asilah moroccoIn the ancient trading town of Asilah, Raissouni Palace is a towering symbol for the area’s renaissance. Until about 30 years ago, Asilah crumbled under centuries of neglect. Fortunately, hometown hero Mohammed Benaissa inspired others to take an interest in the community’s beauty and heritage, sparking a flood of rehabilitation efforts that have created the cultural capital seen today.

Asilah’s Raissouni Palace serves as an unofficial “palace of culture,” and it is a magnet for all things artistic, creative and historical. Yearly festivals, including a prominent string of events in August, let Raissouni become the town’s centerpiece.

Located in the northwest corner of Morocco, Asilah has strong Spanish and Portuguese influences, with a refined Mediterranean feel. Beaches (including the popular Paradise Beach) and pleasant city streets would probably attract appreciative fans even without the community’s impressive cultural aims. The 15th-century Portuguese ramparts surrounding the town have been painstakingly restored, and the town’s natural harbor is far more placid than the region’s legacy of piracy might have predicted. Conservation projects from the 1980s onward have pulled together a town with historical charm and some of the most festive cultural celebrations in the Muslim world.

In the medina, an old Portuguese fort is now the Hassan II International Center, part of which is the Raissouni Palace. Built in 1909 by a prosperous pirate named Pasha Raissouni, the palace was once a general hangout for villains of the high seas. Raissouni redeemed himself a bit, eventually becoming governor of the Rif, demonstrating an early example of the community’s reinvention talents. Nowadays, the Hassan II complex is the headquarters for Asilah’s many cultural festivals.

The entire month of August is loosely known as “the cultural festival,” or “moussim,” which is a rough French interpretation of the Arabic word for “festival.” Citywide programming brings in artists, musicians, dancers, intellectuals and people who love rubbing elbows with all of the above. Asilah is perhaps best known for its mural tradition; buildings are annually whitewashed to make canvases for invited artists and lucky groups of children to showcase their creative visions. Though art is displayed throughout many city venues, the Raissouni Palace is the premiere location for artists seeking an audience. International artists are honored to have their work displayed in the airy building—check out the glassed-in hall—full of intricate tile work.

Asilah’s August festival shows visitors the vibrancy of art and ideas in modern Islamic culture. Thinkers and creators from around the world can come together to share their work and get further inspiration. Outside of August, Raissouni, and Asilah in general, still attract arty types, forward-thinkers and laid-back travelers. The Raissouni Palace is open year-round with many concerts, exhibitions, lectures and parties, some of them free.

Even leaving the palace has its wonders—follow the road that actually travels through the structure and reach a patio with sweeping sea views. Asilah’s artistic reawakening, set in place by a few determined individuals, has helped bring worldwide attention back to this small sparkling corner of Morocco.

Written by Brinda Gupta.

Photo by Isidor Fernandez.