Sahara Desert

pool overlooking the dunes in the kasbah

pool overlooking the dunes in the kasbah

After a bumpy and sweltering 45 min ride we arrived at the kasbah in Merzougha, Western Sahara around 5pm. The intensity of the sun was now beginning to wane, but it took me a good 30mins to gather the motivation to make the 2 min walk to the nearby pool in the kasbah – if a pool is needed anywhere, it is this place!

Two hours before sunset we set out on the camels for the 1.5 hr journey to the desert camp where we were to spend the night. I mounted Al-Jabal (the Mountain), named so for being the tallest one in the caravan. Camels are amazing beasts but are very lazy; after a lot of moans and groans Al-Jabal finally got up. On the initial stretch  every step Al-Jabal took on the hard dirt road sent me tossing right and left until we hit the sand where he proved his agility and superiroty. The ride was swift and smooth from thereon and one couldnt help but wonder how perfectly crafted this beast was for that terrain. We arrived at the camp just before sunset; and I climbed the nearest dune to watch it, a sight we overlook in our daily lives, but is truly a spectacle in these surroundings untainted by man.

After a hearty meal, some top quality bedouin tea, shesha and music most of the people in the camp retired while me and two sisters I had met in the camp, Anna and Elenya, decided to take up Mstaphas (our guides) offer for a hike to the highest dune around midnight. Having read the account of snakes in the Sahara in Ibn Battutahs travels I was not particularly thrilled about the idea of navigating in the sand barefooted under the moon light:

There are also many snakes in this desert. There was in the caravan a merchant from Tlemcen who had a habit of taking hold of these snakes and playing about with them..One day he put his hand into a lizard’s hole to pull it out and found a snake there instead. He grasped it..but it bit on the index finger of his right hand, giving him severe pain. It was cauterized, but in the evening the pain grew worse, so he cut the throat of a camel and put his hand in its stomach and left it there for the night. The flesh of his finger dropped off and he cut off his finger at the base.

Thinking as a last resort if anything happened there were plenty of camels in our caravan I followed Mstaphas lead. What if the camels were all needed for transportation or one couldn’t slaughter them for some reason, you ask ? Apparently the warm stomach of a chicken does the trick too! If anyone happens to fall victim to a snake bite (God forbid) and try this remedy, do tell.

The view of the desert from the top in the moonlit night was as mesmerizing as it was in the punishing heat of the sun. The only difference was that the hellish heat had subsided and a cool breeze was blowing. The sky was alit showering its light on the dunes below, transforming the desert into a truly heavenly setting.

Back at the camp, I pulled my mattress out in the open and stargazed to sleep.. In the morning we hopped back on the camels to make our way to the kasbah. After two days I’d had enough of the desert heat and spending my last night in the kasbah I headed to Rissani for the 12 hour bus ride to Marrakech.

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Fes – Home to The Oldest University in the World

For the longest time I used to think that Al-Azhar University in Cairo was the oldest university in the world.

Dar al-Magana - the Water Clock that used to tell time back in the days.

Dar al-Magana – the Water Clock that used to tell time back in the days.

However in Fes I was to learn that Al-Qaraouiyine (al-Qarawiyyin) University was in fact the oldest. Guiness Book of World Records and UNESCO Wolrd Heritage List both attest this claim.

It was founded in 9th century (859) by Fatima Al-Fihria, a noble woman from al-Kairouan (al-Qayrawan). Later on when I would visit al-Kairouan, now in Tunisia, I would learn that people hold it to be the fourth holiest place in Islam (More on this later).

The plaque outside the university mentions distinguished philosophers like Averroes (Ibn Rushd), historians like Ibn Khaldun, doctors-philisophers like Maimonides, and Sufis and mystics like Abu Madyan and Abd as-Salam ibn Mashish amongst those who studied and taught here.

The only street in Fes where political parties are allowed to display their electoral symbols

The only street in Fes where political parties are allowed to post their electoral symbols

The biggest pedestrianized Medina in the world is also in Fes. An interesting fixture I saw in Fes was the Dar al-Magana (clockhouse) opposite Madrassah Bou Inania. The clockhouse used to consist of 12 windows above 13 carved wooden shafts that would hold brass bowls. One could tell the time by looking at the brass bowls that were filled with water. How the entire mechanism worked was a secret that the mechanic who devised it took to the grave.

On Friday 8th May I did a day trip from Fes to Moulay Idris Zerhoun, which has the Shrine of Moulay Idris – the founding father of the Kingdom of Morocco. He came to Morocco in 789AD bringing Islam to the region. He is revered by all the Moroccans, and is descendant of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) through his grandson Imam Hasan (RA). 5 kms from Moulay Idris are the ruins of the Roman city of Volubilis which was founded in 3rd century BC.

Fortunately on the hike from Moulay Idris to Volubilis we ran into two archeology students who were staying there for a conference and and gave us a private tour of the site – Thank you Zeineb and Eman!

From Fes I hired a taxi with three other travellers I met to make the 8hr ride to Rissani, a small city in the Eastern part of Morocco close to the ruins of Sijilmasah. Back in the fourteenth century Sijilmasah used to be a thriving town when Ibn Battutah visited it on his way to Mali

Moroccan version of the  Horse Shoe Bend in Arizona

On the road from Fes to Rissani I came across the Moroccan version of the Arizonian Horse Shoe Bend

I first reached the city of the Sijilmasah, a very beautiful city. It has abundant dates of good quality. Here I stayed with the jurist Abu Muhammad al-Bushri, whose brother I had met at Qanjanfu in China.

This beautiful city, now in ruins, is approximately 10 kms from Rissani. We reached Rissani around 3pm and after a quick bite and stocking up on our water supplies we jumped in a 4×4 to make our way to Merzougha inside the Western Sahara

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