Moroccan Christmas in a Holy Town: Moulay Idriss

TALIM Fez Borj Nord in fog
Bordj Nord in fog, Christmas Eve Fez, 2011

"Christmas in Fez!" was already taken as the title to a blog post by another American last year.  In any case, for us it was Christmas Eve in Fez, and Christmas day at the Roman ruins of Volubilis, then on to Moulay Idriss, a sacred destination.

Above, at the beautifully-restored 16th century borj or fortress, the CMHM (Commission Marocaine d'Histoire Militaire) has established the Musée des Armes, an impressive collection of weapons used over the centuries.  One of the surprises: Fez produced the famous Martini-Henry rifle in the late 19th century.  The museum is free of any jingoism, which would have been a temptation in a country that suffered domination by not only French but also Spanish overlords.

Earlier, we had visited the Musée Najjarine of wooden arts and handicrafts.  Both museums were very professionally curated, and well-attended by both foreign and Moroccan visitors.  Note to self: both charge admission fees (20 dirhams or more than 2 euros for the latter).  We'll start doing the same later this year at the Legation museum.

The cold fog that descended on Fez on Christmas eve reminded us of another exotic locale more than two decades ago, when we spent Christmas on a South African mountaintop, above the clouds.  Then, we were warmed by a coal fire in our thatched hut; last night, it was a Butagaz heater in our cedar-beamed room, but it glowed red hot.

Christmas eve dinner was in one of Fez's many medina riads (guest houses), a lovely garden home called le Jardin des Biehn (after owners Mr. & Mrs. Biehn, pronounced Bean).  An antidote to overstuffing on turkey and fixins' – we had a largely fish dinner.  It was very warm and homey, with the Biehn's grandchildren providing plenty of action.

Today, at the lovely Dar Attajalli where we were staying, it was an enclosed rooftop breakfast in newly-sunny Fez, accompanied by a table top mini-Santa dancing to Bobby Helms' 1957 classic Jingle Bell Rock.  Clio, the German-born owner, and Naïm, the chef, even saw to it that guests had another Christmas touch in the French tradition, a bûche de Noël.

And so, on to Volubilis, in all its December 25 mid-winter glory.

TALIM Volubilis Roman road
Volubilis, nestled on a plateau above Meknès and at the foot of the sacred hill town of Moulay Idriss, lay forgotten for centuries until "discovered" by 19th century French diplomat Charles Tissot.  It is in one of the loveliest settings imaginable, its green fields a reminder of why North Africa was the granary of the Roman Empire.

Thankfully we are able to stay in Moulay Idriss beyond 3:00 PM (Edith Wharton had to get out of town by then in 1919; since 2005 it's been open to non-Muslims).  Which is very nice on this Christmas day, since the Prophet's great grandson Moulay Idriss, fleeing internal strife in Mecca back in the 8th century, was given refuge in Volubilis by Latin-speaking Christian Berbers, just down in the valley from the town that Muslim Moroccans later named after him.

Kamran Pasha, writing in Huffington Post, tells the story of yet another early Muslim-Christian encounter, "How the Story of Christmas Saved Islam."  It was at the outset of Islam, and the Christians were Abyssinian (Ethiopian).

In 615 [A.D., in pre-Muslim Mecca], persecution of the Muslims had become a life-and-death matter… And the Arab chieftains were coming together to proclaim a ban of trade with the Muslims, prohibiting citizens of Mecca from providing food and medicine to members of the new movement.

Facing the very real possibility of extinction, a small group of Muslims led by the Prophet's daughter Ruqayya and his son-in-law Uthman, escaped Meccan patrols and managed to get to the Red Sea, where they fled to Abyssinia by boat. They sought the protection of the Negus, the Christian king who had a reputation for justice.

Kamran Pasha goes on to recount how the Muslims' recitation of the Quranic story of Christmas so moved Negus that he provided them refuge.

So, with memories of these happy encounters between religions that have often had rocky relations in later years, we head off to our Christmas dinner: chicken tajine.  Merry Christmas!

Gerald Loftus

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