Cut in two by the wide river valley of the Oued Boufekrane, MEKNES is a prosperous city with a notably relaxed and friendly atmosphere, due in part to a large student population. Monuments from its past, particularly the extraordinary creations of Moulay Ismail, justify a day or two’s rambling exploration, as do the varied and busy souks of its Medina – a uniquely well-preserved combination that have earned the entire city a place on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. Visitors en route to Fez will find Meknes a good introduction to the drama of its illustrious neighbour, while those arriving from Fez are sure to enjoy the reduced tempo.
An easy excursion from Meknes, Volubilis and Moulay Idriss embody much of Morocco’s early history: Volubilis as its Roman provincial capital, Moulay Idriss in the creation of the country’s first Arab dynasty. Their sites stand 4km apart, at either side of a deep and very fertile valley, about 25km north of the city.
The holy town of MOULAY IDRISS, spread across the foothills of Jebel Zerhoune, 25km north of Meknes and 4km from Volubilis, takes its name from its founder, Morocco’s most venerated saint and the creator of its first Arab dynasty. His mausoleum, the reason for its sacred status, is the object of constant pilgrimage, not to mention an important summer moussem – a trip to which is worth a fifth of the hajj to Mecca. For most Western tourists, there is little specific to see and certainly nothing that may be visited – non-Muslims are barred from the shrine – but you could easily lose a happy half-day exploring the tangled lanes that shimmy between the sugar-cube houses scattered over the hills, enjoying delightful window-views or just absorbing the laidback atmosphere. Few tourists bother to stay overnight, another reason to linger.
Moulay Idriss el Akhbar (The Great) was a great-grandson of the Prophet Mohammed; his grandparents were Mohammed’s daughter Fatima, and his cousin and first follower, Ali. Heir to the Caliphate in Damascus, he fled to Morocco around 787 AD, following the Ummayad victory in the great civil war that split the Muslim world into Shia and Sunni sects.
In Volubilis, then still the main centre of the north, Idriss seems to have been welcomed as an imam (a spiritual and political leader), and within a few years had succeeded in carving out a considerable kingdom. At this new town site, more easily defended than Volubilis, he built his capital, and he also began the construction of Fez, continued and considerably extended by his son, Moulay Idriss II, that city’s patron saint. News of his growing power filtered back to the East, however, and in 791 the Ummayads had Idriss poisoned, doubtless assuming that his kingdom would crumble.
They were mistaken. Alongside the faith of Islam, Idriss had instilled a sense of unity among the region’s previously pagan (and sometimes Christian or Jewish) Berber tribes, which had been joined in this prototypical Moroccan state by increasing numbers of Arab Shiites loyal to the succession of his Alid line. After his assassination, Rashid, the servant who had travelled with Moulay Idriss to Morocco, took over as regent until 805, when the founder’s son was old enough to assume the throne of what was Morocco’s first independent kingdom.
The Moussem of Sidi Mohammed Ben Aïssa, or Moussem Cheikh al Kamel, held on the eve of Mouloud, was once one of the most outrageous spectacles in Morocco. The moussem was the principal gathering of the Aissaoua brotherhood, an occasion for them to display their powers of endurance under trance, piercing their tongues and cheeks with daggers, eating serpents and scorpions and devouring live sheep and goats.
While their activities today are more subdued, the event is still a dramatic sight. With enormous conical tents popping up around the marabout tomb of Sidi Mohammed Ben Aïssa, and crowds of country people in white jellabas gathering beneath the city walls, the modern moussem has the appearance of a medieval tournament, never more so than during the spectacular focal fantasia (a charge of horses with riders firing guns at full gallop) that takes place near Place el Hedim.
More than any other town in Morocco, Meknes is associated with a single figure, Sultan Moulay Ismail. During his 55-year reign, the city was tranformed from a forgettable provincial centre into a spectacular capital with twenty gates and over fifty palaces enclosed within 45km of exterior walls. The principal remains of Ismail’s creation – the Ville Impériale of palaces and gardens, barracks, granaries and stables – sprawl below the Medina amid a confusing array of walled enclosures, and it’s a long morning’s walk to take in everything.
Together with the tomb of Mohammed V in Rabat, and the Medersa Bou Inania in Fez, the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail is the only active Moroccan shrine that non-Muslims may visit. The mausoleum has been a point of reverence since Ismail’s death (it was constructed in his own lifetime) and is still held in high esteem. Given tales of the ruler’s excesses, this might seem puzzling to Westerners, but Ismail is remembered in his homeland for his achievements: bringing peace and prosperity after a period of anarchy, and driving out the Spanish from Larache and the British from Tangier. His extreme observance of orthodox Islamic form and ritual also conferred a kind of magic on him, as, of course, does his part in establishing the ruling Alaouite dynasty – although, technically, the dynasty began with his brother, Moulay Rachid, Ismail is generally honoured as the founder.
You are allowed to approach the sanctuary in which the sultan is buried, but cannot go beyond the annexe, though this still gives you a good idea of the reverence with which the shrine is treated – you will almost invariably see villagers here, especially women seeking baraka (charismatic blessing) and intercession from the saintly sultan’s remains.
“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.
A striking sight, visible for miles on the bends of the approach roads, the Roman ruins of VOLUBILIS occupy the ledge of a long, high plateau, 25km north of Meknes. Below their walls, towards Moulay Idriss, stretches a rich river valley; beyond lie the dark, outlying ridges of the Zerhoun mountains. The drama of this scene – and the scope of the ruins themselves – are undeniably impressive, so much so that the site was a key location for Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ.
Except for a small trading post on an island off Essaouira, Volubilis was the Roman Empire’s most remote and far-flung base. It represented – and was, literally – the end of the imperial road, having reached across France and Spain and then down from Tangier, and despite successive emperors’ dreams of “penetrating the Atlas”, the southern Berber tribes were never effectively subdued.
In fact, direct Roman rule here lasted little over two centuries – the garrison withdrew early, in 285 AD, to ease pressure elsewhere. But the town must have taken much of its present form well before the official annexation of the Kingdom of Mauretania by Emperor Claudius in 40 AD. Tablets found on the site, inscribed in Punic, show a significant Carthaginian trading presence in the third century BC, and prior to colonization it was the western capital of a heavily Romanized, but semi-autonomous, Berber kingdom that reached into northern Algeria and Tunisia. After the Romans left, Volubilis experienced very gradual change. Latin was still spoken in the seventh century by the local population of Berbers, Greeks, Syrians and Jews; Christian churches survived until the coming of Islam; and the city itself remained active well into the seventeenth century, when its marble was carried away by slaves for the building of Moulay Ismail’s Meknes.
What you see today, well excavated and maintained, are largely the ruins of second- and third-century AD buildings – impressive and affluent creations from its period as a colonial provincial capital. The land around here is some of the most fertile in North Africa, and the city exported wheat and olives in considerable quantities to Rome, as it did wild animals from the surrounding hills. Roman games, memorable for the sheer scale of their slaughter (nine thousand beasts were killed for the dedication of Rome’s Colosseum alone), could not have happened without the African provinces, and Volubilis was a chief source of their lions – within just two hundred years, along with Barbary bears and elephants, they became extinct.
The entrance to the site is through a minor gate in the city wall – or through a break in the wall further down, depending on construction work – built along with a number of outer camps in 168 AD, following a prolonged series of Berber insurrections. The best of the finds, which include a superb collection of bronzes, have been taken to the Archeological Mueseum in Rabat, though Volubilis has retained in situ the great majority of its mosaics, some thirty or so, which are starting to show the effects of being exposed to the elements. The finest mosaics line the Decumanus Maximus, the main thoroughfare through Volubilis, but aside from those subjected to heavy-handed restoration, the once brightly coloured tiles have faded to a subtle palette of ochres and greys. Similarly, the site requires a bit of imagination to reconstruct a town (or, at least, half a town, for the original settlement was twice the size of what remains today) from the jumble of low walls and stumpy columns. Nevertheless, you leave with a real sense of Roman city life and its provincial prosperity, while it is not hard to recognize the essentials of a medieval Arab town in the layout.