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Meknes: Old Imperial Capital of Morocco

panoramic-view-of-meknes

Panoramic View of Meknes

HIGHLIGHTS IN AND AROUND MEKNES

The small city of Meknes (or Meknès) in Morocco usually gets overshadowed by its more colorful neighbor Fez. But I’ve actually found it a friendlier, more manageable city. It doesn’t have any of the usual tourist traps you might find in other hotspots in Morocco like faux guides or bossy vendors. What it does have are hospitable locals and tons of historical sites!

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Street vendors in Marrakesh

Meknes was founded in the 11th century under the Moroccan Almoravid dynasty. In olden days, locals called it Meknassa al-Zitoun, “Meknes of the Olives,” a nod to the olive groves it was built on. It rose in prominence as the capital of Sultan Moulay Ismaïl in the 17th and 18th centuries. The story goes that the Sultan, rejected by a French princess, vowed to build a city that would rival Versailles. His workers and slaves transformed a relatively modest military settlement into an impressive city with palaces, walls, battlements, ramparts and a huge marketplace. Basically an architecture and history buff’s dream.

If you find yourself navigating Meknes’ labyrinthine streets, be sure to check out these sightseeing highlights:

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The Bab Mansour Gate

BAB AL-MANSOUR.

The exquisitely carved gate separating the Medina and the old Imperial City is called Bab al-Mansour. Commissioned by Sultan Moulay Ismail, it’s a fine example of Islamic architecture detail, with zellij tiles and arabesque decoration. The builders took its marble columns from Volubilis (see below). When it was first finished, Moulay Ismail inspected the gate with the architect El-Mansur. He asked his subject, Did he think that he could do better? When the man replied with a yes, the Sultan was so livid that he had him executed. The Sultan ordered new improvements, so the gate wasn’t actually completed until three years following his death.

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El Hedim Square in Meknes

PLACE EL-HEDIM.

Place el-Hedim is the large town square just opposite of Bab al-Mansour Gate. Once upon a time, an ancient kasbah stood right on the spot–but Moulay Ismail demolished it in favor of an open-air space. For many years, it was the site of public announcements and executions. You can wander the square on foot admiring the teal-colored tiles or hire a horse carriage to drive you around.

MAUSOLEUM OF MOULAY ISMAÏL.

This beautiful crypt is the final resting place for the great and formidable Sultan Moulay Ismail. Built in 1703, its gorgeous decoration is an example of Moroccan latticework at its finest. Tranquil yellow courtyards, enameled woodwork, carved plaster, marble columns and rounded arches. Feel free to enter: non-Muslims can explore most of the complex and tomb hall, but not the mosque itself.

Open 9am  to 6:30pm daily.

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Green Minaret of the Grand Mosque

OLD MEDINA.

The Meknes Medina, or Old Town, is a perfect place to get a taste of the souks and maze-like towns of Morocco. Shop at a craft shop or take home a tea set or wing-tipped slippers. The prices and friendliness rival anything you’d find in Fez or Marrakesh. This is also where you’ll found the stunning blue-green, 12th-century Grand Mosque. The Medina is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and still bears the marks of Spanish and Moorish influences.

OTHER NOTABLE SIGHTS

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Streets of Meknes

DAR JAMAÏ MUSEUM.

Built as a residence for the wealthy Jamai family in 1882, it now houses the Museum of Moroccan Art. The interior reflects the high standards of decoration and architecture available to the upper class. You’ll find everything you need to know about Moroccan crafts: leather, metalwork, weaving, wood-carving, textiles, embroidery and pottery. Highlights include antique carpets and brocaded saddles.
Where: Sahat El Hadim.

Open 9am to noon, and 3pm to 6:30pm Wednesday to Monday.

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Bab Moulay Ismail

BOU INANIA MEDERSA.

The Medersa or Madrassah of Bou Inania is an Islamic education institution in the 14th century. (Not to be confused with the madrassah of the same name in Fez.) Wonderfully preserved, its courtyard, prayer hall and student cells that once housed up to 60 students are a sight to see. Young muslims would come here to learn Quranic theology, philosophy and law, a trifecta that complemented each other in the medieval Islamic school system. This is tilework at its finest, with an intricate fountain the color of cyan, windows of cedar wood and honeycombed-shaped squinches (called muqarnas). Don’t forget to go up to the rooftop for the view!
Where: A bit tricky to find, but worth it. Kabt Souk, the old Medina.
Open 10am to 6pm.

ROYAL STABLES.

Just 30 minutes’ walk from Bab Mansour, the Royal Stables (aka Heri es Souani, aka Dar el Ma) are an impressive engineering feat. With high vaulted chambers and lovely sand-colored walls, it’s a photographer’s dream. Roughly 12,000 horses lived here, each animal paired with their own groom and slave, who waited on them hand and foot. They had clean, fresh water, and grain from the granary behind the stables. The granaries stored food to feed the horses for twenty years!
Open daily from 9am to noon, and 3pm to 4pm.

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Pattern design at the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail

DAY TRIPS FROM MEKNES

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Town of Moulay Idriss, near Meknes

MOULAY IDRISS ZERHOUN.

A visit to Meknes wouldn’t be complete with a short detour to the town of Moulay Idriss, or Moulay Idriss Zerhoun as it is sometimes known. The founding of this holy city dates all the way back to 788 c.e., named after the eponymous saint. Prophet Muhammed’s great-great-grandson, Moulay Idriss, established the first Moroccan state. It’s no wonder he’s highly regarded even today. His shrine is built on a cliffside amid dilapidated stone roads, and still attracts religious pilgrims year after year. Non-Muslims cannot enter the shrine, but they can walk around to view some amazing views and hillside.
Where: 45-minute drive north from Meknes, 7-minute drive from Volubilis.

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Volubilis, near Meknes

VOLUBILIS.

The ruins of Volubilis is the site of an ancient Berber and Roman city, a short drive from Moulay Idriss. Some scholars believe that it’s the old capital of Mauretania, established in 3rd century b.c.e., and later a valuable Roman colony. Its 100-acre footage, complete with basilica and temple, certainly reflects a powerful base. Once the Roman Empire dwindled, however, the population eventually abandoned it by the 11th century in favor of Fez and Moulay Idriss. You can find artifacts from Volubilis in Rabat’s Archaeology Museum.
Where: Route de Volubilis, 45-minute drive north from Meknes.

Wailana Kalama is a travel writer and editor. Fan of nonfiction, dark humor, slow travel and homemade chai tea. Read more of her work at waikalama.com and her tweets at @whylana.

Images: Shutterstock. Street vendors/Calin Stan; Grand Mosque/aaabbbccc; Meknes panorama/Anton_Ivanov; El Hedim Square, Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail & Volubilis/saiko3p; Bab Moulay Ismail/Maurizio De Mattei; Meknes street/Eterovic; Bab al-Mansour/Jose Ignacio Soto; Moulay Idriss/Boris Stroujko.

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