The journey from Rabat to Meknes is a short one, only some 150 km, but it is a large distance culturally and architecturally. Rabat is a large, mostly modern city. There is a fairly small medina, but most of the city is more modern Other than the redoubt of the Udayas, there is relatively little of great historical significance as far as extant structures are concerned.. Meknes, on the other hand, is much more rich with historical structures, and is frankly, to me at least, a much more vibrant city for the visitor.
Our visit began with a visit to the Royal Granaries and Stables, established by Moulay Ismail (Ismail ibn Sharif). By all accounts, this man who ruled Morocco during the years 1672-1727 was a man who lived large. Known as the "Warrior King", he fought against the Ottoman Turks and managed to stop the expansion of their empire at the borders of Morocco. He fought the English and Spanish and regained control of cities they had taken. He engendered good relations with France, and even offered to marry Louis XIV's daughter. Following his move of the capital from Fes to Meknes, he emulated Louis XIV and began construction
of an immense royal palace, the construction of which is said to have required 25,000 slave workers. He was known for his cruelty, apparently frequently personally beheading or otherwise killing a servant felt to be lazy, and is said to have placed the heads of 10,000 slain enemies on the walls of his city as a warning. Perhaps most astonishing, he appears to have been blessed with an astonishing fecundity, and reputedly fathered over 850 children, thought to be the world record. Although we heard Mohamed V referred to as the father of his country because he gained independence for Morocco from France, I think that Moulay Ismail may have the stronger case for that title.
Though the medina in Meknes is not as large as those we would later see in Fes and Marrakech, it was our first opportunity to see a medina. Exiting the medina, we came out onto El Hedim square, a kaleidoscope of shops, buskers, snake charmers, and other wonderments. There were stacks of pottery and clay tiles, herb and spice merchants, and poor musicians. We entered into a market area that is covered, where they sold foodstuffs of all types. Back outside we watched
a snake charmer and his assistant herding a cobra, a puff adder, and something else. While the charmer was playing his recorder and swaying, the assistant was handling another cobra and failed to notice that the puff adder had crawled right between his shoes, and thus invented the magic trick known as levitation. I am told that the snakes often have their fangs pulled, but they can grow back within a few days, so I am not sure I would trust that safety precaution. Directly across the street is the beautiful Bab Mansour, said to be the prettiest gate in Morocco. Legend has it that Ismail asked the architect if it could ave been made any prettier, and the architect tried to be coy and said it could have been , leading to his immediate execution. However, since the gate was not finished until 5 years after Ismail's death, the story may be apocryphal.
We also visited the tomb of Moulay Ismail, a purposely serene place within the medina.
Following Ismail's death, there were the usual succession fights, although work on the royal palace continued. In 1755, however, the Lisbon earthquake cause widespread damage to the construction, and
it was abandoned and the capital moved to Marrakech after a couple of years of decline in Meknes.
Following the visit to Moulay Ismail's tomb, we made the short journey of some 30 km to the archaeological site at Volubilis. This Roman ruin is of a town built on top of older Phoenician and Carthaginian settlements on the site. It was abandoned by Rome about 285 as being to far away to protect, but continued as a town for about another 800 years. In fact, it was the capital of Morocco for a while when Idris ibn Abdullah, the founder of the Idris dynasty. Today, it stands alone in windswept field, covered to no small degree by earth and growing grass, although significant areas have been excavated. Those buildings that were still standing were flattened by the earthquake of 1755, but sketches made by an Englishman in 1722 were available, and some reconstruction has been performed. It is known now for the richness of its mosaics.
Our day ended with the final journey to Fes and our wonderful accommodations in Riad Fes, our first riad.
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