Chellah entrance. Image courtesy Péter Tamás Nagy, ca. 2014.

Chellah

 
Catalogue
North African Gardens
City
Rabat
Country
Morocco
Dates
1248 1755
Author
Abbey Stockstill

Description

Key dates: 1248 (Merinid foundation); 1310–39 (enclosure and construction of zāwiya); 1755 (destruction by earthquake)

 

The Chellah, located to the southeast of medieval Rabat, served as the royal necropolis for the Merinid dynasty from the late thirteenth to the mid-fourteenth century. It takes its name from the Phoenician and Roman settlement of Sala Colonia, amongst whose ruins the necropolis was built. It was first patronized as an Islamic burial site in 1284, when the Merinid emir Abū Yūsuf Yaʾqūb buried his wife, al-Ḥurr Umm al-ʿIzz. Successive generations of Merinid emirs would further embellish this site, most notably Abū al-Hassan, who enclosed it with crenellated ramparts of red stone and built a zāwiya (a complex designed for the worship and accommodation of Sufi pilgrims) inside the eastern wall in 1339.

The Chellah is the first example in Morocco of an enclosed necropolis, building upon the layered meanings associated with the site. Built on the slope of a hill overlooking the river Bou Regreg, which forms a delta as it flows into the Atlantic Ocean, the Roman settlement had formed a key military and trading post between the North African interior and the wider Roman Empire. Under the Almohads in the twelfth century, the region served as a departure point for the incursions into al-Andalus. The military importance of this area is conveyed by the fortified nature of the site, which has led some scholars to interpret the Chellah as a burial site for Merinid mujāhids (i.e., those who wage religious war). However, such enclosed spaces also have paradisiacal connotations, following the common concept of Islamic gardens as interpretations of heaven, with cultivated spaces within the enclosure contrasting with the saltwater marsh outside of the walls. Excavations have revealed evidence of paved walkways as well as orange and olive groves and a floral garden on the eastern side of the zāwiya, while natural springs fed water channels within the complex.

Th zāwiya itself featured a small mosque, a madrasa with an attached prayer hall, a funerary hall, and a number of shrines (qubba, pl. qubāb) dedicated to members of the Merinid royal family. The madrasa was organized around an open courtyard with a rectangular pool along its longitudinal axis and perpendicular to the qibla wall, with a shallow scalloped marble basin at either end. Marble columns formed an arcade around the courtyard with cells for visiting pilgrims. The prayer hall, located on the southeast end of this courtyard, featured a mihrab niche with a corridor around it for pilgrims to circumambulate the space. Endowment documents (ḥabūs) indicate that Abū al-Hassan’s predecessor, Abū Saʿīd II, had intended for pilgrims to inhabit the space continually, venerating the Chellah’s Merinid patrons.

 

Sources

  • Historical, 14th–15th c. (Ibn Abī Zarʿ, “al-Anīs al-muṭrib bi-rawḍ al-qirtāṣ fī akhbār mulūk al-maghrib wa-taʾrīkh madīnat Fās”; Abū al-Walīd Ismāʿīl b. al-Aḥmar, “Rawḍāt al-niṣrīn fī dawlat Banī Marīn”; Ibn Khaldūn, “Kitāb al-ʿibar”)
  • Travel Account, 15th c. (Leo Africanus, “Descrittone dell’ Africa”)
  • Archaeological Analysis, (Lamia Hadda and Luciana Jacobelli, “Le Parc archéologique de Chella”; Moulay Driss Sedra, “La Nécropole de Chella”; Jean Boube, “Mission archéologique française à Chella“)