Abeja and I arrived at 4 A.M. in Meknes, the great imperial city that has been called the Versailles of Morocco. It was hours before the sun would reveal all the decadence and beauty that was hiding in the city's grand silhouette. Abeja helped me hobble off the bus that brought us through the night from Marrakech to Meknes. I sprained my ankle while returning from our hike in the Atlas Mountains, so
We sat in the smoky bus station waiting for the first signs of light. As soon as we saw the blackness fade into the pinkish hues of sunrise, we hopped into a taxi and looked for a hotel. Immediately we entered the immense carved gates of the old medina.
Such is the sentiment here in Meknes, the city that some say once rivaled Versailles in all its glory. Today it is a neglected skeleton compared to its larger neighbors, Marrakech and Fes. Meknes was founded over 1000 years ago by the Berber tribe Meknassis, but it wasn't until 1672 that the city really expanded under the rule a young sultan of the Alawite Dynasty, Moulay Ismail.
As I hobbled through the old city streets leaning on Abeja, I tried to imagine how the intricate carvings on the buildings and medina walls must have once been decorated with deeply colored tiles, and elaborate gold trim. "All of this was built in less than 55 years?!" I thought to myself. "All of this, and a kingdom that spread from present-day Algeria to Mauritania!"
Unfortunately, such extreme beauty and glory did not come without a price. Ismail is regarded as one of the greatest figures in Moroccan history, notorious for his legendary cruelty, and the unforgettable beginning of his reign. As a warning to unruly tribes, he ordered that the heads of 10,000 slain enemies adorn the walls of the two great imperial capitals, Fes and Marrakech. This was the beginning of one of the most gruesome periods of Morocco's history.
Tales are told about the cheerful ease with which Ismail could behead unfortunate servants or torture laborers whom he deemed too lazy. Although he was one of the few sultans ever to hold the entire country under his control, this was only accomplished with much bloodshed. It is said that during the bloody campaigns Ismail waged during his first 20 years of rule, over 30,000 people died by his hands alone.
Moulay Ismail enlisted over 25,000 Christian prisoners and 30,000 common criminals to build his pretentious city, and brought over 16,000 slaves from sub-Saharan Africa to serve in his military machine. By the time of his death in 1727, the Black Guard, as it was known, had grown tenfold and was one of the largest death guards in Morocco's history.
History has a tendency to revere rulers for their victories, no matter how gruesome they were, and Moulay Ismail is still looked upon as one of Morocco's greatest rulers. Here in Meknes he is especially venerated, as can be seen by the beautiful mausoleum that was built to hold his tomb.
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From Rags to Riches: Take a tour of Asilah, Morocco and see the transformation
Making a Difference - Abeja gets M.A.D.-- She's Making a Difference
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