Last Updated: 2021-04-28
I have to start with a confession: sometimes I hesitate to start a conversation with another fan of Morocco out of fear of embarrassment that they’ll talk about a place that I hardly know anything about or, worse yet, that I’ve never even heard of.
For example, there was a certain city I hadn’t paid much attention to that another Morocco lover couldn’t stop talking about. My curiosity couldn’t take it. So, I decided to really spend some time there on my next trip.
Before that journey, I thought Fez was the best place to feel like you had traveled to a different time. Rissani had made me change my mind and incidentally reminded me why you can never travel to Morocco enough. Let’s get started!
A Little Bit of Background
Although I’m not a big fan of writing a lot of history content into my articles, Rissani merits an exception. It’s modest appearance today hides a glorious past including the entrepôt of Sijilmasa and the birthplace of the Alawite dynasty.
This location at the gates of the desert, at the crossroads of two of the most important trans-Saharan routes and a few kilometers from a river and an oasis was the major reason for building the tradepost of Sijilmasa here in the middle of the 8th century, on the outskirts of modern-day Rissani. Before long, it was one of the biggest hotspots for trade in the region.
This ideal location made it a prized target, which led to its intense and convulsed history (wars, captures, destruction, reconstructions) until in the 14th century when it became the base of operations for the dynasty that is still ruling the country down to this day.
What to do in Rissani: the Living Rissani
Although Morocco has so many places of interest, I always say its greatest heritage is a living heritage: its people, its culture, and its festivals.
That is why visiting Rissani on any day other than Tuesday, Thursday or Sunday would imply not do justice to the essence of this city, because you would miss a unique opportunity to connect with its past by visiting its vibrant souk (traditional market) where all the local merchants from the area come to do business.
More than likely we’ll park our vehicle in the parking area to the south and cross a small area with temporary stalls. Here, we can admire one of the most photographed places in the town: an area crowded with donkeys, which is both a free donkey parking area and a place to buy and sell donkeys.
It may seem shocking that something as simple as an area of land with simple posts to tie donkeys to could make for such an entertaining show. With the soundtrack of braying animals, we observe buyers and sellers performing tasks such as visual examination and haggling.
It’s also curious that it’s the only animal area in the town that’s not surrounded by walls, probably because of how big it is. Donkey’s are vital to the local Moroccan economy. It’s the preferred option for transporting goods, thanks to its excellent value for money ratio.
As we say goodbye to these endearing animals, we go down a street with food stalls on the right side, and a large adobe perimeter wall and inside which, in different compartments, other animals are bought and sold.
There is an area for each kind of animal, including cows, goats, sheep, among others, and each area has a similar layout with a gallery, where merchants and part of the livestock are kept, and a patio, where other animals are examined and sold.
Then we arrive at the permanent market where, under wooden, fabric, reed and corrugated roofs provide protection from the desert sun and make for a dreamlike environment with small shops arranged in a gallery, with offers focused on meeting short-term needs: food, clothing, repairs, hairdressing, etc.
Most striking is the number of bicycles that dot the town. This is because they are a common way for commuters and shoppers to get around, coupled with the fact that donkeys are tied up in their parking area to help keep the place cleaner and easy to walk around in.
We could easily spend an entire morning enjoying the multi-sensory show of the Rissani markets. Locals from all around the area come here to do their business, which contributes to the authenticity and genuineness of this experience.
Here, we can have a morning filled with authentic Moroccan culture, then take a break for a Berber pizza at one of the small restaurants around the market. It won’t be as delicious or expensive as one cooked under the sand, but rest assured that it will enrich our Moroccan palate. Then, we could spend the afternoon seeing some of the town’s architectural treasures.
What to see in Rissani: the Architectural Treasures of Rissani
We start by visiting two ksars, or fortified villages, that, if their walls could only talk, could tell the story of hundreds of years of merchants passing through with their wares seeking provisions and shelter for a night or two, and powerful families who grew rich from collecting taxes and duties.
Since the walls are made mainly from local dirt and straw inserted into vertical forms, plus other structural and horizontal elements of wood and reed, when they are finished they seem to grow right up out of the ground.
These sustainable and perishable materials require constant maintenance, and although some ksars are well-kept, the first one we’ll talk about, Ksar Oulad Abdelhalim, is no longer in the best of conditions.
Ksar Oulad Abdelhalim was the residence of the sultan’s regional representative and dates back to the 14th century. It’s quite large including not only a palace but also an area where nobles lived as well as slaves’ quarters. Today it’s hard to tell the layout due to lack of upkeep, but the remains of a landscaped courtyard hints at the nobles’ living area, and a public hammam is located where the slave neighborhood once was.
Despite this, the ksar still has some signs of life with run-down areas next to others that are better preserved through the use of temporary structures and others in a more than acceptable state and dotted with signs of everyday life such as clothes lines and water wells.
All this because, despite the fact that they usually choose to abandon the ksars in favor of more modern constructions, there are those who resist the trend and keep up their areas of the ksar to a minimum. These inhabitants are either heirs to the former owners, or they are families to whom the local governments provide shelter and a small stipend in exchange for the maintenance they do.
Another one that we must visit is Ksar El Fida, which is still in a dignified state thanks to being considered a potential tourist destination with a museum that receives government subsidies.
This ksar was originally conceived as a palace and commercial caravan checkpoint, and is much more recent than the previous one (17th century). Its noble residence has fewer rooms, but each room is larger and more majestic with a large foyer, dwelling area, hammam and garden.
Only guided tours are available. There is no set fee, but usually guests offer about 100 dirhams to the guide. This guide is a family member of the original owner of the ksar. Although he has difficulties expressing himself in English, the effort to understand him will be worth it. He won’t only tell us about its history, but he will also tell anecdotes that paint a more colorful picture of this place.
For example, he’ll tell us that it was originally conceived by the sultan as a residence for his son, and that it owes its name to a nearby spring that supplied the town and provided a lot of water in times of heavy rain (fida, in addition to meaning redemption, is often used as a contraction in Arabic of fayadan, translated as flood).
He will also tell us about the curious way they made bee hives to produce honey, using wooden containers embedded in the walls of the ksar (in the image you only see where the bees would go in and out; the main part of the hive on the right is missing).
Next, we head to the Moulay Ali Cherif Zaouia, an old fortress where the founder of the Alawite dynasty rests. Unfortunately, as is usually the norm in Morocco in sacred places, entrance is restricted for non-Muslims, and includes only a visit to the central patio, made up of a fountain, a garden where date palms grow and a perimeter gallery that gives access to other non-visitable spaces, such as a mosque or the mausoleum that preserves the remains of the sultan.
Finally we head to Sijilmasa, an 8th century Berber settlement on the Transaharian trade route on the outskirts of the city (although it’s sometimes confused with Rissani, as if it were the same place but with different names during different periods).
It has similar architectural features to the first two ksars, but unfortunately it has not had adequate maintenance and is not properly protected, so only some walls remain. This ksar is still worth a visit due to its historical significance.
It’s located about half a mile from the city, on the road to larger towns such as Erfoud, Ouarzazate and Marrakech, so we can visit this site at the beginning or end of our visit.
So, we’ll finish our article on Rissani with this site. And if you’re still not convinced, trust me: the next time you go to Merzouga, instead of making the usual stop in Rissani and taking the habitual photo in front of the city gates, spend a whole day here. It’s sure to become one of your favorite places in Morocco.
If someone wants to make a comment or contribution, feel free. Thank you and happy travels!
Coordinates: 31°18′N 4°16′W (see location)
Population: 20,000 approx.
Founded: 18th century
Climate: Average low and high temperatures by season: Spring (9-34ºC; 48-93 ºF), Summer (43-22 ºC; 109-72 ºF), Autumn (34-09 ºC; 93-48 ºF), Winter (21-03 ºC; 70-37 ºF). Little rainfall throughout the year.
Where to eat: Since there is not a lot of tourist traffic here, there aren’t many options for lunch. The only options available are geared to the local taste and most of them are found around the Place du Center. Try madfouna, also called Berber pizza, which is bread dough stuffed with fresh local ingredients and cooked in a wood oven.
Rissani is at the gates of the desert. If you want to know more, visit our page about the Sahara.