Coming out of the medina of Meknes, I pass through the huge Bab el-Mansour gate, whose columns come from the nearby Roman remains of Volubilis.
I walk for two kilometers past the high walls of the Imperial Palace of Meknes to the stables and soaring storage vaults that held enough grain to feed the city for a year. They are as impressive as the underground dungeons that a guide says once held thousands of Christians, captured by pirates along Morocco’s infamous Barbary Coast (the guide books say they are another food store).
Near the granary is the tranquil Agdal Basin, an artificial lake by whose banks teenagers do what teens do the world over: pair off and whisper sweet nothings to each other. I watch a police patrol on horseback disperse any who head for the shadows.
Abdelouahed el Hirech has been a guide to Volubilis for 40 years and he shows me around the Mausoleum of Sultan Moulay Ismael, a former mosque just outside the palace. “Moulay Ismael ruled from 1672 to 1727 and during that time he moved the capital to Meknes,” says Abdelouahed in his rich French.
“He used 25,000 slaves to build a palace to rival Versailles. Those clocks you see were a gift from King Louis XIV. The Sultan was a member of the Alaouite dynasty, claiming descent from the prophet Muhammad. He had 500 wives and fathered 888 children.”
Sultan Idris II, who established Fes as the county’s first capital in the ninth century also claimed to be a great-great grandson of the Prophet. “On the death of Idris II, the capital moved to Marrakech before Rabat was built as a new capital in the 12th century,” says Abdelouahed. “After Meknes, Marrakech and Fes were both the capital again several times until the French Protectorate from 1912 to 1956, when Rabat became the modern capital it is now.”
He points out the five design elements of the mosque decor: tile, plaster, wood and marble. “There are five central elements to every section of the medina as well,” he says. “There is the mosque, with a fountain nearby, a Quran school, hammam and bakery.” The prophet Muhammad founded the city of Medina in Saudi Arabia as a model Islamic settlement, the first, and it has since given its name to the walled center of such towns as Meknes or Fes throughout North Africa.
Abdelouahed explains how underlying the seemingly random structure of the medina is a religious philosophy that one’s contribution to society at large is as important as the rest of your life. The palaces and homes, mosques and bath-houses, schools and workshops co-exist as an organic whole,” he says. “Moving the political and administrative power to the new part of town, or to another city such as Rabat, steals its heart.”