Moulay Ismail Mausoleum
One the most beautiful places in Meknes is this tomb, where the king that built the town and turned it into a imperial city was buried. Until Lisbon's earthquake that seriously damaged the city, Meknes was Morocco's capital.
It's forbidden to take pictures of the tomb, so we had to photograph... the walls. Pretty, anyway!
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The historic city is still surrounded by its large walls, with several doors, each one with its typical architecture and decoration.
Traffic flows outside the walls, escaping from the narrow streets inside, and allowing an easy look at great part of the walls.
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Bou Inania Medersa
Bou Inania Medersa was built around 1340-1350.
It is a modest an functional building with a single courtyard opening to a narrow prayer hall and surrounded by the student cells on each floor, with exquisitely carved cedar screens.
It is remarkable that no ares is left uncovered with the balanced combination of wood, stucco and zellij
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Cara - subterranean prison
Meknes was the imperial capital of Moulay Ismail. He built a large prison under the old city for Christian sailors captured at sea. In the Koubt Essoufara (Ambassador's Pavilion) Moulay Ismail would receive ambassadors from other countries, often to plead for the return of their countrymen. Little did they know - their countrymen laid shackled just below them. Just to the right of the pavilion were the stairs down to the prison where up to 60,000 prisoners were held (40,000 of them, reportedly Christian prisoners of war). Prisoners were shackled to the wall and had to sleep standing up.
The prison was built by the Portugese architect Cara, who was also a prisoner. He earned his freedom by constructing the prison.
There are many stories about secret tunnels to the Royal palace. In fact, there have been several efforts to verify these stories leading to death and injury in cave-ins. All access is now closed.
The prison is definitely worth a visit.
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Tomb of Moulay Ismail
Moulay Ismail or Sultan Ismail Ibn Sharif was the second ruler of the Alaouite dynasty. He, like his predecesors, claimed to be a descendant of Muhammad and therefore earns the title 'Moulay'. He ruled from 1672 to 1727. He was only 26 when he came to the throne of a country weakened by internal tribal wars and royal successions. He established Meknes as his capita,l and with such extravagance! It became known as the 'Versailles of Morocco'. During his reign the capital moved to Fes.
The final resting place of Sultan Moulay Ismail was once the courthouse of Meknes and is one of the few sacred sites in Morocco open to non-muslims. The building has a rather plain exterior but a series of pale-yellow, calm courtyards lead to the splendid tomb. It is a cool peaceful room, the opposite of his turbulent and cruel reign.
Non-muslims have no access to the tomb itself, but it can be seen through a Moorish doorway. The anteroom is decorated with fine examples of Moroccan design - zellij tiling, enamel-painted wood, elaborately carved plaster, graceful arches, and marble columns.
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Art Deco and other things in the Ville Nouvelle
Don't ignore the Ville Nouvelle, the new city originally planned by the French, as it contains some great Art deco buildings if you're willing to look for them. Some of the hotels are very attractive, particularly the Hotel de Nice and the Hotel majestic (where I stayed). I regret not taking more photos in the Ville Nouvelle, but I only had a look round in the evening and am yet to discover the secret of taking good photos at night. However, I did get two pictures of this rather attractive red and white cinema.
Aside from Art Deco, find your way to the town hall, an impressive building on a pleasant square which housed a small funfair when I went. Around the square are several upmarket patisseries and ice cream parlours. For more coffee and cakes, you don't have to look far, as pretty much the whole of Avenue Mohamed V and Avenue Hassan II (the two main streets) are taken up with pavement cafes.
Finally, for good views over the medina on the opposite hill, have a look at the busy park at the end of Avenue Hassan II just after the MacDonalds complex.
Next to the Heri es Souani is a large reservoir, the Agdal Basin, now a pleasant park with benches under trees, sculptures and a fountain in the middle. I don't know if this is another royal relic or if this is a new construction, but it is about as big as the granaries that run along one side of it. There must be either a university or some sort of college nearby, because there were a hell of a lot of students hanging around here, many of whom were quite chatty and had lots of questions about my impressions of their city. A crowd gathered at one end to watch a man throw sticks into the reservoir for his dog, a big shaggy alsatian that seemed to enjoy swimming and being the centre of attention. The crowd soon dispersed when he gave up swimming, and decided to shake himself dry...
To get back to the medina, I decided not to backtrack, as I couldn't face the long long stretch of walled in road, so found my way into another old neighbourhood, again inside Imperial walls, emerging at Bab el Qari by the New Mellah (a Mellah is an area traditionally for Jewish residents, but this one was Jewish in name only). The road continued past a bus station and some gardens, and eventually brought me back to Place el Hedim for a well earned glass of mint tea.
Heri es Souani
From the Dar el Kebira quarter, there's a very long road with unbroken walls on either side. On one side you have the Sidi Amar quarter, and on the other, the Royal Golf Club and Dar al Makhzen, the current Royal palace, both unfortunately off limits and out of sight for the most part. It was April, so the sun wasn't too strong, but I can imagine the walk out to Heri es Souani must be a hot and quite boring one in summer. On the way, you pass a couple of small but picturesque gates in the walls leading to tiny residential quarters, but mostly it is just wall and road, all the way around the edge of the Imperial City.
At the very end of this road, the Heri es Souani is actually a bit of a let down. The Sultan's granaries don't sound terribly exciting, and the reality isn't much different, the only amazing thing about them is really the scale of the project. One huge vaulted chamber leads into another huge vaulted chamber, some with a bit of lighting, some left in darkness. A couple of exhibits filled some of the smaller rooms, but it was too dark to see much, and there was next to no information on offer, apart from the ticket price (10 dirhams). The best bit is the outside section, which perhaps once had a roof but is now a vast complex of sand-coloured archways and columns. Workmen are strewn about the place fixing bits of wall and replacing a few bricks, but you do get the impression of being in an abandoned ruined warehouse, albeit a 17th century royal one on a massive scale.
Dar el Kebira and Sidi Amar
Within the walls of the Imperial City are now two residential quarters, neither particularly imperial any more, and in places are really quite rundown. The first, entered through a low archway just before Bab el Rih and the long "corridor" between walls, is Dar el Kebira, once the site of one of the Sultan's palaces. Today, you can still find traces of the old palace, enormous rooms converted into covered passageways or sectioned off into much smaller houses. Signs tell you that a couple of riad hotels have opened in this quarter, but they're not easy to track down.
I somehow found my way through a break in the palace walls and entered another even more dilapidated residential quarter, Sidi Amar, where old and new houses are crammed together in narrow narrow alleyways barely wide enough for two people to pass without touching. People were somewhat surprised to see a foreigner walking around here, surprising as it is just the other side of a wall from a route which tour groups always pass down on their way to Heri es Souani (the royal granaries), but everyone was friendly and helped me find my way back out again!
No pictures, I'm afraid, apart from these two gates to one of the quarters, I forget which.
Mausoleum Moulay Ismail
My mum knows I have a thing for all things Middle Eastern/North African, and used to send me greetings cards with market scenes from Egypt, mountains from Yemen, and camels from Jordan on them. Once, she sent me a card with a beautiful yellow arched doorway to a tiled courtyard, but the card didn't say where this was. Well, as soon as I entered Moulay Ismail's mausoleum, I realised I already knew this place...
Unusually for Islamic monuments in Morocco, this mausoleum is open to non-muslims who can enter the courtyard and look into the room containing the actual tomb, although that room is reserved for Muslim visitors only. You enter through a low doorway into a dark corridor, which leads to the bright yellow courtyard I described above. The arched doorway takes you into another beautiful courtyard, from where you can enter the prayer hall with a fountain in the middle. The shrine is next door, seen through a grille. inside, the Sultan Moulay Ismail's tomb attracts many local visitors.
Bab Mansour and Bab Djemaa en Nouar
Across the road from Place el Hedim are the walls of the Imperial City, formerly accessed by two large gates, the most impressive of which is Bab Mansour. Sultan Moulay Ismail commissioned the construction of most of the Imperial City, and legend has it that when he saw the ornamental gateway completed, he asked the architect, a man named El Mansour, whether this was the best he could do. Fearing that the wrong answer might lead to his death, the architect was not sure how to answer. If he said yes, the Sultan might not be happy with the gate and have him executed for not doing better. If he said no, he might be given the chance of building a better gate later, but it was still risky. So tentatively he replied "no", and the Sultan said "well, why didn't you make this one better, then?" and promptly had the man executed.
Bab Djemaa en Nouar is the smaller version just a bit further up the road, notable because this gate does actually fit in a photo whereas Bab Mansour is just that little bit too big!
Nowadays, neither door leads anywhere really, as the gates are closed and a new break in the walls has been made to allow cars access to Place Lalla Aouda just inside the walls.
Bou Inania Medrese
The highlight of the medina is definitely the Bou Inania Medrese, dating from the Merenid era (i.e. the 14th century) and very similar to its namesake in Fes, but for me much more impressive, perhaps due to the lack of crowds. For 10 dirhams, you can admire the tiled courtyard, peek into the prayer hall, then head up the stairs to explore the tiny cells where students of the Islamic school slept. Some have tiny windows looking onto the courtyard, whereas others are completely devoid of natural light.
Try to find the stairs up to the roof. The door was shut, but given a push, it opened for me, and I was able to look across the grass growing on the green tiled roof over to the minaret of the Grand Mosque next door. As non-muslims are forbidden from entering mosques in morocco, this is as close as you can get.
At the far end of Place el Hedim, head down the steps and instead of following the crowds into the souks, look to your right and you should see a sign for a museum. This is the entrance to Dar Jamai, a an 18th century palace now restored and home to the Museum of Moroccan Art. Various bits of pottery from the region fill the cabinets, and local carpets adorn the walls and floors, but for me the main attraction was the building, with incredibly ornate geometric patterns on every wall and ceiling, green and blue and white tiles everywhere. Big signs all over the building shout "No Photos", but being the only visitor at the time, the caretaker tracked me down and almost begged me to take photos of every room, a cunning plan as he then asked for a substantial tip, possibly in return for not informing the guards at the entrance of your heinous crime.
Exploring the backstreets of the Medina
Following your nose through the souks, you'll eventually emerge in a residential area, and instead of retracing your steps, instead take any street, left or right, and go explore the alleyways and archways of the medina. There are not really any sights to aim for, a few oldish mosques, some pretty backstreets, a local hammam, a neighbourhood cafe. A couple of years ago, I read an article about an ancient mosque that had collapsed in the old centre of Meknes, so was intrigued enough to try and find it...well, many of the buildings are in need of a bit of care, so there were plenty candidates for that mosque, and I can't be sure if I did indeed find the right one.
The area immediately behind Place el Hedim is full of souks, nearly every street crammed with shops and stalls, some offering souvenirs, but for the most part this is a market that caters to locals...household pots and pans, fruit and vegetables, clothes, etc. A covered area entered via a small dorrway between two restaurants on the square houses the food and spice market, a place especially busy after dark. I enjoyed wandering around the souks, not least because there is very little hassle compared to Fes.
As is usually the case when I make tips about markets, I don't have many photos...I never feel comfortable doing it for some reason, although I did get this one shot .
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