Where the Sun Truly Sets
(Excerpted from H.K. Chang’s The Greater Middle East: Travelogue & Reflections)
Translated by Bruce Humes in Collaboration with the Author
(Map source: Nations Online Project)
In the early 8th century, the commander of an Arab expeditionary force spurred his horse toward Tangier on the southern bank of the Strait of Gibraltar. Upon arrival, all he could see was the sun sinking into the vast ocean. With no land visible, he assumed this was the “extreme western point” of the world, and so he stopped there. In Arabic, “Maghrib” means the west, or “the place where the sun sets.” More generally, the term “Maghreb” refers to the four countries of North Africa. But Morocco, which faces the Atlantic, is the westernmost of the four and thus the “true” home of the setting sun.
My first sight of the land that hosts the setting sun was in August 1998. The weather was hazy that day, and I was standing atop a castle in Tarifa, Spain’s south- ernmost town. Even with binoculars, I could only make out its general contour. Like Santiago, the Andalusian shepherd boy in Paulo Coelho’s famous novel, The Alchemist, I resolved one day to cross the strait from Tarifa to Tangier.
In November 2010, I finally boarded the ferry from Tarifa to Tangier. When we disembarked, the dock lobby was bustling, but the guide we had hired beforehand was nowhere to be seen. I got through to him on the phone, and it emerged he was still on the road and would be forty minutes late. My wife and I seated ourselves in an open-air cafe nearby, and we observed all sorts of passers-by while awaiting his arrival. I noticed that many men were wearing djelleba, a long robe with a pointed hood, and not a few wearing pointed sandals too. I had been to many Arab countries, but had never seen real people wearing anything like it. I assumed this must be traditional Berber wear.
This scene brings to mind Ibn Battuta, a celebrated 14th-century Berber explorer born in Tangier. He journeyed much further afield than The Alchemist’s Santiago; he not only set foot on the pyramids of which he had dreamt as a youngster, but he also resided a fairly long time in India and China (then under Mongol rule). Twenty-eight years later he returned to his hometown, where he was welcomed by the Sultan of Morocco who ordered him to chronicle his journeys that focused largely on the Islamic world. A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Traveling, his renowned travelogue, is often known simply as The Travels of Ibn Battuta.
Born in a later era, I never encountered the generous Sultans portrayed in the travelogue, nor did I have the potentially fatal misfortune of capsizing in a stormy sea. But for several decades, I did often roam solo across the “Greater Middle East.” Might I have been inspired — if unwittingly — by the example of Ibn Battuta?
The geography of Morocco is very distinctive. From its northernmost territory, across the Strait of Gibraltar you can see Spain directly opposite. At the eastern end of the strait lies Ceuta, which has been ruled by Spain for centuries; Ceuta faces a strip of land on the Spanish mainland that has been British for centuries — Gibraltar. Meanwhile, at the western end of the strait is Tangier, the closest African port to the European continent.
Within Morocco’s borders, not far inland south from the Mediterranean Sea, the Rif Mountains run almost parallel to the coast. Slightly to the south, stretching northeast to the southwest are the Middle Atlas and High Atlas moun- tain ranges, and further south lies the Anti Atlas. Morocco’s climate, vegetation, ethnic groups, languages, and ways of life are roughly divided into four regions by these three mountain ranges: the northernmost is Mediterranean; the southernmost is dominated by a desert, the Sahara; traditionally, the heart of Morocco has been located in the Middle Atlas and High Atlas regions; and the Atlantic Ocean coast — home to two cities with briefer pedigrees, the capital Rabat and economic powerhouse Casa Blanca — constitutes the fourth region.
Approximately 100 kilometers to the east of the Atlantic coast, south of the Mediterranean and north of the Middle Atlas Mountains lies a strip of fertile plain. It hosts two neighboring cultural attractions, one rooted in the Roman Empire and the other in the Islamic world.
One is the ruins of Volubilis, an ancient Roman city founded in 2nd century CE. The temples, sports fields, exquisite courtyards, and mosaic floors illustrate the sophisticated Mediterranean civilization that flourished there in ancient times.
Whenever I see the Han era beacon towers in Xinjiang, I marvel at the fact that the Han Empire extended so far west. When I saw the imposing and exquisite remains of ancient cities in Morocco, the Roman Empire’s westernmost territory, I realized once again that each of these 2nd-century great empires had its own merits.
Another cultural landmark nearby is a small town built on a hill called Moulay Idris, named after its founder Idris, who was the great-great grandson of Ali, Mohammad’s cousin and son-in-law. In the middle of the 8th century, after the rise of the Abbasid Caliphate, Idris fled Mecca for Morocco where he was welcomed and supported by the Berbers, and established the first Arab Shiite kingdom.
Having strolled through this small town, I couldn’t help but think of China in the second half of the 8th century when the Tang Dynasty’s rule had already peaked. In Du Fu’s Song for a Prince Deposed (哀王孙), which describes the occupation of the eastern capital Luoyang by the forces of the rebellious general An Lushan— himself of Sogdian and Göktürk origin—and the flight of the nobility toward Sichuan, he writes:
Jackals and wolves roam the capital
Imperial dragons flee to the countryside.
May the royal grandchildren protect themselves!
Of course, at about the same time as Du Fu penned Two Odes on the Yellow River (黄河二首), he could not have known that a deposed Middle Eastern sovereign and his entourage would successfully find their way to North Africa, and join forces with the indigenous Berbers to establish the first Shiite kingdom in Morocco. Yet in one of the two odes, he writes of the Hu, a term used in ancient times to refer to “barbarians” on the fringes of the Han-dominated Chinese empire:
Myriad armored steeds whinny in the air
As high-nosed Hu fighters mass here and there.
Having thought of two poems by Du Fu, I couldn’t help recall a contemporary of his who shared his surname. Du Huan (杜环), a Tang military officer who took part in the Battle of Talas in Central Asia in 751 CE, was captured by the Arabs. He was made a member of the Abbasid army and stationed in the Middle East and North Africa. Upon returning to China he wrote a book recounting what he had seen, including an account of the religions and social customs in Morocco. Du Huan was therefore credited as the first Chinese to visit Morocco.
Morocco is a picturesque and variegated country. Measured in terms of the depth and length of its history, the splendor of its culture, abundance of its species, beauty of its scenery, and especially the variety of people’s looks and garb, Morocco may be the most outstanding of the countries I have visited — India being the only obvious exception. [終]
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For a bit of insight into Professor Chang, here is the back cover blurb:
Greater Middle East: Travelogue and Reflections is a history reader, cultural primer and notebook of a peripatetic rolled into a single volume. Raised in Taiwan and steeped in Chinese culture, Professor Chang set out on his self-styled “voyage across civilizations” from Gondar, Ethiopia, where his parents pioneered a medical center for WHO in the early 1960s.
Over the next five decades, he voyaged frequently. Two hard statistics are informative: 105 countries, 58 years. Based on his on-the- ground observations, he proposes the concept of a “Greater Middle East” that consists of 16 countries of the traditional Middle East, plus another 15 located on its periphery. Excepting Israel, the former are overwhelmingly Muslim, with Egypt to the west, Yemen and Oman to the south, Turkey to the north, and Iran to the east.
But his travelogue also takes us to the “fringes”: North Africa’s Maghreb, whose fusion of pre- Islamic Berber roots and deep Muslim faith makes it unique; the four countries of the Horn of Africa where Asia meets Africa, particularly Ethiopia with its Orthodox Christian faith and Jewish Falasha; the Mediterranean’s Greece, Cyprus and Malta; and the hodge-podge of ethnicities and religions that inhabit the southern Caucasus—Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan.
Professor Chang is not an Arabist, an anthropologist or a travel writer along the lines of a sometimes-caustic Paul Theroux. Nor is he a European limited by a traditional Western education with its emphasis on Judeo-Christian values. While this travelogue is hardly a Chinese “take” on the Greater Middle East, it does benefit from the author’s firm grounding in East Asian culture and history. In particular, there are several “bonus” chapters documenting the impact of the Mongol Empire and nomadic culture of the Turkic peoples on the region, and this is something special—perhaps even unexpected—that you won’t find in your run- of-the-mill Middle East guidebook.
H. K. Chang is one of those rare personalities who first excelled in the hard sciences—he holds a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from Northwestern University (USA) and was Dean of Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh— but went on to devote himself to the humanities, authoring 12 books on civilizations and education. Professor H. K. Chang was President of City University of Hong Kong from 1996 to 2007. He has been a visiting professor at the University of Paris, Cairo University, University of Delhi, Bilkent University in Ankara and Bosphorus University in Istanbul. An honorary professor at Peking University, Tsinghua University and others, he is a Foreign Member of the Royal Academy of Engineering (UK) and a Chevalier of France’s L’Ordre national de la Légion d’Honneur.