I was fascinated with Casablanca. Starstruck about Rick’s Cafe. Excited over Rabat and my first stay in a real Riad. I was so looking forward to the Roman ruins of Volubilis near Meknes, between Rabat and Fes. But Meknes itself? I was prepared to be underwhelmed. As it turned out though, I was pleasantly surprised.
Mustafa is his name. A very good guide who grabbed our attention as he rattled off historical bits as we moved within the Imperial City surrounded by a city wall spanning 40 kilometers. Mustafa talked a lot about the Moroccan “Warrior King” who claimed descent from Muhammad, the founder of Islam. King Moulay Ismail also holds the unbeaten progeny record of having sired 888 children with his 4 wives and 500 concubines. This record number is even assailed as some claim it’s over 1,000 offsprings. You’d think this King has had one wife too many, yet he was brokenhearted when a marriage proposal to a daughter of the French King Louis XIV was refused. With such refusal, the King whose half-century rule was the longest in Moroccan history, swore to build up Meknes in the grandeur of Versailles. It’s no wonder then that Meknes looks so grand.
Mustafa brought us to Moulay Ismail’s brightly decorated Mausoleum. It is said that a visit to this 17th century king’s resting place brings baraka or divine blessing. I was blown away by the ornate ceilings, tiled walls, decorative arches and mosaics, amazing details of doors and monumental gates, all in keeping with the intriguing architecture of the whole imperial city with its huge grainery, stables good for 12,000 horses and even an underground prison to house as many as 50,000 slaves and Christian sailors captured at sea. Whoa!
For sure, Moulay Ismail is prolific both as builder and father. Thanks to him, we continue to
enjoy stand in awe just viewing these beautiful edifices built by thousands of slaves during his time. While these sites were once abandoned and left to crumble following the death of Moulay Ismail, its restoration and rehabilitation at the end of the 19th century revived interest to preserve Moroccan heritage and cultural identity. One look at the impressive Bab Mansour gateway tells you that the Moroccan king who founded Meknes was a man of excesses. Quite an aberration from the chaotic Medina just outside the walls. Like a maze, the Medina was filled with tagines of varying sizes, spices of contrasting aromas, vendors busily swatting flies attacking a neat pile of pastries and other baked goodies. At some corners, I spotted an entire cow’s head and in the next, a just-chopped-off head of a goat or maybe, a lamb. I couldn’t bear to have a second look, as I hurried my steps. 😪
MEKNES. Such a pleasant surprise. This seemingly well-planned city beautifully blends Islamic and European architecture and engineering. Impressed, we left this Imperial city thinking there’s good reason for Mustafa to be so proud of his heritage.