Both are imperial cities - capitals that represented some of the most powerful Moroccan kings - whose walls, alleyways and ornate riads bear testimony to the ancestral craftsmanship that put them on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Their customs and atmosphere are emblematic of the soul of the medina, or urban Morocco.
But once you step closer, Fez and Meknes couldn’t be more different; each is a reflection of their respective history and population.
Fez was the capital of the first Arab Muslim kingdom in the 9th century. The city was developed under multiple dynasties into the cultural capital of Morocco, which still holds true today.
Meknes, founded two centuries later only 60km away, was developed as a military base that stands to this day. King Moulay Ismael made it the country’s capital in 1672, and had the palace in Meknes built to compete with Versailles.
When it comes to these imperial cities, Fez is sophisticated: dazzling in its Moorish architecture, and diverse courtesy of the waves of Andalucíans who elected it as their new home. Its pioneering Mederssas (universities), and rich cultural heritage enhance the city’s seductiveness.
“When it comes to these imperial cities, Fez is sophisticated: dazzling in its Moorish architecture, and diverse courtesy of the waves of Andalucíans who elected it as their new home.”
BAB MANSOUR GATE / ISTOCK.COM
MEKNES STREET / ISTOCK.COM
Meknes is equally sophisticated yet more mysterious, replete with intriguing mystical associations, grand mausoleums, and ritualistic festivals. The city’s charm is hidden away behind sky-high walls, which also protect its military and agricultural foothold.
As far as I am concerned. Fez is my style. Meknes is my substance.
Meknes, first. Meknes is the city where I grew up. Where my parents were raised.
Talking about Meknes is also talking about the heart of Morocco: its grounding, its magic, its diversity and its craftsmanship.
There are two parts to the city: the medina (old town) and La Ville Nouvelle (new town).
While La Ville Nouvelle brings diversity, Meknes’ heart and soul can be found in the medina.
The medina is a maze of alleys and oversized doors that hide the most modest house, or the most fabulous palace, and where there’s vibrant souks to get lost inside.
It’s about discovery: following the labyrinth.
It is about mystery: the outside is as uniformly anonymous as a Djellabah (traditional coat). One could never tell from the outside what they will uncover inside.
It’s about beauty: beauty is everywhere: colorful and lively in the souks, understated and simple in the fortress walls, and elevated in craftsmanship.
My first memory of the medina was as a very small child when my father took me to get my ears pierced. Ear piercing customs dictate that a girl’s first ear piercing should be done unbeknownst to her mother by a male member of the family (though I’m not quite sure why).
I don’t remember much besides being taken to the Gold Quarter of the souk where an old man – who seemed to me as old the medina – gave me a cube of sugar and a heartbeat later I was the proud owner of two brand new earrings. A small step for me. A big step for the world of jewelry with another (very young) Moroccan woman now on the gold path. In my case, the old gold path. The path of gold that has been handcrafted many centuries before and passed down from one woman to another. One story to another. Inanimate objects do you have a soul? Yes, answered the vintage gold earrings.
“Talking about Meknes is also talking about the heart of Morocco: its grounding, its magic, its diversity and its craftsmanship."
THE OLD CITY OF MEKNES / ISTOCK.COM
My second experience was the Tailor Quarter (or El-Khaiatine).
See, the medina souk is always organised in quarters: tailors, jewelers, carpenters, sculptors, tanners etc. and each quarter has many small shops, all contributing goods within the same trade.
At the tailor, we used to shop for bespoke pajamas (probably because pajamas are a big thing in Morocco, but more on that another day). To do this: we choose the fabric, get our measurements taken and receive our square-shaped pajama (note to self: skip step 2 next time). Ten minutes was all it took for a girl’s pajamas to be constructed, like a dress rehearsal for the future hours and days spent waiting to receive these ornate, flowy creations, which are custom made before each aid (religious celebrations).
But the medina in Meknes is not just about the souk. It is mostly about the architecture. Spanning 25km, the impressive city walls are pierced by even more incredible gates. The most striking of which is Bab Mansour: Gate of the Victorious.
Bab Mansour is Morocco’s most famous gate. Built by Sultan Moulay Ismail, it was the finishing touch on his masterpiece, an enormous reconstruction project that rivals Versailles.
The first thing visitors see is the engraving (in Arabic): “I am the most beautiful gate in Morocco. I’m like the moon in the sky. Property and wealth are written on my front.”
To me it has always been an achingly beautiful pause on the way to my grandmother’s house in the medina.
It is a gate into the imagination; a door that centuries of Moroccans and others have experienced.
A pause. Time travel.
“I am the most beautiful gate in Morocco. I’m like the moon in the sky. Property and wealth are written on my front.”
PLACE EL-HEDIM /ISTOCK.COM
Nothing could distract me (and everyone else) from admiring it. Place Hedim, just across the street, was cleared to allow people to gather and admire the gate.
I can’t think about Place Hedim without remembering the taste of the popcorn that my grandmother would buy from the street vendors on her way to visit us.
Another pause. Time travel.
But more than anything, the medina is a soul.
Getting lost in alleys.
Familiar faces everywhere.
The spice man who shares a handful of cheba and harmel to protect you from the evil eye.
The sweets man who insists you try his latest juicy dates.
The florist who hands “a rose to a rose”.
The jeweler who teases you that you have grown into a bride, welcoming you in to browse the fancy jewelry, only to dig up an ancient bracelet instead and launch into a description of its 300-year-history.
Some things that never change. Even when they do.
This is my city. These are my memories. This is (one of the) the stories I want to share.
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