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May 6, 2017 / oneworld82

A beautiful day, from Volubilis to Meknes through Moulay Idriss Zarhoun

Alright, as you might have understood already, we were very surprised by how green and fertile Morocco is this side of the Atlas. This became even more apparent during our day trip to Volubilis and Meknes, about a hour drive from Fez. The former was the capital of Mauretania Tingitana, the extreme periphery of the Roman Empire in the West and situated on the slopes of the Zrhouan Mountains overlooking a very fertile valley; the latter was one of the four Imperial capitals of Morocco, if for a short period of time.

The agricultural riches of the land became apparent as soon as we left Fez. Orange orchards and fava bean fields are everywhere, and the Barrage Sidi Chahed is a blue artificial lake that helps irrigating this part of Morocco. Stopping by allowed us to get a glimpse of the sounds and colors of this valley – quite idyllic if you ask me.

Daisies

And seeing how rich this land is, it’s no surprise that the Romans made of Volubilis an important regional outpost. I will spare you all the long story (C.P. Pennell’s book “Morocco: from Empire to Independence is a great source of Moroccan history that I highly recommend) regarding the rise and fall of the city, but suffice to say that it is one of the richest cities ever excavated in terms of number and quality of villas and mosaics, and that this region used to provide olive oil, honey, wheat, and other goods to all Northern Africa and farther.

Volubilis was much more interesting than expected – mostly thanks to our guide that we hired for ~$20 at the entrance. He was a Moroccan guy born in Spain who moved back to Morocco for work (interesting, eh?), and he was very knowledgeable about the site. I highly recommend hiring a guide in Volubilis to make the most out of it.

The site is strategically located atop a small hill overlooking most of the fields around, and receiving fresh spring water from a source 3 miles up the mountains. An aqueduct brought water from there, and the number of fountains and water features in town had to be impressive.

Overview of the site

Together with the usual triumphal arch and basilica (very impressive), all along the decumanus maximus a number of large villas dotted the city center.

Decumanus Maximus

Triumphal Arch – the real center of Volubilis

The best feature of them are the many well-preserved mosaics depicting scenes from Roman mythology. It’s truly remarkable the great state of these mosaics!

The beautiful mosaic depicting the 12 Labors of Hercules

Another great feature of Volubilis were the many thermae (baths); caldaria, tepidaria, and fridaria are still visible today in some of the houses – as well as the vomitoria where people used to throw up during never-ending banquet. It’s to me no wonder that this civilization eventually declined, as the level of decadence reached has probably very few comparisons in history!

Public baths

A sun clock

Stork

Again, I can’t over-emphasize how beautiful the surroundings were – and the fact that it was a warm day of Spring definitely helped.

Looking towards Moulay Idriss from Volubilis

Visiting the whole site at a leisurely pace took us about two hours. After that, our driver drove us through the holy town of Moulay Idriss Zerhoun, where Idris I is buried. This fella was the great-great-great grandson of prophet Muhammad, and he’s credited with bringing Islam (and its Maliki school) from Medina in the 8th century CE, founding the first imperial dynasty of Morocco, the Idrissids. Even more incredible is the fact that this guy was poisoned by his enemies, and that his body was discovered, nearly intact, six-hundred years after his death, and then brought here were a mausoleum in his honor was built.

Unfortunately, the tomb is closed to non-Muslims, but we got to drive through town and see the hustle and bustle of it – as one of the holiest sites in Morocco, many pilgrims come this way.

Moulay Idriss Zerhoun

The ride from Moulay Idriss Zerhoun to Meknes was short – around 30 minutes. At this point we went through a mountain pass and there we were on another plain, as fertile as the previous one.

Meknes is the more modest of the four imperial capitals – also because it was the center of Imperial Morocco only for a few decades. Moulay Islaim, the brother of the founder of the Alawite dynasty, made Meknes his capital in 1672 and reign from here for fifty-five years. Still, the city has a host of great sights.

We entered through the Bab el-Khemis gate (Bab means gate), which was majestic.

The center of the city is Place Lahdim. This is a quintessentially Moroccan square, flanked by cafes, sellers, magicians, snake enchanters – with the benefit of being much less touristy than Marrakech’s Jma el-Fnaa. As we reached Meknes around lunch time, we took a front-view seat on the terrace of the Pavillon des Idrissides, a cafe with unremarkable food but spectacular views over the square.

Place Lahdim

Snake enchanter, monkey, and ostrich

While the food wasn’t too memorable, it wasn’t bad either – we had our first cous-cous of the trip which was something to remember anyways.

The main feature of Place Lahdim is surely Bab el-Mansour, the old entrance to Dar el-Kbir, the Royal neighborhood of Meknes. The gate is consider the grandest gate of all Morocco – and with just merit. The elaborate and zellij and inscriptions across the top make this gate a true gem.

Bab al-Mansour

Another feature of Meknes is its authentic medina. You won’t find any tourist here – only local going about their business. Because of that, this is the most authentic medina we visited – the only one that really gave us a feeling of being lost in a maze. Fantastic!

The most authentic Meknes medina

Bread – with honey and olives the true lifeline of Morocco

Hospitality

While the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail is closed for renovation, the Royal City is a nice area where to take a walk. The Koubbat as-Sufara, once the hall where foreign ambassadors where received, lies here, as well as extensive underground prisons.

Minaret

The underground prisons of Meknes

A short drive away lies the Bassin Souani, a water repository right outside the Royal City and popular hangouts with locals.

 

Bassin Souani

Right behind it the Stables and imposing granaries are a sight not to be missed. It’s hard to describe, but walking through these dark, big chambers really brings you back in time.

The Imperial Stables and granary

Perspective

I can easily say this was a great day! Volubilis, Moulay Idriss Zerhoun, and Meknes are a short ride away from Fez, and any hotel or riad will be able to arrange a day tour for you. I highly recommend you take the chance to visit this slightly off-the-beaten path cities, as you’ll be rewarded with few tourists and an authentic Moroccan feeling.

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