Northern Africa is dominated by the world’s largest desert, the Sahara. Many of the great cities here began as caravan stops, oases, within the desert. Some have continued to today and have evolved into modern marketplaces. These fascinating locations are extremely different, culturally, from the European countries to their north, across the Mediterranean, and from the countries south of them, across the great desert expanse and into the jungles of Central Africa. Join me on a journey through this area, with stops at the best tourist sights. A photo album will eventually follow.
1. Marrakech, Morocco
Marrakech is one of the Imperial Cities of Morocco and the name itself evokes exotic thoughts of intrigue and mystery. It lies along several major caravan routes and has been a center for trade and commerce for almost 1,000 years. The Medina, or Old Town, is a labyrinth of narrow streets and alleyways, great for wandering. It is divided into souks or districts which are based on the particular craft or skill taking place. For instance, the carpet-making souk has numerous shops where material is woven into various types of materials, such as carpets, and then sold. Perhaps the most attractive of the souks is the wool-dyers, since this area may be the most colorful.
The central marketplace, Jemaa-el-Fna is the heart and soul of the city. All manner of product can be purchased (haggling is expected) and entertainment and other commercial enterprises, such as snake-charmers, water-sellers, money-changers, are ubiquitous (and all expect something, even if it is only for a photograph being taken). By mid-afternoon, the square begins its transformation. The musicians begin to arrive for the evening entertainment and the food stalls are readied for the supper hour. Later, after the farmers and other sellers have gone home, the dancers will complete the metamorphosis into a block party.
The Sa’adian Tombs, near the marketplace, are one of the most visited tourist attractions in the city, so be prepared to wait in line. Buried here are 66 members of this royal dynasty. The rooms are decorated with exquisite stonework, incredible ceilings and pillars. The graves are embellished with mosaics.
El Badi Palace, now in ruins, was once one of the most sumptuous in the world, richly ornamented with gold, marble, ivory, and semi-precious stones, but it was looted and torn apart less than 100 years after its construction (which took the skilled craftsmen from all over the world seven years to complete). It is still interesting to wander among the ruins, imagining what it must have been like. It remains now the residence of storks.
The Koutoubia Mosque with its minaret, the tallest in the city, was built in the 12th century and is still a proud example of Moroccan Architecture. Although non-Muslims cannot enter the mosque, they can wander the grounds and glimpse the fine artisanship which produced this structure.
Nine 12th century gates lead in and out of the city and are remarkable for their seven-foot thick walls. Outside the gates, visitors should plan on seeing the Menara Gardens with their breath-taking setting at the base of the Atlas Mountain Range.
2. Fez, Morocco
Fez (Fes) is another of the Imperial Cities of Morocco. It is considered the most complete walled city in the Arab world and the oldest Imperial City in the country, having been founded in 789 AD. Even the new part of the city (Fez-el-Jedid) dates to the mid-13th century. Fez is 250 miles north of Marrakech (see above).
Fez-el-Bali, the Old City, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and its Medina has almost 30 miles of narrow, twisted alleyways where it is extremely difficult not to get lost. As in other Imperial cities, the Medina is separated into souks. The area is particularly famous for leather and Fez’s tannery is the oldest and largest in the country (it is fairly easy to find because of its smell!).
El Qaraiouiyyin Mosque, with its emerald roof tiles, is one of the largest and most exquisite Islamic structures in the world and sits on the grounds of the university, one of the oldest learning institutions in the world (857 AD). The university library even contains a copy of a 9th century Koran.
The Andalousian Mosque is easily noticed because of its white and green minaret and its name is a reminder of the unmistakable Andalusian influence on the architecture in much of Morocco.
Medersa Bou Inania provides great views of the city from its rooftop, and can be visited by non-Muslims, even though it still actively functions as a religious institution.
Unfortunately, the royal palace, Dar el Makhzen is not open to the general public.
3. Timbuktu, Mali
Timbuktu, Mali, is a city which seems to have an air of mystery and desolation around it. It is located at the southern edge of the Sahara Desert and became important as the terminus of the caravan trade route from West Africa to the Mediterranean Sea. It was a nomadic settlement as long ago as 1000 AD and seems to be named after the woman in charge of the original camp. The city became wealthy during the Middle Ages because of commerce, but gradually declined, beginning in the 1600’s, primarily because of the emergence of maritime trade. However, it is still an important stop on the salt-trade route, which begins at the mines north of the city, leads south to Timbuktu, then upriver to the city of Mopti.
There are only a few actual attractions for the tourist. It probably needs to be part of any list of major travel destinations in Africa because of its mystique. Several worthwhile sights while in the area include the city’s three great mud mosques, the Djingereber Mosque, the oldest in the city, dating back to the early 1300’s, Sidi Yahya Mosque, and Sankore Mosque. The latter two cannot be visited by non-Muslims. Other sights include the Explorer’s Houses, most of which cannot actually be visited, and the Grand Marche’, the city’s main marketplace, a large, covered building in the town center, which is extremely lively and great for people-watching. Timbuktu is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Various outfits offer camel rides of varying length into the desert. This activity is extremely popular here.
4. Rock Churches of Ethiopia
Ethiopia’s Rock Churches are found in the northern part of the country, roughly between the towns of Adwa and Lalibela. Near Adwa, the area is known as the Tigre section and most of the churches here are carved into the faces of cliffs. In the area around Lalibela, they are mostly underground.
There are thought to be over 100 of these churches in the Tigre region. Some of the more significant ones include Hwazen Tekla Heymanot, near the town of Hwazen, Abraha Atsbeha, a very popular church built in a cruciform shape, and the Takatisfi Cluster, a group of three churches near one another, of which the most-celebrated is Medhane Alem Adi Kasho.
Lalibela’s churches are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and includes 11 churches. The setting is spectacular, in rugged territory high up in the mountains at approximately 2600 meters (almost 8,000 feet). The churches can be conveniently subdivided into two groups, an eastern group and a western group. If guides are desired, be sure to set the price in advance and that good English is spoken.
The eastern cluster includes Bieta Medhane Alem, the largest rock church in the world, and Bieta Maryam, which is richly decorated.
The most famous of all Ethiopia’s rock churches is Bieta Giorgio, in the western group, which is another cross-shaped church, in this case, with high, steep walls. Also in this section is the Bieta Abba Libanos, which is built around, but separate from, a cave.
Visitors might consider using the ancient city of Axum as a base of operations for an exploration of this area since it is interesting in its own right. This city was the capital of the entire country during the time of the Queen of Sheba (around 1000 BC). Its Church of St Mary of Zion claims to contain the famous Ark of the Covenant which, in the Old Testament, is a sacred, golden chest that contains the original Ten Commandment tablets.
There are also several ruins of historical significance. There are ruins (little more than pillars are left) of the first Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which was constructed in the 4th century, and also ruins of the Royal Palace.
An excursion 365 kilometers (200 miles) to the southwest brings the visitor to another former capital of Ethiopia, Gondar, which has numerous castles and palaces to explore. The walled Royal Enclosure contains five castles with connecting tunnels, as well as several elevated walkways. Specific attractions include the Castle of Fasilades, which dates to the mid-17th century, the Palace of Ras Beit, an 18th century structure, the Bath of Fasilades, which is still used during an annual festival, and the beautiful Church of Debre Birhan Selassie, with its painted ceilings and walls.
Just outside the city is the Quouquaim Church. A walk to this pretty church provides great views.
5. Tunis, Tunisia
Tunis, Tunisia, is located in the northeastern part of the country, on a lake just inland from the Mediterranean Sea. The major attraction of the city, as with many North African Islamic communities, is its walled, 7th century Medina, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, whose maze of alleys, narrow streets, and souqs (markets) are a delight to wander and browse. Many visitors focus their attentions on the Souq el Attarine (the perfume market).
Within the Medina is the city’s largest and most important mosque, the 9th century Mosque of the Olive Tree. Just 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) west of the city, in the suburb of Le Bardo is the famous Bardo National Museum, which has a world-class collection of Roman mosaics.
The major excursion from the city is to the site of the ancient city of Carthage, northeast of the city center. Climb the Byrsa Hill for panoramic views of the archaeological site. Only scant and scattered ruins remain.
Near Carthage is another excellent side trip — to the village of Sidi Bou Said whose white-washed buildings and narrow, cobblestone streets are set high on a cliff looking out over the Mediterranean.