Morocco’s Imperial Cities are the old capitals of historic empires and include Meknes, Fez, Marrakesh and the current capital, Rabat. The smallest and most relaxed of these is Meknes. Known for its grand architecture, medieval walls and beautiful gates, visitors will find much to be enchanted by in Meknes.
Founded in the early 11th century as a military settlement, Meknes became a capital under the rule of Sultan Moulay Ismaïl in the 17th century. The sultan turned Meknes into an impressive city with the creation of vast gardens, numerous edifices, mosques and monuments as well as 40 kilometers of thick walls and monumental gates lining the city.
The 18th century marked an end to Meknes’s glory days with the death of Sultan Ismaïl and an earthquake in 1755 that destroyed parts of the city. In 1996, the city of Meknes made the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites due to its exceptional design including “elements of Islamic and European design and planning in a harmonious fashion.” The designation also fueled many serious renovation projects to help preserve these incredible monuments for the future.
Many remnants of Sultan Ismaïl’s rule still stand today. Start your visit at the Bab el-Mansour, the biggest and grandest gate in all of Meknes. Made from massive marble columns taken from the nearby Roman ruins of Volubilis, the gate is very well preserved with zellij mosaics and inscriptions across the top. You can’t walk through the bab itself (meaning gate in Arabic), but you can pass through a side door.
The Moulay Ismael Mausoleum is the final resting place for the sultan who created this impressive city. Since Ismaïl is recognized as one of the greatest rulers of Morocco, non-Muslim visitors are permitted into the sanctuary, although they are not permitted to approach the tomb. Visitors enter the tomb through quiet and austere courtyards before entering the lavish and highly decorated tomb hall.
Another must-see sight, the Roman ruins of Voluibis, sit just outside of Meknes. The ruins are the most well-preserved archeological site in Morocco. The site contains more than 30 gorgeous mosaics in excellent condition that tell stories of the ancient Roman Empire. Visiting the ruins of Voluibis is an easy day trip from Meknes and can be combined with a trip to Moulay Idriss, one of Morocco’s most important pilgrimage sites.
Although Meknes doesn’t have the bustling atmosphere and extensive shops like Marrakesh and Fez, the more relaxed ambiance makes Meknes perfect for browsing ceramics, baskets, embroidery, pottery and brilliantly colored silk threads to take home as souvenirs. The government-run Center Artisanale is a good place to check out the goods and the prices before venturing into the souks, the open-air markets where haggling is commonplace.
Surrounded by the fertile plains below the Middle Atlas Mountains, Meknes thrives on an abundance of agricultural products like olives, grains, citrus fruits, and wine. Spend the day tasting wines and olive oil grown locally in the ancient groves and vineyards around Meknes, and sample citrus fruits and vegetables at the open-air markets.
Meknes is easily accessible from both Rabat and Fez; it is located on the A2 expressway between both cities and is also accessible by train. Once in Meknes, it is easy to get around by bus, taxi or caleche, a horse-drawn cart.
Written by Amiee Maxwell.
Photo by Rosino.