In 1471, Moulay Ali ben Rachid founded a village high in the Rif Mountains of northern Morocco—a fortress to launch attacks against the Portuguese in nearby Ceuta. In the centuries that followed, this secluded town would provide refuge for the Moors expelled from Spain, for the Jews fleeing the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition, and for weary travelers in search of peace and tranquility.
In a young nation like the United States, history is not always defined by old age. Harvard, our oldest university, was founded less than four centuries ago in 1636. We ratified our Constitution in 1788, ended our Civil War in 1865, and welcomed our 49th and 50th states just decades ago in 1959. So imagine the wonder of visiting Fes, the oldest imperial city in Morocco founded by Idriss II in 807.
I’ve never been one to seek out the packaged excursion. Call me old fashioned, but I truly enjoy the process of scouring guidebooks, tracking down timetables, and navigating unknown places with a degree of independence. What I may suffer from getting lost or missing the occasional train is (usually) nothing when compared to the connections I come to feel with the rhythms of foreign life. But like so many rules, there are exceptions.
Since 1998, lovers of music, art, and North African folklore have gathered in Morocco each June for the Gnaoua World Music Festival, a four-day event that draws nearly half a million attendees. It’s a vibrant celebration of contemporary world music and skilled Gnaoua musicians—descendants of African slaves who have left their mark on Moroccan culture as healers, mystics, and keepers of a spellbinding musical tradition.
It is perhaps the most well-known of Morocco’s imperial cities—a centuries-old medina founded by the Almoravid Dynasty in 1062. It’s home to distinctive red sandstone walls that date back to the 12th century and what has been called the busiest square in all of Africa. It has also been the playground of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Yves Saint Laurent, to name just a few of the artists and musicians who have been drawn to its exotic allure. But the city of Marrakech is so much more than the sum of its parts.