Kingdom of the Lost Lion
Morocco. Hot sun, sizzling sands, busy markets as far as the eye can see. Hand-woven carpets, colourful spices, the intoxicating scent of mint, citrus fruit, and roses. Deep green forests, endless olive groves, snow-covered mountains, hot springs, and villages keen on preserving ancient traditions: Morocco’s geographical location, rich culture, and convoluted history make it a country that will never cease to surprise. Photographer and traveller Tomáš Slavík is our guide here, taking us through this nation of lions, sardines, and argan oil.
From the southernmost outposts of Spain or the lighthouse on the rocks of Gibraltar, the African continent is clearly visible: the shores of Morocco are only some fifteen kilometres away. Two Spanish enclaves near the country’s northern border – Ceuta and Melilla – make Europe and Morocco near neighbours. The two towns are the last vestiges of French/Spanish rule. In 1956 the country regained its independence, establishing itself as a constitutional monarchy with Mohammed V as king. His grandson, Mohammed VI, is currently the ruling monarch, sharing some of his executive and legislative power with the Prime Minister.
Morocco borders Algeria in the east, and Western Sahara in the south, the latter being a territory Morocco partially occupies and claims as its own. Approximately one-fifth of the country, however, is currently controlled by the liberation movement known as the Polisario Front, which has been battling since 1976 to establish Morocco as an independent democratic republic. The United Nations is not entirely clear on Western Sahara’s status: the region recognises neither Moroccan sovereignty or the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic established by the Polisario. The international community considers it a non-autonomous territory, and the current truce is tenuous at best.
Morocco’s climate is greatly affected by its location amid the Sahara, the Atlas Mountains, and the Atlantic coast. The northwestern part of the country has a decidedly Mediterranean climate, lush forests and moderate temperatures. Morocco’s most prominent mountain range, the High Atlas, stretches across the entire central region, all the way to Algeria and Tunisia. Its tallest peak is the Toubkal, at 4,167 metres. Except during winter months, it’s fairly easy to climb. The name Atlas derives from ancient Greek mythology: Atlas was a Titan who held the entire celestial heavens on his shoulders. His punishment was briefly alleviated by the hero Heracles, who sent him to fetch golden apples from the goddess Hera’s garden. Some of the oldest cave paintings, dating back to the Neolithic Age, have been found in the caves of the High Atlas – a testament to the region’s long and elaborate history.
The territory defining today’s Morocco was first settled by the Phoenicians, followed by the Roman Empire, the Muslim Arabs, and then by the Spanish and Portuguese during the age of great sea voyages. To this day, the country remains an extremely attractive travel destination, thanks to its charm and its many contrasts.
Alleyways between the ancient, dilapidated adobe houses are kept meticulously clean. And even in the poorest mountain village, the locals will gladly share a piece of khubz flatbread with you. Other staples of Moroccan cuisine include couscous, tajine, and kefta. Mint tea is offered on literally every street corner – its preparation is a very involved affair, usually entrusted to men. The recipe combines green gunpowder tea, fresh spearmint leaves, and sugar. “The first glass is as gentle as life, the second as strong as love, the third as bitter as death,” claims a Maghrebi proverb.
Religion and tradition play a very important role in Moroccan society. As a visitor, respect and humility toward the local culture will always earn you a warm welcome. Interestingly enough, the liver, not the heart, is considered the symbol of love in Morocco, and white is the colour of mourning. The royal coat-of-arms features two majestic Barbary lions. The lion is Morocco’s national animal, unfortunately now extinct in the region – the last one was shot in the wild in 1922. Even so, Morocco’s abundant fauna and flora offer a lot for travellers to admire.