architectural legacy? A common, megalithic stone-shaping (and transportation) technology was being practiced, or handed down, all over the world that was lost long ago. Our current global, cross-pollinating culture was not the first in human history, it appears.

Because rocks don’t lend themselves to carbon-dating, we don’t know for sure when the Valley Temple and Osireion were built. They look (and likely are) contemporaneous. They probably are Old Kingdom works, but they could conceivably be older. Nevertheless from plentiful circumstantial evidence (from the fields of geology, astronomy, geometry, written and oral history, lichenometry, masonry), the ancients had a level of advanced knowledge and technologies that were sophisticated beyond measure.

Temple of Karnak (Luxor)


The Temple of Karnak in Luxor rivals an amusement park in size. The grounds are so big that it can easily surround the great cathedrals of Europe: Notre Dame, St. Peter’s, Milan and more. Started in the Middle Kingdom and added to over a period of 2,000 years into Ptolemaic times by thirty pharaohs, it is a complex mishmash of smaller temples, hypostyles, courts, chapel, pylons, storerooms and living quarters. It even contains a lake.

With this kind of cornucopia, it isn’t surprising that it’s the most visited site in Egypt second only to the Giza pyramids. In its day, it would’ve looked splendid, judging by its colossal scale and whispers of color that still remain. Now, the patina of old age hints at an ancient civilization long gone. I could have walked around here for hours.

At 50,000 sq ft/4,600 sq meters, the Hypostyle Hall is the largest religious building in the world. The largest of its 134 columns is 79ft/24m high with diameters of 10ft/3m, dwarfing mere humans who walk among them. It isn’t an experience easily forgotten. If the roof survived, the interior would have surpassed the greatest religious structures in the world.

Hypostyle Hall

Curiosities of the Temple of Seti I (Abydos, Egypt)


The hypostyle halls were the first I saw in Egypt. For that reason, the Temple of Seti I will have a special place in my memory. What for me conjures up ancient Egypt as much as the Giza Plateau are these halls and their towering and beautifully inscribed columns, bathed in mysterious, diffuse light.

Seti I may principally be known to history as being the father of Rameses II, who overshadowed his father by being the second longest ruling pharaoh in history and the greatest temple builder, but Seti’s temple in Abydos is considered one of the most beautiful and best preserved.

Relief of Isis and the king with djed pillar, Osiris Conplex

Aside from its artistic and design qualities, the temple’s curiosities lingered in my mind longer.

Who’s Who in the Pharaoh Zoo

If it weren’t for king-lists, very little would be known about the chronology of the pharaohs. The most famous one was compiled by Manetho, an Egyptian priest who lived in Ptolemaic times. His grouping of pharaonic history into dynasties is still used today. I had the opportunity to see the one in Seti’s temple inscribed along one wall of a passage between two halls. If it weren’t for Waleed’s explanation, it would have been just another beautiful wall of inscriptions. The list identifies 76 kings, including the names of pharaohs missing from other lists. However, for political reasons, it also omits the names of others considered illegitimate, some of them notable, including Akhenaton, Tutankhamen and the Hyksos rulers, which contributes to the problem of king-lists as a whole not being entirely consistent.

Abydos king-list

Rotorcraft and Submersibles of Ancient Egypt?

It was something I had to see for myself. Its fame has been circulating in alternative history circles for years. The temple has a controversial bas-relief panel depicting objects that look like modern vehicles, one of which has been called a helicopter. Another looks like a submarine. What in the world! you wonder. The more mundane explanation is that it’s a combination of two layers, the underlying one carved in sandstone, the other carved in an overlay of plaster. On the limestone is inscribed an epithet of Seti I, the plaster, of Rameses II, overlaid in just such a way as to cause a stir today. Fair enough, but why this modification was made only in this spot in the temple and then resemble modern-day conveyances thousands of years later are curious, to say the least. By themselves, the ‘vehicles’ are not hieroglyphs and therefore don’t mean anything other than firing up the imaginations of vimana and ancient alien fans.

But then, what about those Vedic flying ships?

What the L?

Curiously, Seti’s temple is designed in an “L” shape. No other Egyptian temple, before or since, was built in this way, a clear departure from tradition. The thing is, a structure now known as the Osireion was directly behind it. It’s been suggested that the design was changed to make a left turn, so to speak, when Seti uncovered a buried Osireion, but this is unlikely since the central axes of the main temple and Osireion are aligned. It’s likely that Seti didn’t build the Osireion but wanted to incorporate it in an overall temple plan. But the project couldn’t be completed for some reason and the L-shaped revision had to be made.

Mysterious Osireion

The Osireion was another monument I wanted to see. There is something profound about it, the sense of being very old. Seti is regarded as the builder, but its design is completely different from the rest of his temple. As beautifully embellished as the temple is in a classically Egyptian style, in contrast the Osireion is megalithic and austere. It also was constructed 50 feet lower than the level of the main temple in sand saturated with water.

The Osireion

I questioned as others do if the two sections were built at the same time. The Osireion bears much closer resemblance to the Valley Temple of Khafre on the Giza Plateau, which would put its construction date at the latest to the reign of Khafre in the Fourth Dynasty, some 1,300 years earlier. Like the Valley Temple, the central hall consists of massive granite posts and lintels. Granite is found nowhere else in Seti’s temple. The central hall at one time was roofed over by thick granite slabs that are now mostly gone. The stones used in the rest of the Osireion are limestone and sandstone.

Incredibly, the base upon which the central hall sits is over 40 feet high above the bedrock, most of it submerged in water. Did Seti have the time, skill and wherewithal to build the Osireion and its colossal foundation underwater, along with his other building projects in Egypt? Estimates vary but his reign lasted approximately 11 years.

Yet, there are New Kingdom inscriptions on the walls that surround the older structure, including many cartouches of Seti I, which conceivably were added later. The only etchings on the granite are two flower of life symbols on a single post (the source of which is unknown and possibly added in modern times).

Flower of life symbols, Osireion (image enhanced from abdutemple.blogspot.com)

If Seti didn’t build the Osireion, who did? The mysteries surrounding the Osireion to this day don’t have definitive answers. Nevertheless, I was in awe of yet another example of ancient Egyptian achievement that wasn’t diminished for the lack of personal exploration.

Cruising the Nile in Egypt


It was almost dusk when we arrived at Luxor Airport from Cairo. The Temple of Luxor was illuminated by the time we got to the hotel. The city was the start of our journey up the Nile to see the temples and tombs of New Kingdom and Ptolemaic pharaohs. (When I say “up the Nile,” I mean in a southerly direction, which I’ll explain later.) I had no idea that Luxor would be as large as it was, inhabited by a half million people. Good, bad or indifferent, this part of the city along Khaled ibn Al Walid looks to be developed for tourism. I could see the Nile just behind our hotel, the Sonesta St. George.

The easiest way for tourists to see the ancient sites of Upper Egypt is to take one of the many Nile cruise ships that they can call home anywhere from a few nights to as long as a week. The sailing on our first vessel, the Steingenberger Legacy, was for four nights from Luxor to Aswan. I have to pause every time to fix in my mind that Upper Egypt refers to the southern part of the Nile because the river flows northward toward the Mediterranean. The designation turns my convention upside down of visualizing upper with top, lower with bottom. We also moved to another cruise ship later (Steigenberger Omar El Khayam) that sailed on Lake Nasser from Abu Simbel to the Aswan High Dam.

In the span of ancient Egyptian history, the period of pyramid building was very short, confined to the Old and Middle Kingdoms. The greatest and most enduring pyramids were built during the fourth dynasty, lasting over a hundred years. But the glories of Egypt are not limited to the pyramids or else visitors would mostly be staying in Cairo. Millions see the grand and beautiful temples and tombs of Upper Egypt. My grandson, who is 10 years old, was envious that we would be going to Abu Simbel, for he had been reading about it and found it fascinating. He also strongly recommended we go to Alexandria, but it was not on our itinerary.

Of the sites we visited and experiences we had along the Nile, the following stand out. Rather than write a post for each, I’ve chosen to aggregate them in one (longish) post. Although I can include them as part of the Nile experience, I’ve posted about the temples of Seti, Hathor, Karnak and Edfu separately.

The Nile

I felt the majesty of the Nile as soon as I boarded the Steigenberger Legacy in Luxor that I didn’t feel whenever we got a glimpse of it from land. It was something to realize I was on the longest river in the world. There was the feeling of wonderment, too, that it was so historically important that Egyptian civilization as we know it would never have existed.

Outside the Nile’s narrow verdant zone, ninety-five percent of Egypt is desert. I was glad I wasn’t here in summer. Since it was February, our tour experienced very pleasant weather. Aswan, which soars into the 100s in June through August, was in the comfortable 80s.

Cruising on the Nile made me imagine the millions who sailed on it before me for subsistence, commerce, war and pharaohs. I saw farmers tending to their fields, boys jumping into the water, mud brick homes, papyrus, palms and domesticated animals hugging the shore. If it’s true that giant blocks of red granite were transported downriver from Aswan, how did they do it? How must it have looked?

From the balcony of our stateroom, I saw a cluster of other cruise ships in front and astride, like a convoy headed to the same place. Millenia ago, boats made of papyrus, cedar and acacia, some with sails, would have been plying these waters.

The Nile was ever serene. Thank goodness, the mosquitoes warned by some previous travelers were only a minor nuisance. On partially cloudy days, the sunsets were spectacular.

Waleed, Papyrus Maker

Among many of Waleed’s talents is his ability to make papyrus paper. At least, he did so in the past. At the Isis 2 Papyrus Museum in Luxor, he demonstrated how the paper is made. And how thoughtful of him to give us who didn’t buy anything a sample papyrus painting.

The fine art of making papyrus paper

Valley of the Kings

Valley of the Kings

In a way, entering the tombs of the New Kingdom pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings is like entering a pyramid. There is a descending passage in all of them, as if symbolically going down into the underworld. The dimensions though are much larger than those of the pyramids, accommodating two-way human traffic and requiring no stooping over. There are 63 known tombs; only 20 of them contained the mummies of kings (the others were tombs of other royal personages, including wives, and high priests). They were all carved into the hillsides with varying degrees of complexity, depending on the ambitions of the kings.

The three-dimensional representation of the tombs in the visitors’ center

One ticket allows visits to three tombs. Not all are open at any given time; only 18 can be visited at all. King Tut’s requires a separate ticket. I entered the tombs of Rameses III, Rameses IV and Rameses IX. In all of them, I stared in amazement at the ceilings and walls, beautifully decorated with religious images and texts. The colors are still vivid after thousands of years.

Inside the Tomb of Rameses IV
Engraving of the pharaoh, Tomb of Rameses III
Tomb of Rameses IX

In Rameses IX’s tomb, Andrew pointed out the engraving of Amun that Egyptologist René Schwaller de Lubicz established was a Pythagorean 3-4-5 right triangle. This means that the Egyptians mastered geometry before the Greeks. Andrew (in his book The Cygnus Key) argues this classic triangular shape was important in siting the three pyramids on the Giza plateau. The depiction does draw attention to itself in the odd way Amun is tilted backward at an angle (36.9o, to be exact) with arms outstretched and a snake bent at an equally strange 90o, not to mention the defilement of Amun/Min’s phallus.

A 3-4-5 triangle can be drawn if the perpendicular sides are represented by the right-angled snake and hypotenuse is the line touching the backs of Amun’s headdress and outstretched legs.

We visited the Temple of Hatshepsut. She was the most powerful and influential female pharaoh in Egyptian history. Near the Valley of the Kings, the temple is located in Deir el-Bahri, where the 1997 massacre of tourists took place. The temple is quite impressive with two long ramps that bisect three levels of wide terraces with double colonnades. Carved into the towering hills behind it, the complex is all the more visually impressive. Her tomb is the longest of any pharaoh at nearly 700ft/200m.

Temple and tomb of Hatshepsut
Pharaoh Hatshepsut
Hatshepsut as the ruler of Upper and Lower Egypt
Queen Hatshepsut sphinx, Egyptian Museum (Cairo)

Even stripped of their riches by tomb robbers, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a treasure that I was fortunate to visit.

Security

A policeman hopped into our tour bus en route to the Saqqara necropolis and occupied the passenger seat. Waleed informed us that he was a kind of security escort who could occasionally become a passenger on any given tour, usually accompanied by a police lead vehicle. There was quite a ruckus when our tour bus drove through a town north of Saqqara. Police vehicle sirens were blaring, I’m guessing to let the townsfolk know to make way so the bus could get through quickly. I never felt unsafe anywhere in Egypt but, of course, very few of us ever do until something happens.

The closest we ever got to a problem happened when we were headed to the Nabta Playa stone circle in the Western Desert near Sudan. After we stopped for a break at a cafe literally in the middle of nowhere, there were reports that a ‘suspicious vehicle’ had entered that area. This wasn’t to be taken lightly since extremist groups in the past have smuggled arms from Libya and launched deadly attacks on the army and police in this desert. As a precaution we were not permitted to continue on to Nabta Playa.

Rest stop somewhere in the Western Desert

Instead, we went on to an area of rock outcroppings and mesas where we just wandered, looking and picking up rock samples, and meditated. I doubt if we could do this in the summer.

Rock outcropping, possibly mudstone, somewhere in the Western Desert

This desert had to have been in a marine environment millions of years ago, judging from the manganese nodules scattered everywhere. It was odd to see these black spherical formations, none more than an inch wide, all over the desert floor.

Manganese nodules

It’s unfortunate that security is found to be necessary to protect tourists. In 1997, Egypt was rocked by a terrorist attack at Deir el-Bahri that killed 62 people, most of whom were tourists. The country has an uncompromising policy against terrorism. There was security everywhere we went. It was obvious that the number of men occupied by this sector, which includes the military, is very high. It explains why Egypt has one of the world’s largest standing armies. Soldiers and guards carried weapons, which may make some tourists feel edgy, others reassured.

Rameses II, a Megalomanic?

Rameses II is considered the greatest pharaoh who ever lived. He ruled Egypt at the height of its power for 66 years, the second longest in pharaonic history. However, he liked to have big statues made of himself. For instance, the Ramesseum, his mortuary temple, features a colossal syenite statue. Now broken apart at the waist, it otherwise would have been 56ft/17m high and weighed a stupendous 1,000 tons. Fragments, including a single piece consisting of his head and upper torso, are scattered nearby.

Fallen statue of Rameses II, Ramesseum. Notice the deep engravings on the right arm.

Rameses had more statues made of himself than any other pharaoh, all enormous. The most famous, of course, are at Abu Simbel, four of his humongous likenesses at 69ft in height in a seated position, while his wife, mother and children are miniaturized at his feet.

Abu Simbel

Rameses was not content to immortalize himself in statuary. He commanded that his cartouches be deeply engraved in stone so they couldn’t be easily vandalized, not only at the Ramesseum but wherever he built temples or whenever he added his cartouches at existing ones.

Rameses II’s cartouche, Karnak Temple

His tomb in the Valley of the Kings is the most elaborate, containing some 50 rooms. It is the largest in terms of area at a staggering 8,800 sqft/820 sqm. Are these examples of a giant ego or simply one-upping what previous pharaohs did before? I am leaning toward the former.

Surgical Precision

Built in Ptolemaic times, the Temple of Kom Ombo is different from other Egyptian temples. It commemorates two gods (Sobek and Horus the Elder), each with his own dedicated half. As if not to favor one over the other, there are two separate, identical entrances, Horus’ on the left, Sobek’s on the right. Each half of the temple is a mirror of the other, a unique design in Egyptian temple architecture.

Temple of Kom Ombo

What I found very interesting was a relief toward the rear of the temple that depicts ancient Egyptian surgical tools, including what looked like scalpels, bottles and scissors. Egyptian medicine was far advanced for its time.

Surgical and medical instruments, Kom Ombo Temple

Ever wonder how those huge architectural stones in ancient Egypt were held together? At Kom Ombo Temple, I didn’t expect to see a smoking gun, but there it was. The builders used metal clamps. Adjacent stones were hollowed out in dovetails. Metal clamps were used throughout the ancient world, including as far away as Bolivia (Puma Punku). A few of them I saw at Kom Ombo had wooden ones inserted in the cavities. But those have neither strength nor longevity to be remotely useful, so they must have been put in at a much later date (as a practical joke?).

Nubian Village

We arrived at ‘Nubian Village’ in the late afternoon by motorboat, after having spent the earlier part of the day visiting the Temple of Philae and stopping at a local market in Aswan. The boat ride from Aswan let us see several interesting things along the river.

It’s generically called ‘Nubian Village.’ Organized tours don’t use its actual name, Gharb Seheil (or Soheil), for some reason, but I suspect it has to do with marketing. Located opposite Seheil Island on the west side of the Nile, a visit to it or another village might be included in a Nile cruise package. 

The village had to be created when the Aswan High Dam was built in 1964. The project displaced 50,000 Nubians in Egypt (and likely more in Sudan). Villages like Gharb Seheil were peopled by Nubians who refused to leave for government-sponsored resettlement houses in Kom Ombo. The loss of ancestral lands must linger in the hearts and minds of Nubians old enough to remember the diaspora.

We passed open-air shops in the marketplace area selling all sorts of merchandise, including fabrics, clothing, food products, scents, jewelry, spices and crafts. The hawking was as vigorous as anywhere else in Egypt.

Besides shopping, camel riding is very popular with tourists.

Although the market stalls and buildings were awash in color, as if an enthusiastic artist had free rein, the predominant color was deep sky blue that seems to suggest the Nile, a river as historically important to Nubians as Egyptians. In its way, the blue color scheme reminded me of Chefchouen in Morocco.

Crocodiles were visible, too, skins mounted on walls and live ones kept captive. One was languishing at the bottom of a pit in a Nubian family’s home while we were served tea in the courtyard. Whoever thought I would hold a baby croc?

At the end of the visit to Gharb Seheil, I sampled a delicious glass of doum juice at an outdoor restaurant.

Towel Art

It must be an art form that housekeepers on cruise ships learn. I first encountered towel art on a cruise ship to Alaska. A bath towel and/or bed cover would be folded to create whimsical figures, typically animals, and placed on your stateroom bed. Anything else in your room to augment the main creation would be fair game. Our Egyptian counterparts didn’t disappoint.

Party Boy

It so happened that Waleed’s birthday fell on a date during one of our cruises. Alicia arranged for a celebration at dinner. As it did for other birthday observances, the wait staff entered the dining room while singing the birthday song and got Waleed to dance with them. Our group happily joined in to honor our tour leader who was like a family member to us. In fact, he called us Family from the beginning, a name we’d hear time and again when he needed our attention or in casual conversation. He took care of us and made sure we had everything we needed, including ministering to those of us who had ailments of one kind or another. How could we not show our love and respect for someone who became a huge part of us? 

Postscript

Our group was one of the last to travel to Egypt before the global pandemic shut everything down. When this post was published, the world was abiding by a long and extremely cautious social contact and masking protocol that can’t help but shape our future behaviors, even toward travel. For something this crippling, memories will not be short. I know I won’t go anywhere soon. It’s sobering to realize that tourism as we know it, or rather as we knew it, may not recover for a long time. Countries like Egypt that depend heavily on tourism will suffer a great loss from a very important economic sector. I feel regret toward a country that welcomed me with open arms and allowed me to experience its treasures.

Morocco Recapitulation and Final Thoughts


This is my last post on Morocco. The writing material the country provides is inexhaustible because, to me as a Westerner, it’s different in ways cultural, linguistic and religious, reasons I find Morocco so fascinating. I’ll conclude by writing down some loosely related thoughts and observations that together have contributed to my understanding of what makes Morocco unique.

Where’s the Desert?

I’d bet on what many people picture Morocco as being geographically—a desert. I know I did until not too long ago. This may come from the belief that the Sahara spans the entire upper part of Africa which might’ve happened geologically if it weren’t for the mountains that include the highest peaks in northern Africa. The Atlas ranges fortify northwestern Morocco like the Wall of the Seven Kingdoms against the encroachment of the Sahara.

Mountain ranges of Morocco (image from mapsoftheworld.com)

High Atlas mountain range, south of Ifrane

The cooling Canary Current makes Morocco as Mediterranean as its European neighbors across the sea. It could almost be regarded as a continuation of Spain and Portugal but for the Strait of Gibraltar. If I’d gone to Tangier, the coast of Spain would be only 17 miles (27 km) away. With a favorable climate, I shouldn’t have been surprised that agriculture is a significant industry.

My wife summarized it, “Morocco is so green.” She was referring to the forests around Rabat and Chefchaouen, alpine scenery around Ifrane with its distinctive cedars, olives trees, orchards and wheat in abundance and grasses and trees covering rolling hills.

We even came across fog and patches of snow at higher elevations.

Morning fog over Chefchaouen

Things did get much drier as we got to Erfoud, Rissani and Tinghir, yet they were dotted with amazingly lush palm groves (palmeraie).

Oasis, Tinghir (Tinerhir)

To the west were the spectacular gorges that the Todra (Todgha) and Dades Rivers carved into the eastern High Atlas mountains.

Todra Gorge

And of course there was the great Sahara. We rode into an encampment by camel.

Finally, the coastal cities of Essaouira and El Jadida had their own unique environments.

Essaouira

Morocco did surprise me, this, as the guidebooks say, a land of contrasts.

Mediterranean Diet

On our drives, Mustapha pointed out many of Morocco’s crops. From his van, I spotted fields or orchards of grains, stone fruits, apples, herbs, nuts, beets, citrus, grapes, sugarcane, onions. And there was a bounty of olive trees. I lost count of how many local markets (souks) I saw where all this is sold, not only in the medinas but in small towns as we drove past. With scarce supermarkets and home refrigeration, Moroccans shop at the souks almost daily. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised that meals I had were made with ingredients gotten at market not too long before, fresher than most food I could get back home.

Predictably, Moroccans eat a Mediterranean diet. Olive oil is used liberally in cooking. Meat doesn’t dominate the table; vegetables, fruits, nuts, grains and legumes do. Tajines are noteworthy not only for the cooking vessels but the impressive amount of vegetables (and legumes).

Tajine

Throughout our trip, my wife and I ate Moroccan salad which is nothing more than cucumbers, tomatoes, mint, lemon juice and olive oil. Simple but delicious. The meat-free version of harira (chickpeas, lentils, tomatoes and warm spices), most popularly eaten during Ramadan, is now my favorite vegetarian soup.

Harira soup, Moroccan salad

Zaalouk is a combination of eggplant and tomatoes, traditionally served cold or at room temperature. It’s very much like ratatouille. The version I had at Riad Boussa in Marrakech was so extraordinary that it had me searching for recipes when I got back home.

Because Morocco has a long coastline, seafood is plentiful. I didn’t see much of it on menus, because Moroccans don’t seem to eat large amounts of it, restricting themselves mainly to sardines, tuna and shrimp. Predictably coastal residents eat more. Most of the seafood catch is exported.

I’ll Have a Meal with Those Olives

Like its Mediterranean cousins, an abundance of olive trees signifies the oils and fruit are important parts of the diet. There were olive groves everywhere, acres upon acres of them, from the hillsides surrounding Chefchaouen, down through the Middle and High Atlas foothills and westward toward Essaouira on the Atlantic coast.

Is it any wonder that cured olives are more than an occasional condiment? They were served at the first dinner in Casablanca fresh off the flight from Paris and the following morning for breakfast. Every day after that, all lunches and dinners were incomplete without them.

Every souk had impressive displays of olives, sometimes occupying entire stalls. And what variety: black, green and red mixed with different herbs and spices. At an average price of, say, 16 MAD/kg, that amounts to 80¢/lb here in the U.S. Not suprisingly, Morocco is also one of the world’s leading producers of olive oil.

The Romans are credited with introducing olive trees after they expanded their empire to North Africa.

This Is Not the Middle East

Morocco, Mustapha pointed out, was the first country in the world to recognize the independence of the United States from Britain. I thought it was France. It wasn’t lost on me that even then Morocco was a monarchy (sultanate), part of the Alaouite dynasty that still rules today.

It would continue to surprise the world on the political stage when Mohammed V refused to give Vichy France a list of all its resident Jews. “We have no Jews in Morocco! Only Moroccan citizens,” the king reportedly said. On the tours of the medinas of Fes, Chefchaouen, Essaouira and Marrakech, it amazed me that the Muslim guides included visits to the old Jewish quarters (mellah). Our Essaouira guide gave us a tour of the home and synagogue of rabbi Haim Pinto to whose grave Jews from all over the world make a pilgrimage.

Rabbi Haim Pinto’s synagogue

A gate in Essaouira is decorated with Arabic Koranic inscriptions and the star of David.

Morocco recognizes the contributions that Jews have made to its history and development. Arabs and Jews had been co-existing since the Spanish Inquisition. Morocco even goes so far as to restore many synagogues even after the departure of most Jews from the country. The striking blue paint that covers Chefchaouen could very well be a combination of the symbolic colors of Judaism (blue) and Islam (white). Revealingly, over 50,000 Israeli tourists visit Morocco annually.

Moroccan Berbers now make silver jewelry whose craft was passed down by Jewish artisans (Centre de la Bijouterie Mâalem Ali, Essaouira)

Today Morocco doesn’t deport Syrian refugees who seek political asylum from the Assad regime, even those who may have entered the country illegally.

Call to Prayer

The muezzins sing out the call to prayer five times daily. It used to be that they climbed to the top of minarets and used nothing but their voices. Nowadays, amplifiers and speakers help do the job. The adhan, as the recitations are called, I heard throughout Morocco, their sonority a contrast to city noises. With two mosques nearby, one muezzin could begin a moment after the other. The asynchrony has its own melodiousness.

Bab Souk Mosque, Chefchaouen

The feeling of adhan reminds me in its sound-over-the-city way of the tolling of church bells I heard throughout Italy.

This Is California

Mustapha pointed out a section of Rabat that looked strangely familiar. “This is California,” he said, driving through an exclusive neighborhood. It had an uncanny resemblance to certain residential areas of the Golden State with their large stucco homes, winding streets, palm trees, lawns and bougainvillea. Every large city in Morocco has an enclave called California where the well-heeled live. The designation is more a status symbol than Morocco’s climate being likened justifiably to Southern California’s. So what do American Californians do? Their developments are named like Spanish haciendas and ranchos.

Parlez vous français?

Even if France occupied Morocco for only 40+ years, its influence remains strong. Other than Darija (Moroccan Arabic) and the Berber dialects, French is widely spoken in government, education, commerce, the tourist industry and professional circles. It is a required language in schools. The largest ex-pat community is French and tourism from France remains Morocco’s foremost. I had trouble communicating with some riad staff. In français, things would’ve been much less bumpy. My two years of college French taken long ago did little good. I could only pick out words here and there. I tried to order a cocktail at Kasbah Tizimi’s poolside bar but thought better of it after the bartender’s quizzical looks and ordered bière instead. Fortunately, we got by everywhere because there was at least rudimentary English spoken by someone.

With the rapid rise of visitors from other countries, especially the big English-speaking ones (United States, Australia and Canada), English will become more important because, for better or worse, it’s the de facto universal language. I have to say though that this continues to get us Americans off the hook to learn another language.

Tout Les Touts

The one thing I dreaded most before arriving in Morocco was being harassed by armies of touts as many guide books warn. Fortunately, it never became much of a problem. The usual advice is to politely and firmly say ‘no,’ which served us well. The hawkers were most aggressive in Marrakech, whom I still managed to avoid eventually.

But one incident had to make me chuckle. Each stall in Marrakech’s Jemaa el-Fnaa square has a number, which is posted on a sign somewhere above the stall. We walked through one group offering mixed grill when a hawker got in our face to eat there. We said no and walked on. He followed us. “No food poisoning,” he promised us. “Maybe later,” I said as we pulled away. Within earshot, he yelled, “Remember, 75, still alive.”

Infrastructure

We would be driving in the middle of nowhere when suddenly we’d come across a sparkling new town with new construction, including apartments, and wide paved boulevards flanked by sidewalks and the most beautiful light posts. Absent were the narrow streets of older towns teeming with people and traffic that had to pass each other cheek by jowl. My wife and I were puzzled. There were several such towns like Errachidia. When we asked Mustapha about this, he told us that the government subsidizes their development to help Moroccans find cheaper housing. Many Moroccans see it as a way to escape the big cities. Government support could also be part of the its effort to encourage agricultural development.

And what about electrifying these far-flung, isolated places? On our way to Ouarzazate, Mustapha told us about Noor I nearby, the first phase of a massive solar power plant project (Ouarzazate Solar Power Station) which when completed will be the largest in the world. Noor I will provide power for nearly one million Moroccans. Noor II and III are on their way. Of all the Arab-speaking countries, Morocco is the most dependent on Middle East oil, so shifting toward energy independence can only help. If all goes as planned, Morocco will become an energy exporter in the near future with the help of renewable sources.

Noor I (image from http://www.challenge.ma)

Gendarmes

I could swear there were gendarme stations every mile or so on the Moroccan highways. I’m exaggerating of course but there certainly were several checkpoints along any of our long-distance drives. Roadside gendarmes have the authority to randomly stop any vehicle and ask for papers. The gendarmerie is charged with policing and maintaining the nation’s security. They’re more concentrated near the Algerian and Mauritanian borders and near military installations. It occurred to me that law enforcement vis-à-vis travel within the U.S. is not so restrictive, that Americans wouldn’t put up with such interruption to their freedom of movement.

Whenever we got stopped, which may have been a half dozen times, Mustapha had to show documents. My wife and I never once were interrogated nor asked for our passports, which I thought curious. I just wonder if we were ‘off limits’ because tourism is very important to Morocco’s economy.

Mustapha

As you might’ve guessed, I owe much of this post to Mustapha, our driver who took my wife and me all over Morocco. He picked us up at Mohammed V International in Casablanca and drove us in a great clockwise circle through Morocco, providing insights and pointing out things that surprised me, educated me. Here’s a man who went to university to get a degree in English linguistics. Not language, but linguistics, the scientific study of languages. I gathered he is an avid reader, having mentioned several books or articles he recently read. Even if I thought another profession might better use his talents and education, he appreciates his job. He undertook the 17-day assignment while suffering physical ailments. He smashed his thumb in a car door the day before picking us up and experienced a long, debilitating allergy on our trip. But he soldiered on.

I made the mistake of asking him if it was boring to take tourists over the same route time and again. “How can I get bored when I can see this beautiful country?” As he drove us out of Chefchouen and into the Rif Mountains, he’d point at the valleys and say, “Look how beautiful!”

Mustapha was more than a driver; in many ways he was a guide. He would talk about many things Moroccan. All our wonderful city guides who led us through the medinas were arranged by Mustapha. On the road, he’d identify various agricultural crops along the way, knowing I was interested. “My time is your time,” he said several times. By that, he meant whatever we wanted to see or do, all we had to do was ask. I regretted that I didn’t ask him more about Moroccan history, for he seemed capable of teaching me that as well.

Not once but twice I forgot to return room keys to the front desk (both in Skoura and Taroudant) after checking out. They were in my pocket, well on our way to the next stop. Not to worry, Mustapha said. He arranged to have the keys returned by other drivers who were going the opposite direction.

I don’t know how drivers like him do it, not getting sleepy despite long hours behind the wheel. On occasion, he requested to stop somewhere to get coffee. “It is needed,” he’d say wryly. And, yes, I would get bored driving over the same route repeatedly, so for his stamina and service I applaud him.

Despite his terrible bout with allergies, he refused to take meds in the morning to avoid drowsiness. The next time I make the long drive from Seattle to Los Angeles on I-5, I should refrain from saying how boring the California stretch is. Yeah, that’ll really be a stretch.

Coda

Going to Morocco was out of my comfort zone certainly, but so is travel to any foreign country. Westerners especially seem concerned that Morocco is an Islamic country. Any look at the news shows that there is much less upheaval in Morocco than other North African countries, let alone parts of the Middle East. There never was a moment when I felt uneasy or threatened. Safety for my wife and me never became a concern—except crossing the street in busy traffic or avoiding motor scooters in the alleyways of Marrakech’s medina quarters.

I knew little about Morocco before arriving except what I read in Lonely Planet. But now, having seen and experienced much of the country, I’ve gotten a better understanding. The people were friendly and gracious, as people all over the world tend to be. But, here’s the difference. Almost without exception, when meeting someone for the first time, “Welcome to Morocco.” I rarely heard that kind of greeting anywhere else.

With that, my fond farewell to Morocco.

The Delight of Staying in Moroccan Riads


When traveling, I’m not particularly interested in staying at hotels.

I don’t look for a spa experience, 24-hour fitness center, or concierge services. I don’t book stays at the Marriotts, Hiltons, Hyatts, Radissons and such, never mind luxury hotels like The Four Seasons. Yes, they’re elegant, clean, sleek, efficiently run, and have marvelous guest services, in some cases earning 4-5 stars by the AAA or similar rating service. This is all well and good. But, I’m lukewarm about them because they’re big and impersonal. They’re islands of separation from the people and cultures I’m visiting. And you probably agree the rooms have the same, predictable layout.

That’s why my wife and I were excited about the idea of staying at riads in Morocco because many travelers feel it’s an experience that shouldn’t be missed. Our reservations (and travel itinerary) were arranged by Experience It Tours, an excellent tour company based in the U.S. with an office in Fes that encourages riad stays.

A riad is a type of accommodation where one or two floors of rooms face an inside garden. It only has a handful of units, about 4 to 6, sometimes a little more. Each room is different and uniquely furnished. A similar kind of house, called a dar, has a courtyard instead of garden in the center, otherwise there is a great deal of similarity between the two. Both are uniquely Moroccan. I’ll refer generically to these accommodations as riads.

In medinas, you’d be hard pressed to spot a riad from the outside; there are no large windows facing out. It can be tucked away deep within a maze of alleyways that can rapidly disorient you. In every case, my wife and I had to be ushered there by our driver or porter or risk getting lost. Wandering through the Fes and Marrakech medinas, I was surprised by the sheer number of riads where signs only revealed their existence; otherwise you’d never know they were there. A door on an otherwise featureless wall hinted there might be a dwelling behind it. Once inside, I invariably was flabbergasted by the transition to a beautifully decorated interior—soaring spaces above the courtyard, center fountain or one designed in the Andalusian style along one wall intricately decorated with beautiful tilework (zellij), cozy salons or lounges where guests would be served tea or meals. With their small staffs, I had a sense that I could get to know everyone. And I did. Hotels are missing this feeling of intimacy and charm.

In every instance, when we first arrived, mint tea and little desserts were served while we filled out registration papers. Both my wife and I appreciated this kind of hospitality, a small gesture that made us feel like welcomed guests. We were even offered tea when we happened to be in the courtyard.

Breakfast and dinner were served at all the riads where my wife and I stayed. Here were where we got to know the Moroccan breakfast, which consists of hot beverages, orange juice, sometimes olives and an impressive variety of breads. Generally not fond of high-carb breakfasts, I welcomed the occasional egg or cheese.

Typical Moroccan breakfast

Some of the riads had terraces where you can choose to take a meal (weather permitting) or while away the time lost deep in a book.

Roof terrace

These lodgings were not without minor issues, in my experience mainly in the bathrooms. While the shower spaces were creatively designed, it was difficult to keep water from wetting the floor in some cases, or a few lacked a cradle for the flexible hose shower heads for hands-free bathing. A wash basin faucet in one spurted out water with enough force that it spattered all over the counter; another faucet fixture dangled loosely over the basin. The toilet tank in another took forever to fill up because of low water pressure. Many riads had inadequate outlets to charge up our appliances or lacked anywhere to sit other than the bed. I say again, these are small quibbles that hardly overshadow the riad experience. The beds were all very comfortable, the rooms quiet, clean and beautifully decorated and the service above reproach. As a bonus, we enjoyed our best dinners in Morocco in a few of them.

Foreigners have taken a big interest in restoring riads. Australian Suzanna Clarke wrote about her sometimes exasperating, sometimes humorous experiences in converting a house (A House in Fez: Building a Life in the Ancient Heart of Morocco). Four of the riads were owned wholly or in part by Europeans. One of the bonuses of the French-owned riads where we stayed was the option of having wine with dinner; alcohol is prohibited by Islam and therefore not available at restaurants and cafés (except a few that cater to foreigners).

The many pictures below are of places where we stayed. It’s easy to see why they had such appeal for us. There was nothing cookie-cutter or mundane about any of them.

Riad the Repose (Rabat)

Courtyard

Main room

Shower space

Dar Meziana (Chefchaouen)

Stepped approach. Meziana is at the top.

Courtyard from the salon

Main room

Shower space

Dar al Madina al Kadima (Fes)

Fountain

Courtyard

Main room

Bathroom

Moroccan breakfast served in the salon

Kasbah Tizimi (Erfoud)

Other than the hotels in Casablanca on arrival and departure days, this is the only accommodation that was not a riad or dar but is classified as a hotel. A kasbah is a military fortress.

One of several courtyards

Main room

Dar Jnan Tiouira (Skoura)

Dar Jnan Tiouira from garden

Courtyard

Main room

The alcove was a wonderful place to relax or read

Bathroom

Dining room

Riad Tafilag (Taroudant)

Main room

Sitting area outside room

Dining room

Riad Mimounia (Essaouira)

Salon

Main room

Bathroom

Riad Boussa (Marrakech)

Main room

Bathroom

Wash basin

Courtyard

Are Moroccan Carpet Makers Getting Fleeced?


“We don’t have room for any.”

That’s what I told the salesman more than once at a licensed carpet dealer in Fes. He was showing us Moroccan rugs. My wife and I were taken there by our local guide. There might’ve been a kickback involved.

“I want you to know that we have no intention of buying,” I said to the salesman at the start.

He probably heard this refrain countless times from tourists who wound up buying a carpet anyway.

“Pick out which ones you like most,” he continued as we sipped mint tea. Employees unrolled one carpet after another as he was trying to discern the preferences of my wife, whom he addressed as Madame.

“Which one do you like the best?” followed by, “which is the next best?”  We favored the Berbers for their simplicity and resemblance to Native American rugs at home.

He was friendly but persistent, oblivious to our comment that we were downsizing and while we found everything beautiful, we had no use for them.

The salesman proceeded without missing a beat. “I will shock you with the price,” pointing to not one but two that we admired. He was sure to mention that the same pieces at Bloomingdale’s would cost thousands of dollars. “Allow me to shock you.” He punched in some numbers on his calculator and showed us the figure. We said no. He discounted the price even further. We said no again. He came back with yet another lower offer. Sticking to our guns, we declined and finally rose to leave. Sensing our resolve (more tellingly, we made no counter offers), he thanked us for coming and wished us good travels.

Shopping in Morocco involves bargaining (or haggling, if you like). It’s a pervasive cultural practice that takes getting used to since bargaining in the industrialized world is uncommon. The art of it involves offering much less than what is asked for and then going back and forth with the seller until a price satisfactory to you both is reached.

What if we had purchased a rug? Who stood to benefit most from the sale? My money is on the carpet dealer.

By Moroccan standards, what tourists spend on purchases is enormous. A 1000 MAD buy (a little over $100 US) would amount to a small fortune for a typical Moroccan. Therefore, how sale proceeds get distributed is an important question in a country where poverty is a big problem (the median annual income in 2014 was US $2,800). There are a myriad of artisans who struggle to eke out a living. They work hard to make exquisite things but lack the wherewithal to distribute or sell in quantity. They rely on middlemen who buy at negotiated prices. If the carpet dealer sells dearly to greenhorn tourists, none of the profits goes back to the artist. Where is the ‘fair trade’ in all this? I can see now where concerned buyers would want to do business directly with the producer.

It’s all the more encouraging and remarkable then that there has been a rise in women’s cooperatives that make a range of products—argan oil and cosmetics, rose water and oil, djellaba buttons, weaves and carpets. The proceeds get distributed back to their members.

There are many wonderful and world-famous things made in Morocco, including ceramics in Fes, leather products by the Chouara and Marrakech tanneries, thuya woodworks and silver jewelry in Essaouira, rose products in the M’Gouna Valley, argan products in the Souss Valley, fossil furniture in Erfoud and of course the carpets of the Moroccan nomadic and Berber peoples. We visited them all and wound up only buying small gifts for family members back home, little household things for ourselves.

Lest you think I’m a savvy bargainer, I offer this. I can only hope that what I spent on a camel-skin coat at a Marrakech tannery co-op, which I had no idea I wanted let alone buy, got distributed equitably to the people who had a part in making it. I’ve no idea if I was fleeced. The guy who sold it to me was most convincing.

Images to Remember Morocco By


This post has only images. They reflect the personal wonder and beauty I felt about Morocco’s diverse landscape, architecture, craft and food. They were photographed in and around Casablanca, Rabat, Chefchouen, Volubilis, Meknes, Fes, Erfoud, Erg Chebbi (Sahara), Todra and Dades Gorges, Skoura, Taroudant, Essaouira, Marrakech and El Jadida. (Click on the first to start the slideshow.)

White Storks of Morocco


I’m not a birder. But when an interesting bird appears in my travels, I take note and try to find out a bit more about it. In several places throughout Morocco, I saw the white stork (Circonia circonia) that builds its large nest in high places, atop roofs, walls, even ancient Roman columns. The one above was seen at the ruins of the Chellah necropolis near Rabat. The storks apparently migrate to and from Europe depending on the time of year.

White stork at the ancient ruins of Volubilis

Follow Your Nose—the Scents of Morocco


I experienced Morocco through my nose. Not intentionally. It just happened. Morocco’s scents and aromas accumulated in my mind subconsciously until it dawned on me that smelling should be as important as seeing to have an appreciation for the country.

It started with mint tea, the beverage that Moroccans drink in gobs. It’s consumed as much as coffee by Americans and Europeans, usually with lots of sugar. When we arrived at our first riad (in Rabat), mint tea was offered with cookies while we filled out travel registration forms.

Mint tea

All riads thereafter did the same. Serving tea is a gesture of hospitality. The preferred though not necessarily practiced ritual is the same. Tea is poured from a considerable height, easily 3 meters or so, into tiny glasses to aerate the hot liquid of boiling water steeped with Chinese green tea and fresh mint. A variation involves putting mint directly in the glasses.

mint tea

A frequent trio of containers (here, behind the teapot) contains sugar, milk and more mint

I loved the beverage (without sugar) in no small part because of the refreshing scent. All the produce stalls sell bushels of fresh mint to satisfy Moroccan passion for tea.

Mint

The faint perfume that I smelled in the courtyards of many riads came from a basket of dried rose buds. They’re sold in bulk at all the spice stalls (image above). Originally from Syria, the Damascene (Damask or Damascus) rose is an important crop grown commercially in the M’Gouna Valley. Berber women manage the rose co-ops. Our driver Mustapha took us to a shop in Kelaât M’Gouna where the process from picking to distilling the petals for making rose water and oil was explained. The backroom had faint hints of rose attar. I was fortunate to see the flowers in full bloom, which happens in April and May, bushes growing in almost every conceivable corner.

Freshly picked Damascene roses

Rose buds drying in oven

Strolling through Jardin Jnane Sbil and the garden of the Dar Batha Museum in Fes, I caught the heady fragrance of orange blossoms, which has a jasmine-like bouquet. Not surprisingly Moroccans try to capture it in the production of orange water.

The fragrance of orange blossoms is incredible

Spring is the time for oranges. Vendors in carts everywhere peddle freshly squeezed juice. Grown mostly in and around Fes, the fruit is sold widely in markets and souks. I had orange juice for breakfast every morning no matter where I was in the country, surprising because I don’t normally have juice when at home.

Carts offering orange juice

Freshly squeezed orange juice

Lavender was just beginning to flower in the country. It wasn’t a flower that I associated with Morocco, but they were growing in significant amounts.

Lavender in Fes’ Jnan Sbil garden

Moroccan cooking is known for its use of aromatic spices like cinnamon, cumin, coriander, ginger and paprika, especially in tajines, which are made everywhere by virtually every restaurant that serves Moroccan cuisine. Tajine may just be its national dish. The other popular items are couscous and brochettes, as is Moroccan salad made with cucumber, tomato and red onion. The fragrances of these spices along with lamb, chicken or beef, hit me when the tajine vessel lid was lifted.

The vessel and dish are both called tajine

Tajine with chicken brochettes

I find it hard to resist the aroma of freshly baked bread. It’s as likely to be coming from a commercial bakery as a eucalyptus or olive wood-fired communal oven (faraan) where women bring their unbaked goods. Bakery stalls in narrow streets of the medina are difficult to walk past without getting stopped dead in your tracks by a tantalizing whiff. The display cases or shelves are piled with freshly baked bread. Moroccans consume mountains of bread, especially khobz that always accompanies tajine. No meal would be complete without bread. Breakfast at the riads in particular were showcases for all manner of bread, flatbread and pastries. Besides khobz, there could be msemen, batbout, harcha, meloui, beghrir, small Napoleons filled lightly with chocolate. As I’m not partial to high-carb breakfasts or of yogurt, it became a challenge for me to eat contentedly in the mornings, unless there were eggs or cheese.

Khobz

Msemen

Typical riad breakfast

I saved the ‘best’ for last—the tanneries. Both Fes and Marrakech have them, though the former is much more famous and easier to find. The odors have been described as a retching stench, of cow, sheep, goat and camel hides being treated in stone vats of pigeon dung, cow urine and quicklime solutions. Tourists are encouraged to hold sprigs of mint under their noses to mask the smell. It’s true that the tanneries reek but I didn’t find them overly offensive, stinky but tolerable. Still, I can’t imagine being exposed to this every day as are the tanners who follow a tradition that dates back a thousand years.

tannery

Chouara tannery in Fes

When you go to Morocco, keep your eyes open but do pay attention to your olfactories.