Moulay Idriss, Morocco
Five more of these and I will have walked to Mecca. At least, that’s how the theory goes. They say that six pilgrimages to Moulay Idriss in Morocco is worth one Haj to Mecca. I’m on my way.
I’m determined to do this pilgrimage properly. The town of Moulay Idriss is in the central north of Morocco and is considered to be one of the holiest places in the country. Most people visit it from the city of Meknes, where I’ve spent the past couple of days. It’s easy enough to get a public bus or a shared taxi between the two – and either costs about a dollar. But a pilgrimage is not supposed to be easy. I decide to walk it.
The map I consult online says it’s about 25 kilometres from Meknes to Moulay Idriss and will take me about 5 hours to walk nonstop. I’m taking all my luggage with me (which, admittedly, is just two small backpacks) so that needs to be taken into consideration. I set off about 10 o’clock in the morning.
The lovely old man who runs the guesthouse I’d been staying at in Meknes had asked me whether I was going by taxi or bus. I had lied to him and said bus – I’m not sure why. Perhaps I didn’t want him to think me crazy or think me cheap. Or perhaps I wanted this to be something special just for me.
As I walked for the first hour, I imagined what I would say if someone stopped and asked me why I was walking.
“Oh, I’m doing a pilgrimage to Moulay Idriss”, I would say.
“But you’re not a Muslim”, I imagine them replying.
“Ah, yes”, I would begin, with a knowing smile appearing on my face. “But a pilgrimage is not about the destination and it is not about the ritual. It is about the inner peace when you’re left alone with just your own thoughts, about proving you are good enough to accomplish what you set out to do, and about taking your soul forward with every step that your body goes in that direction.”
Nobody stops to ask me why I’m walking, though.
It means that, as planned, I’m left alone with my thoughts for the whole journey except for the time I stop to buy water and chat with the shopowner in pigeon French (he brings out a chair for me to sit on, so I must look tired by this point).
I think about all sorts of things – some personal, some deep, some frivolous, some topical. I find myself playing out in my head an imaginary conversation between two world leaders for about half an hour. That’s a bit weird, even for me.
But there’s also plenty of time to look around and see the Moroccan countryside. I love how green everything is compared with the south of the country. Men are working in the fields, donkeys stand around waiting to be burdened and young children play in the streets of the small towns I pass. Although I’m walking along the side of a main road, there are mountains and valleys and rivers in every direction.
It does take about five hours to walk the whole way, even with a break every hour or so. As I come around a corner towards the end, Moulay Idriss reveals itself to me. The town is built on two hills and the houses rise up from the green fields around it. On one side is a sheer cliff, making the setting even more imposing.
The reason that the town of Moulay Idriss is so sacred for the Moroccans is because there is where their kingdom effectively began. The man who the town is named after, Moulay Idriss, arrived here in 789 and brought Islam with him. He started a new dynasty that would rule all the lands around and cement the Islamic culture in this region.
In the middle of the town is the mausoleum for this leader and this is the focal point for the pilgrimages. Only Muslims are allowed to enter and, as I wander up to the entrance on my way to find some accommodation, I see the large wooden pole erected horizontally to stop someone like me accidentally walking past the sacred threshold. I peek inside and take a photo (which is allowed) and think that it must be quite impressive inside.
It seems only right that Moulay Idriss, the man, would have such a large and beautiful building as his tomb. It is said that he was a direct descendant of the prophet Muhammad – his great great great grandson, if the history books are correct. He founded the incredible city of Fez and controlled land all across present day Morocco and Algeria before he was murdered at the age of 46. (His son took over and grew the empire even further.)
Despite the significance of the town of Moulay Idriss for Moroccans, it remains a fairly small and laidback destination. Most tourists stop at it only briefly on their way to the nearby Roman ruins of Volubilis. It doesn’t help that the main sight in town – the mausoleum – is off limits.
But after my long pilgrimage, I’m in no rush to move anywhere so I decide to stay the night. It also allows me to learn a bit more about Moulay Idriss. What I discover is a charming little town with wonderful scenery all around to hike through or admire from a rooftop terrace, great local food like the grilled kefta, friendly people and quaint little alleyways full of donkeys.
As I sit on one of the rooftop terraces in the early evening, I look out over the town and across to the Roman ruins in the distance. I remember the imaginary conversation I had prepared in case anyone had stopped me and how I was going to tell them that a pilgrimage is not about the destination. I chuckle to myself and sit back to watch the sun set.