Cemeteries of Rabat- Molly Mansfield

Our first three weeks in Fez have come to a close and our group has moved on to Rabat. These two cities, separated by 200 kilometers, showcase very different aspects of Morocco. Fez is the historical and religious capital, while Rabat is the political capital.

One of the first things I noticed about Rabat, aside from its size, beautiful architecture, and rocky shorelines, was its cemeteries. During our first day in the city, overlooking the ocean from a restaurant near the Rabat Kasbah, we watched the Atlantic waves crash against the rocky shore while hundreds of people milled about on the beach and umbrellas dotted the sand. What I didn’t expect to see were the vast cemeteries framing the edge of the sea, nestled between the beach and the city behind it.

I immediately had a lot of questions. Just a few days prior, Safae, a master’s Student in Fez, had visited our class to discuss her thesis research. Safae explained that she was studying the differences between women’s involvement in Sufism than in other sects of Islam. One lens through which she examined female Sufi leaders’ importance and societal impact was the locations and discourse surrounding their grave sites. For example, she explained that when researching these grave sites, the women’s burial locations were often described in relation to men’s grave sites.

Hearing Safae discuss the social implications of grave sites reminded me of my own experiences and fascination with the history and social situations reflected through cemeteries.

After researching my own family tree for a few years, I’ve used lots of data from cemetery databases, such as Findagrave.com. The site has a huge database of cemeteries, with memorials showing each person buried within the cemetery. Often, the memorial is accompanied by a photo of the headstone, which can be useful to family members and researchers as it may show the birth or death date of the person, or the names of close relatives such as a spouse or child. If the memorial doesn’t happen to have a photo, the researcher can request that a person in the cemetery’s area travel to the cemetery to take a photo and upload it to the site.

I’ve started taking these photographs in my spare time in my hometown of Fredericksburg as well as in Durham and have been surprised by the things I learn and the ways I feel more connected to my community. In Durham, cemeteries often vary in many ways- the size of the headstones, how many graves are marked, the maintenance of plant growth in the area. These factors can provide insights into the history of the cemetery itself, the lives and backgrounds of the people who are buried there, and the social, political, economic, and cultural systems during their lifetimes.

Staring out at the huge cemeteries along the shore, I wanted to know why such large cemeteries were immediately very visible in Rabat, while after spending three weeks in Fez, the only cemetery I had seen was the Jewish cemetery (which took quite a journey to locate). This certainly might have been only coincidence but did get me thinking about the different historical contexts in Fez and Rabat that may have contributed to this difference.

I attempted to do some research on the histories of Rabat’s many cemeteries, but found limited information online, at least in English. While this lack of information was frustrating, it did make me think about why my questions might not be answered by a quick online search, and what other places might hold that knowledge.

After a few days in Rabat, I was able to visit the cemeteries near the ocean. While I didn’t learn much about the history of the cemetery, it was interesting to see many apparent traditions up close. Each grave faced the same direction, as it is customary for the buried person to face Mecca. I was also interested to see that most graves were composed of a back headstone and a rectangular area on the ground, with a middle section full of soil. Some graves had plants growing from these inner sections, and I wasn’t sure of the intentionality or significance of this. I wasn’t able to understand the writing on the headstones with my small knowledge of Arabic, but I hope to return during my time in Rabat to try to translate some of these and to learn more of the cemetery’s history, and well as that of others in Rabat and Fez.

Writing this week’s blog post left me with way more questions than it did answers, but its also encouraged me to be more aware of the histories of the places I visit, do research beyond just a quick google, and to keep wondering about the stories that cemeteries might tell.

A cemetery in Rabat

1 comment to Cemeteries of Rabat- Molly Mansfield

  • ماكس

    So cool that you’re able to see the cemeteries in Morocco and compare them to those you’ve seen back home! I know how much you’ve learned about Durham by taking pictures for Find A Grave, and I hope that you’re able to learn more about Morocco through these visits.

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