Meknes Tourist Attractions: A guide to sights in Meknes
Meknes is an unexpected delight in Morocco, looming up large like a mirage in the heart of the countryside.
There is a great deal of monuments to see from the rich, imperial past of Meknes. These are dominated by the extraordinary creations of Moulay Ismail in the Imperial City, a full day’s rambling exploration at least. Then there are the Medina’s varied and busy souks and the appeal of the roman site Volubilis, a short drive from Meknes.
The Imperial City
Meknes is strongly associated with the rule of Moulay Ismail, a powerful Moroccan sultan who built the city from a provincial centre to a spectacular imperial capital during his reign in the late 17th century.
The remains of this creation if Meknes Imperial City: palaces, gardens, stables and gateways.
Place el Hedim
Place el Hedim literally means “square of demolition and renewal”. Legend has it that Moulay Ismail has demolished the houses here, on the western corner of the Medina, to make way for a large, presentable forecourt for the entrance of his palace quarters. It is also said that he used it as a depot for construction material gathered from around Morocco, including nearby Volubilis.
Today, Place el Hedim is very much touristic with merchants and street sellers offering bits and pieces for visiting tourists.
Situated in the southeast side of Place el Hedim, Bab Mansour is the centrepiece of the Imperial City’s ensemble of walls and gateways. It is a grandiose entrance to the Imperial City that immediately recalls the glamour and splendour of Moulay Ismail’s creations.
The design of the gate is an adaptation of the classic Almohad design. The decorative patterns are the cheek-and-shoulder patterns pioneered by the Almohads, elaborated with a brilliant array of black tiles. An ornamental inscription above celebrates the triumph of Moulay Ismail and his son Moulay Abdellah under whose rule the gate was completed. The gate is flanked by unusual squat bastions whose marble columns have been brought from Volubilis.
Alongside Bab Mansour is a smaller gate with the same style, Bab Djemaa en Nouar.
Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail
The mausoleum has bizarrely been constructed during the reign of Moulay Ismail and since his death has been a point of reverence. Despite his excesses, Moulay Ismail is remembered for driving out the Spanish and British from Morocco, uniting the country and of course his establishment of the Alaouite dynasty. His strict observance of orthodox Islamic ritual has also conferred a kinf od salutary, healing power on him. You will see many Moroccans visiting the shrine seeking baraka or interecession to receive health, well-being and luck.
The Mausoleum consists of a series of courts and chambers decorated in bright tile and spiralling stuccowork. Behind these courts lie the sanctuary the holds the remains of Moulay Ismail and his family members.
The mausoleum is open daily from 9 – 12:30 and 15:00 – 18:00, except Fridays. Admission is free and modest dress for both men and women is required.
Heri es Souani
A thirty-minute walk from Bab Mansour is Heri es Souani, also known as Dar el Ma, the site of Moulay Ismail’s stables.
Here you will find a remarkable system of high-vaulted chambers with a series storerooms and granaries. In the time of Moulay Ismail, these were used to hold provisions in a case of a drought or a siege. Upon closer look, you will notice chain bucket wells built between the each of the storerooms, a testament to the complexity of Moroccan engineering in the seventeenth century.
Heri es Souani is open daily from 9 – Noon and 15:00 – 16:00. Admission is 10dh.
The main sites in the Medina are its varied and busy souks, in addition to the Merenid Medersa Bou Inania and a nineteenth-century palace Museum, Dar Jamaii.
The souks in Meknes are not as big as those in Fez or Marrakech but they are extensive and certainly worth a visit. You will also find the dealers here more willing to bargain due to the lack of constant tourist stream you find in Marrakech or Fez.
To reach the souks, follow the Medina’s major market street leading to the Grand Mosque and Bou Inania – this is Souk es Sabbat (Shoes Market). This souk has a more formal section, beginning with babouches vendors and moving on to classier goods aimed at tourists near the medersa.
On your left, is Souk en Nejjarin, the carpenters’ workshops. Further down, on your left, is a parallel arcade. This is where Souk es Zerabi is, a market selling carpets and rugs. Prices can be high depending on quality but you will find the dealers more than willing to bargain.
At the end of souk en nejjarin is the Souk Bezzarine, a general flea market along the Medina walls. Further up to the right are ironsmiths, basketmakers, saddlers, tent makers and a couple of musical instrument workshops.
Near Bou Inania is Kissaria Lahrir, where you can see the traditional process of making silver damascene. This is a very meticulous process whereby a thin silver thread is slowly engraved in steel and used to decorate plates and other items.
Back at the central square of the medina, Place el Hedim; do not miss the Souk Atriya, a covered food market. There is a display of everything from rows of multi-coloured vegetables, spice stalls, pyramids of olives, sweet stalls and other assortments of delicacies.
Dar Jamai, like the Palais Jamaii in Fez, was built by the Jamai family of viziers in 1882. It was initially used as a family residence, before being converted into a military hospital in 1912 and finally becoming the Museum of Moroccan Art in 1920.
The building itself is worth a visit to admire the gorgeous second-flour reception room and the intricate decoration with sculpted plaster and painted wood. The courtyard has a refreshing Andalusian Garden planted with palm, banana and lemon trees as well as cypresses and papyrus.
The museum features regional crafts ranging from wrought iron work and wooden sculpture to weaving and metalwork. Some of the exhibits date back to the Moulay Ismail’s reign.
Dar Jamai is open daily from 9 – Noon and 15:00 – 16:00, except on Tuesdays. Admission is 20dh.
Medersa Bou Inania
The Bou Inania Medersa, an Islamic educational institution, was built by Merenid Sultan Abu el Hassan and finished by his successor Sultant Abou Inan around 1340 – 1350. This is the Meknes version of the educational institution by the same name in Fez, more beautiful and better preserved than its more famous twin.
The building has a single courtyard opening onto a narrow prayer hall, with every facet meticulously decorated calligraphy and decorative carving.
Each floor is encircled by student cells, with exquisite screens in carved cedar. These rooms house the 60 or so theology students who lodged here.
The Medersa has a roof terrace the gives the best view on the Medina, where you can get a good panorama of each quarter and the town as a whole.
The Bou Inania Medersa is open daily from 9 – Noon and 15:00 – 18:00. Admission is 10dh.