Guarded at all times by elaborately dressed royal guards and fez-topped security personnel, Rabat’s two most visited sites stand opposite each other along the magnificent Bou Regreg river. Hassan Tower (or Tour Hassan) and the Mausoleum of Mohammed V are two of Morocco’s most mystical places: one is an incomplete project of majestic proportions and the other stands as a masterpiece of modern Moroccan architecture, holding inside the grand tombs of past kings. Wander through the ruins of columns and enter the ornamental grandeur that is the exquisite mausoleum to discover a part of Moroccan history that will forever remain incomplete.
An Unfinished Past
It was the beginning of the 12th century when the great Sultan Yacoub al Mansour ordered the construction of the Hassan Tower and its adjoining mosque in Rabat. Having already planned the creation of the iconic Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakech and planned the restoration of the ancient Udayas Kasbah, the sultan now moved on to another impressive project: the building of the world’s tallest minaret and largest mosque.
Construction thus began in 1195 with the intention of erecting a minaret that would reach 86 meters (260 feet) in height, and a mosque large enough to accommodate 20,000 worshipers. This grand project was designed to be centerpiece of the celebration of the sultan’s victory over the Spanish Christians at Alarcos but the sultan’s death in 1199 led to a dramatic halt in construction which was never picked up thereafter. What was left was a minaret standing 44 meters (145 feet) tall and about 200 columns that would have sustained the impressive projected mosque.
An earthquake in 1755 further damaged the incomplete site, tearing down some of the central columns of the mosque. Most of these, however, were restored and help to portray the intended dimensions of the original project. The imposing minaret also survived the earthquake and dominates almost every view of the magnificent city of Rabat.
A Modern Masterpiece
Just across these unfinished ruins stands the striking Mausoleum of Mohammed V. Built in the 1950s and inaugurated six years after the death of Mohammed V in 1961, the structure is considered today a masterpiece of modern Alouite dynasty architecture. Its seemingly plain exterior of white walls and typical green-tiled roof contrasts deeply with the elaborately ornamented interior. Morocco’s exquisite traditional craftsmanship is one of the main features guarded within the walls of the mausoleum, with magnificent zellij mosaics rising from marble floors to a ceiling of hand-carved cedar wood and gold leaf.
Of course, the main feature of mausoleum are the glorious tombs of King Mohammed V (the grandfather of Morocco’s current king) and his two sons. Set on the ground floor of the mausoleum, the white onyx-carved tombs are guarded by royal guards and fez-topped (that hat and not the city of Fez) security agents and can be admired from an interior balcony which surrounds them.
This magnificent site is open daily for all visitors and non-Muslims are welcome to enter the holy mausoleum and even the small mosque next door. The royal guards, who are mounted on horses and dressed in an elaborate uniform, stand at the main entrance and are also usually open to being photographed. Visitors are simply asked to dress respectfully and avoid coming between noon and 2pm, when the mausoleum closes for midday prayers in the mosque.
Exploring Rabat and Beyond
If you’d like to explore Rabat and other areas of Morocco, you can take a look at our Morocco city tour, with a main focus on the history and architecture of the Imperial Cities. We have other trips that take you into the desert and even walks and treks that take you into rural Morocco. If you have an inkling to visit Morocco, give us a shout to start planning for the excursion of a lifetime. In the meantime, if you want to read more about Morocco, check out these seven great books by Moroccan authors!
This article was co-authored with Maria Inês Pinto, a young Portuguese freelancer born with a passion for writing and travel. She has spent her life hopping around different countries, having lived in Canada, the US, India and Ireland.