This article was first published in the June 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine
In the ninth year of the reign of Moulay Ismail, the imperial city of the Moroccan sultanate is Meknes, 35 miles from Fes. It is known as the Versailles of Morocco: the sultan is intent on outdoing contemporary Louis XIV’s palace in both scale and grandeur.
The Dar Kbira, the Great Palace, is now complete. When the entire complex is finished it will stretch to Marrakech, over 200 miles away. Already, 30 miles of walls, many mosques, bath-houses (hammams), koubas (domes), gardens and fountains have been constructed. More than 300,000 slaves (mainly Europeans captured by Barbary corsairs) and 10,000 mules are employed every day in the construction work.
When to go
It is best to visit in spring or autumn, when the climate is temperate and there is less chance of drought or plague (the last plague, in 1678, carried off a third of the city’s population).
What to take
If you are visiting the palace, bring gifts for the sultan. The English ambassador brought 100 cartloads, but even this was not considered enough. Guns, ammunition and cannon are guaranteed to win favour. Always bring plenty of baksheesh: officials are infinitely corruptible, and coin will stand you in a good stead.
Costs and money
Morocco is a huge marketplace, where deals are done in every currency under the sun. It does not matter if you carry guineas, ducats, marks, reales or pieces of eight: as long as it’s recognised currency you can’t go wrong.
Sights and activities
Upon entering the city you’ll see hundreds of heads of vanquished enemies displayed on the walls. These have been cured in salt in the newly complete mellah, the Jewish quarter (literally ‘a place of salt’).
Must-sees include the Nejjarine Mosque, and the Great Mosque with its green faience tiles and intricate zellij (mosaic) tiling. The Bou Inania Madrasa boats fine cedar wood ceilings, fretted stucco friezes and some masterly tile work.
Within his palace the sultan boasts a library of 20,000 books; but since he can neither read nor write it is of as little use as the harem kept by the chief eunuch to enhance his social position.
I can heartily recommend a day trip to the Roman ruins at Volubilis, built in AD 217 in honour of Emperor Caracalla. (But make sure you visit before the sultan scavenges it for his palace).
Dangers and annoyances
The greatest danger is always the sultan himself. Step quickly away if he needs to test the sharpness of his sword: he has a tendency to try it on the nearest neck or limb. Ad hoc decapitations are common.
Nor is his chief wife any gentler. Defying the convention that women are to be hidden, Lalla Zidane goes about with a sword by her side, a lance in her hand, and is cruel and imperious as her husband.
Be nice to the palace eunuchs: they can advise you on how to avoid intrigues and poisonings. Most particularly, steer clear of the harem, or you may be joining the number of palace eunuchs yourself.
Your choice depends on the depths of your pocket. Caravanserai (a roadside inn) and rooms are to be had in the medina for next to nothing.
As a palace visitor you’ll be put in one of the spectacular goes pavilions. Don’t get caught scraping the powdered gold (from Timbuktu) off the walls or ceilings or you will end up in the slave matamores (cellars or pits). If you do, try to be accommodated far from the lions pends. Having acquired a taste for human flesh, the beasts have a tendency to tunnel through.
Eating and drinking
In the bazaar you can find everything from camels’ heads to crunchy chicken feet. If you have offended anyone in the palace, employ a food taster.
The fashion here is for plumpness: only the poor are skinny. Too-thin ladies will be offered zumeta (a paste of oil and nuts) to fatten them up.
Palace feasts include couscous, pigeons, saffron chicken, mrouzia (lamb prepared with honey, coriander, almonds, pears and walnuts), sweet pastries filled with almonds and flavoured with rosewater, honey fritters, and hot pies of soft white cheese. If you do not have a strong head for hypocras, that powerful mixture of brandy and spices, stick to water.
Visit the royal menagerie of lions, leopards, tigers, bears, wolves, wild asses and ostriches (25 of the latter are about to be sent with Kaid ben Haddou el-Attar’s embassy as a gift to England’s Charles II).
Or you may wish to go lion-hunting with the sultan. The Barbary lion is known to be the largest and the most ferocious of Africa’s big cats.
The bazaar is stuffed with delights: henna incense and perfumes, jewellery, silks, rare books, sweetmeats, carpets, brass, leather, swords and ingredients for spells, potions and poisons (the magicians in The Arabian Nights are all from Morocco).
Caleches and horseback if you are rich; a carriage drawn by the women of the harem if you are the sultan. Everyone else uses shanks’ pony.
Jane Johnson is the author of The Sultan’s Wife (Viking, 2012), a novel set in the court of Moulay Ismail
Spontaneous decapitations and scheming eunuchs are not part of the experience for today’s traveller to Meknes which, with Fes, Rabat and Marrakech, makes up the quartet of Morocco’s imperial cities. In some ways, Meknes is the best of the lot.
Tourist crows here re much lower than in Marrakech and Fes, and the attention lavished on visitors by merchants, touts and would-be guides is correspondingly less. Some might even call it laid back.
While most visitors buzz in and out on day or overnight trips, also taking in the Roman remains of Volubilis (the sultan didn’t ravage the whole place), those settling in will find not only better value roads than in order common stops, but a more authentic atmosphere in the medina elsewhere.
Many explorations of Meknes start at Bab Mansour, arguably the finest grand gate in Morocco. Then take a peep at Ismail’s tomb (Muslims are permitted nearer the tomb that non-Muslims) and descend into the spooky tunnels beneath the Koubbat as-Sufara reception hall.
Outside the city, Heri es-Souani, Ismail’s immense stables and granaries, offer impressive scale. And, if you’re imaginative enough to stay in the city for a while, Place el-Hedim is the perfect setting for an evening stroll, fresh juice and a casual bite to eat.
If you like this…
For another underrated north African destination try Alexandria, Egypt. A different take on Morocco can be had at bustling, determinedly international Tangier.
Tom Hall, editor, lonelyplanet.com. You can read more of Tom’s articles at the website