Guardian angels 1. Mosques of Afanour

In Morocco, the law is that no infidel can enter Islamic holy places, mosques, working madrasahs, tombs of saints. Even the most beautiful historical mosques can only be seen in the excellent albums by Xavier Salmon, who, as a curator of the Louvre, was obviously allowed to take photos inside them with special permission. I myself know only two exceptions. Ironically, both are in Afanour, one of Morocco’s most Jewish towns.

In my summary about the Berber Jews I mentioned that the northern end and business center of the “gold for salt” trade between medieval Morocco and the kingdoms of Benin and Ghana was the city of Sijilmasa at the southeastern foothills of the Atlas, at the confluence of the Todra and Draa rivers. Trade was mainly concentrated in the hands of Berber Jewish investors and caravan owners. In the mid-1500s, Sijilmasa ceased to exist for unknown reasons – according to Leo Africanus, due to a civil war –, and its inhabitants moved to about three hundred small settlements founded around the former city. Until the great aliyah of the 1950s and 60s, these were the most Jewish villages in Morocco. Among them stood out in particular Todra, the spiritual center of Berber Jewry – with which I also begin the above summary, and which I will write about in detail in a next post –, and, opposite it on the otherside of the Todra river, Afanour, one of the important workshops of Berber Jewish silversmiths.

Since the Jews moved out, the old Afanour, built of clay, is largely a ghost town. The beaten clay walls last a maximum of one or two decades without continuous maintenance, and that deadline has long since expired. The streets can still be discerned, but it is no longer possible to determine with absolute certainty whether an empty place was a square, an inner courtyard, or the site of a building that had already completely crumbled away. The roofs of the once rich, four- to five-story kasbahs have cracked, and often one or more of their walls collapsed, revealing the anatomy of a centuries-old living space.

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Through such a broken wall, you can enter a building that once served the Muslim community rather than the Jewish one. The floor plan of the small village mosque follows the tradition of the large Arab mosques, such as the Great Mosque of Damascus or the Mosque of Córdoba. Arches rise on the top of a forest of columns standing at the intersections of a regular chessboard, and they support the horizontal roof made of palm beams.

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The central column square holds a prominent skylight dome. On the basis of this small mosque, we can form some idea of the large royal mosques in Fez, Marrakesh and Meknes, which we cannot enter.

Two niches open on the east wall. One is the mihrab, the prayer booth facing Mecca, and the other is a Moroccan characteristic: a booth into which the wooden mimbar, the pulpit can be pushed in.

The mosque is still relatively intact. Its columns are unbroken, and although the mud washed in from the outside seeps in through the windows and the cracks of the dome, even this latter appears to be structurally intact. Only the reed covering spread over the palm beans has been torn. It appears as if the mosque was abandoned later and maintained longer than the residential buildings.

This is certainly the case with another mosque, which stands a little further south, on the edge of the palm grove surrounding the village from the side of the Todra river. This building is clearly marked by its dome, which rises above the surrounding clay walls. By following this as a compass and meandering through the labyrinth of clay streets, we will arrive to a columned façade, on the top of which the inscription MOSQUÉE IKELANE has been composed from pieces of palm wood. At the top of the façade, there is also a terrace with a palm tree railing, from which the guardian angel of the mosque, the Berber Aaddi Aqbli looks down on us and invites us with great joy to the mosque and madrasah complex, which must have seen no infidel in its heyday.

In fact, the former mosque of the Ikelane neighborhood performed many functions at the time. In addition to a mosque, it also had a primary and a higher school of theology. This latter also had a dormitory and a bathhouse, for which the water drawn from the local well was heated in a separate room in a cauldron dug into the ground.

The first verse of the Qurʿan was written on the blackboard of the former elementary school classrom for didactic purposes: Bismillāhi r-rahmāni r-rahīmi, in the name of Allah, the Merciful and Compassionate

That you can still see all this today is the merit of Aaddi. He was born and grew up here in the neighborhood, went to this school, and although he spent most of his life away from here, as a miner, he returned after his retirement. He was pained by the state of the mosque, which was in use for a while after the village was depopulated, and only abandoned for good in the 1990s. As the only resident of the old Afanour, he moved into the teacher’s room and restored the mosque complex with his own hands. One of the greatest experts in traditional Berber clay architecture, the Catalan Roger Mimo, was of great help in this, who also brought him together with other specialists and restorers, and whose designs and documents are on display on the wall of the mosque’s forecourt.

The structure of the mosque is the same as of the other, neglected small mosque: arches on top of a forest of columns, with a palm beams and reed covering. And in the middle is the dome, the upper circular window of which is covered by a green glazed ceramic bowl. Aaddi tells us that this is not the original, centuries-old bowl, which was stolen by a Berber worker, so he had to replace it with a similar but new one.

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After the tour, Aaddi asks us to write in the guest book and documents our visit with a group photo taken with his mobile phone. As he says, with this documentation he can justify the maintenance of the mosque and claim some state support to it.

In addition to the fact that the structure of the mosque bears witness to the general structure of the large Moroccan mosques, the conditions of its survival are also characteristically Moroccan. I have met such guardian angels in several places, who have devoted their lives to the preservation of an abandoned community building, a mosque, a synagogue, a kasbah. I will write more about them soon.

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