Meknes, the city of endless heritage
Meknes is the Moroccan city of olives, mysticism, minarets, memorable gates and, above all, endless heritage. It is also my parents’ birthplace.
During a recent short visit, I stayed in Ras Aghil, a posh neighbourhood in the north-central Moroccan city of about 837,000, overlooking the ancient medina to the west and luscious olive tree farms to the north. The smell of blossoming flowers on the orange trees filled the air.
As soon as I entered the medina, abandoned ruins of collapsed houses welcomed me, reminiscent of the ancient medina of Casablanca. The minaret of Bab Berdieyinne mosque had been rebuilt after heavy rains in February 2010 caused it to collapse, killing 41 worshippers during Fri¬day prayers. The mosque was built of rammed earth in the 18th century under Morocco’s first female minister, Khnata bent Bakkar.
As I started walking towards the historic Jewish quarter, I stopped every now and then to photograph the narrow and relatively dark alleys. I bumped again into one of the crumbling houses. At Mellah Avenue, the smell of spices and dried fruit guided me to its shops while street vendors sold fresh herbs.
The mellah, behind whose walls the Jewish population was once confined, was founded in Meknes in 1540 and was developed under the rule of Sultan Moulay Ismail, who made Meknes the capital in the 17th century. Another mellah was built in the 20th century following a rise in the Jewish population. Today, the mellahs have become nostalgic places to visiting Jewish tourists seeking to discover the history of their ancestors, although few Jews live in them anymore.
On Lahdim Square, the gathering spot of young and old, I stopped for a quick Moroccan tea break. The square at midday was somewhat empty apart from a few tourist coaches dropping off visitors to marvel at the towering Bab el-Mansour and visit a few shops in a market adjacent to the square.
The gate is by far the most impressive of all imperial Moroccan cities’ gates. It was completed five years after Moulay Ismail’s death, in 1732. Bab el-Mansour was built from marble columns taken from Volubilis ruins and is adorned with zellige — mosaics — and inscriptions across the top. It is now an arts and crafts gallery.
The Dar Jamai palace was built in 1882 and overlooks Lahdim Square. In 1920, under the French protectorate, the palace was allocated to the regional Inspectorate of Fine Arts, which turned it into a museum. It houses a collection of ceramics, jewellery, kaftans, swords, kitchenware, music instruments, carpets and other items dating from as far back as the 14th century.
Each of the numerous rooms in the museum has a special theme. What drew my attention was the domed sanctuary, in immaculate condition and furnished with low traditional sofas, embroidered cushions and luxurious carpets. A bronze chandelier lights up the sanctuary where visiting politicians and dignitaries used to be received.
It was 4pm by the time I left the museum. I sat in one of the restaurants at Lahdim Square for a late lunch. I indulged in a delicious chicken tagine with lemon for about $4 and freshly squeezed orange juice at 79 cents.
Next, it was time to buy some green olives from the indoor market adjacent to the square. I was spoiled by choices as every seller offered free tastings to lure me into their shops where different types of olives were heaped into amazingly large cones, making for a colourful display.
When I left the market, Lahdim Square had suddenly turned into a bustling circus with people coming to see snake charmers, singers, storytellers, henna ladies and sellers of “miraculous” herbal medicine to the amazement or scepticism of onlookers.
I spent about ten hours touring Meknes but I felt one day was not enough to visit this heritage-rich city. It was a day worth treasuring — and repeating.