The Necropolis of Chellah is not only a monumental complex with centuries and centuries of antiquity. It is also a space capable -as long as we know how to listen to it- of showing us how the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans and Arabs lived in a very singular location.
Contrary to logic, spaces that have suffered the passage of time tend to transmit much more than those that are in perfect condition. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that, most of the time, the less is shown the more is suggested.
As a rule, a newly built house will be a unique opportunity to analyze and evaluate it. But when you cross the threshold of a decaying house, where the woodwork is barely standing and sheets of old newspapers are swirling around in the corners, you are immersed in a more enriching experience, triggering your curiosity and imagination.
The History of The Necropolis of Chellah
What we now call a necropolis was originally a port of call known as Sala Colonia. A place with enormous commercial potential because it was located on the banks of a navigable river (Bou Regreg) and because of its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean. Witness to the passage of cultures along the Moroccan coast, its beginning was probably initiated by the Phoenicians, although it was not until the arrival of the Romans that it developed and acquired the status of a city.
Centuries later, abandoned to its fate and natural deterioration, the Arabs took advantage of the site to build a mosque and several sanctuaries and, shortly after the death of the reigning sultan, to build a mausoleum to house his remains. The significance that progressively acquired led to successive extensions, even adding a madrasa and a hamma.
The history of light and shadow of Rabat, along with the earthquake in Lisbon, ended up affecting it, turning it into a mass of ruins. Fortunately, the subsequent restoration and the decision to locate the city’s jazz festival here have managed to give it much of the contemporary presence and identity that the necropolis deserves.
Accessing The Necropolis
Taking into account its peripheral location, it is advisable to reserve the visit for later in the day, leaving for the early hours of the morning places more given to the agglomerations, such as the Mausoleum of Mohamed V or the Hassan Tower. In addition, the tranquillity that takes hold of the body after a busy excursion and the light of the sunset will be the best allies to appreciate it in its just magnitude.
Two, at most, will be the necessary expenses to visit it, modest in comparison with the experience it provides: one for the entrance (70 dirhams), and another for the taxi (20 to 30 dirhams for the complete taxi).
The first thing we will see is the imposing wall that protects it, with the main entrance and the two octagonal towers that escort it as protagonists. When crossing it, we will be invited to make a tour in which little by little we will discover the necropolis, being flanked on both sides by a nourished catalogue of trees and bushes, which helps to load of a solemn atmosphere to the place.
Once we have gone down to the level where the monumental complex is located, we will witness everything that concerns the pre-Arab period: in the centre, the main road that was the backbone of the city of Sala Colonia, with most of the population being located in the artisans’ quarter on the left and the religious power, represented by the capital and the temple, on the right and in front, respectively.
Leaving these spaces behind, we would arrive at an open area embraced by all those places where social activity was intensified, such as the shops, the triumphal arch (where victories were celebrated), the forum (central point for debate and business deals) and the baths (where hygiene almost became an excuse to strengthen relations).
Remains of Sala Colonia in the Chellah Necropolis
Unfortunately, and as can be seen from the photos, the restoration of the Roman period does not manage to raise barely an inch in height, and it is essential that we sharpen our imagination.
Fortunately, this is not the case with regard to the Arab period, which is basically divided into two parts. The first one, the one that corresponds to the hamma, update of the Roman therm and located in the most remote and cornered area of the necropolis. From this one we will be able to appreciate the characteristic curved roofs, but we will not be able to visit its interior.
The Mosque Inside The Chellah Necropolis
In a prominent location and with the crowning minaret, the place where coexistence, education and religion were held hand in hand is arranged, represented by the madrasa (space for the internment of students), the mosque (dedicated to nourishing the mind and spirit) and the mausoleum (where the remains of the sultan and some close relatives, including his wife, rest).
Finally, a little further away is the eel pond, originally dedicated to ablutions and which, after being flooded, was populated by all kinds of aquatic animals, but above all eels, which were attributed a certain protective power.
In addition, in front of the latter, there are several tombs and mausoleums of people to whom Rabat has wanted to pay a particular tribute, helping to foster that magical atmosphere that defines the necropolis.
The New Inhabitants of Chellah
Although it may seem otherwise, the necropolis is not currently uninhabited. Obviously, it is not Romans or even Phoenicians who make use of its spaces today. Not even the citizens of Rabat themselves, except, and in a very anecdotal way, for guards or some dancer stationed in front of the access to the wall, following the Moroccan maxim that any place is a business opportunity.
It is now the storks (animals sacred to Muslim culture and those whose intuition migrating towards a better climate is attributed to divine inspiration) who have chosen the location and the high, clear points of the necropolis to settle by the dozens.
And they are the ones who, watching from the heights, break the silence with their chorus and create the minimalist – and appropriate – soundtrack that envelops the place, seeming to speak from the mouth of all the lives that have resided here.