Nestled like a jewel in a king’s crown, the town of Chefchaouen lies comfortably within its perch of the Rif Mountains, calmly surveying the valleys below. Not nearly as bustling as its lively neighbor to the north, Tétouan, nor as trafficked as the closest Imperial city, Fes, Chefchaouen is the oasis of calm between the two. It almost beckons to anyone who would visit: I am, and you should be.
Known more commonly as Chaouen, the town’s peaceful atmosphere belies its darker past. Originally a fortified castle built by Moulay Ali ben Rashid as a stronghold against the Spanish and Portuguese in the 15th century, the town was first populated by Andalusian Muslims who fled the persecution of the Spanish Inquisition. Chaouen once against became a stronghold against Spanish oppression in the early 20th century, building to a military showdown between Spanish forces and Mohammed ben Abdelkrim in 1924. With the help of France, Spain managed to gain control of the region within a few years, but Chaouen was officially declared a part of Morocco when the country gained its independence in 1956.
The town’s peaceful atmosphere belies its darker past.
One of the major attractions to the town, was, ironically, the reason that many could not see it: Ras el Ma, or, ‘source of the water.’ A most tranquil part of a tranquil setting, this place where the fresh mountain spring that waters the town bursts forth from the mountain provides the perfect opportunity to catch a glimpse of everyday Moroccan life: women come to do their washing, and the children they bring along play nearby with sticks and stones and plenty of imagination. However, because Chaouen was — and is — considered blessed by Allah to have such an important feature that nourished the people, the town was considered holy, and therefore inaccessible to those outside of the faith. Open to all today, Chaouen is home to nearly twenty mosques and various sanctuaries. Perhaps it is this deep religious respect that provides
the profound serenity for which the town is so famed.
Deep respect is given, also, to the town’s founder, Moulay Ali ben Rashid. The most prominent testament to his name was constructed by the man, himself, and still sits in the main square of the town: his fort, known colloquially as simply, ‘the Kasbah.’ Major renovations in the 20th century have served to maintain this important structure, and a beautiful garden now grows in the kasbah’s center, where military drills were once conducted. Today, the kasbah also houses a museum, which tracks the history of Spanish occupation through the years, and boasts a commanding collection of traditional Moroccan instruments.
In Chefchaouen, it is easy to share the abundance.
But the best way to enjoy Chefchaouen is also the simplest: to sit at a café in the Plaza Uta el Hammam, sip a glass of mint tea, nibble at a few pastries, and take in the sights of the people of Chaouen as they go about their daily lives. Should you order lunch, remember kindly the street cat sitting just out of arm’s reach, and toss him a scrap or two of meat. In Chaouen, it is easy to share the abundance, as the mountain spring shares its life-giving properties with the town.
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