All content was accurate when this story was published in November 2012.
But on the first evening of our nine-night adventure, the talk among the passengers was not about shopping, food or architecture. Instead, everyone was buzzing about the three professors who would accompany us on our journey: Peter Awn, Harvey Cox and Jodi Magness, from Columbia, Harvard and the University of North Carolina, respectively.
As the newbie, I only knew that this voyage, a tour called "Coexistence of Cultures and Faiths" -- which the Smithsonian was cosponsoring with the Art Institute of Chicago, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and the alumni groups of Harvard and UNC -- would be different from other cruises I'd taken.
I felt a little guilty that first night because, true to collegiate form, I hadn't read all the books on the Smithsonian's reading list. But it wasn't like there was going to be a test at the end ... was there? This was still vacation, after all.
We were quite taken with our stateroom, a corner suite with two large picture windows, decorated with deep blue fabrics and rich rosewood paneling. Three full-length closets, lots of bureau drawers and bathroom shelving gave us more than enough storage space. Fresh fruit arrived daily, and our mini-fridge was kept stocked with bottled water and soda. I spent many a late night lounging in my plush robe, reading and watching movies on the room's DVD player.
It's no exaggeration to say that mealtimes were one of the trip's highlights, and not just because of the first-rate cuisine. Every breakfast, lunch and dinner became the setting for stimulating discussions on politics, history, art, education, family, travel and religion. Our fellow travelers ranged in age from 50's to 80's and included artists, physicians, lawyers, bankers, teachers, community volunteers, entrepreneurs and executives -- all well traveled, all with stories to tell.
The Stars of the Cruise
On that first evening in Seville, we gathered in the ship's lounge to meet the distinguished lecturers who would share their insights and expertise. The news that Professor Awn, a renowned Islamic expert, had been called away on an international emergency was greeted with groans of dismay.
Well, more or less. As the lecturers emphasized, tolerance levels among Muslims and Christians varied, and there were inevitably periods when adherents to each religion cracked down on the other. But the fact remains that Jews and Christians coexisted with Muslims when the Moors ruled southern Spain. The great lesson for the post-9/11 world is that the three religions respected one another's cultures and shared their traditions over centuries. We saw the evidence of this time and again in the art and architecture of the cities we visited.
As we headed out to sea, our lecturers kicked off the "entertainment" portion of the trip with four presentations in two days. From Jodi, we got a sort of "Western Mediterranean Archeology 101" survey course about life in Roman Iberia and North Africa. She fed us delectable tidbits of history, such as the Roman propensity for communal latrines and for serving mice as appetizers.
And Harvey brought us up to speed on the astonishing changes in Morocco's political landscape. No PowerPoint presentations for this guy. Passing out photocopies of a 2002 New York Times article about King Mohammed VI's marriage, he drew our attention to the 24-year-old bride's Botticelli curls -- uncovered -- and her independent career as an IT professional. The message was clear: the country is not mired in the past.
Passenger: "What kind of money do they use?"
In the port of Safi, a low-key town where blue roofs and shutters dominate a landscape of whitewashed houses, we learned that the Moorish-Iberian influence worked both ways: we could have been in Portugal. Then we settled in for the 2.5-hour bus ride to Marrakesh. I don't think any of the passengers realized quite how far inland the city was. There was some grumbling over the efficacy of spending five hours on a bus in order to spend seven hours in the city, but no one wanted to miss seeing this fabled destination.
I was disappointed to learn that our esteemed lecturers would not be leading our land tours. Alas, they only enlightened us onboard. We explored our destinations via motorcoach, in highly structured tours led by local guides. Luckily, mine were uniformly excellent, personable and well informed; others on our cruise said they did not fare as well.
As we speed-walked through the old Mellah Quarter, the medina and the souk, I looked longingly through doorways and storefronts and remembered why I dislike tours: I wanted to poke around at my own pace. We visited a
(religious school), a palace and the famous Place Jemaa El Fna, home to snake-charmers, chained monkeys and the people who love them. But for me, the high point of the afternoon was the jewelry store-cum-museum where I agonized over a selection of antique necklaces. I left with not only jewelry, but an ornate mirror and a
-- a hand-shaped amulet to ward off the evil eye.
Casa and Rabat
Casablanca, Morocco's industrial center, is called simply "Casa" by locals. As our bus passed Rick's Cafe, of "Casablanca" fame, Fattah sniffed, saying it wasn't even authentic but merely a re-creation from the movie. He took us instead to the mosque of Hassan II -- the largest mosque in the country, with the tallest minaret in the world at 689 feet. The place is a wonder, and we marveled at its construction. Even better were the architectural flourishes that Terah had prepared us for: tilework, plaster moldings, arches, inscriptions. And even better than that was the fact that we could visit at all: It's one of only two mosques in the country that's open to non-Muslims.
In Rabat, we visited a 12th-century
(fortress) and 17th-century palace, wandered through the medina and admired the city's French Deco architecture. Stunning sights all, but it was beginning to feel like any old tour.
Tangier, that most magical of cities, is the legendary home of poets and artists who came to visit and never wanted to leave. I didn't want to leave, either.
As we entered, we stepped onto U.S. soil: the two-story, 45-room building was a gift from Morocco to the United States in 1821. (Fun fact: Morocco was the first country in the world to recognize the fledging United States, on December 20, 1777.) The building was a diplomatic mission until 1961; now it's a nonprofit museum and cultural center, and it offers literacy classes for women in the neighborhood. With its impressive artwork, antique furniture and rugs, exquisite tiles and ornate woodwork, not to mention a truly impressive toy soldier collection (it belonged to the late publisher Malcolm Forbes), the place is a must for anyone who loves old buildings.
That evening, Terah told us that we'd truly been following in the footsteps of Matisse. When the artist visited Morocco in 1912, it rained during the first three weeks of his visit to Tangier. We could relate.
"Think about it," Cox said. "There's never been an instance of a Muslim leader threatening to burn a Bible."
We were back on Spanish soil, in the glorious southern city of Granada. With more than 3 million visitors a year, the Alhambra is the most visited site in Spain, and no wonder. With its ornate palaces, towers and gardens, it's considered the finest example of Islamic art in the western world. A compelling site, yes -- but thanks to our lectures, I saw it as more of a summing-up point for everything we'd learned and seen on this trip. With its many-layered history (founded by Muslims, influenced by Jews and Christians, and taken over by Christians), it symbolized everything we'd learned about the sharing and interweaving of cultures. Yet the predominant Muslim themes -- austere exteriors, lovely central courtyards, arches, fountains, geometric patterns, reflecting pools -- shone through.
But all was calm when we set out next day for Gibraltar, our final stop. How can you not like a place where there are more tunnels than roads; where the locals speak Spanglish, drive on the left and say "Cheerio"; where wild but tourist-savvy Barbary apes pounce on your head and try to steal your sunglasses? Pure fun, and a nice way to end our explorations.
Happily, there was one last talk to attend before we disembarked -- Harvey Cox on the state of Islam and Christianity today. As usual, he knocked it out of the park, incorporating what we'd learned and imbuing us with his reality-based optimism. "We keep hearing that we're fated to a clash of civilizations," he said, "because of the history of religious conflict and the centuries of bloodletting. It's just not true."