Ben Aïssa Moussem: a guide to Morocco's largest religious festival

Volubilis. Roman. Ruin. Morocco. Africa.

'Volubilis (VII)' by isawnyuCreative Commons Attribution 

This is an excerpt from Lonely Planet's A Year of Festivals.

Location: Sidi ben Aïssa mausoleum, Meknès, Morocco

Date: The day before the birth date of the Prophet Mohammed; the date shifts according to the Muslim calendar

Level of participation: 2 – watch the fantasias and the dancing and have a play in the fairground

Morocco has a number of moussems (festivals in honour of saints) throughout the year but that which celebrates Sidi ben Aïssa is by far the largest. Ben Aïssa was the founder of the Aïssawa Sufi brotherhood in the 15th century, and it used to be traditional for devotees to honour him at the moussem by cheerfully digesting anything from glass to snakes while in trances. Nowadays you’ll still come across entranced disciples around the mausoleum, but you’ll only see the hardcore stuff in photos displayed around town – poetry readings are more common than glass breakfasts. Still, it’s a busy festival with fantasias (musket-firing cavalry charges), medieval pageantry (against a backdrop of a modern fairground), illusionists and plenty of singing and dancing – music is a very strong feature of Aïssawan Sufism.

Essentials: Accommodation is difficult to find in Meknès during the moussem, so try to come a few days early. Fès is just one hour away by bus, so you could stay there.

Local attractions: The hilltop tomb of Moulay Idriss and the Roman ruins at Volubilis (33km north of Meknès) are two of Morocco’s most significant historic sites.

More info: Moroccan National Tourist Office (www.visitmorocco.org)

See more festivals in March here.