Meknes and Volubilis
Founded by the Amazigh tribe Meknassa in the 8th century, Meknes is the fifth largest city in Morocco and one of the four imperial cities of the Cherifian kingdom. Its historic old town is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
True journey through time, it was first thought of as a military stronghold, then in the eleventh century almoravids created the ancient medina there, later enlarged by the Almohades at the beginning of the thirteenth century.
It was in the XVIIth century, during the reign of Ismaïl ben Cherif (1672-1727), founder of the current Alawite dynasty, who made it his capital, that Meknès developed once the new ruler had eliminated his opponents and unified the kingdom. Thousands of people, including Christian slaves and prisoners of war, took part in this work, which lasted half a century.
The ancient Cherifian capital with its Spanish-Moorish inspiration is surrounded by forty kilometers of imposing ramparts up to 15 m high.
Behind these impressive fortifications with twenty monumental green earthenware fortified gates lies a veritable architectural heritage. Called the “city of 100 minarets”, the medina is home to 25 mosques, including the Great Almohad Mosque probably founded in the 13th century, numerous hammams, palaces, fondouks and granaries as well as residential buildings, arsenals and large stables…
Meknes is a thriving city overlooking the rich Saïss plain, famous for its vineyards and olive groves. Meknes has become an active and important economic centre. In the shade of Fez, but it is cheaper than its neighbour, the imperial city can make an excellent base to visit the SaÏss region as well as the sites of Volubilis and Moulay-Idriss.
Visit the districts of Meknes
New City. Hamria
Meknès expanded in the north under the impulse of the French Protectorate and from 1919 onwards led to the construction of the Hamria district in the centre of the New City.
Functional and modern, crossing major arteries, it is where the urban and regional administrative buildings, public and private schools, banks, luxury hotels, Meknès-Ville and Meknès-Amir Abdelkader railway stations are located.
Hamria is a lively neighborhood, especially in the evening around cafés, glaciers and pastry shops. In addition, it has a wide choice of low cost hotels.
Médina. El Hedim Square
The El Hedim Square, a vast esplanade, joins the medina and the imperial city of Moulay Ismaïl. It is bordered by Bab el Mansour, the famous Meknes gate that must be crossed to penetrate the secrets of the medina. El Hedim, the “place of rubble”, was thought by Sultan Moulay Ismaïl who razed the Merinid kasbah for its realization.
Very animated square, awnings of merchants line the walls while the covered market that it shelters, one of the most beautiful of Morocco, comes to life at the end of the afternoon. The potters’ souk orders its entrance, passing its arcades follow one another from coloured stalls of fruits and vegetables or mountains of olives and lemons competing with spices and dried fruits.
In the evening, fire-eaters, animal showers, beaters and other bonimenteurs remind us of the famous place Jemaa el Fna in Marrakech.
She makes the link between the medina, the imperial city and Dar Kbira. With its defensive bastions, it is the most imposing fortified gate of Meknes. Completed in 1732, the Bab Mansour Gate was designed by a Portuguese architect.
The latter will also build the Mansour Palace, located in the south-east of the imperial city in the Roua district. From Bab Mansour you can reach the place Lalla Aouda where you can park vehicles.
Bab el Jdid
This is the flea market in Meknes. Individuals sell their business there and there is also a souk of traditional musical instruments. Derboukas, lutes and tambourines are there at unbeatable prices.
Not far from Bab Jdid, next to Bab Siba, are tanneries in the middle of souks not very frequented by tourists. Smaller and much less touristy than the Fassian tanneries, the ambience, laborious, is different.
They are concentrated in the ancient kissariya which are located around the Great Mosque between Dar Jamaica and the medersa Bou Inania.
Imperial City, Dar Kbira
The Imperial City was the first major work of the Alawite dynasty and was created by Moulay Ismaïl at the beginning of his reign. It encloses rare remains and important monuments in the heart of Meknassi urban space.
Dar Kbira is located in the heart of the imperial city and is unknown to the public. The “big house”, its French translation, is composed of 12 palaces with as many gardens. Formerly a royal residence, the places are now transformed into houses or riads hidden behind high walls that forbid all visits.
Bab Lakbira, a beautiful doorway decorated with blue mosaics and two crenellated towers, enters the alleyways of the imperial city. Like many other ancient doors, the inscriptions on its pediment trace the history of the district and mention what can be found there once it has been crossed.
In this case it says:”the king’s house, with its pavilions, fountains, riad and baths, built by the king Moulay Ismaïl”. A walk through these high and thick walls that characterize both the imperial city and the medina gives a better insight into the defensive architecture of Meknes and, in general, the Moroccan cities in the 18th century.
Mellah, old and new
If the old mellah, the third one built in the country after Fez and Marrakech, dates from the second half of the 16th century, it is with the advent of the Alawite Sultan Moulay Ismaïl that it will develop from 1682.
Located in a very steep area, another piece of land was acquired in 1920 by the Jewish community and a new, more spacious mellah was born next to the old one. The doors were surrounded by a wall and closed at night. The first houses were built in 1924 and the Yehushoua Synagogue inaugurated in 1926.
Visit of the monuments of Meknes
Médersa Bou Inania
Begun in 1331, its construction was completed 20 years later under the reign of the Merinid Sultan Abu Inan Faris, who gave it its name. Once the beautiful hammered copper entrance door is crossed, the Koranic school unveils its central inner courtyard.
The beauty and delicacy of the fountains bordered by vast galleries contrasts with the austerity of the cells on the first floor, which served as rooms for students. A staircase climbs to a terrace overlooking the green tile roofs and minaret of the large mosque.
Access: Medina. Open every day except public holidays from 9 am to 5 pm. Admission: 1 €.
Dar Jamai Museum
The museum is located in the former residence of Vizier Jamaica dating from the late 19th century. Bought by the Glaoui of Marrakech, it was then recovered by the French who turned it into a military hospital and finally became a museum in 1920.
The interior is made up of a central patio held by four ceramic columns. On the ground floor, woodwork, painted and chiselled doors, caftans and jewellery are on display, while the kitchen and hammam exhibit everyday objects: tea boxes, a reconstituted gusseted oven…
Access: place el Hedim. Open every day except Tuesday and public holidays from 9 am to 5 pm. Admission: 1 €.
Moulay Ismail mausoleum – Ismail
Built in 1703, the Moulay Ismaïl mausoleum is one of the few in Morocco to be open to non-Muslims, except on Friday morning. The three courtyards have three ablutions fountains, one of which is located in the mosque itself.
The third courtyard, whose floor is tiled with earthenware, has a sundial dating from the 17th century. It is in this courtyard that we take off our shoes to enter the mosque. On the right are the tombs of the Sultan, his wife and two descendants.
Contemporary of Louis XIV, Moulay Ismaïl wanted to marry the daughter of the Sun King, one will thus notice in the mausoleum, the clocks offered to the Alawite sultan by the French ruler who nevertheless refused to grant him the hand of his daughter.
Access: Bab Moulay Ismaïl. Every day, except on Friday mornings reserved for Muslims, from 9:30 a. m. to 12:30 p. m. and then from 3 p. m. to 6:30 p. m. Free admission, tips welcome.
The Ambassador’s Pavilion and the Christian prison
The sultans customarily received foreign ambassadors who came to monetize the freedom of European prisoners, generally English or Spanish, captured during naval battles or during the takeover of kingdom ports by Moualy Ismaïl.
In the courtyard, a staircase leads to the square where there are large vaulted rooms with thick pillars and walls in which these captives were normally located, but mixed with Moroccan prisoners.
Access: Place Lalla Aouda. Bab Jema en-Nouar. Open every day from 9 am to 5 pm. Admission: 1 €.
Rifaine Pottery Museum
The museum is housed in the Borj Belkari, an Alawite bastion south of Bab Mansour in the imperial city. Built at the beginning of the 18th century during the reign of Moulay Ismaïl, it was part of the defensive system of the ancient kasbah of Meknes. The museum, divided into two sections, consists of a central room and 10 side rooms spread over 300 m².
The first traces the history and technological evolution of all forms of Rifan pottery from prehistoric times to the present day. The second offers an exhibition of potteries from five rifan and pre-Rifain regions, including Taza’s essentially feminine potteries renowned for their delicacy and their brown and red decorations on a white background.
Access: Borj Belkari. Imperial city. Boulevard Zin el-Abidin. Open every day from 9 am to 4 pm except Tuesday. Admission: 1 €, 0,30 € for children, free on Fridays for nationals.
Hri Moulay Ismaïl
With its walls of 4 meters thick, the ancient granary called Hri Souani or Hri Moulay Ismaïl built during the reign of the sultan is considered to be the most remarkable monument of the imperial city.
It consists of two parts: Dar el-Ma, the water house and the granaries also known as stables. Dar el-Mar, the covered part of this rectangular building, comprises 10 rooms equipped with water wells that draw water from the spring of Ain Maarouf located 12 km from the city. The pipes supply both wells and the large basin, Sahrijj Souani, located next to the building.
The pieces without wells were used as a warehouse to store grain from tax collections. At the bottom of one of them, a noria to which horses or donkeys were harnessed to draw water is always visible.
The granaries, also called stables, whose ceilings partially collapsed during the Lisbon earthquake (1755) which also affected the western part of the Maghreb, are made up of several series of arcades more and more in fallow. They were said to hold up to 12,000 horses.
Next to Dar el-Ma, which is very popular with walkers, is the Agdal basin, which is fed by 20 km of underground pipes that draw water from the mountain, and was used both as a drinking water reservoir and watering trough for horses.
Access: Imperial city. Boulevard Zin el-Abidin. Open every day from 9 am to 5:30 pm. Admission: 1 €.
Built at the end of the XVII in the south-east of the imperial city, it was used as a bastion, watchtower, arsenal or royal residence. For a long time left to the abandonment, it is the object of intense restorations. Undergrounds two kilometres long, non-visible, allowed up to 1200 mounts to be housed.
Access: Roua district. Open in principle every day. Admission 1,50 €.
The Volubilis archaeological site is composed of the most important and interesting Roman ruins in Morocco, only thirty kilometres from Meknes.
Founded in the 3rd century BC by the Berber king of Maurétanie, Juba II, anxious to gain a certain independence from Rome when he himself had been raised there, made it one of its capitals from the early years of the Christian era. It was named Volubilis because of these blue bindweed that grow abundantly in the area. Oualili, the Berber name of the municipality that houses the ancient Roman city, meaning liseron.
In the 40’s AD Volubilis officially became part of the Roman Empire and in the 2nd and 3rd centuries it was given splendid monuments. Its population was then estimated at 20,000 inhabitants.
The pressure of the neighbouring Berber tribes, which had become Christianized, began to decline and occupied the city in the 8th century. Then with Idriss the first Imam of the city, the city took again the name of Oualili. <
Among these vestiges stand out the forum with its capitol and basilica, the triumphal arch of Caracalla, terms and fountains, oil presses, the main road of the Roman city bordered by villas with precious mosaics.
In 1755, the earthquake earthquakes that destroyed Lisbon in 1755 will damage the monuments saved by the centuries. The site will be identified a century later, in 1874, then excavated by a team of French archaeologists who will make an accurate inventory of this unique site in the Maghreb.
Magic place by nature, sunrises and sunsets seem to be the best time for a visit.
Access: Volubilis is located 5 km from Moulay Idriss. From there, you can reach it by taxi, stopover or on foot for a walk of about fifty minutes on a small road winding between the olive groves. Count in the 35 € the return trip by taxi from Meknes.
Moulay Idriss Zerhoun
Holy city located about thirty kilometers from Meknes, not far from Volubilis, it is in its walls that the tomb of Moulay Idriss 1st, founder of Fez and great-grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, is sheltered. After having converted the Berber tribes of the region to Islam, he is, by his son Idriss II, the origin of the first Muslim dynasty in the Maghreb.
Moulay Idriss is the holy city of Morocco. A small town in which a large number of Moroccans from all over the kingdom are on pilgrimage around the tomb of Idriss 1st during the moussem which takes place every year on the last Thursday of August. Moualy Idriss’s moussem is the largest of Morocco, on this occasion the festivities in honor of the Saint mix fantasias, shows and processions.
The town is divided into two districts, Khiber and Tasgha, each nestled on a hill in the Zerhoun Massif, which stands out from a splendid landscape of low mountains with rounded, wooded ridges dominating a cultivated agricultural plain, especially olive groves and vineyards.
Access: from Meknès by taxi: departure from rue Ounam el Moutahide in front of the French Institute. Rates approximately 1 € per person or 35 € round trip by chartering a full taxi. In the new city, the large taxis for Moulay Idriss are located at the corner of Mohammed V Avenue and Royal Armed Forces Army.
Bus station: it is located in the central street of Moulay Idriss. About ten daily connections with Meknes.
By car: from Meknes by N13, coming from Fez by N4 then N13 after Nzala des Beni Amma.
Sidi Kacem is located 45 km from Meknes on the road that connects the imperial city to Tangier, at a place where the great and fertile Gharb plain begins to spread its wealth.
The city was built around two distinct poles that have always been separated: the city centre and its Thursday market, Souk el khemis and Zaouïa de Sidi Kacem. It was the latter that gave the city its name some time after Morocco’s independence in 1956.
The zaouïa was founded in the 17th century on the last heights overlooking the left bank of the river Rdom at the death of the holy man Sidi Qacim bou’ Asriya. Endowed with a kasbah under the reign of Moulay Ismaïl, the tomb of the Saint has attracted pilgrims for four centuries.
This one, recognizable by its pyramidal roof covered with green tiles, became the religious centre of the Guich des Cerardas tribe, which later arrived in the region. A guich is a tribe which, after seeing its military force put at the service of the makhzen, the Moroccan state, receives lands in co-usufruit with it.
The success of Thursday’s souk, close to Zaouïa, led French and Spanish settlers, many of whom came from Algeria and Tunisia, to create a village in order to exploit the rich Gharb lands that were then swampy pastoral lands.
This village was named Petitjean, after a captain of the French army. Following the discovery of oil in the area in 1919 and 1923 and the creation of a refinery, a station was built for the new wide-gauge trains. Since that time, Sidi Kacem, which brings together three railway lines, has become a central interchange for the Moroccan railway network.
Access: by train from Tangier, Meknes and Rabat. By bus from Kenitra, Moulay Idriss or Meknès.
The railway station is located on the central artery (N4) in the city centre. By car on the R413 Tanger/Meknès road, N4 Fez/Kentitra.