Founded in the 11th Century, Meknes was once the grandest imperial city of all Morocco, and the imperial palace was at its heart. The largest building in the northern hemisphere for its time, its walls stretching for miles and enclosing meadows, orchards, and even pleasure gardens, was only the start of the vision of Sultan Moulay Ismail (1672–1727).
Simply called the “Dar Kbira” (The Big) was only part of the massive complex of fifty interconnected palaces. Every structure was grand and intricately decorated and included pillaged elements from the nearby Roman ruins of Volubilis. Even structures as mundane as the palace stables were the size of a small town. However, all the grandeur was only a tiny part of the Sultan’s grand plan. To rival the newly completed Palace of Versailles, he envisioned a place stretching 300 miles from Meknes to Marrakech with his sun emblem above every doorway.
But under all the grandeur was a dark secret. Every mosaic, carving, column, and battlement was built by Christan slaves. Under Sultan Moulay Ismail, the Barbary Pirates grew and began raiding across the coast of Europe and as far away as Newfoundland and Greece. Once only raiding for treasure, they quickly discovered the value of the European slaves they were able to capture, and the sight of the Barbary Pirates struck fear into the hearts of all that saw their sails. From 1625 and lasting nearly two centuries, European slaves were bought and sold in Morocco and throughout the Barbary coast.
The great places and grand vision of the Sultan ended in 1755 when an earthquake destroyed in minutes what took decades to construct. The court fled, never to return, and the ruins were quickly inhabited by the poor of Meknes. What remains today are rare and important monuments located within a rapidly changing urban environment that gives this urban heritage its universal value.
Although popularly thought to have been built by Moulay Ismail to sail pleasure boats inside the kasbah, the real reason is much more practical. This artificial lake was constructed to guarantee water supply in times of siege or drought to the palaces and mosques of the town, as well as to the public baths, homes, gardens, and orchards nearby.
Also known as the “House of the Ten Norias,” it is a massive structure consisting of a large central chamber surrounded by smaller rooms around which, in turn, was a large vaulted corridor giving access to 15 domed chambers. Each domed chamber held a noria or mechanical system which drew water from a deep well via a series of pails or buckets chained together and raised by a horse-drawn wheel. This structure provided running water for the royal city through a system of terracotta pipes.
A vast area of silos adjoining the House of the Ten Norias. The building is often called the “stables” or “royal stables” of Moulay Isma’il. However, it was an enormous grain storage warehouse that could stockpile supplies to withstand a long siege. Grain was delivered to the building by mules who climbed onto a roof terrace and dropped the grain directly into holes that were pierced in the vaulted roofs. One interior corridor remained free of grain to allow circulation inside the silos. Today, the vaulted ceilings have collapsed and disappeared, leaving only the numerous rows of arches, considered one of the most impressive sights in the city.
Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail
The Mausoleum complex was first built in 1703 under Moulay Ismail, but was modified and expanded multiple times. The original complex was less extensive than it is today, and its plan likely included only the tomb chamber, the adjoining rooms on either side of it, and the central courtyard leading up to it. The other courtyards and passages were added later. The mausoleum is still visited today by Moroccans seeking baraka (blessings or luck) from Moulay Ismail’s tomb.
One of the lesser-known yet historically significant parts of Meknes is the Habs Qara (or Kara Prison), where Europeans enslaved by the Barbary Pirates were held. Built during the early 18th Century, this vast underground prison features no cells or bars but relied on its labyrinth-like design, which goes on for miles and may have been initially roughly the size of the city itself. Each hall of the dungeon contained several corridors leading to another hall, another, and then another. Named after a Portuguese prisoner who was granted freedom on the condition that he constructed a prison that could house more than 40,000 inmates. Today, a portion of the former prison is open to the public, but its actual size is still unknown.
There’s something fantastic about camels that you never really understand until standing right in front of one. They’re big, over 6′ tall at the shoulders, and nearly 2/3 of a ton. They’re smart, remember kindness, and enjoy an affectionate scratch or pet (think of them as really big dogs with saddles). They’re also surprisingly photogenic and often will look right into the camera, ready for their closeup.
Riding a camel takes no experience at all. Their size and feel resemble sitting on a felt-covered, substantial couch. Unlike the jarring up-down ride of a horse, the camel gently sways from side to side when it walks and never seems to be in a hurry. You also don’t have to steer a camel. Camels are pack animals and will follow the camel guide, who usually walks on foot in front.
If you think riding a camel is easy, you’d be right. It’s getting onto it is the adventure. You don’t mount a camel like you do a horse. The camels start by sitting down until you get in the saddle. That’s when the fun begins. Then, as the camel stands, its back legs straighten first, pitching the rider forward, then the front legs straighten, pitching the rider back. Then, when it kneels, it’s the same process in reverse. So remember, saddle up, lean back, then lean forward.
Ghost Tour of Fez
Over fourteen centuries have passed since the founding of Fez. One of the largest labyrinth cities in the world, the city has seen dynasties rise and fall, foreign invasion, conquest, bloody rebellion, and liberation. It’s an enigma, wrapped in a mystery, colored with hope, and tinted with blood. Guided tours of Fez focus on today and the city’s historical monuments and highlights, overlooking its colorful and sometimes dark past.
Now, for the first time in Morocco, SaharaTrek offers its exclusive guided Ghost Tour of Fez. Starting after dinner and just before sunset, you’ll get rare access to the places and stories left out of the tourist brochures.
The tour starts before sunset with a look inside the abandoned Glaoui Palace. Once a sprawling complex of twelve houses, hammams, Qur’anic schools, stables, a cemetery, and extensive gardens, it was the base of power for the Glaoui family. As powerful as they were brutal, the Glaouis’ ambition knew no bounds. They became the enforcers for the French during the occupation (1907-1956) and conspired to overthrow Sultan Mohammed V. After Moroccan independence, the blood-soaked Glaoui family was erased from history, and their multiple palaces were seized and left to rot.
As the sun sets, you’ll be driven to the hills overlooking Fez as the call to prayer echoes from a hundred mosques before heading down into the Madina. You’ll venture by foot, following your guide down the narrow, dark alleys before arriving at the Slave Market.
Slavery was abolished in Morocco in 1925, but its shadow still lingers in the Fez Medina at the Slave Market. During the day, they auction animal hides from the tannery in the market. In the afternoon, it’s a market for used clothes. But it’s when the market is empty at night that you can faintly hear the wails of despair from enslaved Christians taken by the Barbary Pirates or the sub-Saharan Africans brought over the Salt Road.
A short 2 hours after the tour starts and the darkest of the night has set in, you’ll be guided back to your Raid for the rest of the evening.
Is included in the following tours
Here's a joke: What do Moroccans call traditional Moroccan food? Answer: Food! And traditional Moroccan food is everywhere you go, surrounding you with the smells and tastes of the exotic. With our Taste of Morocco, you'll experience the adventure that is Moroccan street food. In Marrakech and Fez, your tour guide will not only show you the sites of Moroccan culture and history, feeding your curiosity and desire for adventure. But also stop by the small shops and workingman's cafes where you'll get to sample the local delicacies feeding your stomach simultaneously. Think of it as a city-wide roving buffet that can easily replace a sit-down lunch.
As you tour the cities, keep your eyes (and noses) on the lookout for some of the specialties Morocco offers, and you'll regret missing them.
- Shebbakia: pasta ribbons with hot honey and grilled sesame seeds, commonly found during Ramadan.
- Briouats: sweet filo pastry with a savory filling, like a miniature pasilla.
- Briouats au miel: sweet filo pastry envelopes filled with nuts and honey.
- M'hencha: almond-filled pastry coils, often covered in honey or syrup.
- Cornes de gazelle: marzipan-filled, banana-shaped pastry horns.
- Pastilla: sweet pigeon or chicken pie with cinnamon and filo pastry (a specialty of Fes).
- M'laoui: flat griddle bread from dough sprinkled with oil, rolled out, and folded several times.
- Bissara: thick beans soup, usually served with olive oil and cumin.
- Olives: come in numerous varieties,
- Almonds, walnuts, and dates.
- Bread: almost always round like a cake and tears easily by hand. It's usually homemade and cooked in the public oven.
- Khlea: small pieces of beef or lamb marinated in some light spices, then dried in the sun (gueddid) before being cooked and preserved in fat for up to 2 years. Still a homemade staple in the rural areas, these days, many Moroccan families resort to buying it as it is so readily available everywhere.