Volubilis & Meknes – A Forgotten Roman City & More
On holiday in glorious Morocco but thirsting for something different? The hustle and bustle of Fez driving you up the wall? Then you seriously need to take a trip to Meknes; One of the most criminally underrated cities in all of Arab Africa.
The Imperial city of Meknes is perched atop a hill in the Middle Atlas region of Morocco, about an hours drive from Fez. It sports a spectacular royal palace, beautiful parks, stunning architecture, famous tombs of holy men, 27 ancient gates, a UNESCO approved Medina and the ruins of a nearby Roman city. Quite the resume indeed, however, there is one thing Meknes is truly lacking and that thing is tourists.
Under the reign of Sultan Moulay Ismaïl, Meknes became the capital of Morocco toward the end of the 1600s and during this time, Meknes developed into an impressive city in Spanish-Moorish style. It sports a beautiful medina and market square where you will find some of the cheapest shopping in all of Morocco. Place el-Hedim (The market square) is a typical Moroccan affair, with huge piles of precariously stacked pottery, orange juice vendors, handcrafts, DVDs, sweets and piles of socks. I like to think of it is a smaller scale, more laid back version of Jemaa el-Fna in Marrakesh.
Flanking the Place el-Hedim is the Bab el-Mansour, which is a huge hit with what few visitors Meknes attracts, and for good reason. Built in 1732, Bab el-Mansour is a massive and imposing gate. Impressive not only for its size but its striking green and white tiles, large marble columns and intricately carved inscriptions along the top.
One of the city’s most famous locations is the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismaïl himself. This ornate tomb of the man who gave Meknes its imperial status is utterly spellbinding and one of the few mausoleums open to non-Muslims. High ceilings and bejewelled walls are the order of the day in this particular place.
Nearby the tomb is Habs Qara, a fortification with large underground dungeons that allegedly held prisoners of the state. You can do down inside but be warned: There is no lighting whatsoever and the air is damp and dank. Truly this would have been an awful place to be locked up. Bring a torch.
Also worth a visit, for something a little different, is Heri es-Souani – The royal granary and stables. You might not think that a granary sounds like a particularly entertaining thing to look at, but these gigantic ruins are one of the most atmospheric places I’ve ever been. Set alongside a beautiful artificial lake and built to simultaneously hold a staggering 12 thousand horses and also thousands of tonnes of grain, these huge empty rooms with their curved walls and crumbling arches are truly grand to behold. The Sultan Moulay Ismaï himself considered it his finest architectural project.
Finally, you will need to get yourself a car, hire a cab or a driver, and take a short 20-minute drive out of Meknes to the most spectacular of its many secrets – The ruins of the ancient Roman city of Volubilis.
Dating back to the third century BC, this city marked the very western edge of the Roman Empire. It primarily produced olives and olive oil (which made its residents filthy rich) and currently sits utterly abandoned in the middle of open plains, with only bored sheep for company.
Originally covering an area of 42 hectares and sporting a 2.6 km long circuit of walls, Volubilis was once home to over 20,000 people and is an exceptional example of a large-scale Roman colonial city.
Allegedly the city was mostly intact until the 18th century when it was devastated by an earthquake and much of the ruins were subsequently looted to build the neighbouring town of Moulay Idriss, which you can see from here.
We wandered about this place for hours, and saw no-one. We were utterly alone. The creepy silence was almost unnerving, truth be told, but the ability to explore such incredible ruins without hordes of tourists is more than worth it.
Paved streets, large bathhouses and fountains, wide promenades, huge olive presses, gigantic gates and a massive town hall all await you here.
The most amazing thing about Volubilis is the fact that there are dozens of large floor mosaics, completely intact and still brightly coloured, lying open to the elements with only a half-hearted rope tied around some of the largest ones. These priceless artworks are quite literally just sitting out here in the dirt, being baked in the open sun. Its an honest to god crime.
The artwork is really intricate and tells you a lot about the wealth of the townspeople.
No trip to Volubilis would be complete without a quick jaunt over to Moulay Idriss, which is famous for the Mausoleum of Idriss I, a sacred destination that is open only to Muslims. One of the holiest sites in all of Morocco, people make pilgrimages here every year to pray at this mosque. The town is also quite beautiful too, which helps.
In closing; Don’t pass up the chance to visit Meknes, even if only as a day trip from Fez. It is one of the most beautiful and underappreciated gems of the Arabic world. Cheap, Historic, laid back, tourist-free and full of wonder – You would do yourself an utter disservice to miss it.