“The Sultan Moulay Ismail,” wrote his chronicler, Ezziani, “loved Mequinez, and he would have liked never to leave it.” But leave it he did, ceaselessly campaigning against the rebel Berber chiefs of the south, and the Europeans entrenched in Tangier, Asilah and Larache, until the entire country lay completely under government control for the first time in five centuries. His reign saw the creation of Morocco’s strongest ever – and most coherent – army, which included the Black Guard, a regiment of sub-Saharan “slave soldiers”, and, it is reckoned, a garrison force of one in twenty of the male population. The period was Morocco’s last golden age, though the ruthless centralization of all decisions, and the fear with which the sultan reigned, led to a slide into anarchy and weak, inward-looking rule.
Ismail’s achievements were matched by his tyrannies, which were judged extreme even by the standards of the time – and contemporary Europeans were burning their enemies and torturing them on the rack. His reign began with the display of four hundred heads at Fez, most of them of captured chiefs, and over the next five decades it is estimated that he was responsible for over thirty thousand deaths, not including those killed in battle. Many of these deaths were quite arbitrary. Mounting a horse, Ismail might slash the head off the eunuch holding his stirrup; inspecting the work on his buildings, he would carry a weighted lance, with which to batter skulls in order to “encourage” the others. “My subjects are like rats in a basket,” he used to say, “and if I do not keep shaking the basket they will gnaw their way through.”
Yet the sultan was a tireless builder throughout Morocco, constructing towns and ports, and a multitude of defensive kasbahs, palaces and bridges. By far his greatest efforts were focused on Meknes, where he sustained an obsessive building programme, often acting as architect and sometimes even working alongside the slaves and labourers. Ironically, time has not been kind to his constructions in his favoured home town. Built mainly of tabia, a mixture of earth and lime, they were severely damaged by a hurricane even in his lifetime, and were left to decay thereafter, as subsequent Alaouite sultans shifted their capitals back to Fez and Marrakesh. Walter Harris, writing only 150 years after Ismail’s death, found Meknes “a city of the dead…strewn with marble columns and surrounded by great masses of ruin”. Thankfully, more recent city authorities have tackled the restoration of the main monuments with more energy.