Morocco’s Imperial Cities: Meknès

Having served as a capital city for a period of time in Morocco’s long and interesting history, Meknès is listed as one of the country’s four Imperial Cities – the other three being Fes, Marrakech and Rabat. Initially founded by the Almoravids in the 11th century as a military settlement, it was only during the era of the Alaouite dynasty under Sultan Moulay Ismail (1672-1727) that the huge walls and gates of the city were built, giving Meknès the character of the Spanish-Moorish style fortified city that remains today. Visitors to this charming Moroccan destination will find numerous historic and cultural attractions to explore, and while remaining true to its traditional heritage, Meknès has all the conveniences and infrastructure of a modern city.

Although the Almoravids are credited with founding Meknès in the 11th century, evidence suggests that the Miknasa Berber tribe from southern Tunisia settled in the area as early as the 9th century. With the rise of the Almohads, who were resisted by the Almoravids, much of Meknès was damaged, but later rebuilt. Many mosques, kasbahs and madrasas were built during the Merinid dynasty, and expansion continued under the Wattasid dynasty. As mentioned, when Sultan Moulay Ismail declared Meknès to be the capital city he had fortifications built, complete with monumental gates, as well as gardens and numerous mosques, resulting in the city being referred to as the ‘City of a Hundred Minarets’.

Of the twenty-seven gates in the fortified walls of Meknès, Bab Mansour is the largest and considered to be the most impressive. Featuring zellij mosaics and marble columns from the nearby Roman ruins of Volubilis, the gates were completed in 1732. Visitors will find Bab Mansour directly across from the main square of the medina, Place El-Hedim, which has some stalls and sidewalk cafés offering a pleasant place to sit and relax. As the sun sets, the medina becomes more lively, with storytellers, animal trainers, jugglers and fire-swallowers vying for attention.

Other places of interest include the spectacular Dar El Makhzen palace, the official residence of Moulay Ismail; the Laboul gardens with its zoological garden and open-air theater; the mausoleum of Moulay Ismail; the Agdal reservoir; the 11th century Grand Mosque; and 19th century Dar El Beida palace which currently houses the Royal Military Academy. Certainly, there are plenty of reasons to spend some time in the Imperial City of Meknès.