By Meredith – Port Elizabeth, 28th October 2018. The popular travel website Lonely Planet recently released its top ten cities for 2019 and surprisingly the Moroccan city of Meknes placed at number ten, rubbing shoulders with big first world cities like Copenhagen and Seattle. Although not as popular as the big cities of Marrakech and Fes, Meknes offers travelers a more relaxed holiday and is well worth adding to your itinerary.
Situated in northern Morocco, roughly 60 km from Fes, Meknes is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is one of the four Imperial cities of Morocco, and the 6th largest city by population in the kingdom. The city was established as a military settlement in the 11th century by the Almoravids, a Berber Muslim Dynasty. Under the reign of Sultan Moulay Ismaïl (1672–1727) Meknes became the capital of Morocco and was transformed into an impressive walled in city referred to as the ‘Moroccan Versailles’. The Hispano-Moorish style architecture and beautiful features such as the ornate doors, relict fortifications, mosques, and gardens reflect the grandeur of this time.
These days Meknes is a quieter city compared to bustling Marrakech and Fes, with a good economy driven by agriculture. The city consists of two parts- the old medina and the new Ville Nouvelle teaming with entertainment. Both districts have their own charm and are easily accessible by petit taxis that can be hailed from most street corners. More adventurous travelers can get around using local buses, which have extensive routes throughout the city.
Like most tourists we only stopped in Meknes on our trip to the Roman ruins of Volubilis, read more about this UNESCO World Heritage Archaeological Site in this recent post. We ate grilled chicken wraps (maybe this doesn’t sound like a typical Moroccan meal, but man they were so delicious!) and sweet mint tea at a little restaurant at Place el-Hedim, a bustling square similar to that of Jemaa el Fna in Marrakesh. We sat and enjoyed watching the hive of activity in the square- snake charmers, macaque monkey handlers, henna artists, guys selling cellphone chargers, waiters encouraging tourists to eat at their restaurant, and even a guy charging for pony rides. We bought fruit and bee covered nougat from street vendors and took a few snaps in front of the gorgeous door Bab al-Mansour before going off on a merry way to spend a few days in Fes.
Upon seeing the Lonely Planet article and doing some subsequent reading, Meknes is definitely on the cards for our next trip to Morocco. (We also need to enjoy the coastal cities that we did not visit on account of our trip being smack-bang in the middle of winter). A good place to start when exploring Meknes is the medina from the Place el-Hedim. Followed by a walk straight across from the square to the zellige mosaiced gateway of Bab el-Mansour. Thankfully the gate is not in use so one can take an uninterrupted photo of its intricate details. Zellige refers to the style of Islamic and Moroccan mosaics made from individually chiseled geometric tiles set into a plaster base.
A number of interesting ruins and tombs can be visited within the Imperial City, entered through Bab el-Mansour. The Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail is a popular attraction so try visit in the morning to miss the crowds and ladies bring a headscarf. This ornate tomb is fitting for the sultan whose family were descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. If you have time you can also visit the old ambassador’s building Koubat Al Khayatine, and the old granaries and stables Heri es-Souani some of which have been partially restored.
Aside from shopping up a storm in the Medina, there are a few sites to enjoy. The beautiful Bou Inania Medersa (Madrassa – Islamic school of learning) boasts stunning zellige tile decorations and a lovely view of the old town from the green tiled roof. Moulay Ismail’s palace is now operational as the Dar Jamaï Museum of textiles, crafts, and jewelry. Entrance is not expensive and some of the rooms are decorated as they would have been during the city’s heydays. Keep at least an hour to explore the palace and its lovely bird-filled garden. The twelfth-century Grand Mosque although not open to non-Muslims, is a pretty sight to behold even from the outside. The different architecture of the old Mellah, Jewish quarter, is also worth a stroll.
After a day of exploring the old medina tourists can enjoy the entertainment on offer in the new Ville Nouvelle. A day trip to the Volubilis ruins is a must and something I would not have expected to come across in Morocco. I also recommend getting there early to avoid the busses of tourists coming through, take a hat and water (an umbrella if you can) as there is almost no shade and prepare to walk if you want to take in all the ruins. I also strongly recommend hiring one of the guides that hang around the entrance to the ruins so that you can properly understand what you are looking at and enjoy the full experience the site has to offer. I also really enjoyed the drive through the fertile plains between Fez and Volubilis.
If you look up towards the museum at Volubilis you will see the holy pilgrimage town of Moulay Idriss on the hilltop. The white buildings of this town look a little bit like a camel from afar, and possibly with some imagination! Moulay Idriss is also worth a day trip if you have the time. Built in AD 788, it takes its name from the Prophet Muhammed’s great-great-grandson, who founded the first Moroccan state. Faithful Muslims pilgrimage to this town with an annual religious festival in August. Explore the lovely whitewashed medina and travel up the hilltop to get a stunning view of the area.
For further information about the city of Meknes, please check out our Meknes travel guide and things to do in Meknes and feel welcome to contact Desert Morocco Adventures if you need assistance in planning your trip to this charming lesser known city.