By Vera Sordini
Rabat – The centuries-long seclusion of the sacred Moroccan town of Moulay Idriss from the Western world allows the increasing number of visitors to see a picture of Moroccan life largely untouched by foreign influence.
Just around 60 kilometers west of Fez and 5 kilometers away from the Amazigh (Berber) and Roman remains of Volubilis, embedded in green hills and surrounded by olive groves and cacti, lies the town of Moulay Idriss Zerhoun, Morocco’s spiritual capital.
But it’s remarkable history and significance within Moroccan culture is just the beginning of what makes Moulay Idriss a highly interesting tourist destination.
Founded by Moulay Idriss I in the late 8th century, this inconspicuous village of 12,000 souls is still highly sacred to Muslims. In fact, thousands of Moroccans pilgrimage to Moulay Idriss each year commemorating its founder and his piety.
Interestingly, until 2005 non-Muslims were not allowed to stay overnight in Moulay Idriss. The unwritten rule manifested in the lack of public lodging. In recent years, the town’s residents have made efforts to attract more tourists into their town, such as opening several hotels and guesthouses.
Despite the measures and the convenient option of connecting a visit to the town with one to the nearby ruins of Volubilis, Moulay Idriss cannot boast large numbers of visitors. Nevertheless, in recent years tourists seem to have discovered the qualities the town has to offer.
Moulay Idriss el Akbar: The spiritual leader
Situated on Mount Zerhoun, Moulay Idriss Zerhoun owes its name both to the mountain and to its founder, Moulay Idriss el Akbar, a sixth-generation descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. Today, he enjoys the status as Morocco’s most revered wali (spiritual guide/ protector).
In the late 8th century Moulay Idriss left the city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, to escape the Baghdad-based Abbasid caliphate. He fled all the way to Volubilis in Morocco, where he settled down and spread the religion of Islam by converting the local population.
He is now considered to be the founder and leader of Morocco’s first Islamic dynasty, called the Idrisid dynasty, which he ruled from 788 to 791. After Nekor, Barghawata, and Midrar, it was the fourth Muslim state in Morocco.
Some Moroccans say that poor believers can refrain from undertaking the Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, by making a pilgrimage (or five or six pilgrimages—it depends on who you ask) to Moulay Idriss. In the Arabic Maghreb, these are regarded as a favorable alternative. However, the pilgrimages should take place during the annual festival dedicated to the wali.
Each year in August, Morocco witnesses its largest “moussem,” a religiously-motivated pilgrimage common in the Maghreb and undertaken in honor of a wali. Thousands of faithful Moroccans make the spiritual expedition to Moulay Idriss every year.
The pilgrim’s specific destination is Moulay Idriss’ tomb, the town’s core. As the mausoleum is a sacred place, non-Muslims are not granted access.
From a strictly Muslim to a more liberal town
For centuries, Moulay Idriss has succeeded in secluding itself from the outer, non-Muslim world. The ban on non-Muslim tourists staying overnight, which lasted until 2005, surely contributed.
King Mohammed VI loosened the ban by decreeing that all visitors could enter the holy town. The move came within the scope of the King’s Western-Moroccan friendship plan and aimed to make Moulay Idriss better known in the Western world.
Considering the popularity the town enjoys among Moroccans, it is curious that Moulay Idriss has remained largely isolated for so long and that a more liberal approach towards tourism did not happen earlier.
Authentic aura attracts tourists
The fact that non-Muslim tourists were only allowed so recently helped to preserve the town’s charm. This is one of the advantages Moulay Idriss now offers to tourists.
Although the town is currently witnessing an increase of foreign visitors, who often also stay overnight at one of the many newly founded accommodations, the number of visitors is nonetheless still not overwhelming.
Its remote position away from the major tourist hubs allows visitors to see Moroccan life undistorted by Western or other foreign influences. But one must walk through the streets of this small and yet so graceful Moroccan town in order to understand what makes Moulay Idriss so special.