The Imperial Cities

We’ve been moving through Morocco slowly over the last couple of weeks, soaking it all in. Morocco is exactly as every local we meet says it is: a lovely country. The people are chill, the food is great, and we’ve been enjoying the slower travel pace.

Since our last post we’ve managed to visit all of the Imperial Cities – Marrakesh, Rabat, Fes, and Meknes – plus a few others. The Imperial Cities are thus named because they share the honor of having been capitals of the country at one point in time. They all have incredible histories and are worth two or three days each if you’ve got the time.

We wrote about Marrakesh in an earlier post, so we’ll be focusing on the other three here.

There is plenty to see here, but the most fun we had was getting lost in the old medina. It’s a wonderful maze of a place that flows constantly with the 70,000 people who live there. It’s excellent for people watching.

The Blue Gate of Fez, the entry point to the old medina. The other side is green! Give up on using Google Maps here, it’s more fun to get lost. Photo by Ryan.

There are no cars or motorcycles allowed in the old medina so the only thing you’ll have to keep an eye out for are the donkeys. (It’s truly a marvelous thing to behold a donkey with crates of soda bottles strapped to its sides and a man wearing a Coca-Cola uniform leading it on to make its next delivery).

A Moroccan donkey waiting to be loaded up with cargo. A guide said that in places like the Fez medina or Moulay Idriss, donkeys are the only way to transport anything – including construction material. These are the hardest working creatures in the whole country. “The donkeys don’t have lawyers,” said a guide. “So they do all the work.” Photo by Ryan.

But the very best part about getting lost in the medina is happening upon all the artists. They work in the same shops where they sell their wares, so you can see them working with wood and ceramics, looms and bronze. There’s a confidence that comes with this conspicuous display of expertise. The artists were not desperate for our attention, so they shunned photos, but they didn’t pressure us into to buy anything either.

The Chaouwara Tannery in Fez. It’s heavy, difficult work. The only way to get access to the viewing terrace is through one of the leather shops. The proprietors gave us sprigs of mint to hold under our noses because those white vats in the back are filled with pigeon droppings, which are used to soften the hides before dying them. Photo by Tricia.

We wandered around for hours, looking in at old madrassas and eating tagines. There are mosques everywhere and the call to prayer echos from every minaret for miles around. We’d duck into an alleyway while the men all made their way into the mosques. It is near impossible to get into one if you are not Muslim, but Ryan managed to snap a few photos from outside of the grand mosque in the medina:

The interior of a mosque in Fez. The carved plaster and painting are marvelous. Photo by Ryan
Another shot of the interior of the mosque. The tile work in this country is astounding. Photo by Ryan.

The current capital of Morocco is much more cosmopolitan than the other Imperial Cities. It’s a huge city with a lot of different districts. What it lacks in tourist attractions it makes up for in beauty. The city is newer, better maintained than the others. We didn’t see as much as we might have because one of our number came down with a cold, but a few things stand out.

The Le Tour Hassan was supposed to be the second largest mosque in the world, but it was never finished. The patron for the project died before it was complete, and then an earthquake in 1755 destroyed it. What remains are the pillars from the original construction and an unfinished tower. It’s eerily calming to walk through it.

The forest of pillars and the unfinished minaret of the Le Tour Hassan. Photo by Tricia.

The Mausoleum of Mohammad V is in the same location, which contains the elaborate tombs of the late king and his two sons. Like everything that’s important here in Morocco, it’s beautiful.

On the outskirts of the town is walled enclosure of Chellah, which has the unique status of being both a Roman and a Muslim ruin. The Romans made a town out of an old Phoenician settlement in 40 AD and abandoned it in 1154, then a Muslim ruler turned it into a necropolis in the 14th century. These days it’s literally gone to the birds.

Look closely and you’ll see the stork’s nests that command the landscape at Chellah. Photo by Tricia
The storks have taken up residence in every high tower they can find. There are 75 nests on the grounds. Photo by Tricia.

We were disappointed by this city, but only because of the rain and the fact that the biggest draw – the tomb of the Sultan Moulay Ismail – was closed for renovation. Booo. Still, we had a good time visiting the museums and talking with the locals. This is known as a mini-me of Fez.

A recreation of a traditional sleeping room, taken at the Museum of Meknes. Again, the tile work astounds. Photo by Ryan.

The “docent” in the Museum of Meknes was a particular delight to talk to. I am using the term docent lightly here because it’s likely he just hangs out in there waiting to scoop up tourists who will give him a tip for talking them through the exhibits. Still, he knew his stuff, and, yes, we tipped him afterwards. He took us through some articles that were Jewish in origin and said, “We have no problem with other religions here. None at all. We don’t care. We have only one enemy – the man who does not have love in his heart. God is love, yes? God is not a person. God is love. You understand this? So if you have love you have God. Without love, no God, and that is our enemy.” It’s hard to argue with.

Moulay Idriss
Given the closures of some of the other sites in Meknes we took advantage of the robust taxi services the country offers and went to Moulay Idriss and Volubilis for a day.

Moulay Idriss was named after its founder, Moulay Idriss I, who is credited with bringing the first Muslim dynasty to Morocco. He also initiated the construction of Fez. We ended up hiring a guide for our time here, since the whole place is a long, winding road and we weren’t sure how to get where we wanted to go without help.

The town of Moulay Idriss. The green roofed building houses the tomb of Idriss himself. Photo by Tricia.

The mausoleum of Moulay Idriss is an important pilgrimage site for Muslims, which makes it off limits to non-Muslims. Our guide shared with us that many of the faithful are falsely told by tourist agencies that six trips to this tomb will equal one trip to Mecca. But the scriptures, he said, require the hajj to Mecca – and so you must go to Mecca. But the scriptures also say that if you can’t afford it or can’t go for other reasons, that’s ok. He was none too happy about people getting taken advantage of by these agencies.

Most minarets in Morocco are square. This one, built in 1939, is cylindrical and green, on purpose – to draw for travelers. It worked. Photo by Tricia.

Another short taxi ride from Moulay Idriss dropped us in the Roman Ruins of Volubilis. I am enchanted by these old places, and the further out we get from Western Europe the more access we have to just wander through them.

The ancient city of Volubilis, taken over by wildflowers. Photo by Tricia.
Grain mills abandoned in what they think was part of a bakery. The remains of the basilica are in the background. Photo by Tricia.

I started this post by saying that the pace of things is slower here, and that’s true. But it’s certainly not quieter. We’ve found the culture to be very commercial. The positive side of this is that everyone is a merchant. There are no grocery stores; just an outdoor market where locals bring their produce, fish, and meat. If you need cloth or thread you go to the stall where the guys makes that stuff. It’s all mom-and-pop shops as far as the eye can see.

The negative side is that, well, everyone is a merchant – and we are quite obviously tourists. Everywhere we go we are beset by men trying to sell us something. They’ll follow us into hotels and tell the management that they brought us in (and hence should get a commission). They’ll help point us in the right direction and then ask for a tip. They’ll yell from down the street to invite you into their shop.

If you come to Morocco, gird your loins and drop your luggage off at your hotel quickly. The shopkeepers won’t stray far from their wares, but the guys who want to set you up in a hotel will follow you forever.

Don’t be so intimidated by the sales people that you don’t buy anything. The food is especially good. Look for where the locals are buying their stuff and you’re solid. Photo by Ryan.

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