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Kavitha Dispatch

Beauty is Only Skin Deep: Meknes's Tortured Past

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
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I shouldn't have been traveling on it at all. But our time in Morocco is limited, and I didn't want to sit around waiting for my ankle to heal. I wanted to visit Meknes, the imperial city that rose to fame during the legendary reign of the notorious Moulay Ismail. Thank god Abeja was willing to help me and carry my bags!

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.

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Architecture that once rivaled Versailles
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"Wow, it's so beautiful," we commented as we gazed out the taxi windows. "It's not beautiful; it's a mess!" responded our old driver. "Look at our streets. They're dirty! They have let this once-great city deteriorate."

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.

Moulay Ismail was a contemporary of "the Sun King," Louis XIV of France. Ismail was inspired by Louis XIV's decadence, especially his lavish palace at Versailles. Although the two rulers bestowed presents upon each other, Louis stopped short of acceding to Ismail's request to marry one of his daughters, the Princess of Conti. I bet the great sultan wasn't too upset though, considering that he is said to have had 360-500 wives and concubines, and over 800 children!

Ismail moved Morocco's capital from Marrakech to Meknes, and began constructing an elaborate imperial palace and other monuments. Within the medina walls, which stretched over 25 kilometers (15 miles), Meknes was adorned with extravagant buildings of all sorts.

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.

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Even with most of its glories taken away, Meknes is still impressive
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Sadly, the grand city of Meknes was cast into obscurity almost as soon as Ismail died. His grandson, Mohammed III, moved the capital back to Marrakech. Most of the fanciest tile work and wealth were stripped from Meknes and used to build up other imperial cities. Kind of like me, most of Ismail's great monuments are still standing, though not in the prime form of days past!

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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Ismail's tomb - eerily peaceful
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Because he is such a national hero, even non-Muslims like Abeja and me were allowed to visit. The mausoleum consists of peaceful courtyards and beautifully tiled open rooms, with pleasant fountains said to flow with cleansing water. Moulay Ismail's tomb, along with those of one of his wives and a couple of his children, are in the central room. As Abeja and I sat in one of the rooms, staring up at the tile work and listening to the sound of water trickling through the fountain, I thought about the irony of the situation. A man who caused so much violence and death, was, in death, buried in one of the most peaceful places I have ever been.

Kavitha
 

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