Adventures in a Mosque, Part 1: The Climb

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Trip Report
Haut Atlas, Morocco, Africa
Date Climbed/Hiked:
Oct 1, 2003
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Created On: Nov 6, 2005
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(Author's note: Strictly speaking this a TR for Moulay Idriss, not Toubkal, but there isn't a page for the former, and the author hopes that the narrative might be of sufficient interest to SP'ers headed to Morocco that the elves will not be deeply offended. PS -- A photo is coming.)


We were climbing a narrow, white-washed street winding up a hill when Rashid stopped to rest.

It must be hard to go all day without eating, I said.

"Yes," he replied. "The first week is always hard. But then I feel good. Ramadan is a time to get close to God, to not make any mistakes. to not do anything that is bad for you. I always feel purified."

We started to walk again. We were in the holiest city in Morocco during the first week of the holiest month on the Islamic calendar: Ramadan, which started on October 5, in 2005 (because Islam follows the lunar calendar the date changes every year).

"Do you know the five pillars of Islam?" Rashid asked as we climbed.

I did. First is shahada, the profession of faith (There is no God but the God and Muhammad is His prophet).

Then comes salat, saying prayers five times a day. Virtually every morning in Morocco I was roused at dawn by the crackling of a loudspeaker (Allah akbar), followed by more chanting from muezzins in every direction, all slightly off. Apparently no two muezzins set their watch by the same clock in Morocco.

The third pillar is zakat, charity, which I soon began observing in Morocco by giving change to the first poor women or crippled person I saw every morning with her hand turned upward.

Then there´s Ramadan, the month that God dictated the Koran to Muhammad in the 7th century. During Ramadan every Muslim (that´s about one out of every five people on the planet) is supposed to fast from dawn to dusk. No eating, drinking, smoking or sex. There are exceptions. Children, the sick, and travelers are excused.

"You can’t even brush your teeth," Rashid said, and I can attest that he was strictly observing this rite.

When the sun sets during Ramadan store front gates have already come down and traffic has disappeared from the streets as virtually everyone in the country has gone home for iftar, or the fast breaking meal: a bowl of lentil soup, called harira. A couple of hours later stores have reopened and people flood the streets until late at night (bars, however, stay closed for the month except in tourist hotels).

The trick, Rashid explained, is to stay up all night, taking dinner just before dawn and then sleeping through most of the day. During Ramada, he added, day and night are reversed.

It certainly seemed so to me. I spent a few days of Ramadan in the town of Chefehaouen, in the Rif Mountains, one of the major pot growing regions of the world. Every second person on the street tried to sell me hash but after the only hotel in town serving alcohol closed its bar at 9 pm I had to turn to the black market for a drink.

By law, stores had to stop selling alcohol 20 days before Ramadan, the helpful clerk at my hotel explained. But, he added, he had a friend who might be able to lay his hands on a bottle of wine. His friend wanted $25 for a $3 bottle of Spanish table wine.

I decided to give Ramadan a try.

The fifth pillar of Islam is the haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that every Muslim is expected to make at least once in his or her life. Two million Muslims a year pour into Mecca on haj.

In Morocco, those who can’t afford the trip to Saudi Arabia come to Moulay Idriss. The poor man´s Mecca, Rashid called it.

The city is named for Idriss, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad who was on the losing side of a power struggle in Arabia and fled to the Western edge of the Islamic world, the maghreb, where he started the city of Fes around 790, establishing the founding dynasty of Morocco. When Idriss was poisoned a couple of years later his followers built a tomb for him in the cradle of two mountains. A town grew up around the tomb, which was placed inside an elaborate mausoleum in the 17th century. Every September thousands of Moroccans make a haj to Moulay Idriss, the poor sleeping on the roofs of friendly residents.

Non-believers are less welcome. Non-Muslims weren’t even permitted to visit the town until 1917 (they still can’t go to Mecca). Today you can enter the town but the mausoleum is off limits, as is virtually every mosque on Morocco.

In other Muslim countries I’ve been able to go into mosques except for prayer times. In Malaysia I even waited out a monsoon by taking a nap on the floor (I wasn’t the only one, either).

In Morocco, I found myself having to sneak in. A couple of times people asked me to leave. Other times I was undisturbed.

Allah, I figured, wanted people in mosques.

But at the door to the Moulay Idriss mausoleum, there was no question of slipping in unobserved, so I decided to climb the serpentine streets of the high city for a vantage point to look down at the tomb. Rashid offered to show me the way.

After a 30 minute climb we were looking down on the mausoleum complex: a series of green (the color of Islam) glazed tiled roofs rising in pyramids in the center of town, towered over by a rectangular minaret, topped by five metal balls representing the pillars of Islam. In the courtyard a man hosed off the flat tiled graves of Idriss and his family. In the valley below we could see the ruins of the Roman city of Volubilis, where Idriss had converted the residents to Islam. Small hawks hovered over a triumphal arch.

I told Rashid that I had been sneaking into mosques. Did he think I was bad for doing this?

"No one is perfect," he replied. "Only God is perfect."

That was good enough for me.


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