After an afternoon in Rabat our group hopped on a 4 hour train ride to Meknes where we stayed the night. Our train journey was an interesting one, half of our group (including Jon & I) ended up in a bare carriage with no seats and eventually surrounded by locals. We all shared cake and enjoyed having conversations with the natives. Moroccans are a very friendly and curious bunch as I discovered when I ended up in conversation with a Maths teacher who wanted to share his music with me on his iphone!
One thing I learned whilst in Morocco is that in comparison to other cultures, it is considered rude to eat snacks on local transport like trains and not offer any to those around you, it is always polite to try and share what you have even if the locals decline. I think this is a lovely thing to do considering us Brits are rather greedy and like to keep things to ourselves, the British culture as a whole does not like sharing and that includes personal space, food, clothing and having conversations that involve having to share any form of emotion. So this small gesture of kindness in Morocco is rather refreshing as I am always open to sharing and giving. Whilst on the 4 hour train journey it was interesting to slowly watch the landscape change from flat and industrial to lush with rolling hills.
Our group arrived in Meknes in the early evening and it was raining with a slight chill in the air! (Yes. It does rain in Morocco) so once we were designated to our rooms in the hotel and had 15 minutes to freshen up we all ventured out for our evening meal. I will say from what I saw of the city, this could be another place Westerners could live, it reminded me a little of the Lake District in England because it is located near the Atlas Mountains, Meknes has a seasonal climate, shifting from cool in winter to hot days in the summer months of June–September.
Meknes was the capital of Morocco under the reign of Moulay Ismail (1672–1727), before it was relocated to Marrakech. Meknes is named after a Berber tribe which was known as Miknasa (native Berber name: Imeknasen) in the medieval North African sources.
In the morning we all jumped into taxis and wandered out to some of the sites Meknes has to offer. The taxi ride was quite a squeeze with 4 of us in the back plus the taxi driver and 2 locals in the front! Our first destination was The Moulay Ismail’s granaries which were ingeniously designed. Tiny windows, massive walls and a system of underfloor water channels kept the temperatures cool and air circulating. He didn’t store food for humans, but grain and hay to feed his 12.000 horses. The first few vaults have been restored, but those beyond stand in partial ruin, row upon row.
Amongst international filmmakers, Martin Scorsese shot part of the “Last Temptation of Christ”here.
The next place we visited was a rather eerie one and some of us opted not to go inside. Basically Meknes saw its golden age as the imperial capital of Moulay Ismail following his accession to the Sultanate of Morocco (1672–1727). He installed under the old city a large prison to house Christian sailors captured on the sea, aswell as this constructed numerous edifices, gardens, monumental gates & mosques. Some of our group walked inside the underground prison that used to hold Christian sailors primarily from Cornwall. These prisoners were trapped in utter darkness (The small light holes were added later for tourists). I felt strange walking around this ghostly place because I was born Catholic (Although my faith leans more towards Hindu/Buddhism now) and Jon has Cornish ancestry, I half joked that perhaps one of his ancestors had been captured and imprisoned in this place once upon a time? I had mixed feelings towards good & evil and war & peace, I felt slightly saddened that such a place was once in use but at the same time remembered how brutal Christians have been to other cultures through out history. As a free spirit I can not imagine what it must have felt like to be packed like sardines in complete darkness and utterly lonely in any kind of cell in any part of the world, I’d go mad and I am pretty sure a lot of these prisoners did. This was a really interesting part of history.
The sultan turned Meknes into a impressive city in Spanish-Moorish style, surrounded by high walls with great doors, where the harmonious blending of the Islamic and European styles of the 17th century Maghreb are still evident today.
For lunch we all ventured into the Medina to try Camel Burgers! I was quite surprised at how tasty Camel meat was, it is very similar in texture to beef only slightly more tender and less chewy and covered in a variety of herbs and spices! If you are not vegetarian I recommend you taste a bit of camel meat from a local vendor in the streets of Morocco because you won’t find such delicious food on your hotel’s menu.
Our last stop was Museum of Moroccan Art (Dar Jamai) which was built in 1882 as the residence of the illustrious Jamai family and was converted into the Museum of Moroccan Art in 1920. The museum retains the rich traditional decor of painted wood and sculpted plaster that were popular interior flourishes for the 19th century Moroccan higher-classes. There is also an exquisite Andalusian-style garden outside. The museum is devoted to arts and craft of the region and there are wonderful examples of wrought ironwork and wood carving. One of the rooms is set out as a typical example of a Moroccan reception room from the late 19th century, which will give you some idea how the rich of Meknes lived during this period. I really loved the Berber jewellery on display at this museum because it gave me so many great ideas and inspiration for my tribal belly dance costume.
Before we all marched back to our mini van, Jon & I befriended a Local Berber who owned a souvenir shop and he also hand crafts his own pieces of Silver work called “Damasquinerie” and involves hammering tiny silver threads onto metal to create elaborate patterns on bowls, hands of Fatima, statues and jugs. This form of craft can only be found in Meknes and this is where I bought my first souvenir which was a sweet little metal bracelet with silver markings on it’s surface, I instantly fell in love with that bracelet and knew it would look so good with my tribal belly dance costume.
I really enjoyed my visit to Meknes because it’s quite a sweet and quirky little city and I would definitely stay there again.
Stay tuned for next weeks blog post about our following destination: Volubilis!