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:
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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.]