Casablanca – the Quickie Tour

Work done, we finally had some time to have a poke around Casablanca’s favourite tourist spots… And we started off in Mohammed V Square. Considered Casablanca’s ‘Times Square’, it is a public square of historical and symbolic significance located in the very centre of the city. It was established in 1916 at the beginning of the period of French colonial era and the square is known officially named in honour of the former King of Morocco, Mohammed V – grandfather of the current King Mohammed VI. The square is also known as “Pigeon Square” due to the huge population of big fat happy pigeons – the locals like to come here and sit by the (currently empty fountains), play with their children and feed the pigeons… though why anyone would encourage an enormous population of winged rats to congregate in their main square, is beyond me.

The Square is lined with the Courthouse, Post Office and State House which lent significant legitimacy to the French colonial rule at the time. It is also filled with hawkers and touts selling toys for children, pigeon feed, water, tissues and all sorts. This guy in traditional costume (below) was carrying a goatskin of water that you could drink from one of his brass cups or just pay him to take some photos of his interesting outfit.

Directly opposite the square is the completely incongruous and thoroughly modern Opera House. Interesting building, but it very much feels like it doesn’t belong here at all.

From the Mohammed V Square, we made our way to the Casablanca’s Notre Dame church, which was built in a European modernist style of architecture in 1956. Looking somewhat like a an ugly library from the outside, the church is famous for its elongated concrete entrance and the enormous stained-glass windows, which were designed by a French artist Gabriel Loire, that run down the entire length of the church. It also has incredible acoustics so it’s known for holding concerts etc.

Interesting we learned that the Catholic church runs many social programs for the homeless, for children, and for women. The local Christian community is quite proud of this, and like to compare themselves to the local Muslim and Jewish communities who have no similar programs at all.

A trip around Casablanca wouldn’t be complete without a pit stop at the famous ‘Rick’s Cafe’, which was made famous by the 1942 movie, Casablanca, which was filmed entirely in California and doesn’t have a single Moroccan in it, but you know, you gotta at least go past… *shrug*. Not being huge fans – We came, we saw, we bawked at the prices on the totally touristy cocktail list, and we moved on.

Not far down the road was a far more interesting stop – the famous Hassan II Mosque. Which is the largest mosque in Africa, and the 3rd largest mosque in the entire world. It has a singular minaret (minaret number is apparently a cultural affectation and in Morocco, mosques have only one) that is the world’s second tallest minaret standing 210 metres tall (689 ft in the old money). The 60 stories high minaret is topped by a laser, the light from which is directed towards Mecca. It was built relatively recently in 1993, and took 12,500 workers a mere six years to complete.  Apparently it was started in 1986, and was supposed to be completed in time for Hussan II’s 60th birthday – during the most intense period of construction, 1400 men worked during the day and another 1100 men worked through the night attempting to make the schedule. Over 10,000 artists and craftsmen worked simultaneously inside the building on the handcrafted carving and mosiacs etc, to beautify the mosque.

It was not apparently completed on time for the birthday celebrations and instead was inaugurated on 30 August 1993 – which is the 11th Rabi’ al-Awwal of the year 1414 of the Hijra, which also marks the eve of the anniversary of Prophet Muhammad’s birth.

Outside, there are beautiful mosaic fountains ring the forecourt where worshippers can perform their ablutions prior to prayer.

It’s hard to see the scale of this building but it’s enormous… think St Peter’s in Rome for similar, but all contained in one open space.

The mosque stands on a promontory (some of which is reclaimed land) looking out to the Atlantic Ocean. Worshippers can pray in sections out over the sea.

The cost of building the mosque was a whopping 585 million euro, which as you can imagine was a fairly contentious issue in Morocco, being a lower to middlle income country. The King wanted to build a mosque which would be second in size only to the mosque at Mecca, but the government could not fund such an elaborate and grand project. Much of the finance to complete the project came from public donations. Over 12 million individuals donated to build the mosque and each was issued with a receipt and certificate given to every donor – even if they contributed a mere 5 MAD.

The building is made almost entirely of Moroccan materials – local marble, granite from the Atlas Mountains and local timbers. The walls are of hand-crafted entirely of marble and the roof is retractable. A maximum of 105,000 worshippers can gather together for prayer: 25,000 inside the mosque hall and another 80,000 on the mosque’s outside ground in the forecourt.

Mosaic design running up an enormous wall.

The walls are lavishly decorated in mosaic tile designs and the ceiling of carved, hand-painted cedar from the Atlas mountains.

The size of this hall is hard to depict, but I think you could easily fit about six basketball courts into this hall, end to end.

Below the enormous hall are ablutions rooms for worshippers, with large marble fountains where they can perform their ritual cleansing prior to prayer. The numerous marble fountains are not running all the time to conserve water (the water used for the fountains is freshwater pumped from the mountains). Around the room instead, are several mosaic fountains that can be used when these ones are not running.

After spending an hour or so marvelling at the enormity of the Hassan II Mosque, (and wondering how long such a hastily built edifice may stand), we made our way to the Corniche – or the Casablanca pier. Famous for the beach resorts, restaurants and nightlife, the Corniche attracts people from all over Europe in the summertime. Currently, it’s nice and quiet given it’s almost the middle of winter.

Casablanca’s famous beaches are lined with resorts, where patrons can pay to hire a cabana and enjoy some sun and, presumably, someone to run around fetching them umbrella drinks.

The Tropicana Beach Resort is one of the more popular and expensive beach resorts on the strip, with a lovely restaurant, larger thatched cabanas and (what looks to this Aussie, like) access to a rather ordinary beach full of rocky outcrops and a rather angry and murky looking Atlantic Ocean. Not sure I can see the appeal of spending time here on your summer vacation, but we have to admit, Australians are somewhat spoiled on the beach thing…

Afterwards, we made our way back into the city to meet up with a tour group. Tomorrow we are off to explore Morocco with a bunch of strangers… we haven’t done an organised tour group thing for many years and I’m not sure how it will go. We did China in 2015 on a predominantly private tour, but I haven’t done this since Turkey in 2007. The group is comprised of only one other Aussie couple, two young women from London, four Californians, and some solo guys from Switzerland, Quebec and South Africa. They seem like a nice enough bunch.

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