Abandoned, crumbling and overgrown, the old Roman city of Sala Colonia and the Merenid necropolis of Chellah is one of Rabat’s most evocative sights. The Phoenicians were the first to settle on the grassy slopes above the river, but the town grew when the Romans took control in about AD 40. The city was abandoned in 1154 in favour of Salé, but in the 14th century the Merenid sultan Abou al-Hassan Ali built a necropolis on top of the Roman site and surrounded it with the towers and defensive wall that stand today.
Overgrown by fruit trees and wild flowers, it is an atmospheric place to roam around. From the main gate, a path heads down through fragrant fig, olive and orange trees to a viewing platform that overlooks the ruins of the Roman city. Making out the structures takes a bit of imagination, but the mystery is part of the magic of this place. A path leads through the ruins of the triple-arched entrance known as the Arc de Triomphe, past the Jupiter Temple (to the left) and to the forum (at the end of the main road), while another goes to the octagonal Pool of the Nymph, part of the Roman system of water distribution.
Far easier to discern are the remains of the Islamic complex , with its elegant minaret now topped by a stork’s nest. An incredible colony of storks has taken over the ruins, lording over the site from their tree-top nests. If you visit in spring, the clacking bills of mating pairs is a wonderful soundtrack to a visit.
Near the ruined minaret is the tomb of Abou al-Hassan Ali and his wife, complete with ornate zellij ornamentation. A small medersa is nearby, where the remains of pillars, students’ cells and scalloped pools – as well as the blocked-off mihrab (prayer niche) – are still discernible. On leaving the mosque, the path passes the tombs of several saints on the far right. To the left, the murky waters of a walled pool (marked ‘bassin aux anguilles’ ) still attract women who believe that feeding boiled eggs to the eels here brings fertility and easy childbirth.