Sunday, January 13, 2008

Day 2: 24 December 2007; Cruising in Casablanca

With a solid three hours sleep under my belt, the tour group congregated for breakfast and did quick introductions. Mohamed, our tour leader outlined the trip, and we set off for a morning of sightseeing in Casablanca.

The streets were busy, and men wearing cloaked jellabas were everywhere. We were to see many more jellabas in the coming days.

We passed Rick’s Cafe, made famous in the film Casablanca, and headed directly to the Hassan II mosque – undoubtedly one of the most iconic buildings in Morocco.

Completed in 1993, this monstrous structure and its vast esplanades overlook the sea. Our guide explained that some 6,000 builders worked day and night, in shifts, to complete the build in just six years. Impressive work!

Our tour inside the mosque took us past huge halls, decorated with ornate plaster carvings, marble, granite, cedar wood – all material came from Morocco with the exception of 57 Italian chandeliers and Italian marble pillars.

It was astounding to think that this building could accommodate 25,000 worshippers inside and another 80,000 worshippers outside, at any one time. Because it was a working mosque, the guided tours were squeezed in between the five prayer sessions each day.

Our guide was quick to point out which behaviours were part of the Islamic religion, and which were not. Taking shoes off at the entrance at the mosque for example, was not a religious thing, but simply a way of keeping the mosque’s floors clean.

The mosque was deceptively high tech, with a roof that actually opened like those in sports stadiums. They reckon it got pretty warm and whiffy in the summer heat with 25,000 people inside...

Hundreds of loud speakers were ingeniously hidden in the timber pillars in the ceiling, and the floors were apparently centrally heated. The attention to detail was amazing. Millions of zellij (mosaic) tiles lined the walls and everywhere you looked, there were intricate designs in any manner of materials.

We then walked downstairs into the huge ablution rooms. It’s not obligatory to wash at the mosque, but it’s available if people want it. Again, this would be an amazing site to see, when fully packed with people.

The final stop was the enormous Turkish bath underneath the Mosque, built mainly as a way of showing curious tourists what Turkish baths are like. Again, this isn’t a formal part of the mosque, but more used as a social add-on to it, and is really common throughout Morocco. This Turkish bath had never been used though, and there seemed to be continued debate as to whether it would be opened up to the public, or simply left as a nice place to sit for a few minutes.

We mosied back to the coach, just as the sky cleared up and gave us a great view of the mosque under blue skies. It was warming up too. I was liking this place!

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