Rissani, in Morocco, is located 22 km south of Erfoud on a road that runs alongside the river Ziz where you can see the last remains of vegetation before entering the pure Sahara desert. Rissani will change your mind and remind you why you can never travel enough to Morocco.
The Rissani region consists of a group of villages along the last stretch of the Ziz valley. This town was the ancient capital of Tafilalt (later known as Sijilmassa), Holy City and cradle of the Alaouite dynasty. Its location as a crossroads between north and south gave the city a certain importance in the past. Even today there are still remains of that greatness and it gives us the impression of being a beautiful and peaceful place, which only comes to life on market days.
Don’t forget to check out our post about what to eat in Rissani.
History of Rissani and Sijilmasa or Sijilmassa
It was probably of the utmost importance that Sijilmasa was located (at the gates of the desert, at the crossroads of two of the most important trans-Saharan routes and just a few kilometres from a river and an oasis) in the middle of the 8th century, on the outskirts of present-day Rissani, becoming one of the main commercial meeting points.
Probably also because of its privileged location, it was subjected to an intense and turbulent history (wars, seizures, destruction, reconstruction, …) until the fourteenth century became the starting point of the current dynasty to undertake conquests throughout the country.
What to see in Rissani
I will not tire of saying it: although Morocco undoubtedly has many interesting monuments, its greatest heritage is alive: its people, its culture, its festivals, …
That’s why visiting Rissani on a day other than Tuesday, Thursday or Sunday would mean not understanding the essence of this city and losing a unique opportunity. It is on those days that it connects with its past by presenting its market, the main focus of the surrounding merchants.
Once we have passed through a small series of temporary stalls, we will be able to admire one of the most photographed spaces: a space crowded with donkeys, which serves both as a free parking lot and as a market.
It may seem shocking that something as simple as an esplanade of land with simple structures to which the donkeys are attached can be translated into such an entertaining show: against the continuous sound of the braying, we will observe how the participants in the buying and selling process perform tasks such as visual examination or haggling.
It is also interesting to note that this is the only animal area in Rissani that is not enclosed by walls. This is probably due to its large size, as the importance of the donkey in the local Moroccan economy should not be forgotten: it is the preferred option for transporting goods, thanks to its excellent value for money.
When we say goodbye to these charming animals, we will find a street that, on its right side, besides wagons arranged in an improvised way for food, has a big perimeter wall made of adobe and inside which, in different compartments, the trade of other animals takes place.
Then we arrive at the permanent market where, under wooden, cloth, cane and uralite roofs that protect from the sun and provide a dreamlike atmosphere, small shops are set up in the gallery, with offers focused on meeting short-term needs: food, clothing, repairs, hairdressing, …
The most striking thing is the high number of bikes splashing all the spaces. This is due to the fact that they are usually the usual way for market workers and some buyers to get around, plus the fact that donkeys stay in the car park to allow for a cleaner and more efficient system.
Visiting the Rissani markets is something we can easily spend a whole morning on and that will remain in our memory, due to its multi-sensory experience, being the meeting point for the people of the surrounding area and, above all, thanks to its authenticity and genuineness.
In addition, we will be able to see them at their best and use the afternoon on the monumental side of Rissani, but not before stopping for lunch. And for this, nothing better than trying a Berber pizza, going to one of the small restaurants located around the market. It will not be the same as one cooked under the sand, as the canons require, but be assured that it will enrich our Moroccan palate.
The Ksars of Rissani
We will start with the witnesses of the historical importance of this city by visiting two ksars, that is, constructions that arose under the protection of trade, and that obey both the management and control of routes and the accommodation of powerful families.
These constructions are made fundamentally with sustainable and perishable materials: bar and straw that are introduced in vertical molds, plus other structural and horizontal elements of wood and cane. All extracted from the place, generating the impression that the construction emerges from the ground, but also implying a continuous maintenance.
This last peculiarity causes a classification to be established between ksars: those that are well maintained and those that are not. The first of these, Ksar Oulad Abdelhalim, unfortunately follows the second classification.
Ksar Oulad Abdelhalim
This is the residence of the representative of the Sultan in the area and dates back to the fourteenth century. Of generous dimensions, it included, besides the palace itself, a rich and a slave quarter. As I anticipated, today it is difficult to discern this distribution due to its condition. Some elements that can help us to differentiate are the remains of a landscaped courtyard (noble quarter) and what appears to be a public hammam (slave quarter).
In spite of this, the ksar presents certain signs of life, giving it a heterogeneous aspect where spaces in decline coexist with others that are better conserved through the use of provisional structures and others in a more than acceptable state and dotted with signs of everyday life such as clotheslines or water wells.
This is because, despite the fact that they usually choose to abandon the ksars for more modern constructions, there are those who resist this and carry out minimal restoration of the place. These inhabitants are either the heirs of the former owners, or are families who are provided with shelter and a small allowance by the local government in exchange for keeping it.
Ksar El Fida
Another place we should visit is Ksar El Fida, which thanks to the subsidies received, the fact that it has housed a museum and continues to be committed to tourism, can preserve its constructive dignity.
Conceived as a palace and control mechanism for commercial caravans, it is much more recent than the previous one (17th century), and as it is a noble residence it has fewer spaces, but is larger and more majestic: mainly access and entrance courtyard, dwelling, hammam and garden.
The visit can only be made with a guide (you usually pay for the visit yourself, and on average you offer the guide 100 dirhams). The guide, who is a relative of the original owner of the ksar, will not only tell us about its history, but will also relate anecdotes that will surely help us remember this building more.
For example, he will 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 village and provided a lot of water in times of heavy rain (fida, besides meaning redemption, is often used as a contraction in Arabic of fayadan, translated as flood).
He will also tell us about the curious way in which they created beehives to produce honey by means of wooden containers that were encased in the walls of the ksar (in the image you can only see the door, the entire receptacle on the right is missing).
Moulay Ali Cherif Mausoleum
We will continue with the Moulay Ali Cherif Mausoleum, an old fortress where the founder of the Alaouite dynasty rests. Unfortunately, as it is usually the norm in Morocco in sacred places, the entrance for non-Muslims is restricted, and it is summarized in a central patio, composed by a fountain, a garden where the date palms stand out and a perimeter gallery that gives access to other non-visible spaces, like a mosque or the mausoleum that conserves the remains of the sultan.
Finally we will go to Sijilmasa, an old Berber settlement dating from the 8th century and one of the major settlements of the trans-Saharan trade, on the outskirts of the city.
It has similar construction characteristics to the first two ksars, but unfortunately it is neither properly maintained nor protected, so the current appearance is reduced to the remains of some walls. Even so, I strongly recommend your visit because of what it means.
It is located one kilometer from the city, on the road that connects with more urban areas such as Erfoud, Ouarzazate or Marrakech, so we can take advantage of both the idea and the return in that journey and leave it for the beginning or end of the visit.
And now yes, with this last monument ends the article on Rissani. And if you are still not convinced, trust me: the next time you go to Merzouga, instead of making the usual stop in Rissani to take a photo in front of the entrance door, spend a day visiting it: it will become one of your favourite places in Morocco.