Grande Terrasse / Moulay Idriss, Morocco / May 2016
On witnessing signs, the holy city of Moulay Idriss, and an encounter with the muffin man.
On our way to visit Moulay Idriss we witnessed several signs. The first occurred somewhere outside Fez, where the Moroccan landscape can easily be mistaken for Tuscany, with crops covering rolling hills like patchwork quilts and endless lines of olive trees clinging to rocky ground. You start to feel as if you’re off the grid, and sure enough, Google Maps stops being quite so precise. Our directions sent us straight down a dirt road in the middle of a field that the map confidently asserted was a bridge over a body of water. Halfway down the path, it began pouring, and we stopped, rolled down the windows, and suddenly saw a mythical rock formation materialize out of the vapors like a Moroccan Stonehenge. Shortly after this, back on a solid road weaving through the hills above a verdant valley, a fully-formed double rainbow appeared. Not a faint, partial rainbow, but an actual ROYGBIV semicircle with ends planted so firmly in the valley we could have searched for the fabled pot of gold on either side. Each color was visible and glowing with such an electric intensity that we had to pull over to observe. Just up the road, we saw an elderly man also parked and looking up, awestruck. When the rainbow faded and we both drove off in opposite directions, we waved at him as a kind of rainbow acknowledgement, and he waved back as if to say “I know, right?” Finally, just before Moulay Idriss, we drove up a hill covered in olive trees on a road more pothole than not and improbably came across a one-street village at the top. A band of children walking home from school saw the car and immediately set upon us, smiling and waving. They chased us, cheering like an exceedingly exuberant welcoming committee, until we crested the top of a hill and descended from the village. Now, I am not the most superstitious person, but I am also not immune to serendipity. That all of these circumstances heralded our arrival into the holiest city in Morocco seemed somehow appropriate.
So sacred is this town that non-Muslims were not permitted to spend the night there until 2005. In the early 1900s, Edith Wharton made a day trip there during the writing of her travel memoir In Morocco. At the time, she wrote: “In the interior of the country, and especially in Morocco … the color of the …houses is always a penitential shade of mud and ashes. But Moulay Idriss, that afternoon, was as white as if its arcaded square had been scooped out of a big cream cheese. The late sunlight lay like gold leaf on one side of the square, the other was in pure blue shade…” The main road placed us right in this main square, a large, white expanse framed by columns and cafes and looking exactly as Wharton had described. Above, the whitewashed buildings of the town crept up two hills beneath Mt. Zerhoun.1One arched gateway in the center signaled the beginning of the medina. When we walked through, we found ourselves at the entrance of the tomb of Moulay Idriss, a beautiful tiled alley leading to an ornate door. A thin black bar blocked access to the alley, a reminder that non-Muslims are not allowed entry to the mausoleum. We gazed down the alley for a while in quiet contemplation, thinking about the man buried within the walls. The namesake of this town is a great-grandson of the prophet Mohammed, the founder of a major Moroccan dynasty who is also credited with bringing Islam to Morocco.2
To get a sense of the mausoleum – the centerpiece of the town – one must ascend the town. We wandered through the medina, where the walls were often accented with a lovely shade of seafoam green, taking every staircase up that presented itself. Frequently we received directions as it was assumed we were walking to one of the two popular viewpoint terraces (the petite terrasse or the grande terrasse). When we reached the petite, the town lay like a frosted cupcake below, white roofs covering the domed hill. The pyramidical green-roofed complex of the mausoleum was prominently visible in the center. As we stood, observing, an elderly man in a beige djellaba approached us with an unsolicited but not unwelcome history lesson about the town and insisted upon guiding us to the grande terrasse, which has largely the same view from a slightly higher angle, and then onward to the only cylindrical minaret in Morocco (perched on the edge of a building, painted green, and covered in white Arabic script). Atop the grande terrasse, the man handed us 15 freshly baked muffins (5 for each of our party members) that had been set in front of the tomb of Moulay Idriss to receive his benediction. As we parted ways (paying him for his time and the muffins), we had the nagging feeling that we had just encountered a third sign: meeting the real, live Muffin Man.
And . . .