Morocco’s imperial cities—Marrakesh, Fes, Meknes—conjure up images of silk-clad sultans, trickling fountains in palace gardens, mud-brick marketplaces full of spices, leather and all the exotic goods of Africa…and with good reason.
Each of these cities has served as the capital of Moroccan empires; kingdoms stretching down into the Sahara as far as Timbuktu and up across Spain to the Pyrenees. Rabat may be Morocco’s political capital today and Casablanca its commercial center, but these older seats of empire are the country’s soul and together they form the heart of its thriving year-round tourist business.
Superficially, Marrakesh, Meknes and Fes resemble each other with their thousand year-old ramparts encircling a warren-like maze of tiny medieval lanes. Each city has a busy souk full of artisans tapping away at copper and silver while merchants arrange their wares on open stalls. But if you scratch the surface each city has its own personality.
The biggest, noisiest, and brashest of them all is Marrakesh. Its main square of Djemaa el Fna is a perpetual carnival where jugglers, acrobats, soothsayers, snake charmers and colorfully dressed water-sellers with shiny brass cups vie for the tourist’s loose change.
Penetrating the souk means finding your way along narrow, dark passageways, dodging donkeys, carts and motorbikes. It’s easy to become hopelessly lost, among the leatherwork, hooded Moroccan coats and intricately embroidered tablecloths and blouses from the Berber tribes of the Atlas Mountains. But the shopkeepers will always point you in the right direction.
Local mosques are generally off-limits to non-muslims who may squint inside from the door but go no further. Open to all, however, and well worth visiting, is the Medersa Ben Youssef, a well-preserved 16th-century Koranic school at the north end of the souk, where you can see the students’ monkish cells built around elaborately decorated courtyards.
In all three cities you should avoid hotels and stay in Riads. With no more than five or six rooms on offer, these old Arab houses offer an oasis of comfort, peace and privacy. They are cheap too and you can stay in one for around $60.
A first-class ticket on Morocco’s comfortable railway costs $33 and offers the best way of traveling from Marrakesh to Meknes. Here the pace of life slows and the noise abates. The souk here is less of a tourist trap and more of a real market meeting local needs.
From 1673 to 1727 a paranoid Sultan called Moulay Ismail governed the Moroccan Empire from Meknes. He encased the city in 25 miles of stone walls, built an enormous reservoir and granaries big enough to hold two decades worth of grain supplies. They stand dark and empty today but are worth visiting for their sheer size.
For fun you can test yourself on the Royal Golf Course built by the last Sultan of Morocco in his palace gardens and recently opened to the public. The course is arranged around an artificial lake tastelessly decorated with giant golf-balls and tended by an enormous number of gardeners, although players seem scarce.
A half-hour taxi trip out of town the ruined Roman city of Volubilis is where Cleopatra’s daughter by Marc Anthony, Cleopatra Selene, once ruled. The city’s lucrative contract to supply big game for gladiator fights at the Coliseum in Rome is one of the reasons there aren’t any lions, bears, giraffes, and elephants in North Africa today.
From Meknes, the old, walled city of Fes is less than an hour away by train or taxi. On a steep-sided hill, its impenetrable warren of narrow, twisting alleyways carefully designed to baffle an invading army are guaranteed to make a friendly tourist feel lost forever. But you can hire a guide from the hotel or the tourist office for a few dollars.
Your guide will give you little sprigs of mint to hold to your nose on a terrace high above the foul-smelling tannery where leather skins are dipped in big open air vats of dye. And you’ll see the weaving sheds where an unusual cactus is transformed into a silk-like substitute and woven into gorgeous bedspreads and scarves.
You will also see the little you are allowed to of Kairaouine University, a center of higher learning that flourished here in the 10th-century — long before Oxford, the Sorbonne or Bologna Universities existed. What remains is in a mosque and can only be glimpsed from the door. But its famous alumnae include Averroes, Maimonides, and a French monk who later become Pope Sylvester II and introduced Arab numerals in place of cumbersome Roman ones—spare him a thought next time you do a sum.
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