Part 3: Meknes, Volubilis & Moulay Idriss
Meknes (May 2nd-3rd, days 5-6)
Meknes is one of Morocco's four imperial cities (with Fez, Rabat and Marrakesh). It was the capital of Morocco during the reign of Moulay Ismail (1672–1727), a contemporary and friend of Louis XIV and perhaps the greatest and most ruthless ruler in Moroccon history. After defeating all of Morocco's internal (Berber tribes, Barbary pirates) and external (British, Spanish, Turkish) opponents he started a huge building program in his new capital, using 10000s of European slaves. The earthquake of 1755, which devastated Lisbon, did a lot of damage in Meknes as well and the capital was moved elsewhere.
Today Meknes lives in the shadow of Fez which is only 60km away. I doubted about visiting Meknes or not, but I'm glad we did. It's the most pleasant of the big cities to be in because it's less touristy and therefore there's much less harassment.
We arrived in the afternoon, got a hotel in the Ville Nouvelle and then immediately headed to the main square of the old town, Place el-Hedim. This features Meknes' main monument, the huge Bab el-Mansour gate. I knew from looking on a map that the sun would be on it in the late afternoon, and was very glad we went immediately because the day after it was cloudy in the afternoon. It's all about the pictures! :)
On another side of the Place el-Hedim there's a big covered market where Lotte had a good time drooling over all the candy and fruit. The shops make very pretty displays of their wares.
Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail
The next day we first headed to the mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, the sultan who made Meknes his capital.
Inside the mausoleum complex you first have to go through a series of austere courtyards which, and I quote this literally from the LP, are "meant to induce a quiet and humble attitude among visitors".
The actual mausoleum is magnificent. All these pictures are from the hall next to the one with the tomb.
As non-muslims we weren't allowed to enter the actual tomb hall, which was a good thing in this case because now there were no tourists walking in front of my camera.
Next we visited the Koubbat as-Sufara, which was a reception hall for foreign ambassadors, and the network of crypts below it which were used for storage. This was a very fun place to make pictures.
Medina of Meknes
Most monuments were closed in the early afternoon so we spent a few hours walking around the medina of Meknes and the streets right outside it.
When we wandered off a little to the west from the medina because I wanted to see a mausoleum there, some local women persuaded Lotte to get henna tattoos on her hands. This involved a lot of angry discussions because the one who first approached Lotte considered her her customer but other women were quickly interfering.
In the end two of the other women got to do one hand each but even while they were busy the first woman kept arguing with them, probably about how much she'd get.
Some pictures I made during the process...
It turned out the henna was making a red tattoo, which doesn't look as nice as dark henna tattoos do in my opinion.
While Lotte sat with the women a while longer to let the henna dry I walked towards the mausoleum of Sidi ben Aïssa, a sort of cult leader whose gang practiced self-mutilation. I knew non-muslims weren't allowed but I just walked in and took a few pictures in the courtyard before I was told to leave, but they're not worth showing. Sneaking into the cemetary next to the mausoleum I got this nice picture though.
North of the medina
After the henna adventure we walked back into the medina towards its northern gate, Bab Berdaine, near the Berdaine Mosque, and then walked back to the Place el-Hedim for lunch.
Dar Jamaï is the former palace of the Jamaï family, who built it in 1882. In 1894 the sultan they served died and the new one gave this palace and all the Jamaï's other possessions to a rival family. Nowadays it's a museum showing traditional ceramics, jewelry, textiles etc, but I was only interested in the building. Photography was not allowed but luckily there were few guards.
Medersa Bou Inania
This medersa (theological school) was built in 1358 by Bou Inan, who also built the medersa of the same name which I visited in Fez. This one was also stunningly ornamented but less impressive in size.
We could get on the roof to look at the minaret of the Grande Mosquée next door, but seeing the roof of the medina all around us was more interesting.
We had the unfortunate idea of finishing the day by walking to the Agdal Basin, some 3km from the medina. This basin is a huge rectangular artificial lake, and next to it is the Heri es-Souani, a huge building that provided stabling and food for an incredible 12000 horses of Moulay Ismail's army.
The idea was unfortunate firstly because the Heri es-Souani turned out to be closed for restauration, secondly because the basin was just that, but mostly because the walk there takes you along 2km of featureless straight streets with blind fortress walls on both sides. Moroccon sultans sure loved building walls! (cfr. Fez) This must have been the dullest walk ever - take a taxi if you intend to go this route.
Fortunately we could find a taxi at the basin to take us back.
Volubilis & Moulay Idriss (May 4th, day 7)
These two destinations are a typical day trip from Meknes. You can hire a grand taxi for the day and in fact the taxi drivers in Meknes push you to do this if you say you're going there, but we insisted on taking separate rides which was much cheaper, much more pleasant and turned out to be just as easy - we never had to wait.
Volubilis is an ancient city that was annexed by the Roman empire around 40 AD and became the administrative center of their province Mauretania Tingitana (now northern Morocco). After the fall of the empire it remained an important city until around 790 when Moulay Idris (who I'll talk about below) founded a new capital in nearby Fez.
Nowadays excavations have uncovered the remains of the Roman town, including many beautifully preserved mosaics. I've seen Roman mosaics before, e.g. in Antakya (Antioch), but never in the open air and in their original location. Volubilis was declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 1997.
First of all here are some of the two dozen or so mosaics we saw...
The real stars of Volubilis though are the storks who've built their nests on top of the Roman pillars. There's one on a pillar of the Capitol, a temple built in 218 AD for Jupiter, Juno and Minerva...
... and one on a pillar of the ancient basilica...
The following pictures give an overview of the rest of the site, from the Triumphal Arch to the northern gate, connected by the ceremonial road Decumanus Maximus.
Though this part of Volubilis looks like a pile of rubble, this is where the best-preserved mosaics are.
Finally let's look at some Roman engineering and nature's engineering...
We finished the visit with a drink in the Volubilis café.
Moulay Idriss was a descendant of the prophet Mohammed's daughter Fatima who fled Mekka in 786 AD because the caliph was set to murder him and his family. He settled in Volubilis where he converted the local Berbers, became their leader and unified much of northern Morocco, founding its first dynasty (the Idrissids) and a new capital in Fez.
Moulay Idriss is a much-revered figure in Morocco, and his mausoleum in this mountain town which was named after him is an important site of pilgrimage. It's at just a few kilometers from Volubilis (you can see one from the other in fact).
The classic view in Moulay Idriss is watching the town from two small terraces on the hill next to it. The buildings with the green roofs are the mausoleum.
We had a meal near the mausoleum and Lotte enjoyed it so much she had to have a picture of the cook and his funny hat.
In the late afternoon we took a shared taxi back to Meknes. Shared taxis (called grand taxi in French) are invariably old Mercedes cars which only leave when there are six passengers: two sit in front like we did here, and four sit in the back.
Table of Contents
1. Northern Morocco
3. Meknes, Volubilis & Moulay Idriss
5. Atlas mountains & Aït Benhaddou
6. Drâa valley to Merzouga
7. Erg Chebbi & Rissani
8. The Gorges
9. Taourirt and Telouet