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Bab Mansour El Alj: One of the best known and admired of Meknes' grand gates.
The gate leads from the Imperial City and Lalla Aouda esplanade to El-Hdim Square.

Discovering Meknes

On the way to our Cultural and Ecotourism conference in Fés, we joined a group of fellow North Americans to tour this fascinating Imperial City and Seventeenth Century Capital of the Kingdom of Morocco. Our first stop was by the ornate Bab Mansour El Alj (city gates) next to the huge El-Hdim public square that was bustling with activity and more photo ops that one could hope to capture in the short time we were alloted. The horse and carriages were out in force, each driver patiently waiting his turn in line. The rides are inexpensive and you will see much more of the city than you would by conventional taxi. Most lady delegates headed off in all directions to browse and buy at the many interesting shops surrounding the village square. They say that Meknes, being known as one of the most prestigious of Morocco's imperial cities, enjoys a central position. It is located just west of the Saiss plain, between the pre-Riffian elevation of Zerhoun and the foothills of the Middle-Atlas mountain range. Meknes sits on a plateau and once served as a virtual cross roads for traders and settlers. Thanks to its clement weather, abundant water supplies, and surrounding fertile plains, Meknes prospered.

Arab historians trace the origins of Meknes to the Roman period in Morocco, perhaps as a forward post for the neighboring Roman city of Volubilis in its search for timber and volcanic rock required for construction, and which the Atlas mountains must have provided in plenty. Recent archeological findings, however, do not offer convincing proof That there was a virtual Romanization of a settlement that would later develop into the great capital of legendary King Moulay Ismail. The great monuments, the massive walls, the huge gates, the elaborate gardens, the integrated neighborhoods, the bustling markets, and the unique crafts and arts point to layers of history compacted and superimposed in every corner of the city. So much history for the visitor to unravel and marvel; at that Meknes was classified in 1996 as a World Heritage Site, surely for the edification and pleasure of all humanity.

The Souk of Meknès: A large variety of colorful handicrafts are displayed. Below: The artistic displays of fresh produce found at the Souk in Meknès make these Moroccan Olives especially enticing.

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Moulay- Idriss

The saintly town of Moulay Idriss strikes the visitors arriving by road from Meknès (15 miles away) as a white mass clinging to the top of Zerhoun elevation, as if resisting to fall down into the river Khomane. The Roman city of Volubilis is just a stone's throw away. This proximity, as well as the presence of a thermal structure (bamma) and of Roman columns stems, have led some to incorrectly believe that the town has a Roman origin. The town's name came from (Moulay) Idriss 1, a descendant of the prophet and founder of the first Muslim dynasty in Morocco, who was buried on the site. In the beginning, only a few houses surrounded the tomb. Then, as seventeenth century historians Leo Africanus and Marmol pointed out, habitations and construction began to spring up around the mosque and tomb in order to accommodate and serve an increasing number of pilgrims.

The mausoleum had a cupola added in 1660 by Sidi Abdelkader, Ben Addou, himself a descendant of the Saint. Every year a month of religious celebrations is dedicated to the memory of Idriss, descendant of the prophet and founder of the first Muslim dynasty in the country


Host Day Tour at the ATA Symposium in FEZ, Morocco will include a visit to Volubilis, the famed Roman archaeological site and former capital of the Mauritanian Kingdom. Photo: Karen B. Hoffman


The Roman city of Volubilis is situated about 18 miles from Meknes, 36 miles from Fez, and only a couple of miles from Moulay Idriss Zerhoun. It sits at an altitude of 400 meters on a triangular rich plain bordered on both sides by two small rivers (Oued Fertassa and Oued Khomane). Arabs call Volubilis "Oualili," "Oualila"and "Ksar Pharoun" (Pharaoh's Palace); names that have been attested to by Latin epigraphs, Arab written sources, and excavated coins from the Idrissid period and before.

Volubilis grew and prospered from the third century B.C. to B.C. 40, under the successive rule of independent Mooorish Kings (Bocchus the Elder, Bogud I, Bogud II. From this period several monuments have been uncovered and identified; namely, temples in the Mauretanean -punic tradition and a mysterious tumulus. After the assassination of King Ptolemy in B.C. 40 by Caligula and the crushing of a revolt by Ademon in ancient Mauretania, Emperor Claudius annexed the region, dividing it into two parts: one to the West with Tingi (Tangier) as its capital, the other to the East with Caesara (in Algeria) as capital. Volubilis was then elevated to the rank of a municipality.

From 40 to 285, Volubilis expanded spectacularly. During the first century came the major urban structures, such as the spacious roads (Decumani and Cardines), and the public monuments (temples, thermal baths). The next century saw further developments in the urban tissue; most importantly, the wall surrounding the city was founded by Marcus Aurelius (168-169), together with the eight major gates linking the city to the outside world. The monument-filled center (the Forum, the Basilica, the Capitol, the Triumphal Arch) came about during the Severius dynasty, between 193 and 235. Also dating back to this period are the stately homes with perislyles and pools, the great mosaics (Orpheus Mosaics, the Works of Hercules, Diana's Bath, Neriedes are some of the well-preserved, much visited in-situ mosaics), numerous bakeries, and about one hundred oil presses attesting to the thriving economy f this roman outpost.

Toward the end of the third century, an era of decline nearly officially began with the order of Emperor Diocletes to the Roman administration and the army to cacate Volubilis and the southern region in favor of the northern coastal posts of Mogador, Sale, and Loukos. From then on, what remained of the population shifted to the west of Caracala's Arch, proceeded to raise a protective wall toward the sixth century and even continued to erect public structures. Some Latin inscriptions found in the city's necropolis from the period 599-655 indicate some Christianization of the population.

Arab sources, and in particular some found pre-Idrisside coins, point to an Islamic presence in Volubilis had to wait early as the beginning of the eight century. However, a centralized Islamic authority in Volubilis had to wait for the arrival of Idriss I, founder with his son of the first Arabo-Islamic dynasty in Morocco. Idriss had fled from Baghdad of the Abbasids and settled in Zedrhoun, after the Ouraba Berber tribes (led by Ishak welcomed and made him their Islamic leader. For a brief time, Volubilis (or Oualili served as capital of the new Islamic kingdom.

After the assassination of Idriss, his son, Idriss II, abandoned the city in favor of Fez, which he founded and made the first Arabo-Musli, capital of the first ruling dynasty of Morocco. Meantime, Volubilis continued as an urban center, receiving in the year 818 settlers from Andulusia (the Rabedis). According to early Arab historian, Al Bakri, Volubilis was still a sizable agglomeration as late as 1086. Thereafter, most probably due the successive raids of the Almoravids (the next ruling dynasty) the city's resistance came to an end. After this date, Arab historians referred to Volubilis only as an abandoned city in ruin.

After 1915, date at which archeological digs began at Volubilis at the initiative of the French Protectorate, the world has come to discover the long history, the unique architecture, and the rich and variegated artistic legacy of a city that harbored successive and successful communities for centuries. In 1997, this legacy won the city (most deservedly) the classification "Word Heritage Site"

USA: Moroccan Tourist Office: 20 East 46th St., Suite 1201, New York, NY 10017, U.S.A. Tel.: 212-557-2520. Fax: 212-949-8148. Web Site:

CANADA: Moroccan National Tourist Office: Suite 1460, 2001 rue Université, Montreal, Quebec, Canada H3A 2A6. Tel: +1 514 842 8111/2. Fax: +1 514 842 5316.

Photo Credits: Karen B. Hoffman