Benedictine Monastery of Toumliline
Azrou, Morocco

Located in the high elevations of the Middle Atlas, the ridge where the monastery was built was first identified by the French Foreign Legion as a strategic location on the main inland road to the Sahara. A boys' school was established for the male children of colonials who dropped out of school. In October 1952, 20 Benedictine monks arrived to establish a monastery. They agreed to keep the school open, and also built the cloister which they named "the Priory of Christ the King". 


Conforming to the Benedictine Order's motto of "Ora et Labora" (pray and work), they engaged in agricultural activity, with orchards, an apiary, and the breeding of livestock. They also built a new building for the schoolboys, a facility that progressively became a mix between an orphanage and a boarding school for young boys from the neighboring city of Azrou. From 1952 to 1955, due to the development of their activities and the growing influx of visitors, they built a hostel, dispensary, and conference facilities. They also constructed several cabins outside the Monastery, next to the river, to welcome Christian family visitors coming for Easter celebrations.


The architecture can be said to have been influenced by the Nieuwe Kunstschool, a school of applied arts in Amsterdam; the De Stijl art movement that originated in Leiden during the early 20th century; and the style of Dutch designer/architect Gerrit Rietveld. The buildings show a remarkable ability to combine the local materials (lava and cedarwood) with the spirit of functional, Modernist architecture. The monastery is built on the articulation of two main spaces: the "sacred space" of the chapel and the cloister which was used only by the monks, and the "secular space" where the monks interacted with the world, including the boys of the orphanage, visitors, customers of their agricultural enterprises. The spaces were connected via long, elevated, covered ramps. The chapel and the Prior's office were at the junction of the two spaces. 


The chapel had two entrances that allowed access from either the sacred or secular spaces. The door of the Prior's office was located at the beginning of the ramp, allowing entry to both the monks and others to enter. The architect wanted the buildings to be functional, while simultaneously expressing both the Catholic faith of the monks and their respect for the Moroccan people and their Islamic faith. They were to be open and welcoming to all. Accordingly, the chapel, a place of prayer that was also open to the community via their own entrance, was given special attention. The architect designed the ceiling to feature a 5-pointed, Sharifian star, a symbol of the Moroccan monarchy, to indicate that the monks placed themselves under the protection of Amir el Mouminin, Commander of the Faithfull, the religious title of the King of Morocco. The Moroccan monarchy was considered the protector of the Ahl el Kitab, the People of the Book, the communities of the three Abrahamic faiths, Christianity and Judaism, in addition to Islam. To show respect to the local Muslim populations, who recognize Jesus as a prophet, and the Islamic tradition of not representing human forms, the stained glass windows of the chapel do not depict the Christ as a man, but rather a seated lamb, symbolizing his purity and vulnerability. At the same time, the architect, who was also a passionate gardener, created Zen and Japanese gardens, next to the traditional benedictine botanical and medicinal gardens.


After Morocco regained its independence in 1956, the monastery began hosting international conferences that brought together people of all faiths from around the world to discuss the major issues faced by the world in the late 50s and early 60s. The first international meetings were held under the patronage of King Mohammed V. The 1957 meeting was chaired by King Hassan II, then Crown Prince. Princess Lalla Aïcha addressed the emancipation of Moroccan women during that meeting.  


In 1968 the monks decided to close the monastery, due to multiple factors. These included the growing financing needs of the monastery to continue hosting the annual International Encounters of Toumliline. In addition, the Benedictines had opened two other monasteries in West Africa, the Monastère Sainte Marie de Bouaké (1960) in the Ivory Coast, and the Abbaye Saint Benoît de Koubri (1961) in Burkina Faso. Sending monks to those monasteries decreased their ability to staff and raise funds for the facilities and activities at Toumliline. Simultaneously, the monks were challenged by growing internal tensions in Morocco, and international tensions generated by the Cold War. These tensions also generated internal dissent among the monks of the community over the appropriate between their vocation as monks and their engagement in the social and political environment. The Moroccan authorities finally proposed to exchange the site with another piece of land elsewhere in Morocco, specifically the city of Temara, approximately 10 km west of Rabat. Instead, the monks chose to close the monastery. Some returned to the Abbey of En-Calcat, others went to one of the two monasteries in West Africa.


One of the projects of Fondation Mémoires pour l'Avenir (FMA), a Moroccan nonprofit founded in 2008 to foster the development of a modern, open-minded citizenry through an understanding of history, is the Réinventer Toumliline Project. The project aims to uncover the history of the Toumliline Meetings, and to make that history better known to the public, especially within Morocco. Ultimately the foundation plans to revive the monastery as a center for dialogue within Moroccan society, but also internationally, with a special focus on fostering democratic, open societies in Africa and the Arab world. 



Sources: 


Beach, Peter, and William Dunphy. Benedictine and Moor. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960.

 

Fondation « Mémoires pour l’Avenir ». “Projet Réinventer Toumliline.” Accessed April 27, 2021. https://www.memoirespourlavenir.ma/projet-reinventer-toumliline. Archived at https://perma.cc/H4KH-FQEC.


GUELZIM, Yassir. “Toumliline : Le Dialogue Interreligieux Au Maroc à L'honneur.” Le Courrier de l'Atlas, March 5, 2021. https://www.lecourrierdelatlas.com/toumliline-le-dialogue-interreligieux-au-maroc-a-lhonneur/. Archived at https://perma.cc/5G8L-3YC9.


“Monasticism: End Of An Adventure.” Time. Time Inc., May 23, 1969. http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,900875,00.html. Archived at https://perma.cc/9C4A-NBRL.

Location
3 km southeast of Azrou center, Azrou, Morocco
Images & Videos
Events
1952 established
Dimensions
1600 m2; landscaping: 3700 m2
Variant Names
Monastery of Toumliline
Benedictine Monastery of Toumliline
ديرتومليلين
Alternate
Priory of Christ the King
Formerly known as
Building Usages
farm
agricultural
conference center
public/cultural
church
religious
monastery
religious
library
educational
Materials/Techniques
volcanic rock
cedar
oak