“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.” – Jawaharial Nehru
My perception of Morocco is deserts, camels and bedouin, at least til I arrived. It's the height of spring, but I'm surprised by the rolling green hills, the agriculture – citrus, olives, sheep grazing. We could be on a train in any country area in Australia. This is not at all like the photos I've seen…. where are my sand dunes? We were leaving “Casa” to explore the real Morocco.
A three hour train ride sees us arrive at the Imperial city of Meknes, which was the capital of Morocco under the reign of Moulay Ismail (1672–1727), before being relocated to Marrakech. Meknes is one of four imperial cities, so named because at one stage in their history they held the seat of power in Morocco.
With its medina and markets, Meknes combines the attractions of an historic town with those of a picturesque city basking in the glory of its majestic monuments. The original community from which Meknes can be traced was an 8th century Kasbah. A Berber tribe called the Miknasa settled there in the 9th century, and a town consequently grew around the previous borough.
Moulay Ismail was one of Morocco's most tyrannical and bloody rulers. With his Black Guard, a conscripted slave army from Sudan, he was able to consolidate his power by conquering the Berber tribes in the south and pushing back the European powers rooted in the north. Under the old city a Moulay installed a large prison to house Christian sailors captured on the sea, and also constructed numerous edifices, gardens, monumental gates, mosques (whence the city's nickname of “City of the Hundred Minarets”) and the large line of wall, having a length of 40 km.
An afternoon walk through the medina, markets and what was once the palace is well spent. It's easy to get lost in the narrow labryntine streets. A multitude of mosques (25 to be exact), hammams (baths), palaces, granaries and winding narrow streets leading to local abodes, hide behind high defensive walls, testimonies to the cities different periods.
The heart of the medina is Place el-Hedim , the large square facing Bab el-Mansour, the impressive monumental gateway Built by Moulay Ismail leading into Moulay Ismail's imperial city. The square is a smaller imitation of Djemaa el-Fna in Marrakesh and was originally used for royal announcements and public executions. Sitting, watching the world go by – kids playing football, hawkers selling miracle cures, and promenading families, one can only imagine the scale and chaos of its larger, more famous counterpart.
Diagonally opposite the Koubbat as-Sufara’ is the resting place of the sultan who made Meknès his capital in the 17th century. Moulay Ismail’s stature as one of Morocco’s greatest rulers means that non-Muslim visitors are welcomed into the sanctuary. Entry is through a series of austere, peaceful courtyards meant to induce a quiet and humble attitude among visitors, an aim that’s not always successful in the face of a busload of tourists. The tomb hall is a lavish contrast and showcase of the best of Moroccan craftsmanship. As non Muslims, we are not permitted to enter the hall itself but may take photos from the entrance. Hidden is the streets of the medina, is one of the most beautiful Koran schools in Morocco, the Medersa Bou Inania. It was built in the 14th century during the times of Sultan Abou el-Hassan.
Of all the imperial cities, Meknes is by far the most under-appreciated. It seems to be often missed on most itineraries – to the advantage of those who make the effort. Compared with it's far more visited and advertised counterparts of Fez and Marrakech, it is quieter and hassle free, giving us the opportunity to fully explore the confusing maze of streets in the medina.
I could easily have spent more time exploring the winding streets, the spice souks and the market place of this historical city, but it was time to move on…and I still had sand-dunes to find!