Tag Archives: Meknes

Morocco, Top Travel Tips – The Historical Sites

Volubilis Morocco

I continue with my short series of Top Travel Tips for Morocco and today I recommend the historical sites and specifically the Roman City of Volubilis.

Taking a day trip out of the city of Fez and after a long drive we eventually saw signs for the excavations of Volubilis and our guide for the day, Abdul, left the highway and followed a dusty pot-holed track towards the Roman City.

I am not sure what I was really expecting but this took me by surprise rather like the moment we came across the Roman ruins of Segobriga in Spain in 2009 for even from the road it was clear that this place was much bigger than I was expecting.

At the entrance to the site we paid the reasonable entry fee and then negotiated with a local guide who offered to give us a guided tour and a history of the city and when we were all satisfied with the price we set off along a dusty path towards the excavations and Hamid began his commentary

Volubilis was the Roman capital of the Province of Mauritania and was founded in the third century B.C., it became an important outpost of the Roman Empire and was graced with many fine buildings.  Extensive remains of these survive in the archaeological site, located in the middle of this fertile agricultural area.  The city continued to be occupied long after the Romans had gone and at some point converted to Islam and Volubilis was later briefly to become the capital of Idris I, founder of the Idrisid dynasty, who is buried at nearby Moulay Idris.

It is now of course a UNESCO World Heritage Site, admitted to the list in 1997.

Roman City of Volubilis Morocco

Volubilis was an important and versatile place, a garrison town which protected the far south western boundary of the Empire, an agricultural bread basket producing important crops like wheat and olives in the fertile valley to be transported across the Empire via Tangier to the North next to the Mediterranean Sea and a city of rich noblemen who built themselves fine villas and a beautiful city in an enviable location.

Much better I imagine to be posted here than to the northern extremes of the Empire at Hadrian’s Wall.

Volubilis, it turns out, is the most important ancient archaeological site in Morocco and Hassan took us into the old streets running north to south and through the foundations and walls of the houses that flanked them.  In many of them there were fine mosaics and I thought it a little surprising to find them here exposed to the elements and not having been removed to a museum nearby.

Volubilis Morocco

The houses were huge and with a bit of imagination it was almost possible to imagine what this place may have been like two thousand years ago.  It was interesting to walk around the old streets, wander through the corridors of the houses, along the main street of shops and imagine that in this very place there were soldiers marching, classic plays being performed in the theatre, emperor worshippers in the temples, magistrates swaggering around importantly in togas, and slaves to do all of the dirty work.

After walking along the main street lined by the remains of grand columns and arches we arrived at the centre piece of the city, the triumphal arch which has been carefully pieced back together by French archaeologists nearly a hundred years ago.  Next to the arch was the Forum, the centre of political life in the city and adjacent to that the ancient Basilica where the citizens came to worship their gods.

Hamid concluded the tour with an explanation of Roman life in this area and tried to speculate why the Romans suddenly abandoned Morocco but like many historians who have wrestled with this question before him could provide no answers.

He walked us back to the car park where Abdul was waiting and we paid the agreed fee and added a tip to thank him for an excellent tour.

Read this wonderful interpretation of what might have happened at Volubilis at Nareszcie Urlop.

Volubilis Morocco

Morocco, Top Travel Tips – The Royal Palaces

Continuing my short series on Top Tips for Morocco. number two is the Royal Palaces…

Wandering aimlessly around the maze of streets in Marrakech we were looking for the Saadian Tombs which the guidebook said shouldn’t be missed but could be difficult to find.

First of all we discovered that it was completely right on the second point and after we had walked around the outside of the Kasbah Mosque we missed the entrance and took an unnecessary detour into some back streets and lanes which took us nowhere in particular.

After all the walking we were feeling hungry now so while we consulted the guide book maps we found a café with pavement tables and had a bottle of water (a bottle of water!) and a chicken kebab snack that was cooked on a grill on the pavement which tasted good even though it was complimented by exhaust fumes and the smell of horse manure from a carriage parked up close by.

The helpful waiter showed us on the map where we would find the tombs so after we had finished eating we paid up, left an appropriate tip and moved on.

Marrakech Sadian tombs

The reason that we missed the site was that the entrance is squeezed in between the back of the Mosque and a narrow row of kiosks and having found it we paid our ten dirham entrance fee and walked through a very narrow alley in between two tall buildings where there was barely room to pass the visitors that were coming out.

It turns out that the Saadian Tombs were sealed up in the sixteenth century by a jealous ruler, Moulay Ismail, who resented the wealth of his predecessor, Ahmed al Mansour, and who set about dismantling anything he had built or acquired.  So successfully was it hidden away that it wasn’t rediscovered until the 1920’s when an inquisitive French administrator overcome with curiosity opened up the entrance and found this treasure hidden away from public view half in ruins and completely forgotten.  It would be nice to think that there may still be treasures like this just hidden away somewhere but I suppose with modern mapping techniques like Google Earth this is most unlikely.

There has been a lot of restoration at the site and the two main mausoleums have been returned to their original state when they were built five hundred years ago to contain Mansour’s own tomb.  The graves of over a hundred Saadian princes and royal household members are scattered around the garden and the courtyard most with gravestones brilliantly tiled and elaborately inscribed.

It was only a small site and it didn’t take long to complete the visit even though we had to compete with several large tour groups to see everything there was to see.

The site that we were heading for next was the Badii Palace and for such a big place the entrance was once again tucked into a narrow lane which we only found after asking several times for directions.  Asking direction in Marrakech always carries the potential issue of being offered an unwanted chaperone and guide and a refusal often leads to misinformation so this turned out to be a lengthy process.

The Palace is in ruins now but reputedly took armies of labourers and craftsmen twenty-five years to build and when it was completed it was said to be amongst the most magnificent palaces ever constructed with walls and ceilings encrusted with gold and precious jewels and in the middle a massive pool with an island flanked by four sunken gardens.

Sadly the magnificent building survived for barely a hundred years before the Saadian dynasty was overthrown and replaced by the Alouites and the conquering Sultan, Moulay Ismail, came along and stripped the place bare at just about the same time as he was sealing up the Saadian Tombs.

Moulay Ismaïl was by all accounts an interesting character and  a man of extreme excesses.  It is said that he personally killed over twenty-five thousand men but to make up for this he is alleged to have fathered eight hundred and eighty-nine children. This is widely considered the record number of offspring for any man throughout history that can actually be verified.  It is estimated that to father that number of children (allowing for failed attempts of course) he would have had to have sex with an average of 1.2 women every day for sixty years which is something that I can only imagine was a real chore!

When he wasn’t slaughtering or shagging he was building himself a new capital city at Meknès in the north of Morocco and it took twelve years to dismantle the Badii Palace and remove the treasures and relocate them and all that is left now are the stripped red mud bricks.

We wanted to see the replacement Palace and that took us to the city of Meknès.  Being unexpectedly allowed into this place we walked through a series of courts and chambers decorated in bright yellow tiles and spiralling stucco work. Behind the courts is the sanctuary that holds the remains of Moulay Ismail and his family members and after we had taken off our shoes at the door we were invited into the mausoleum but not the Mosque.

After the mausoleum visit we went next to the Heri es Souani, the site of Moulay Ismail’s stables. We paid the reasonable entrance fee and were allocated a guide.  He asked if we understood French or English, we told him English and he looked at us with a face that said ‘That’s a shame because I do this tour in French’ and he set off regardless on his Gallic commentary to our appropriately blank faces.

He took us through a remarkable system of high-vaulted chambers with a series of storerooms and granaries.   In the time of Moulay Ismail, these were used to hold provisions in a case of a drought or a siege and behind these chambers were the stables for seven-thousand horses.  That’s an awful lot of horses and an awful lot of equine shit to shovel so there were living quarters over the top for the hundreds of grooms and labourers that would have been required to support an operation such as this.

At the completion of the tour the guide said goodbye but rather like a barnacle attached to a rock stayed close by.  We set to walk off but then suddenly he seemed to remember that he could speak a bit of English after all, he coughed an attract attention sort of cough, held out his hand and asked if we had forgotten something.  We had of course and we rifled our pockets for some loose change to give the man his deserved tip.

Anyway, don’t just take my word for it, I recommend that you pop across to visit this post for another accompanied tour – nareszcieurlop.wordpress.com

Heri es Souani Meknes Morocco

Morocco, Top Travel Tips – The Souks

Fez Colours

“I believe that Marrakech ought to be earned as a destination. The journey is the preparation for the experience. Reaching it too fast derides it, makes it a little less easy to understand.”  ― Tahir Shah, In Arabian Nights: ‘A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams’

And so our quick visit to Morocco was suddenly over all too quickly.  I had previously said that I wouldn’t go back again but the truth is I enjoyed it.

Flushed with enthusiasm I have decided to put together some top tips for visiting this beguiling and welcoming North African country:

First – Be sure to visit the Souks

This extract is from a previous post about a visit to the city of Meknes…

The journey from Moulay Idriss to the UNESCO World Heritage city Meknes took about thirty minutes and when we arrived in the city Abdul stopped first at a lay-by on the edge of the city with a panorama of the city.  The word panorama makes it sound picturesque or interesting but I have to say that from here it didn’t look terribly exciting at all, just very similar to Fez with a jumble of off-white concrete box buildings and a forest of satellite dishes and TV aerials.

Fortunately we didn’t stay long and Abdul drove us into the centre of the city and took us directly to the central square of the Medina, which, although much smaller reminded me straight away of Marrakech.

Abdul parked the taxi right outside the gates of the Royal Palace and I was concerned about that, but I needn’t have been because Abdul seemed to know a lot of people, probably even the guards and there was no problem.  He certainly knew the owner of the restaurant the ‘Terrasses Pavillion des Idrissides’ and before we knew very much about it we had been led to a terrace table overlooking the square by a couple of eager waiters.  We examined the menu carefully before making our selections and then we enjoyed a simple meal at a very agreeable price.

The main square was moderately busy but didn’t feel crowded and we walked past the snake charmers and the men with Barbary Apes all trying to sell photographs, fortune tellers and soothsayers and my favourite the tooth puller who would have provided dental surgery at a fraction of the cost of the National Health Service if we had been brave enough to allow him.

Meknes Souk Morocco

There were rows of market stalls selling fresh and dried fruits and others competing to sell a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and all around the square were cafés and restaurants with high level balconies where people were sitting and just enjoying the random entertainment.

“By the blue tiled walls near the market stalls, There’s a hidden door she leads you to, These days, she says, I feel my life just like a river running through…” 

Rather like Al Stewart in the ‘Year of the Cat’ we slipped into the souk and walked past carpet shops, elaborate lampshade stores, slipper shops, silver and pottery workshops, shops selling leather, silks, ceramics, spices and pastries and our senses were under constant assault from the colourful sights, the rich aromas and the chatter and noise of the traders.  Occasionally a donkey and cart would send people scattering as new supplies were delivered and the shop owners were probably glad of this because the only place to go to get out of the way was inside the shop doorways where someone was waiting to pounce.

Fez Carpets

Threading our way through the heaving twisting lanes we elbowed our way through the crowds and nodded politely as we rejected invitations from all sides, trying all the time not to make eye contact and declining inducement to go inside the shops and look all the time trying hard to remember the way that we had walked so that we could get out again without getting lost.

We seemed to be the only tourists here so we weren’t too adventurous and soon we were back on the sunny street which led to another souk, this time the food market which, maybe because it was Saturday, was exceptionally busy.

There was large butchery section here and there was an overpowering smell of blood, offal and sawdust.  Whole goats hung from metal hooks, there were bulls’ heads in various stages of being dismembered and sheep heads carelessly discarded and lying on the floor for anyone who wasn’t paying attention to trip over.  Along one of the internal lanes there were cages and cages of live chickens just waiting to be selected, purchased and killed.

The process was swift but brutal – the selection made and the price paid the butcher deftly cut the bird’s throat and shoved it unceremoniously into a plastic bucket, head first so that the blood would drain away.  The poor thing struggled for a short while but when it was dead and drained it was dunked first in boiling water and then freezing water and then plucked on a primitive but effective plucking machine.  Micky, a butcher himself, and Kim stopped to watch the macabre process but Christine, an animal lover, and Sue, a bit squeamish, walked on without stopping.  I went with Sue and Christine.

Essaouira Spices

As we turned a corner there were herbalist shops with spices arranged in colourful pyramids and baskets of dried flower heads and quack remedies.  Kim went inside to look at the jars of colourful potions and perfumes and to enquire about the spices and the prices each time making a promise to return later.  I imagine that this is a promise that shopkeepers in Meknes hear hundreds of times every day and probably don’t take them too seriously but after a few minutes we did return to one of them and this probably took the owner by complete surprise.

We bought a few bags of spices and I began to worry about taking these little multi-coloured bags of suspicious looking powder through customs especially bearing in mind that Morocco has a reputation of being a big producer of illegal drugs.

Our heads full of the sights and sounds of the busy souk we pushed our way out through a main entrance and made our way again across the main square which was beginning to fill up and I imagined that it was going to be a big night in Meknes later.  We wouldn’t see this of course because now we had to find Abdul who had promised to take us to see the other important sites in the city.  We found him chatting to the restaurant owner – presumably negotiating his commission!

marrakech-10

A Life in Ruins – Volubilis, Morocco

Volubilis Morocco

At the entrance to the site we paid the reasonable entry fee and then negotiated with a local guide who offered to give us a guided tour and a history of the city and when we were all satisfied with the price we set off along a dusty path towards the excavations and Hamid began his commentary

Volubilis was the Roman capital of the Province of Mauritania and was founded in the third century B.C., it became an important outpost of the Roman Empire and was graced with many fine buildings.  Extensive remains of these survive in the archaeological site, located in the middle of this fertile agricultural area.  The city continued to be occupied long after the Romans had gone and at some point converted to Islam and Volubilis was later briefly to become the capital of Idris I, founder of the Idrisid dynasty, who is buried at nearby Moulay Idris.   It is now of course a UNESCO World Heritage Site, admitted to the list in 1997.

Volubilis was an important and versatile place, a garrison town which protected the far south western boundary of the Empire, an agricultural bread basket producing important crops like wheat and olives in the fertile valley to be transported across the Empire via Tangier to the North on the Mediterranean Sea and a city of rich noblemen who built themselves fine villas and a beautiful city in an enviable location.  Much better I imagine to be posted here than to the northern extremes of the Empire at Hadrian’s Wall.

Volubilis, it turns out, is the most important ancient archeological site in Morocco and Hassan took us into the old streets running north to south and through the foundations and walls of the houses that flanked them.  In many of them there were fine mosaics and I thought it a little surprising to find them here exposed to the elements and not having been removed to a museum nearby.

Volubilis Morocco

The houses were huge and with a bit of imagination it was almost possible to imagine what this place may have been like two thousand years ago.  It was interesting to walk around the old streets, wander through the corridors of the houses, along the main street of shops and imagine that in this very place there were soldiers marching, old Latin plays being performed in the theatre, emperor worshippers in the temples, magistrates swaggering around importantly in togas, and slaves to do all of the dirty work.

After walking along the main street lined by the remains of grand columns and arches we arrived at the centre piece of the city, the triumphal arch which has been carefully pieced back together by French archaeologists nearly a hundred years ago.  Next to the arch was the Forum, the centre of political life in the city and adjacent to that the ancient Basilica where the citizens came to worship their gods.

Hamid concluded the tour with an explanation of Roman life in this area and tried to speculate why the Romans suddenly abandoned Morocco but like many historians who have wrestled with this question before him could provide no answers.  He walked us back to the car park where Abdul was waiting and we paid the agreed fee and added a tip to thank him for an excellent tour.

Volubilis Morocco

Related Articles:

Spartacus the Gladiator

Rome

The Roman City of Pompeii

The Roman City of Herculaneum

The Roman Amphitheatre at Pula

The Aqueduct of Segovia

The Roman Buildings at Mérida

The Roman Ruins at Segóbriga

Diocletian’s Palace at Split

The Roman Buildings at Arles

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Morocco, The Mosques of Meknes

Meknes Morocco Temple

Reunited with our driver we left the main square and drove just a short way until we reached the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, which interestingly (and without satisfactory explanation that I could find)  is one of only three Moroccan shrines that non-Muslims can visit.

Read the full story…

Morocco, The Souks of Meknes

The Souk of Meknes Morocco

The journey from Moulay Idriss to the UNESCO World Heritage city Meknes took about thirty minutes and when we arrived in the city Abdul stopped first at a lay-by on the edge of the city with a panorama of the city.  The word panorama makes it sound picturesque or interesting but I have to say that from here it didn’t look terribly exciting at all, just very similar to Fez with a jumble of off-white concrete box buildings and a forest of satellite dishes and TV aerials.

Read the full story…

Morocco, Volubilis and Moulay Idriss

Volubilis Morocco

Volubilis was the Roman capital of the Province of Mauritania and was founded in the third century B.C., it became an important outpost of the Roman Empire and was graced with many fine buildings.  Extensive remains of these survive in the archaeological site, located in the middle of this fertile agricultural area.  The city continued to be occupied long after the Romans had gone and at some point converted to Islam and Volubilis was later briefly to become the capital of Idris I, founder of the Idrisid dynasty, who is buried at nearby Moulay Idris.

Read the full story…

Morocco, Three Cities and a Day of Sightseeing

Fez Morocco

Considering the amount of rain that had fallen the previous evening and all through the night I wasn’t terribly optimistic when I woke next morning and went to check the weather as a basis for some important decision making about the day ahead but unexpectedly there had been a complete transformation and the sky was big and blue and the sun was shining again as I surveyed the view from the sun terrace at the top of the Riad.

Read the full story…