Ancient Stones Left Unturned - A Day in Meknes and Volubilis

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December 29th 2019
Published: December 30th 2019
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Our second full day in Morocco began with a generous buffet breakfast held in the hotel’s strikingly modern El Patio Restaurant just off the lobby. Even at the early hour of 7am, the restaurant was bustling with activity. Having no appetite, I opted for rolls and tea to settle my stomach. Rick perused the buffet stations which offered both hot and cold choices and came back with a plate of nice selections from both. Rather than a leisurely start to our day, we were forced to eat rather quickly as we still needed to check out of the hotel and confirm that our luggage was actually put into our tour bus’s cargo hold.

I was eager to see more of Morocco, but I was disappointed that my being ill in Rabat had prevented us from seeing any interesting sites of the city before leaving it for good. This morning fog lingered over Rabat, draping flowers and trees in a wet raincoat and as we left it was as if viewing the last of Rabat from beneath a veil. The weather would change soon enough as would the geography as we made our way out of the city and traveled east on our way to visit Meknes.

Although the driving distance between Rabat and Meknes is roughly only 90 miles, we would be in the area between the northern Middle Atlas and the Rif Mountains. Along the way we bypassed agricultural fields, orchards, and the small houses and towns where the local’s daily routines included going to work, shopping along the street, or easing into the day at tiny cafes where only men had morning coffee or mint tea.

Before long we had our first “technical stop,” a term created by our guide, Larbi. Larbi always made sure that our technical stops were well timed and always at places with clean restrooms, and coffee/nous nous/cold drinks, ice cream, snacks, and sometimes even small souvenirs could be purchased for a song. When necessary, Larbi always made sure to pay for his group to use the facilities, and/or tip attendants for us. This spared all of us the necessity of always having coins for such purposes, a gesture on his part which was very much appreciated!

At our first stop a local man was selling prickly pear cactus fruit which he grew or had gathered. This was an activity we
would often see by the roadside or in small village markets. Larbi paid the man to let everyone in our group try the fruit, and with a few quick slices of his knife the man skinned the fruit to reveal the edible portion. For most, this was a first introduction to the fruit and I was unimpressed due to its lack of flavor.

Back on the road our comfortable bus ride lulled me to sleep for a short nap which I sorely needed and I slept until we were entering the historic center of Meknes. Inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List since 1996, Meknes was founded in the 11th century by the Almoravids and is now by population the 6th largest city in the country.

Though Meknes is the smallest of the 4 Imperial cities, it was once the capital during the tyrannical and ruthless reign of Moulay Ismail Ibn Sharif (1672 – 1727), second Sultan of the Alaouite dynasty. The barbaric executions of his enemies as well as any subject who displeased him are legendary -- the display of 700 heads on the walls of Fes marking the beginning of his ascent to power. Ismail made good
use of the infamous, subterranean Habs Qara, or Kara prison which housed thousands of Christian slaves as well as criminals in the most abhorrent conditions. Much of it was destroyed by the cataclysmic earthquake of 1755; after some restoration, it can be visited but apparently lacks any kind of information or exhibits. An admission fee applies.

It is said on any particular day the color of clothes he chose to wear was an indication of his mood, the wearing of yellow striking fear into the hearts of his subjects since it was a sure sign of his cruel and murderous mood. Ismail’s description as a megalomaniac seems to be very appropriate given his history. Though guidebooks list his mausoleum as one of the most important attractions in Meknes, we did not visit it. A pity since the mausoleum’s design and tile work look to be stunning in photos I’ve seen.

The famous Bab Al Mansour Gate, which Ismail commissioned, and the souk/marketplace at Place El Hedim were our main sights while here. Meknes is surrounded by ancient walls linked together by more than 20 gates. Considered by many to be the most beautiful gate in Morocco, the Bab Al Mansour Gate takes its name from its architect, Mansour Laalej, a Christian convert to Islam. A story holds that the hapless Mansour, whose name translates to “victorious renegade,” upon completion of the gate was asked by Sultan Ismail if Mansour could have created a more beautiful gate. When the architect answered that he could have, the sultan had him killed. The authenticity of this story is questionable because of the timeline -- the gate was not completed until 5 years after Moulay Ismail’s own death.

Covered mostly by shadows when we visited, the gate is a major attraction and getting a good photo was close to impossible. The Bab Al Mansour’s most striking feature are the patterned blue green zellij tiles covering the façade, along with symmetrical flanking arched porticos on either side of the main gate. These are supported by marble columns plundered from the Roman ruins of Volubilis. The massive dark wood door was constructed with rows of horizontal iron nail heads or rivets.

It is the Arabic calligraphy inscription above the arched gate that makes it unique in my opinion. As if the gate is speaking of its own glory, the inscription reads something
to the effect of “I am the most beautiful gate in Morocco. I’m like the moon in the sky. Property and wealth are written on my front”.

We crossed the street to Place El Hedim or Hedim Square which was sparsely occupied on this Wednesday afternoon. Once part of the walled medina, Hedim Square is largely surrounded by an expansive structure of walls, topped by crenellations and punctuated along each side by arched porticos topped by pyramid-shaped, green glazed-tile roofs. Like Marrakesh’s Jamaâ El Fnaa Square, Place El Hedim is a magnet drawing in both locals and tourists alike.

We entered the souk at the side of the square (near the entrance of the Dar Jamaï Museum) where locals shop for spices, fruit, olives, sweets, dried figs, dates, produce, clothes, shoes and more. With a local woman in tow to keep us on the right path, we wandered the small passages listening to the banter of sellers and shoppers in the souk, and admiring uncanny food displays. Moroccans seem to be masters of displaying types of food. Vendors fashion pyramids of olives and fruit along side of heaping bags of spices and other goods making their kiosks
eye catching riots of color -- it's difficult to put your camera down even for a second! I snapped photo after photo of displays when possible while trying to respect Moroccans themselves as some do not appreciate having their photos taken.

Not to be outdone, the colorful arrangement of glazed ceramics and crockery of all types -- piles of lovely tangines, bowls, spice containers just outside of the souk entrance were quite fabulous too! As we would later discover, while colorfully glazed and patterned tangines are beautiful to look at, they are excellent cookware for traditional Moroccan meals but difficult to take home as souvenirs.

One downside to souks in Morocco for me were the meat stalls – even before we were near one the smell was so intense and putrid that I knew to avert my eyes and hold my breath or risk becoming sick. Thanks to the excellent Morocco blogs of , I already had a good idea of what to expect as far as meat vendors in Morocco go, but it was still difficult for me.

In the square I spotted a man with a magnificent gray horse with fine trappings. I paid
him 20 Dirham to be allowed to take photos of the horse but I took the liberty of petting the horse’s neck and nose – I felt sorry that he had to stand in one spot in the hot sun while he had little to do but shift feet. I fantasized about grabbing the reins of the magnificent animal, and riding off at a high gallop, barely touching the saddle as we escaped into the desert. After a relatively few short minutes the horse’s owner was eager to have me leave! While the owner was not friendly, I could see that the horse seemed well taken care of which pleased me immensely -- this certainly wasn’t the case with all animals in Morocco.

Place El Hedim takes on a different character and atmosphere at night -- a lively place with street performers, musicians, and food vendors with their blazing grills sending up wisps of smoke along with pungent aromas of food cooking.

As previously mentioned, the Dar Jamaï Museum (now the Regional Museum of Ethnography) is located on the northwest side of the square near the entrance to the souk. Built in 1882 as the Dar Al-Jamaï Palace
by the wealthy Mohammed bin Al-Arabi Al-Jamaï, vizier to Sultan Moulay Hassan I, it also served as a hospital before being converted into the museum in 1920. Currently undergoing renovation, it’s filled with treasures of Meknes craftsmen: antique carpets, wood carvings, paintings, ceramics, exquisite clothing, textiles, needlework, jewelry, metalwork, and leatherwork. It was disappointing not able to visit the museum to see these examples of Berber/Meknes handicraft and the several other important sites here -- suffice it to say we left many ancient stones unturned in Meknes.

We stopped for lunch at a nice little restaurant called La Grillardiere in the Ville Nouvelle section, or Hamrya, in a residential area. The La Grillardiere we visited is one of a chain of restaurants which serves many different types of food beyond just Moroccan which suited us fine.

We ordered a pizza to share and something cold to slake our building thirst. Service was quick, the pizza was wonderful, especially the crust. During the course of our 2-week trip, we’d have several pizzas – the one we had in Essaouira being my favorite. Just goes to show that good pizza can be found in the most unlikely places!

refreshed, we boarded our bus for the fairly short drive to the 1st-century Roman ruins of Volubilis, a UNESCO site since 1997 and the largest archaeological site in Morocco. As we approached this incredible place of history, it was exciting to catch glimpses of still-standing columns rising solemnly and silently above the remains of this once thriving city. A major Roman trade outpost, Volubilis was surrounded by fertile fields which produced an abundance of wheat, and olives.

Arriving in Volubilis in early October, the earth here was parched and scorched weeds withered among the stones from the still hot sun. In spring Volubilis is stunning with wildflowers that bloom profusely here and there among the ruins. Just as I had hoped, the large White Stork nests built atop historic column ruins were still there when we visited, but to my great disappointment, we didn’t see any White Storks in residence here. We would see other stork nests during our travels but those nests appeared empty too.

We met up with a local guide, then crossed the small Fertassa River and walked down steps to the small open-air museum displaying heavy slabs of inscripted stone, huge sections of Roman
columns, a vague map, and one or two plaques which were not very informative. Unfortunately, no simple paper maps or pamphlets were given out which would have been so helpful. There’s so much to take in at historical places such as Volubilis that I usually rely on a brochure to fill in facts and identify place names that I missed hearing. The local guide, who while much appreciated, moved rather quickly through both the physical structures and his explanations of them. Still not fully recovered from being ill, I was slow in following and others in the group raced ahead to gather around the guide and get the best positions for photos. I was frustrated and missed a great deal of what the guide tried to impart to us.

Walking up a lengthy incline, we reached the Decumanus Maximus, the main thoroughfare in Volubilis, which stretches from the Tangier Gate to the Triumphal Arch. On either side of the Decumanus Maximus are crumbling walls and toppled stones, remains of shops and houses in varying states of repair. A significant number of ruins from larger houses beyond the Decumanus still dazzle tourists with marvelous, well-preserved floor mosaics. Romans, no doubt,
displayed wealth in many ways which certainly must include the commission of unique mosaics for a home’s richly decorated rooms. The individual character of these mosaics lend title to these former residences: the House of the Labours of Hercules; the House of the Wild Beasts; the House of the Athlete (where a man rides a horse facing the wrong way), the House of Orpheus, the House of Venus, etc.

Volubilis’ mostly preserved mosaics are of such size, quality and condition that it beggars belief. We know credit is due to the French for some restoration of Volubilis and that likely also includes the mosaics as well. Not an easy job considering the plundering of Volubilis by Moulay Ismail to obtain building materials after its abandonment by the Romans.

Turning then, we walked through the area that was once the Forum, and on to the magnificent remains of the Basilica and Capitoline Temple. Here are the 13 steps and remaining Corinthian columns of the Capitol (dated A.D. 217). The Forum, Basilica and Capitol (Capitoline Temple) composed the administrative center of Volubilis. Offset from the Capitol were the Baths of Gallienus, the identity of which was determined by an inscription
found inside the building remains. Here, too, a mosaic remains mostly intact and features a bevy of sea creatures. There were a number of large mosaic floors in this section of Volubilis but getting good photos was difficult. Of less interest to me were the oil press stone and dedicated brothel marked with a phallic symbol carved in stone.

Our time in Volubilis, like Meknes, was relatively short but as the sun was very hot and there was little to no shade, I was somewhat glad to be leaving to board our air-conditioned bus. Had it been a cooler day, I would have objected to having to leave so soon. Rick spotted a vendor across the dirt lot from our bus and managed to buy about 4 postcards and stamps for what we realized was an exorbitant sum of money. I managed to mail these later at a hotel; but it’s now been more than two months and those postcards have yet to arrive at their destinations!

We still had over an hour of driving to reach Fes, our next destination for 2 nights. The light was beginning to fade when we arrived in the city. We had
a good walk to our hotel as our bus couldn’t navigate the narrow lanes and alley where our hotel was located. The lane was dusty and full of parked cars and roadside debris; motor scooters whizzed by us with reckless abandon causing us to jump onto the crumbling sidewalk. Single file we into the alley, passing crumbling walls, litter and locals giving us curious looks. At the end, a magnificent brass door framed by patterned tiles beckoned us to enter the Riad Salam Fes -- truly a hidden treasure and the most exquisite riad imaginable.

Additional photos below
Photos: 23, Displayed: 23


1st January 2020

Meknes and Volubilis
Glad to see that you were well enough to capture this part of Morocco with a great account and some fabulous pictures
1st January 2020

Meknes and Volubilis
Thanks for the kind words, Malcolm! Seems like I tended to pick up some illness when we traveled this past year -- just happened in December again!
2nd January 2020

Morocco remains one of our favorites
Nice photo
2nd January 2020

Morocco remains....
Thanks Dave and Merry J for reading my blog and for the nice compliment on my photo!!
2nd January 2020

What a packed day!
You seem to have crammed a lot into today but I sense your frustration at having to miss so much in both Meknes and Volubilis. In particular it would have been god to see the mausoleum of Moulay Ismail Ibn Sharif from what you say. But the Roman mosaics in Volubilis look wonderful, I love your souk photos, and I'm looking forward to hearing more about the Riad in Fes
2nd January 2020

What a packed day!
Thanks for following my blog and for the nice comments, Sarah. There is never enough time to see and do everything in places I particularly like, especially it seems that was the case in Morocco. Although I would have loved to have more time in Bulgaria this year too as you well know!! But truthfully at this point in our Morocco trip, I didn't have a lot of stamina as I was trying to recover from being ill. Definitely wished we could have seen Moulay Ismail's mausoleum, but we saw two others which made up for this one! I'll definitely be adding a lot of photos of the Riad in Fes!
4th January 2020

Meknes and Volubilis
I remember visiting these places during my travels in Morocco about ten years ago, but I don't remember much about them! Your blog reminded me of their attractions, particularly the amazing mosaics at Volubilis! Gosh, what a busy day's itinerary you had, I imagine you were very pleased to arrive at your Riad in Fes! Well done too, as I'm sure it can't have been easy just recovering from being unwell. Have hope that the postcards will still arrive - when I sent mine home from Syria, they took six months, but got there in the end...!!
4th January 2020

Meknes and Volubilis
Alex, Thanks so much for reading my blog and for the nice comments! It seems writing journals and blogs lets me replay memories of places such as Meknes and Volubilis. However, I wish I had taken more videos. Wow!! Six months for postcards to arrive! That's got to be a record!! I'll keep hoping then!
5th January 2020

Missed opportunity in Meknes
I can totally relate to how you felt about missing out on experiences in Meknes. We were there on a Friday and 90% of the souq was closed... but you had a blue sky for viewing the Bab Al Mansour Gate :) I am very impressed with your energy and persistence in Volubilis when you hadn't still fully recovered from being sick. We struggled with high winds at the ruins (it was Spring), but I can absolutely understand how draining a hot sun would have been! Looking forward to reading about your riad in the Fes medina (I assume it was in the medina given the narrow alleys).
5th January 2020

Missed opportunity in Meknes
Ren & Andrew, thanks for your visit and kind comments. It seems like I experience more than my fair share of illnesses on trips, and in the case of Morocco I felt pretty bad for a whole week! I purposely tried to push myself because there was so much I didn't want to miss, especially after missing all of Rabat. Even with the strong winds, your photos of Volubilis were very impressive as always!

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