Our taxi driver arrived in the market place amidst a cloud of dust and expertly manoeuvred the old banger into a space at least a foot shorter than the actual vehicle. We craned our necks out of the back window and watched as a helpful bloke squatting on the tailgate of an unreassuringly battered looking truck, wielding a husk of corn to indicate proximity to his wheels. There was barely a millimetre to spare, but between them they did it! We’d arrived in Meknes, the former capital of Morocco before Marrakech stole all the glory.
Ok, so we probably shouldn’t have chosen a Friday as our first day to explore. It was the day of Jumah (Friday Prayer) and the streets of Meknes were deserted as residents spent the day in quiet contemplation behind closed doors. It was almost eerie in comparison to our well-loved haunt of Marrakech, the boisterous big sister over in the west.
The only people we saw were scurrying through the alleyways balancing precarious piles of freshly leavened bread and bowls of couscous, the traditional Friday meal and indeed on the menu for our own dinner tonight.
It’s a well known ‘fact’ that Meknes is somewhere to visit for the second- or third-time traveller to Morocco who wants to experience the ‘real’ side of the country, away from the tourists and commerce. Well Meknes certainly lived up to this suggestion and we decided to spend a few days getting to know her.
There isn’t a whole lot to do as a tourist in Meknes, its really more about soaking up the atmosphere and changing down a few gears from the faster pace of life elsewhere in the country. We had three days, and to be honest, two would have been plenty (possibly because we’re not the sit-around-relaxing type of traveller).
Moulay Ismail Mausoleum
The best sight by far is the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, one of the greatest and most notorious rulers of Morocco from 1672 – 1727. Of course being ‘great’ came with the obligatory bloodthirsty tendencies of the time, and he did have a penchant for chopping off his subjects’ heads.
Charming bloke, but he did put Meknes on the map by moving the capital to here from Fes, using 25,000 slaves bought from Barbary pirates to build his new city. It’s also rumoured he had more than 500 wives and 800 children. Unsurprisingly after his death there was a succession battle between his sons.
It was Moulay Ismail, with his constant need to build opulent palaces and monuments for himself, who all but destroyed our favourite sight in Marrakech, El Badi Palace, so he could use the materials in his own projects.
Not only is it quite unusual for a non-Muslim to be able to enter such a building and get so close to the tomb, it’s also a beautiful place with fountains, courtyards, colourful tiling and stucco walls, even without the historical significance.
Tourists are not allowed to ‘approach’ the tomb itself, but it is easy to see and photograph through the archway, and another side window where viewing is permitted.
It’s a photographers paradise full of colour and doors and arches. I love doors and arches! If you’ve seen some of my other Moroccan posts you’ll have come to realise this. I probably take more pictures of them than I do of hubbie (much to his relief, he hates smiling for the camera). Moroccan doors are awesome! Check out the blue ones we saw in Chefchaoeun.
Visiting tips for mausoleum:
Entry is free.
The mausoleum is open daily except Fridays, and usually closes during the afternoon (noon – 3pm).
Sometimes the front door is shut but don’t worry, just push it open and go in, you are allowed! (It is locked when the mausoleum is closed).
When you eventually reach the inner courtyard area next to the tomb, remember to take off your shoes as a mark of respect before you enter. There is a big mat outside the door so it’s pretty obvious what to do. Don’t forget your sexy socks and leave the ones with holes in at your riad!
You also shouldn’t miss seeing the imposing Bab Mansour, the main medina gate (below). ‘Bab’ means gate by the way. Designed by a clever chap called El-Mansour under order from the Sultan, this magnificent gate stands as a testament to the talent of the architect, and also his foolishness. When the structure was almost complete, Moulay Ismail asked El Mansour if he could improve it. Believing his master was asking for something greater, the unfortunate designer replied “yes, I can do better”, and was immediately executed by the incensed Sultan. Clearly Moulay Ismail could only have the very best.
In true form, Moulay Ismail pinched the marble columns for his new gate from the ruins of the Roman city of Volubilis, another great spot you can visit in a day from Meknes.
Dar Jamai Museum
Also worth a visit is the Dar Jamai Museum, situated in a palace built in 1882.
As with pretty much all Moroccan museums, you go for the building rather than the collection inside! This is supposed to be one of the country’s best museums however, and the exhibitions were some of the more comprehensive ones we’ve seen, with ceramics, jewellery, woodwork and textiles.
I particularly liked the rooms decked out in traditional furniture, just how it would have been when used as a palace.
And lots more doors to photograph!
Tips for visiting Dar Jamai Museum
Entry is DH10 per person.
It’s open Wednesday to Monday from 9am – 6.30pm, and closes over lunch (usually noon – 3pm).
There are information boards in French and Arabic, with a bit of English too.
The rest of the city
There are of course the souks to wander around, but to be honest if you’ve been to either Marrakech or Fes, these will be disappointing. Unless you are in the market for some fake Nike trainers or plastic cooking utensils. We attempted the souk walking tour suggested in the Lonely Planet guidebook, but as with all Moroccan cities, following a map is nigh on impossible in the medina. We soon got lost (one of the best things to do to really get the feel of a place!) and after walking in several circles, watched by bemused locals, we eventually make it back to the main square.
Now that’s a bit of a disappointment too, Place el-Hedim, the main square. We never saw it bustling with life, and besides a few cheap looking cafes and some really odd plastic-looking caleches (horse carriages) done up in silver and gold just to give it that really tacky edge, there wasn’t much else to see.
The Dar Jamai Museum is located at the top end of the square. To the right of the museum is a bank with some of the better exchange rates and friendly staff who were happy to change some of our huge notes into smaller denominations, a problem we frequently encountered after changing money. No-one wants to give you the smaller notes, which isn’t good for small purchases, and terrible for bartering.
When Moulay Ismail died, the city sort of died with him. He had created a great Imperial city in Meknes (well, his slaves and architects had), but when an earthquake in 1755 severely damaged the palace his grandson, Mohammad III, decided it was time to move the capital across to Marrakech and begin a new chapter in Morocco’s dynastic history.
I had my heart set on staying in a riad whilst in Meknes, as this is probably my number one love when it comes to Morocco, but boy was it difficult to find much competition in this city. It was therefore fairly simple to narrow down my choices (this usually takes weeks of research when we visit Marrakech). We opted for the delightful Riad el Ma and weren’t disappointed.
Meknes is certainly very different from Marrakech and Fes, and although we had fun visiting, I don’t think we will feel the need to come back again. Unlike Marrakech where we’ve been five times and counting, and Fes where we’d definitely return for another dose, Meknes just didn’t quite make the grade.
Marrakech = bustle and tourism
Fes = real life and bustle
Meknes = real life and no bustle or tourism
On paper, Fes seems the best choice for the discerning traveller, although Marrakech will always be our first love. Meknes just pales in comparison, and for that reason, for us, she will always be the subdued little sister of the Imperial Cities.