Meknès, the Imperial City of Morocco and Ancient Roman Mosaics

Why Visit Meknes?

Meknès was once the heart of the Moroccan sultanate and it is now the most imperial of the country's cities. Its impressive buildings reflect its heritage and give you a good idea of Moroccan life in medieval times.

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Meknès is certainly quieter, smaller and more hassle-free than Fès and Marrakesh and that makes it a nice place to hang around. It is definitely worth staying for a couple of days, which should include a visit to the unique Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail and a day trip to the roman ruins of Volubilis (more information bellow).

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Meknès also has its own Medina (Old Walled City), with its mellah (old Jewish quarter), its Mosques, and its souqs (Markets) where you can buy anything between carpets and jewels to spices, herbs and nuts.

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Encircled by the rich plains below the Middle Atlas, Meknès is blessed with fertile lands abundant in cereals, olives, wine, fruits and other agricultural products that make its cuisine delicious and well worth the stay. Try one of the traditional heart warming Moroccan soups such as Harira (tomatoes, vegetables and meat) or my personal favorite Bessara (broad bean soup with a killer hint of cumin and drizzled Argan oil over the top, yummmmmy!).

Meknes´ Big Treasure: Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail

This is the resting place of the great sultan who made Meknès his capital in the 17th century. Moulay Ismail is generally considered one of the most prominent figures in Moroccan history, and it is perhaps because of this that non-Muslims are allowed into the sanctuary (although they may not approach the tomb itself) so make the most of this opportunity. The mausoleum is peaceful and beautifully displays Moroccan architecture and craftsmanship.

"Moulay Ismail" a Peculiar Story

Moulay Ismail, the second sultan of the Alawite dynasty (which still rules today), marked his ascent to power, at the age of 25 in 1672 in an unforgettable manner: he send the heads of 10,000 slain enemies to adorn the walls of the two great imperial capitals, Fes and Marrakesh, as a warning to unruly tribes. These were presumably the result of earlier battles against insurgents in the north of Morocco.

This marked the beginning of a particularly gruesome period of rule -even by Moroccan standards- but Moulay Ismail is one of the few Moroccan sultans ever to unite the whole country under his control. His cruelty was legendary, and the cheerful ease with which he would lop off the heads of unfortunate servants who displeased him, or labourers not working hard enough, no doubt contributed much to his hold over the country.

His first 20 years of rule were taken up with bloody campaigns of pacification, during which more than 30,000 people are said to have died at his hands alone.

The core of his military success lay in the infamous Black Guard. Having brought some 16,000 slaves from sub-Saharan Africa, Moulay Ismail guaranteed the continued existence of his elite units by providing the soldiers with women and raising their offspring for service in the guard. By the time of his death, the Black Guard had grown tenfold and resembled a huge family whose upkeep was paid for by the treasury.

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In addition to quelling internal rebelion, he chased the Portuguese and English out of the country. Spain managed to hang on to Ceuta, Mellila and Al Hoceima, in spite of unrelentless sieges. Moulay Ismail disposed of the Ottoman Turk threat from Algeria, securing a stable eastern frontier with a string of fortifications, and established a virtual protectorate over modern Mauritania.

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A contemporary of Louis XIV of France, Moulay Ismail was at least partly inspired by descriptions of Versailles when planning his imperial palace and other monuments in Meknès. To carry out his building plans, he needed plenty of labor and it is said he used 25,000 Christian prisoners, in addition to 30,000 common criminals, as slave labor in Meknès.

For decades he tried to secure an alliance with France against Spain, but continued attacks by the corsairs of Salé on French merchant shipping effectively boycotted that idea. Although both monarchs bestowed presents on each other, Louis XIV stopped short of acceding to Moulay Ismail’s request to marry his illegitimate daughter, the Princess of Conti. Not that the sultan was in need of more female company, it is reckoned that he had 360 to 500 wives and concubines (depending on which source you believe) and 800 children by the time he died.


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