Although sometimes overlooked in the shadow of its neighbor Fez, Meknes is a quintessential Moroccan experience. The fifth-largest city in Morocco, Meknes and its surrounding regions is home to approximately 450,000 people.
Nestled in the heart of what some call the country’s most fertile agricultural region, the gently rolling hills and fields of mint, olive tree groves, and grape vineyards lend their calm and understated beauty to the city of Meknes, itself. Upon careful inspection, however, one can espy the clues that belie such a pastoral landscape: an intricate system of defending walls and ramparts give away the bloody, yet glorious, history of the city.
The gently rolling hills and fields of mint, olive tree groves, and grape vineyards lend their calm and understated beauty to the city of Meknes.
Although founded in the tenth century, the history of Meknes truly begins to take shape in 1672, when the reign of Moulay Ismail began. The first of the modern ruling dynasty, the Alouites, Moulay Ismail was a leader of both great vision and great cruelty. After expanding his army and overcoming various tribes in the region, he established Meknes as his capital city and set about making the town “fit for a king.”
Many of the works commissioned by Mouley Ismail are still quite visible today. The system of double walls which surround the city and the resplendent gates, called babs, that provide access to the city are the most well known, which were built with marble that was confiscated from the nearby former Roman outpost of Volubulis. So spectacular was this achievement for its time, that the city earned the nickname of the “Versailes of Morocco.” But the splendor was not without its cost: thousands of slaves perished during the construction of Meknes, and it is said that the walls themselves are fortified with the blood of those who died in their creation.
Considered by all to be the most beautiful gate in Meknes, and by many the most beautiful in Morocco, Bab Mansour, the Victory Gate, is an understandable source of pride for the city’s residents. The gate allows access from the medina to the Dar el-Kebira quarter, one of Moulay Ismail’s first projects, but it is perhaps even more valuable as a work of art. Standing at 52 feet (16 m) high, its pointed arch spans 26 feet (8 m) and boasts intricate relief carvings, floral designs, and protruding towers.
Meknes is a modest city, only yielding its secrets and delights to those who are careful enough to look.Originally a residence of a grand vizier of Moulay el-Hassan named Mohammed Belarbi el-Jamai, the Dar Jamai Museum contains a broad spectrum of Moroccan arts and crafts, including ceramics, carpets, traditional costumes, jewelry, embroidery, and metal work. The building itself is testament to the creativity and skill of Moroccan artisans, from its painted wooden cornices to the Andalusian-style garden that sits in the heart of the museum.
The final resting place of Meknes’ most famous resident is worth a visit, even if entrance to its inner chambers is permissible only to Muslims. The tile roof of the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail is green, a holy color, and the spires, called finials, which sit atop it indicate that a person of great importance has been laid to rest there. Not only is the mausoleum a tomb of Moulay Ismail himself, but for his wife and sons as well, making this site a truly important one, indeed.
Nestled comfortably in the region known as the ‘breadbasket of Morocco,’ Meknes is a modest city, only yielding its secrets and delights to those who are careful enough to look. Fortunately, one does not need look long to uncover its charm.
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