History On A Hill
Travel+Leisure|January 2017

The holy village of Moulay Idriss only recently opened to non-Muslim visitors, which is why it is one of Morocco’s most authentic and untrammeled outposts. Anna Heyward takes a look around.

Anna Heyward

In the early spring, when I visited Moulay Idriss, the climate was at its most Mediterranean. The four-hour drive from Casablanca took me through forests of cork oaks, their bark stripped to arm’s reach to make corks for wine bottles. The greens of the countryside were muted and slightly dusty, the air was soft, and there were olive trees everywhere.

Approaching the town from the west, I saw a cluster of colorful boxes framed by bare mountain peaks. Reachable by just a pair of roads, Moulay Idriss spreads across two foothills of Mount Zerhoun, at the base of the Atlas Mountains. Edith Wharton came here in 1919, taking the same route I did. In her travel book, In Morocco, she described the “piled up terraces and towns of the Sacred City growing golden in the afternoon light across the valley.”

Moulay Idriss was, until recently, off-limits to non-Muslims between 3 p.m. and sunrise—Wharton had to continue on to nearby Meknes to spend the night. This was because of the town’s holiness: it is a pilgrimage site, the burial place of Moulay Idris Al Akbar, a great-grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. In 2005, Muhammed VI, the current king of Morocco, issued a decree to open the town to non-Muslim visitors as part of his plan of Western-oriented reform.

Despite the lifting of restrictions, the tourism infrastructure that is so ubiquitous throughout the rest of the country has been slow to arrive here, and the place feels suspended in time.

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