Imperial Meknes “of the Olive Trees” about 50 km south west of Fez, founded in the 9th century AD, is called after a Berber tribe, the Meknassa. Though smaller and not as busy as its Imperial counterparts, it is well worth a couple of days stay which may extend as its calm, steady atmosphere grows on many visitors .
It still has impressive buildings despite being destroyed and rebuilt several times during a turbulent history, even deserted at one point.
It came to prominence under the Alaouite Sultan Moulay Ismail who made it his capital in 1676. This fantastic ruler built on a massive scale and, not content with this, also united Morocco, pacified warring tribes and beat Turks, Spanish and, at Tangier, the British, built a great palace for his many wives and 800 children, and erected three miles of stables for 12,000 horses of his cavalry. The complex became known as the Versailles of Morocco.
He and Louis XIV of France, the Sun King, exchanged presents and for years he pressed for an alliance with France against Spain and tried to marry one of Louis’ daughters but the Sun King did not agree, especially as Moroccan sea rovers, the corsairs, continually attacked and plundered French merchant ships.
Meknes has its charms, the orange, palm and olive trees, the minarets of the Medina, the 12th century Great Mosque, the miles of triple ramparts round the Old Town and the magnificent Bab el Mansour or Gate of the Victorious Renegade, a breathtaking, lavishly decorated construction, one of the most beautiful and massive in Morocco, the main entrance to Moulay Ismail’s imperial city.
A trip of 18 miles from Meknes takes you to Volubilis, the most impressive Roman remains in Morocco and an experience not to be missed. From 45 AD to 285 AD it was the capital of Roman Mauretania and, despite its outpost status, was a place of remarkable refinement in architecture and decoration.
In the reign of the Emperor Augustus, Mauretania fell under Roman dominion, partly due to the efforts of a Berber Prince, the son of Juba 1. He was taken to Rome as a child as part of the African triumph of Julius Caesar and was brought up in the household of Augustus where he met and married another royal orphan in exile, the beautiful Cleopatra Silene, 15-year-old daughter of Cleopatra and Mark Anthony. Young Juba, now a scholar and philosopher was given the throne of Mauretania ruling mainly from what is now Algeria.
Volubilis has a triumphal marble arch, capitol, baths and basilica but its crowning glories are its magnificent mosaics, fresh and colourful, with mythical subjects such as Diana Bathing and Bachus and his chariots drawn by panthers but also has charming, natural portrayals of wild and domestic animals. For truly magical effect Volubilis is best viewed at sunrise and sunset.
Three miles to the east of Volubilis, nestling dramatically amid the Zerhoun Hills is the white town of Moulay Idriss, the holiest spot in the kingdom. Completely unspoilt, it is a pilgrimage centre called after and containing the tomb of the great-grandson of the Prophet.