I had tried on three previous occasions to visit Sidna Blal, the zaouia des Gnawa, but the formidable woman who seemed to live there steadfastly refused all my entreaties to enter. Today I visited with this woman’s son, Youssef, a guimbri player training to achieve Maâlem status like his three uncles Mahmoud, Abdellah and Mokhtar Gania. These are perhaps three of the most famous of all Maâlem from Essaouira.
Youssef’s mother Zaida was a sister to these Maâlem; he said there were originally 7 brothers and 2 sisters in total however all had died except Mohktar and his mother. He said his family had originated from slaves appropriated from Mali.
We waited for his mother at the entrance, the local shopkeeper providing tea. Eventually Zaida Gania arrived and putting out her hand for Youssef to kiss, unlocked the 2 padlocks to allow entry through the heavy door and into the shrine.
Downtown Mogadishu, circa 1991, amidst scenes depicting what appears to be the Somali Civil War, has temporarily been relocated to Essaouira. It is the location for a movie being made, so I am advised, by a South Korean film company.
By the large murals on the sides of houses the movie appears to be about the rule of Somalian dictator Siad Barre who came to power in 1969 following a coup. Subsequent to introducing radical change and instigating human rights abuses he was removed from power in the 1991 Civil War and died in exile in 1995.
It is ironic though that a south Korean film company is producing the film when Barre had such strong links with the north Korean government, sharing the ideals of a ‘one party Marxist-Lenninist state’.
More of his life can be read here and here
The zaouia/koubba of Sidi Ishaq is located beautifully on the Atlantic coast. It is a short caleche ride along sandy tracks from the small town of Sidi Ishaq some 3 miles inland. The caleche park is situated in the centre of the town just off the R301 which dramatically follows the coast as far north as Safi.
The final stage of the journey, when the koubba can first be seen against the surf and the track drops down to the small sandy delta of the dried up river, is spectacular.
I can find no information about Sidi Ishaq, other than the shrine is a part of the Regraga annual pilgrimage throughout the Chiadme region.
Disparate images from the vicinity of the harbour in Essaouira
Dar Soltane ( the Sultan’s House built in the late 18th century ) is an impressive ruin in the sand dunes south of Essaouira. It was once the home of the sultan of Morocco, Sidi Mohamed III Ben Abdallah al Qatib.
I initially considered including some of the photographs below in a recent blog post ( here ) regarding the legend of Jimi Hendrix. Legend incorrectly suggests he was inspired by Dar Soltane to write his song Castles Made of Sand . However because of the interesting history of the palace in its own right I decided to document the photographs in a separate posting.
The ruins are very easily reached by taking a bus from Essaouira to Diabat, then walking along the sandy road which leads directly to them. I approached by walking along the beach from Essaouira, past the horses and camel rides, over dunes and a small lagoon and as far as a little lighthouse looking out over the ocean. Then I cut inland to the ruins which had been visible for a considerable time.
First impressions, as the great walls struggle out of the suffocating sand and thickets of bushes and trees, are that the ruins are extremely evocative and must have been magnificent when first constructed. I have managed to find something of a history online which I have translated and reproduced below together with some photographs.
I had lunch today in the old Jewish Mellah in Essaouira, in a restaurant converted on the second ( top ) floor of a former Talmud Torah, or Jewish primary school. On the ground floor the building had been converted into a Day Hospital for people suffering with Alzheimers Disease, the first floor was now a creche and the top floor, with a large terrace area, was the children’s playground and the small restaurant.
The walls of the terrace had been painted with animals and symbols, in common with many if not all schools I have seen in Morocco. An old circular table where the intricate zellige tiles were crumbling was of interest and the three-legged chair beside it also attracted my attention, as well as the symbolic drawings behind it. Beside the play area the restaurant was light and airy, with stunning views over the old Mellah city walls to the crashing surf of the Atlantic ocean. It was a stormy day, with gusting wind and heavy rain, and the surging waves flew into the rocks and spray went everywhere.
Talmud Torah schools were conventionally for poor boys; no fees were paid. It was unusual for girls to receive a free education so subsequently it was rare for girls to receive any education. Boys started by learning the Hebrew alphabet, and then learnt spelling. Following this they were taught Perasa, the beginning of the Bible, then the Nebiim and the Kitubim; the Prophets and the written Law. Designed only to provide basic education, the primary school education stopped there, and those who wished to pursue further education were required to pay for the privilege. However following this, the boys had some notion of Jewish history; they knew the Hebrew alphabet, but didn’t know Hebrew. Their major language skills depended upon the locality where they lived. If children lived close to ports then Spanish was the most common; whereas in the other cities of the interior, Arabic was spoken with a very distinctive accent. They used their Hebrew alphabet to write in Hebrew characters and in Spanish or Arabic, depending on the language they spoke.
As I ate I saw that a large part of the dilapidated Mellah had recently been fenced off and large new signs and posters provided plans for its regeneration, a decade or more since redevelopment had originally been mooted. I had not been in this building before; its views were spectacular. I wondered how old it was and when it had been converted. There was no information available.
Some photographs of the terrace and restaurant follow below, between paragraphs of an article providing a first hand and contemporaneous account of the expulsion of Jews, following those from Andalucia in 1483, from other parts of Spain in 1492 and their subsequent difficult journeys.
Taken from the Internet Jewish History Sourcebook, a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts, it was written in Hebrew by an Italian Jew in 1495.