The Walls of Meknes

Inside Dar Al Jemai

Imagine being so untrusting of your own tribal people that you import more than 10,000 slaves from Sub-Saharan Africa to serve as your army. Then imagine a building so vast that it housed 12,000 horses for them to ride with, next door, a huge cool granary built of stone with no cement only clay plaster to store a years worth of feed for both horses, their slaves and grooms (one of each per horse), the army and the city populace. Within the granary, ten wells supply water to a vast reservoir across from the building. Imagine being so fearful of your enemies that everything – the city boundaries, each of the several royal palaces – is surrounded with walls several feet thick, many feet high. Sounds impossible? This was Meknes at the end of the 17th century, Sultan Moulay Ismail’s capital.

Even today despite earthquakes, the walls and many of the buildings are still in place, a monument to Moulay Ismail who, depending on your point of view, was either a tyrant or a hero. He freed Morocco from the Spaniards and the English (Tangier) and kept the Ottaman Empire at bay on Morocco’s Algerian border. He fed his city when it was besieged by other Berber tribes and provided wives and food to his slave army so they would bred future soldiers – the Black Guard were at their peak 150,000 men. He also had the architect of the beautiful Bab Al Mansour executed when the poor fellow admitted during a visit by Moulay Ismail that he could have built a better gate. Moulay even sent to the Sun Kings court an offer of marriage for Louis’ daughter Marie. An offer which was refused.

A Dar Al Jemai ceiling

We – Kevin & I, Gordon & Elise from C-Lise II – took an early train from Salé arriving in Meknes two hours later at 09:30, way before most of the city was up and around. A taxi took us across the river and up into the old town, a Unesco World Heritage site. The short trip gave us our first sight of the fantastic walls as we drove between them for several hundred metres – just two vast terracotta coloured walls separated by a narrow road, just wide enough for cars to pass and two pavements. Meknes main square after the huge expanse of Jemaa Al Fna in Marrakesh, was modest in size but surrounded by 20 foot high walls. Behind us Bab Al Mansour with its perfect Arabic arch and beautiful tile work and carving, on the left tourist restaurants with acres of chairs, tables and umbrellas, on the right a long plain wall topped by terraces of restaurants and homes behind, ahead the first of our planned things to do, the Dar Al Jamai museum. It was open and we were warmly welcomed.

The opulent Dar Al Jemai saloon

The museum was founded in the 1920’s after the house had had a stint as a military hospital but had originally been built as a villa for the wealthy Jamai family in the 19th century. At least two members of the family were government ministers or Viziers. Upstairs several rooms have been furnished as it would have been in that period – our guide said it was for the Sultan’s harem but it was more probably a family saloon, with low sofas, opulent tiling and large cosy rugs, stools and cushions. A couple of ornate incense burners not over large and needing a polish, some side tables and a large chandelier completed the interior decor, looking every bit as busy as a posh Victorian drawing room of the same era! The museum exhibits arts and crafts of Morocco with a lot gorgeous embroidery for Elise and I to ooh and ahh over but the house is the star. Though the tiling is a bit chipped and battered it is still amazing as is the carved plasterwork and the painted ceilings. Minimalist cool white interiors have nowhere near the appeal of this blaze of colour.

Meknes Alleyways

Afterwards we wandered out into the souks looking for but failing to find the Meknes embroiderers though we did find an old guy making the finest wool cloth on an ancient loom and the textile market. Elise purchased a teacosy and accoutrements embroidered in the two sided stitching that the RC nuns of Meknes teach orphan girls – the simple pattern worked mostly in cross stitch is exactly the same on both sides of the cloth. We also had a basic demonstration of Damascene work being done – fine silver wire hammered into burnished iron then polished to produce a smooth silver inlay with the piece then fired to turn the iron black – fascinating, we did not succumb to the sales tactics though.

Weaving fine wool cloth
Bab Al Mansour

A bit of the walls

The reservoir

One of the ten wells – Kevin & Gordon

Stables for 12,000 horses

Another horse and carriage ride provided us with a rapid tour of the main sites of Meknes, our driver cum guide stopping off at Moulay Ismail’s tomb and the granary and stables so that we could explore them. The ride also included many of the walls and he pointed out the aquaduct that carried the water into the medina from the reservoir when needed, today planted with shrubs and small palms. At one point we found ourselves on a narrow road (our carriage only just fitted) on the outside of a wall with a steep drop into a valley below. In amongst the tall reeds was a tiny farm with cows, sheep and goats grazing on seemingly dried grass. Olives and figs grew along the embankment with the trees catching on the carriage canopy as we passed. These farm buildings right in the middle of the city were built of reed, corrugated iron and blockwork. This is Africa, but after the modernity of our marina and the grubby streets of Rabat it is still a shock to be reminded that Morocco a third world country though we know shanty towns exist even in Salé and can be seen from the tram on a trip to the supermarket.

Our lunchtime view

After a late and long lunch (Harira soup, Pigeon Pastilla’s followed by fruit and patisserie) on a roof top terrace overlooking the city we started to head back towards the station. The first distraction was Meknes Museum, nestled under the walls close to Bab Al Mansour, not particularly interesting for its exhibits yet still another fine 19th century villa. Less opulent than Dar Al Jamai but with its large courtyard surrounded by single story buildings and working fountains interesting enough. Then down the street, closed to traffic whilst both pavements were under reconstruction – where else would pedestrians, cyclists, moped riders and workman be dodging round a JCB removing tarmac?  A young man was cutting the road surface with a grinding tool – no hard hat, no ear defenders and no eye protection; we gave him a wide berth.

Fountain in Meknes Museum

The pavement works continued up the hill in the nouvelle ville past Pizza Hut and Mac D’s almost as far as the turning for the station. After all the walking the four of us were glad to be able to sit at the Petit Gare cafe across from the station and rest our feet. Our street side seats were conveniently placed so that the big sign board announcing train departures in the station building opposite could be read with hardly a movement of the neck!

The train was on time, we boarded in some confusion for the first class carriages were differently laid out to any we’d ridden in before – open carriages with airline style seating rather than the old fashioned French ones with their “compartiment”so the seat numbers booked didn’t all exist. Never mind there were not many passengers on the train and we soon spotted four seats around a table to make ourselves comfy for the journey back. The countryside inland between Meknes and Rabat is very green with lots of farming – falaj irrigation systems like we’d seen in the Middle East together with more modern rotating sprinklers. Vegetables, grapes, citrus fruits and more plus acres of eucalyptus – we wondered whether Australia should send over some of their Koalas! Before 8pm were the crew back on board Temptress needing only a light snack before an early night after our huge lunch and two large poulet sandwiches from the catering trolley on the train which we shared.

Don’t think any films have been shown here for sometime!

PS: I found this interesting piece on Moulay Ismail whilst investigating what to see in Meknes: On the trail of Sultan Moulay Ismail


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