You know that you have arrived at the correct destination when the hotel proprietor seriously enquires whether you would like to sacrifice a sheep the following day in the grotto of Lalla Aisha. I had arrived at possibly the strangest place yet on my travels through Morocco.
The small town of Beni Rashid on the Zerhoun mountain is better known as Sidi Ali, named after the 17th century sufi saint Sidi Ali ben Hamdush. His tomb lies in his zaouia in a small gulley at the edge of the town looking out over the fertile valley where Meknes can be seen in the distance. Of more significant interest is that Sidi Ali is bound by legend to another sufi saint, Sidi Ahmad Dghoughi, his disciple and servant, who is buried in the nearby village of Beni Ouarad, and that they are both bound by legend to a hostile but beautiful female spirit ( jinniya ) called Aisha Qandisha.
It is a love triangle with a difference; the legend describes how Sidi Ali’s baraka was transferred to Sidi Ahmed upon his death, how the Hamadsha brotherhood obtained its traditional ‘hal’, that is ecstatic dance, how music and its healing role of people came into being, how the Hamadsha acquired its self-harming behaviours once in trance, and finally how the she-devil Aisha Qandisha became an integrated and indivisible part of the Hamadsha Sufi traditions.
The legend also describes the genesis of the cultural-medico concept of Ethno-Psychiatry where ecstatic dance and spirit expulsion, sometimes facilitated by animal sacrifice, has traditionally been first choice for treating a range of illnesses in Morocco.
There are only three religious buildings in Fes and Meknes which can legitimately be visited by non-Muslims. These are the Al-Attarine and the Bounania in Fes, and the Bounania in Meknes. All three buildings are Madrasa, or religious educational buildings, and were built in the 14th century. The Bounania in Fes has a double role as a functioning mosque, and a part of the complex is off-limits to non-Muslims.
Rather than providing a monologue about each building and its history, which can easily be found online, I have provided a selection of random quotes covering a wide range of perspectives relating to Islam to accompany the images. Some are more controversial than others and most apply to Islam generally rather than specifically Morocco..
A contender for the most beautiful street in Meknes?
Link to a full Gallery of images here.
The low concrete dwelling was as white as the line of old tombs to its right, sepulchres built into the tall medina wall which formed one boundary of the old cemetery. A young boy emerged from the dwelling and approached me, his body appearing to lope rather than walk, his eyes cast mostly downwards. Another child emerged from the white dwelling and made her way towards us. In contrast she walked straight up to me, looked me in the eye, and in a moment of young feminine purpose extended her arm palm open, smiled disarmingly and asked me without any shame whatsoever for ‘l’argent’.
Late on my final afternoon in Meknes in early June 2019 I decided to investigate an interesting religious building I had seen whilst travelling to the holy pilgrimage town of Moulay Idriss Zerhoun by bus several days earlier. This building was situated next to a cemetery on the main ring road which surrounds Meknes close to Bab Berdaine.
I walked under Bab Berdaine and out of the Medina. From the ring road the view was uninterrupted across countryside as far as the range of hills in the distance where, on the invisible side and out of sight, Moulay Idriss’ mausoleum nestled within a valley. The landscape was burnished by the early June sun. Beside me, as I walked, cars, motor cycles and buses slowly filed by, their noise destroying an otherwise peaceful afternoon.