West of Fes
In a private car or grand taxi ou can visit Meknes, Moulay Idriss and Volubilis in a single day trip: it’s a 45-minute drive from Fez to Meknes, 20 minutes from there to Moulay Idriss, 5 minutes to Volubilis and an hour back to Fez.
About 45 minutes’ drive from Fez, Meknes was the capital of Morocco during the reign of Moulay Ismail, a tyrant inspired by Louis XIV to create his own version of Versailles. Attractions include his walled Imperial City and a small but nice medina. The city lies in a hilly, fertile part of Morocco where the French planted vines amid the olive groves and fields of poppies and yellow mustard.
The hill town of Moulay Idriss was named for its founder, Moulay Idriss I, a great-grandson of the Prophet Mohammed.
His mausoleum here has been one of Morocco’s holiest shrines since the 9C: some say that five pilgrimages to Moulay Idriss are the spiritual equivalent of one to Mecca. The village is small but pretty with steep, winding streets.
It’s a 4km/3-mile drive or walk through beautiful countryside from Moulay Idriss to the Roman ruins at Volubilis, a sprawling site that boasts the remnants of a triumphal arch, a forum, a basilica and several beautiful mosaic floors. This was the most remote of Roman municipalities; although they remained here for only two centuries, Latin was still spoken in the area in the 6C.
Moulay Yaacoub is a spa village 20km/12 miles northeast of Fez. Its thermal baths are popular with both Moroccans and foreigners. Two price categories are offered, the older and cheaper ones cost pennies for a 30-minute soak, while the newer, more upscale ones cost 10 times that much for a quick dip. Les Thermes Moulay Yacoub.
The city of Meknes, aka ‘The Versailles of Morocco’, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site which began as a Berber kasbah (fortified residence) and vaulted into city status under the Merenid dynasty in the 14C. Its golden age, however, came when sultan Moulay Ismaïl Ibn Sharif (ruled 1672–1727) chose to make Meknes the new capital of Morocco.
Moulay Ismail was a man of considerable energy, recorded as having fathered 867 children by the age of 58 with a harem of 500 women; his 700th son was born when he was in his 80s. Other pursuits included warfare, waged with as much dedication and almost as much success. For his victories against the Ottoman Turks, which established the independence of Morocco, he is hailed as a national hero. Subsequent triumphs against the Spanish and the British, both seeking to claim territories on Moroccan soil, ensured his place in Moroccan history and have, to a degree, eclipsed a litany of less-than-admirable personal traits.
The sultan applied the same gusto to the embellishment of his capital at Meknes, commissioning mosques, gates and gardens by the dozens and encircling the whole lot with 45km/28 miles of walls. In this he was inspired by his contemporary, Louis XIV of France, with whom he maintained excellent relations even after the French king declined Moulay Ismail’s invitation to add one of his daughters, Marie Anne de Bourbon, to the sultan’s harem of 500 women.
The achievements of Moulay Ismail were somewhat facilitated by his utter contempt for human life. Servants, labourers and guards were beheaded or tortured at whim. The sultan’s force of 150,000 enslaved Sub-Saharan men, the Black Guard, patrolled the countryside and crushed rebellions by slaughtering all parties. Their heads were routinely displayed atop the city walls; at one point there were said to have been 10,000 of these around Meknes, a third of the total calculated to have died under his rule. White slaves, captured by Barbary Corsairs during raids along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts of Europe, were put to manual labour or rowing galley ships, or used as bargaining chips with the European powers. Many, especially those who loudly professed their Christianity, spent years, even lifetimes, in the vast prisons beneath Meknes and were among the 25,000 slaves forced to build Moulay Ismail’s Imperial City.
Today’s Meknès is divided into three principal areas laid out along a boulevard named for its greatest champion (and many subsequent princes of the Moroccan royal family), Moulay ismail: the Imperial City, the old medina and the Ville Nouvelle. There are few facilities to cater to foreign visitors here and that, together with its monuments and markets, is part of its charm.
Smaller than its counterpart in Fez, certainly, the medina here is also less self-conscious and its merchants less aggressive. Meknes is known for its damascene work, which involves pressing thin silver wires into a steel surface inscribed with a pattern, then hammering the silver until its flattens and fills the cuts. The object - usually a plate, bowl, box or figurine - is then treated to make the steel turn black. The best area for wandering about is between the 14C Bou Inania medersa, worth a look in itself for the beautiful carved panels and zelijs decorating its courtyard, and the Grande Mosquée, known as the Kissaria Lahrir. Another landmark for visitors is the Musée Dar Jamai in Place el-Hedim, an old Andalusian palace housing a small collection of antique crafts, including embroidery, saddles and furnishings. Note the two gates in the Place el-Hedim; the larger is Bab Mansour, heavily decorated in blue and green zelijs; the smaller is Bab Jemaa en Nouar. On the Place behind the museum is a souk for babouches, es Sebbat; to the west of that is souk Joutiya es Zerabi where hand-made carpets are sold (at auction on Sunday mornings)..
The Imperial City
In spite of the vast labour force set to building the Imperial City, Moulay Ismail died before his Versailles could be completed and a good part of it was subsequently demolished by his son. Three concentric fortified walls, 25km/15 miles long and 9-12m/30-40 feet high, testify to its intended size. About a third of the walled area is now filled with dense housing; gardens, the old official buildings, a palace still occasionally in use by the royal family and recreational areas - including a 9-hole golf course - occupy the balance. A popular way of visiting the area is by horse-drawn caleche; you’ll find them near the mausoleum.
The main gate to the Imperial City, just off Place el-Hedim, was originally the monumental Bab Mansour, which boasts Roman marble columns pinched from Volubilis and bears the inscription, in Kufic characters, “I am the door open to all people, whether West or East.” The gate is named for the architect who designed it, a Christian who converted to Islam. Legend has it that as Moulay Ismail was inspecting it he asked the terrified El-Mansour if he was capable of doing better. Believing it to be the right answer, the architect stammered ‘yes,’ for which he promptly lost his head. Unfortunately the story is probably not true as the sultan died five years before the gate was completed. It is now used as a crafts gallery; entry is by a side gate.
Inside the walls:
• Koubba al-Kayatin (or Koubba as-Sufara), a pavilion used for diplomatic receptions and notable largely for its richly decorated ceilings. Within the pavillion is the entrance to Moulay Ismail’s notorious Habs Qara, “Prison of the Christians,” a vast underground network of caves and tunnels said to have held thousands of Christian prisoners whose labour contributed to the construction of the Imperial City. This, too, is probably untrue; the tunnels were more likely used for grain storage.
• Moulay Ismail had his mausoleum built on the site previously occupied by the city’s Palais de Justice (courthouse) in the hope that in death he would be judged in his own court and by his own people. The mausoleum contains the tombs of Moulay Ismail himself, his official wife and various descendants in three linked chambers with mosaic floors and pyramidal roofs of green ceramic tile. A series of yellow courtyards leads to building and to an anteroom covered in zelijs and carved plaster. Non-Muslims are barred from entering the tomb itself but can look inside from the entrance. The clocks on either side of the entrance were gifts from Louis XIV, and apparently accompanied a letter from the French king in which he declined the sultan’s invitation to add one of his daughters to the sultan’s harem.
Moulay Ismail’s stables and granaries, known as Heri es Souani, are a fair distance to the south of the Imperial City. The stables were designed to house 12,000 horses; the granaries held provisions in the event of a drought or siege. The buildings were designed to maintain a low temperature, with thick walls, high ceilings, tiny windows and a system of water channels beneath the floors. Nearby is the Agdal Basin, a small lake which is a popular destination on hot days.
Collier de la Colombe at 67 rue Driba, Ville Nouvelle, is 5 minutes’ walk from Bab Mansour with a great view (especially from the rooftop terrace) and a classical Moroccan menu. Tel 0535/55--50--41
Dar Sultana on Derb Sekkaya is a family restaurant in a dark medina alley, famed for its enormous salad bar. No alcohol served. Tel. 53 535720
Moulay Idriss (Zerhoun)
So sacred is the village of Moulay Idriss to Moroccans that until 2005 non-Muslims were not permitted to spend the night here and in fact had to leave by 3pm. The village is perched on two hills, which form the residential/commercial quarters of Khiber and Tasga, with a low saddle between them where you’ll find the tomb and mausoleum of Moulay Idriss and the main square. Climb the succession of terrasses to the top of either quarter and you’ll have a splendid overview of the village and the surrounding hills and valleys, as well a glimpse into the mausoleum which, as any holy site, non-Muslims may not enter.
Moulay Idriss, or more accurately Idriss Ben Abdallah Ben Hassan Ben Ali, was the great-great grandson of the Prophet Mohammed through his daughter, Fatima. Finding himself on the wrong side of a political divide in his native Baghdad, he fled to Morocco in 786 and settled in Volubilis, a city founded by the Romans and occupied by a Berber tribe. The charismatic Moulay Idriss married the daughter of the tribe’s king and quickly established himself as their spiritual leader with his headquarters at the more easily defended site of the village that now bears his name. Gradually he managed to unite the many warring Berber tribes in the area and thus founded the first Moroccan dynasty, the Idrissids. Moulay Idriss’ extraordinary life came to an abrupt end in 792 or 793 when he was poisoned by one of his Baghdadi enemies.
A moussem or festival honouring Moulay Idriss is held in the main square during the month before Ramadan. Thousands of pilgrims participate in the prayers, dancing and singing and a member of Morocco’s royal family usually makes an appearance.
What to see
• The mausoleum of Moulay Idriss lies on the main square of the village, which is lined with shops and cafés. Non-Muslims can’t enter the mausoleum but they can join the others climbing the steps to peer into its great courtyard through the main gate.
• Go through the gate to the left of the mausoleum entrance to climb to the highest part of town. On the way you’ll pass the Idriss Medersa. This school was built with materials scavenged from Volubilis and is noted for its round minaret, added in 1939 by a weathy patron who had seem similar on his hajj to Mecca. The only minaret of its kind in Morocco, it bears geometrical decorations that represent texts from the Koran.
• A ten-minute walk from the village takes you hot springs developed into baths by the Romans. You can have a dip or just enjoy the incredible views of the plains of Volubilis.
Located 4km/3 miles from Moulay Idriss (a very nice 40-minute walk), the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Volubilis is one of the most important, and beautiful, Roman sites in north Africa. The ruins are set in a plain overlooked by the village of Moulay Idriss and include villas, 30 or so mosaic floors, long rows of standing columns, granaries, a basilica and a triumphal arch.
The Romans inherited their domains in north Africa following the demise of Carthage in 146BC. The region which includes Volubilis was governed as the province of Mauretania Tingitana with its administrative capital at Tingis, now Tangier. There were several towns scattered in the area, a rich source of the grains and olive oil which were shipped back to Rome. Volubilis seems to have been one of the larger and wealthier of these, possibly with a population of 20,000 at its peak. It was certainly one of the oldest, having been built on top of a 3rd century BC Carthaginian settlement which is thought to overlay an even earlier neolithic one.
While many of these towns disappeared after the fall of Rome, Volubilis lived on even after near-destruction by an earthquake in the 4C. Tombstones attest to its existence in the 6C and to the continued use of the Latin language in the area. By the time of Moulay Idriss I’s arrival here in 786, however, the town was inhabited by a tribe of Arabic-speaking Muslim Berbers, known as the Awraba, who called their town Walila (‘Oleander’).
It is unclear when the site was finally abandoned but it suffered much damage during an 18C earthquake, as well as pilfering by sultan Moulay Ismail, who used its Roman columns and stones in the construction of his Imperial City at Meknes.
Excavations began at Volubilis in 1915 during the French Protectorate of Morocco. They’re continuing today in a joint effort between University College London and the Moroccan Institut National des Sciences de l’Archéologie et du Patrimoine.
Most of the artefacts found at Volubilis are currently on display in Rabat at the Archaeological Museum, but a new exhibition structure is currently under construction next to the ruins themselves.
Links for more information:
Photos and history.
The official site of Morocco’s Ministry of Culture, including a map of the archeological site.
South of Fes
A drive through the countryside to the south of Fez takes you through rolling hills covered in forests of cedar and green oak, dotted with fields of wildflowers and lakes. The resident Barbary monkeys are a popular attraction.
It takes about an hour to get to Ifrane, an hour and a half to Azrou. The village of Sefrou is a beautiful 20-minute detour through a lake district.
Immouzer is pretty little mountain town with a popular lakeside restaurant. It’s also the starting place for a number of hikes. Further along the same very scenic road, about an hour’s drive from Fez, is Ifrane, built as a mountain resort by the French in 1929. Another half a hour will bring you to Azrou, a Berber mountain town with splendid views and a long tradition of carpet-making.
Immouzer (du Kandar) is a little village perched at the edge of the Saïss Massif, 1220m/4000 feet above sea level. The main street is lined with cafés and there is an artificial pond at the centre of town. A souk fills the market square on Saturdays and Mondays. The area is known for beautiful scenery and lovely walks to waterfalls, as well as for its honey flavoured by mountain flowers.
Ifrane, at an altitude of 1665m/5460 feet, came into being during the period of the French Protectorate, intended as a cool retreat during the summer and a place to enjoy snowy mountain scenery in the winter (the lowest temperature in Africa was recorded here in 1935, a chilly -24°C/-11°F).
The town is built on land expropriated from the local Berbers, an action which presumably received no opposition from the royal family as the development plan included a palace for their use, which they still occupy. The streets of Ifrane were laid out like those of a typical European Alpine resort, and chalet-style architecture predominated. Trees and shrubs were imported to complete the picture, including lilacs, chestnuts and lindens.
After independence the French properties were bought up by Moroccans. In 1995 the English-language Al Akhawayn University opened its doors and is popular with wealthy Moroccans, as are the ski lifts just outside town.
There is a pretty 3km/2-mile walk from Ifrane to a spring called the Vittel; 500m along the river the water cascades over a cliff at the Virgin Falls.
There are two reasons to go to Azrou, altitude 1250m/4000 feet: the marvellous countryside along the way and the locally-made carpets. You pass through mountains covered in forests of green oaks and cedars, populated by Barbary monkeys and, at certain times of the year, flocks of butterflies unique to this zone. To the south-east lie a number of dormant volcanoes.
The town, which is much larger than Ifrane, owes its name to the Berber word for rock - azrou - for reasons which will quickly become obvious. Doors, window frames and roofs here are all in variations of the colour green and yet the specialty of Azrou is a red carpet, hand-woven in a geometric pattern. A market takes place at Azrou every Tuesday, largely given over to food but with a small section devoted to carpets and other textile goods.
Sefrou was settled by a tribe of Berbers who were practising Jews until their conversion by Moulay Idriss. It has a small medina with a market on Thursdays and a mellah quarter which is decorated with old wooden balconies and separated from the town by a number of bridges over the Agaï River. There is a popular walk along the river to a set of waterfalls, around 20 minutes. A cliff on the approach to the town from the direction of Fez has several caves at its base, one of which is said to have been the burial place of the prophet Daniel. The area is noted for its cherry orchards; an annual festival in mid-June celebrates the fruit’s ripening and includes the election of Miss Cherry from among the town’s beauties and a procession to the tomb of Prophet Daniel. If you’ve time for another detour, head east from Sefrou to visit the Sebou Gorge, about 30km/18 miles.