Morocco & Andalusia: Meknes & Volubilis

The rocky slopes of Mt. Zerhoun in north-central Morocco have been the stage for four major junctures of Moroccoís history:

  • Volubilis was the Roman Empireís grandiose capital for their westernmost province of Mauretania Tingitana from the 1st C. BC to the 3rd C. CE.

  • In 787 CE Volubilis became the cradle of the landís earliest dynasty, the Idrissids, descendants of the Prophet, who eventually founded Fes.

  • As of the late 17th C. Moulay IsmaÔl, one of the most illustrious rulers of the land and founder of the current dynasty, made Meknes his capital. A frenzied builder, in the course of his 55-year reign he ensured Meknes would be the most impregnable citadel anywhere, while his palace the most lavish anywhere, on par with the Versailles of his contemporary Louis XIV.

  • During the French occupation of the first half of the 20th C., Meknes became the cultural capital. The French introduced large-scale farming and (naturally) re-introduced viniculture to the area. As a result, Meknes is still Moroccoís prime agricultural center (with an agricultural university and horticultural college) and wine producer. In the French period Meknes also had Moroccoís most important Jewish population.

What to do

While Meknes existed as a city before Moulay IsmaÔlís time, the bulk of its treasures (designated a World Heritage Site) date back to his reign. Foremost among them is the granary IsmaÔl built to feed the cityís population and his 12,000 horses for up to a year-long siege(!), an edifice of astounding conception and proportions, still breath-taking despite centuries of decay. By the recently restored Sultanís Hall of Audience lies another structure of similar design and grandeur, though this one underground, presumed to have served as a cistern. The area is entered by the Bab Mansour, the largest of Moroccoís magnificent city gates, built by a French architect, ìprisonerî at IsmaÔlís court. IsmaÔlís lavish mausoleum (closed on Fridays) was totally redone in the 1950s and non-Moslems cannot enter the inner sanctuary, though you can see the tomb and two clocks which, legend claims, were given to the Sultan by Louis XIV as a ìconsolationî gift in lieu of Louisís daughter Marie-Anne, whom IsmaÔl coveted. Across from the gate, the Dar JamaÔ, a late-19th C. palace of ministers, is a seldom-visited gem, with displays of all of the cityís varied craft traditions. For those interested in Arab (and Berber) stallions, the Royal Stables may be visited prior to 10:30am daily. The wineries in the Meknes area may also be visited, though by prior arrangement.

Romans had to leave Volubilis upon the fall of the Empire in the 3rd C., yet the town continued to be inhabited by local Berbers. It was among them that cleric Moulay Idriss found refuge in 787, fleeing the wrath of the Caliph of Baghdad. He set out to built a town* easier to defend on the craggy cliffs above Volubilis, ìborrowingî pre-cut Roman stones for the new abodes; more stones were removed by Moulay IsmaÔl for the building up of Meknes. The infamous 1755 Lisbon earthquake leveled anything that was left by then. Fortunately sketches made by an artist just prior to the quake enabled restoration of the main arch, the capitol and the temple. It is still a magnificent setting, nestled amid ancient olive groves, with views on rolling fields of wheat till the horizon. Also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

*[The townís mausoleum of Moulay Idriss is Moroccoís holiest pilgrimage site, but it cannot be entered by non-Moslems and the town has no other worthwhile attractions.]

A Moroccan gazetteer: Tangier | Rabat & Casablanca | Andalusia | Meknes & Volubilis | Fes | Marrakech | The High Atlas | The Middle Atlas | Taroudant & the Anti Atlas | On the Sahara's Edge | The Atlantic Coast | Jewish Heritage | Architecture | Festivals

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