Casablanca

Casablanca was a mostly underwhelming introduction to Morocco, with a few interesting sights but nothing significant other than the enormous Hassan II Mosque.

It is the largest city in Morocco, home to three and a half million people in the urban area and seven million in the region, nearly a fifth of the Moroccan population. It has one of the largest man made ports in the world, and is responsible for over a third of the national economy.

In 1755 an earthquake destroyed most of the city, and it didn’t really start to grow properly until after 1912, when the French developed into a major commercial hub as Tangier was then under international control.

The obvious star attraction is Hassan II Mosque, the third largest in the world, with it’s 210m high minaret the tallest in the world. It can hold 25,000 worshippers inside and a further 80,000 outside. It was designed by a French architect who was friends with the late king who the mosque is named after. Costing around USD800m it took six years to build, using almost entirely materials from Morocco.

Inside the Prayer Hall it felt in some ways more like a cathedral than a mosque, with it’s long rectangular shape and side arches. Everything is built on a huge scale, reminding me of Ceausescu‘s Palace of Parliament in Bucharest, the second largest building in the world.

The wash rooms underneath the prayer hall are quite fantastical.

Don’t expect a peaceful experience at Hassan II Mosque though, as it must be the most popular tourist attraction in the city. I visited at half eight in the morning to get clear photos outside, but it was more challenging inside during the first tour of the day at 9am.

Despite Morocco being 99% Muslim there are a number of churches in Casablanca, mainly a legacy of French rule. Unfortunately the four churches I visited were all closed. The most impressive is Cathédrale Sacré Coeur, the best known building in Casablanca after Hassan II Mosque. It took a quarter of a century to build but was only used as a church until independence in 1956. It is now completely fenced off, hopefully for restoration work.

As was St John Church and it’s English cemetery, dating from 1906. Unfortunately I couldn’t see anything of the church due to the high walls surrounding it.

At the Church Of Notre Dame de Lourdes, which was finished in the 1950s shortly before independence I could at least see work taking place on the building.

St. Francis Church looked merely closed. I did visit it first thing in the morning.

Thankfully I was able to visit a synagogue, the attractive Temple Beth-El.

But the nearby Old Jewish Cemetery was closed. It is in the old Medina, which was atmospheric if much grungier than rest of the city.

The Old Medina Clock Tower was rather nice, as was the minaret of the Market Mosque, just across the enclosed market from it.

Mohammed V Square is the administrative heart off the city and home to some of it’s finest buildings, including the law courts, city hall, and a modern theatre, along with a central fountain and park area.

There are only two mosques in Morocco open to non-Muslims, Hassan II Mosque and Tin Mal Mosque in the Atlas Mountains. They’re still worth seeing from the outside though so I made a few detours to walk past the attractive Mosquée Bab Essalam, even more attractive and rising sun lit Mosquée Ould el-Hamra, the office block like Mosque Al Madina, and the rather beautiful Mohammed VI Mosque.

Casablanca is renowned for Art Deco buildings but I wasn’t that inspired to be honest, nor by the general architecture of the city. It wasn’t terrible but there wasn’t a huge amount that caught my eye from 22km of walking around the streets. These were the ones that did.

I rather liked Gare Casa Voyageurs, the largest train station in the country, built in 1928 but obviously redeveloped recently. It was my entry and exit point to Casablanca, catching the train from the airport when I arrived, and leaving by train to Rabat.

To end with some street art. There wasn’t a huge amount but what there was covered entire sides of buildings.

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