Last Updated: 2022-02-10
It’s a strange aspect of the human condition that places battered by the passage of time often hold more meaning for us than fresh, new ones. Because the less we see, the more we imagine.
Although we appreciate the novelty of a beautiful, new home, it’s a much richer experience to cross the threshold of an old house and take in the smell of ancient furniture and the sight of yellowed books piled on the shelves. We wonder what stories those aged walls would tell, and curiosity lights a fire in our imagination.
The Chellah Necropolis is not just a place where we can see centuries-old monuments. If we listen carefully, it will tell us the tale of the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans and Arabs who lived in this unique location.
What we now call a necropolis was, originally, a port of call known as Sala Colonia. This was an ideal location to do business since it’s located at the mouth of a navigable river (Bou Regreg) that flows into the Atlantic Ocean. The first major settlement here was most likely founded by the Phoenicians, and the Romans later expanded it into a full-fledged city.
In time it was abandoned to the sands of time until the Arabs came into the area and built a mosque and several shrines. After the death of their sultan, they built a mausoleum for him on this site. In time extensions were added, such as a madrasa and a hammam.
Rabat’s troubled history and the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 conspired to turn the necropolis into a pile of ruins. It eventually underwent a restoration and, in time, became the venue for a well-known international jazz festival.
Getting Into the Necropolis
A good plan is to go to the Mohammed V Mausoleum or the Hassan Tower in the morning before the crowds arrive, then go to the Necropolis, which is on the outskirts of town. It’s a refreshingly calm place to visit after a busy morning in the typical tourist spots. Sunsets here are gorgeous and the afternoon sun really makes the colors pop.
The entrance fee is 70 dirhams and it’s another 20 to 30 dirhams for the taxi ride one way.
The first thing we see is be the imposing wall that protects the cemetery, with the main entrance and its two accompanying octagonal towers. After we cross the threshold, we are flanked on both sides by a solemn line of trees and shrubs.
Map of the Chellah Necropolis (click to enlarge)
Now, we’re in the historical area. Here, there are several items that predate the Arab conquest of the region, including the main road in the center which was the main thoroughfare of Sala Colonia. Most people lived in the artisans’ quarter to the left of the road and religious institutions were either on the right, like the capitolium, or in front, like the temple.
Further along is an open area that we can imagine bustling with activity in ancient times: like the triumphal arch where victories were celebrated, the forum where debates were held and business dealings were closed, and the baths where hygiene was a good excuse to strengthen relationships.
Unfortunately, the Roman era section has only been minimally restored, so we’ll need to sharpen our imagination.
The good news is that the Arab era section is in very good shape. The hammam, the Arab counterpart of the Roman thermal baths, is a prime example. It’s located in the corner farthest from the entrance and features traditional curved roof tiles. Unfortunately, visitors are not allowed inside.
Crowned with a minaret is a place where social interaction, education and religion went hand in hand: the madrasa, where students took in knowledge; the mosque, dedicated to feeding the mind as well as the spirit; and the mausoleum, where the earthly remains of the Sultan rest, along with other who were close to him, including his wife.
Finally, a little further away there is a small pool originally used for ablutions. After a flood, aquatic animals made a home here, including a colony of eels which were thought to provide a certain protective power.
In front of the pool, there are several small shrines and tombstones of people that Rabat has given special honor. These add to the magical atmosphere that defines the necropolis.
Modern Inhabitants of Chellah
Although one might imagine otherwise, the necropolis is not uninhabited. Obviously no Romans live here, much less Phoenicians, not even the citizens of Rabat themselves, with the occasional exception of guards, would-be tour guides or a random dancer in front of the entrance, giving life to the Moroccan maxim that any place is a business opportunity.
Storks are the modern inhabitants here. These birds are sacred to Muslims. Their instinct to migrate to a better climate is attributed to divine inspiration. Dozens of them make their homes in the high points around the necropolis.
Watching from above, they break the silence with their calls and create the minimalist —and appropriate— soundtrack that fills the place, as if it were an echo of all the lives that have been lived here.
Coordinates: 34°00′N -6°82′W (see location)
Size: 12 acres (70,000 m2) approx.
Construction date: The Necropolis started in the 3rd century B.C.E. as a Phoenician settlement. In 40 C.E., the Romans built a city here. Later the Arab Almoravid dynasty renovated it, adding new buildings in the 11th and 12th centuries. In the 14th century, the Marinid dynasty added a protective wall. In 1755, the Great Lisbon earthquake knocked down many of its remaining structures weakened by years of neglect. Shortly thereafter, Rabat became the capital of the French protectorate (1956), a restoration process began and some gardens were added.
Hours: 8:30 AM to 5:30 PM (Mon-Sun)
Entrance fee: 70 dirhams
Photo Gallery with informative captions. Click an image to enlarge.
If you want to know more about the city, check out our Rabat Travel Guide.