Located between the fertile plain of the Rarb and the Middle Atlas, Meknes and Volubilis lie at the heart of an agricultural area that has been Morocco's grain store since ancient times. Their historical importance can be clearly seen in the Roman Ruins of Volubilis (Morocco's most important archaeological site) and the grandeur of the Moorish buildings in Meknes.
Today Moroco's fifth-largest city, Meknes was nothing more than a small town overshadowed by its neighbour and rival Fez until the reign of Moulay Ismaïl started in 1672. The sultan ambitiously set about building gates, ramparts, mosques and palaces, he conquered the El Badi Palace in Marrakesh and the ruins of Volubilis, and Meknes rose to the rank of imperial city.
Bab El Mansour
Bab El Mansour is a triumphal arch standing before the imperial city, piercing the walls of the Kasbah. Its construction started in 1672 during the reign of Moulay Ismaïl and the gate was completed by the sultan's son Moulay Abdallah in 1732. Of monumental proportions – about 16m (52ft) high while the arch has a span of 8m (26ft) – and distinguished for its decoration, Bab El Mansour is held to be the finest gate in Meknes, some even say in Morocco.
Dar el Ma, Lahri and the Royal Stables
Dar el Ma (the Water House) held the town's water reserves and was another of Moulay Ismaïl's grandiose projects. The huge building contains 15 rooms, each with a noria (water wheel), once worked on by the horses to draw underground water by means of scoops. Dar el Ma gives access to the Royal Stables and Lahri (a monumental building with 29 aisles, designed for storing grain), which are considered to be one of the sultan's finest creations.
Mausoleum of Moulay Ismaïl
Featuring a suite of three rooms, 12 columns and a central sanctuary where the great sultan lies, the Moulay Ismaïl mausoleum is in some aspects reminiscent of the Saadian Tombs in Marrakesh. The mausoleum was built in the 17th century and was remodelled in the 18th and 20th centuries. Moulay Ismaïl's wife and his son Moulay Ahmed Al Dahbi, as well as the sultan Moulay Abder Rahman (1822-59), are laid to rest in the burial chamber, which is decorated with stuccowork and mosaics.
Bab el Khemis and Mellah
Bab el Khemis is the main entrance of the former Mellah (Jewish quarter), built in the 17th century on a terrain offered by Moulay Ismaïl to a Jewish doctor who cured one of the princesses. Modern buildings have been built on the ruins of the former Jewish quarter and a new Mellah was built on the right of Bab el Khemis in the 20th century. The sultan Moulay Ismaïl had several inscriptions graved onto the gate: "I am the gate opened to all people, from East or West." and " I am the blithe door, by my glory, at the full moon in the sky. I was built by Moulay Ismaïl. Wealth and prosperity are graved on my front, I am surrounded by happiness. "
The ancient town of Volubilis was settled and began to prosper under the Mauritanian kings, from the 3rd century BC to AD 40. Temples from this period, as well as a strange tumulus, have been uncovered. When Mauretania was annexed by the Roman emperor Claudius in AD 45, Volubilis was raised to the status of municipia (free town), becoming one of the most important cities in Tingitana. After Rome withdrew from Mauretania in the 3rd century, the city declined and it was inhabited by Christians until the site was Islamicized in 788 at the arrival of Idriss I.
The site was known from the 18th century, but it was not until the late 19th century that is was first investigated. Excavations resumed in 1915 and have continued almost uninterrupted since, although extensive areas still remain to be investigated. Although Volubilis is not as large as some other Roman towns, it shows how thoroughly Romanized Mauretania Tingitana had become. The site consists of remaining ruins showing the Roman inhabitants' daily lives:
The Triumphal Arch – overlooks plantations of cereals and olive trees
House of the Columns – arranged around a huge peristyle courtyard with a circular pool
Columns with twisted fluting and composite capitals front the grand reception room
House of the Cortège of Venus & House of the Bathing Nymphs – contains mosaics displaying scenes of Diana, Pegasus and the nymphs
Basilica – Apart from the triumphal arch, this was the only building whose ruins were still impressive when excavations began. This was a meeting place of senate as well as the commercial exchange and tribunal.
The Capitol – Of the original building dating from the early 3rd century, only the foundations remain. Public rites in honour of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva were performed here.
House of Orpheus – contains the remains of a large peristyle courtyard with a square pool, an oil press and hypocausts (under floor heating). The reception room shows the largest circular mosaics that have been discovered in Volubilis.
The most spectacular sight of Moulay idriss is from the scenic route between Meknes and Volubilis. In a superb setting, the bright white town clings to two rocky outcrops between which rises the tomb of Idriss I. Descendant of Ali, son in law of the Prophet Mohamed, he founded the first Arab-Muslim dynasty in Morocco. The tombs of Idriss I is closed to non-Muslims, but from the terrace near the Mosque of Sidi Abdallah el Hajjam, there is a splendid view of the town and the mausoleum.