Monday, December 9, 2013

Photo Post: Meknes, Morocco’s Forgotten Imperial City

Meknes, Morocco
Bab el-Mansour
Of the four major cities that have served as capitals in Morocco’s past—Fez, Marrakesh, Meknes, and Rabat—Meknes seems to be the most-overlooked Imperial City for most people coming to visit the country. It’s a mere half-hour train ride from Fez, yet many people pass it over on their way to Casablanca and Marrakesh. Admittedly, there isn’t a lot to see here and the real treat here are the Roman ruins of Volubilis, a half-hour grand taxi drive outside of town. Even Sufyan, a native meknassi I met on the train and who kindly guided me toward my hotel, assured me his city isn’t worth visiting and recommended I check out Marrakesh and Essaouira instead.

Meknes, Morocco
Imperial City
I myself would have skipped Meknes had I not wanted to see the Volubilis ruins, which are difficult to get to except as a daytrip from town. Thankfully in my hotel’s lobby I happened to overhear that a group of three Americans were trying to organize an intercity taxi to visit Volubilis, and when I asked if I could join them, they graciously let me pitch in the cost of the grand taxi ride. It was a great experience and I am so grateful I met Alice, Frank, and Nicole at the hotel; it was a refreshing change to hang out with English speakers after struggling through broken French up to that point!

Meknes, Morocco
Mausoleum of Moulay Ismaïl
But while in town, I actually kind of liked spending time simply wandering around the old city’s medina (read: not getting lost) and fortified palatial grounds. The city was quiet and untouristy, and I felt very out-of-place as a backpacking white kid from America in this fascinating country. (But that’s a good thing, of course!)

The first night I was there, I attempted to seek out the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismaïl, a Moroccan ruler in the 1600s and 1700s who established the city of Meknes and was an all-around bad-ass warrior king. However, I made one wrong turn and ended up walking all around the cité impériale proper at dusk for an hour. By the time I made it back to the central Place el-Hedim square, the mausoleum was already closed so I decided to come back again the next day. Sure enough, when I followed the signs, they took me straight to it.

Meknes, Morocco
Mausoleum of Moulay Ismaïl
A succession of smaller and smaller halls and courtyards culminated in Moulay Ismaïl’s burial chamber, an incredibly lavish room covered from floor to ceiling in tilework and carved marble. I had to take off my shoes before entering out of respect for this important figure in Morocco’s history.

Meknes, Morocco
Place el-Hedim
Back in the center of the old town—right outside the winding medina—I climbed a few stairs to a second-story teahouse terrace. There I enjoyed a mint tea from my perch, watching the sun set in the distance and taking in the trading, music, and movement in the plaza below.

What was your favorite picture from this post? Have you been to Meknes before? What other historically-significant yet perennially-overlooked cities can you think of? Tell me in the comments section below!

For more pictures, check out my set on Flickr here.
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