Follow by Email

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Day 3 -- Mekenes

Mansour Gate of the palace of Sultan Mouley Ismaïl in Mekenes, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

We started out early today with a 6 a.m. wake up call, a quick breakfast, suitcases out our door at 6:45 and off and running on our bus at 7:30. We are trying to beat the traffic out of the city and make our way to Mekenes, the seventeenth century capital of Morocco, and finally to Fes, where we will stay overnight in a riad (a home owned by a family with rooms rented out to visitors and guests).

We crossed the Bou Regreg River, which originates in the Middle Atlas Mountains and runs through the center of the country before it spills into the Atlantic Ocean. It also runs through the twin cities of Rabat and Salé (pronounced sal-ee), which is the bedroom community of Rabat.

Here is an excerpt of Wikipedia's interesting take on Salé (

Salé is the oldest city on the Atlantic coast, as it was founded by the Phoenicians and was known back then as Sala (modern challah); it was completed since then from the other side of the river of Bou Regreg by the Banu Ifran dynasty. During the 17th century, Rabat was known as New Salé, or Salé la neuve (in French) which explains Salé as the oldest city on the river. In the 10th century the Banu Ifran Berber tribe settled the area and constructed a settlement where the city currently stands. These Banu Ifran were also the builders of the 'Great Mosque of Salé'.
Salé... dates back at least to Carthaginian times (around 7th century BC). The Romans called the place Sala Colonia, part of their province of Mauritania Tingitane. Pliny the Elder mentions it (as a desert town infested with elephants!). The Vandals captured the area in the 5th century AD and left behind a number of blonde, blue-eyed Berbers. The Arabs (7th century) kept the old name and believed it derived from "Sala" (sic., his name is actually Salah), son of Ham, son of Noah; they said that Salé was the first city ever built by the Berbers.[2]
In the 17th century, Salé became a haven for Moriscos-turned-Barbary pirates. Salé pirates (the well-known "Salé Rovers") roamed the seas as far as the shores of the Americas, bringing back loot and slaves. They formed the Republic of Salé.

The city of Salé was bombarded by the French Admiral Isaac de Razilly on 20 July 1629 with a fleet composed of the ships Licorne, Saint-Louis, Griffon, Catherine, Hambourg, Sainte-Anne, Saint-Jean. He bombarded the city and destroyed 3 corsair ships.[3]

Today, Salé has become the stronghold of political Islam, and of extremist, Jihadist, and Islamist Salafist groups in Morocco. Extreme and Saudi-style Islamic religiosity (men with long beards and Arabian/Afghan clothes, women covered in black ...etc.), coupled with extreme poverty in overcrowded neighborhoods has become a hallmark of modern Salé, in a strong contrast with the rest of Morocco.

Salé has played a rich and important part in Moroccan history. The first demonstrations for independence against the French, for example, sparked off in Salé. A good number of government officials, decision makers and royal advisers of Morocco were born in Salé. Salé people, the Slawis, have always had a "tribal" sense of belonging, a sense of pride that developed into a feeling of superiority towards the "berranis", i.e. Outsiders.

Mamora Forest

We were not that far away from Rabat when our bus stopped at the Mamora Forest, which spans 133,000 hectares. It is a twentieth century man-made forest of oaks, pines, and eucalyptus trees. The French dreamed up this project when they held Morocco as one of their colonies in the early 20th century. Today, over 50,000 people live here and are employed here to harvest various products from the trees. The eucalyptus provide medicines, cardboard and paper, and wood for fishing boats. The oaks provide cork from their bark, which is peeled every three or four years. The government harvests the bark and then it is People also gather acorns from the oaks. They boil and salt them before they eat them.  Yamni peeled a bit of the bark and it looked and felt like cork.

Orange trees also grow in this forest. There are 30 varieties with two crops harvested each year. There are also tangerine, grapefruit, and lemon trees here. In fact, this area, known as the Western Plateau, is one of Morocco's richest agricultural lands.

Sights along the Road

Morocco has lots of construction going on along every roadway

Comfort Stops
Garry and Jan have a nus-nus break
We made a “comfort stop” at a coffee shop where I began to drink my favorite cafe au lait. Another favorite of Moroccans is nus-nus, which is half coffee and half cream. The coffee is served in a small glass, and I found it a welcome treat in mid-morning or mid-afternoon.

Yemni had a knack for anticipating our needs at just the right time!
The “comfort stops” require a tip of 1-2 dh for the attendant, so we always had to have our coins ready. Actually, throughout the trip we borrowed from one another on these coins. It's a polite gesture for the attendant who relies on tips for income. This usually means that the toilets are kept in good working order, they are relatively clean (most were toilets but there were a few “holes”), and paper was provided. However, whenever I travel to these countries, I always keep a stash of my own toilet paper and handi-wipes (for soap). 

A Lesson in Hospitality

Yemni had promised to stop the bus whenever he saw something interesting. As we made our way to Fes, he spotted a small roadside stand that sold beans, snails and olive oil. An old woman soon approached us. Her name was Yemana.

Yemana lives here with her youngest son, who happened to be at the market today. There was also another man there who helped her with her olive harvest. By any standard, she was a poor woman, however, she showed off her roadside stand and allowed us to take pictures.

She then invited us to have an omelet. I thought this very strange as we had literally barged on to her small farm unannounced. She was not an OAT representative, nor had Yamni ever met her before. But she insisted and Yamni moved us along into what we would learn is the tradition of hospitality that we would experience throughout the trip everywhere we went.--by people of all classes.

harvesting olives

We first checked out her olive trees and helped harvest a few. This was very enjoyable as the olives come right off the tree with a delightful little snap. A few of us tasted the olives and gasped. The fresh-picked olives were hard and bitter tasting. They need to be cured before they are eaten.

Yemana's kitchen


She then gave us a tour of her kitchen, which was in one small building, and peeked into her living quarters, which was in another small building. Her place overlooked a beautiful scenic view of rolling hills of grain. She had some chickens and turkeys. The turkeys were bound together by their feet—two turkeys at a time—so they would not fly away.
Yemana's bedroom

Yemana asked for a volunteer or two to help her cook the omelet. Julie and I volunteered to crack about 8 eggs into a bowl so that Yemana could cook it in a frying pan and add some herbs. She also heated up some Moroccan flat bread in another pan to serve with the omelet. Once the eggs and bread were ready, Yemana brought the food outside the kitchen, placed it on a tree stump, and invited us to eat. The fresh eggs were tasty and we each had a bit of them. We talked with Yemana and took pictures of her place before we continued on our journey.

We were astounded at her hospitality and the time she took with us.

Yemni gave her a tip. OAT provides him with some money for occasions such as these, and it relieves us of having to do it with our own money. That's one of the benefits of a one-price-includes-everything arrangement.

“I know these people,” said Yemni as our bus took again to the road. “We could stop anywhere on the road, and we would be treated with the same kind of hospitality.”

This tradition of hospitality comes from the Arabs' life in the desert, which is a very difficult place to live. Whenever travelers encountered each other, they provided food and drink. The tradition lives on today, as we experienced it.

We rolled into the orange tree-lined streets of Mekenes after driving past the tree-covered slopes of Mount Zerhoun, which mark the beginning of the Rif Mountains.  I wondered what we could possibly see at the stables where Sultan Ismail kept 12,000 horses, but I would be in for a surprise.

Two horses were attached to each wall.
The stables' thick, clay walls of baked brick helped to keep the place cool, including the granary, which was an important part of any fortress.  There were 8 wells with water pipes to keep temperatures in the 60-degree range.  There were also skylights and a reservoir for water.

This part of the building survived the 1755 Lisbon earthquake while the royal palace and the rest of the stables with their flat roofs were destroyed.  The arched roof saved the building and the stables were 10 times the size.

Everything in Mekenes is big.  This was done on purpose.  It was meant to impress enemies and act as a deterrent to any thoughts of attack.  Ismail was ruthless but effective.  He united the country--and made sure it was stabilized and peaceful.  He built 300 forts in his kingdom.

One of the cleaning areas with sewers.  I swear I could smell horse manure here.

The stables took 10 years to build, which was done by African slaves mostly from Mali and Mauritania.  The slaves were acquired by conquering these lands rather than buying them.  People with dark skin in this area are the descendants of these slaves. 

We arrived at the Mansour Gate (see above), which is part of the fortress that Moulay Ismaïl Ibn Sharif built.  Its blue and green ceramic tiles came from Fez, where artisans still make them.  The columns came from Volubilis, a Roman settlement we would see later today.

Fortress walls had holes incorporated in them for scaffolding and planned restoration.

The fortress comprised a palace, a granary, the stables, a water tank, a reservoir, and a wall.
Here is the square and the market (opposite the Mansour Gate).  We would tour the indoor market (left) and afterward eat a delicious lunch of ___.


some beautifuil displays of olives
The market was the first one we saw and the sights and sounds were eye-popping exciting especially since this city was much smaller than Rabat. Vendors had small stalls with their goods surrounding them as they stood in the center. They hawked their goods with delight, and shoppers taste-tested them and selected them for quality and freshness. Gawking tourists like us snapped photos at the sights.

The market houses vegetables of all shapes and sizes. Meat from beef, turkey, chicken, and fish were also available. The most interesting part of the market were the olives. Morocco produces 70 varieties of olives and they come in different colors and are picked at different times. They are prepared for eating by soaking them in water, salt and slices of lemon.

the meat market of lamb with sheep heads in back

We had lunch in Mekenes at the Restaurant Salina.

ahhh, mint tea (a.k.a. Moroccan whiskey)

Every meal begins with soup

Sultan Moulay Ismaïl Ibn Sharif
Mekenes was founded in the 12th century, but Moulay Ismaïl Ibn Sharif (reigned 1672–1727) made it his capital city. The 17th century were the glory days for Morocco under his leadership. To make sure every knew that, he built a fortress in the city to store grains and cereals from the land's rich harvets. He also built a “barn” for 12,000 horses. Horses are key to an army's strength and mobility and Ismail was going to make sure everyone recognized his kingdom. He built a victory gate, which abuts a huge square and the city market.

Here is Wikipedia's description of Ismail's reign (

The second ruler of the Moroccan Alaouite dynasty ruled from 1672 to 1727 succeeding his half-brother Moulay Al-Rashid who died after a fall from his horse. At the age of twenty-six, Moulay Ismaïl inherited a country weakened by internal tribal wars and royal successions. Meknes, the capital city he built, is sometimes called the "Versailles of Morocco", because of its extravagance. Some of the stones were plundered from the ancient Roman ruins at Volubilis.[2]
He has also been given the epithet "The bloodthirsty"[3] for his legendary cruelty. In order to intimidate rivals, Ismail ordered that his city walls be adorned with 10,000 heads of slain enemies. Legends of the ease in which Ismail could behead or torture laborers or servants he thought to be lazy are numerous. Within the 20 years of Ismail's rule, it is estimated 30,000 people died.[4]

During Moulay Ismaïl's reign, Morocco's capital city was moved from Fez to Meknes. Like his contemporary, King Louis XIV of France, Moulay Ismail began construction of an elaborate imperial palace and other monuments. In 1682 he sent Mohammed Tenim as an ambassador to Louis XIV, and he even made an offer of marriage to Louis XIV's beautiful "legitimised" daughter Marie Anne de Bourbon. Marie Anne refused.

Moulay Ismaïl is noted as one of the greatest figures in Moroccan history. He fought the Ottoman Turks in 1679, 1682 and 1695/96. After these battles the Moroccan independence was respected.
Another problem was the European occupation of several seaports: in 1681 he retook al-Mamurah (La Mamora) from the Spanish, in 1684 Tangier from the English, and in 1689 Larache also from the Spanish. Moulay Ismaïl had excellent relations with Louis XIV of France, the enemy of Spain, to whom he sent ambassador Mohammad Temim in 1682. There was cooperation in several fields. French officers trained the Moroccan army and advised the Moroccans in the building of public works.

Moulay Ismaïl is also known as a fearsome ruler and used at least 25,000 slaves for the construction of his capital.[6] His Christian slaves were often used as bargaining counters with the European powers, selling them back their captured subjects for inflated sums or for rich gifts. Most of his slaves were obtained by Barbary pirates in raids on Western Europe.[7] Over 150,000 men from sub-Saharan Africa served in his elite Black Guard.[8] By the time of Ismail's death, the guard had grown tenfold, the largest in Moroccan history.

Moulay Ismaïl is alleged to have fathered 888 children. A total of 867 children, including 525 sons and 342 daughters, was noted by 1703 and his 700th son was born in 1721.[3]This is widely considered the record number of offspring for any man throughout history that can be verified.
After Moulay Ismaïl's death at the age of eighty (or around ninety by the 1634 birthdate) in 1727, there was another succession battle between his surviving sons. His successors continued with his building program, but in 1755 the huge palace compound at Meknes was severely damaged by an earthquake. By 1757 his grandson, Mohammad III moved the capital to Marrakech.

No comments:

Post a Comment