Moroccan Imperial Cities

The cities of Fez, Meknes, Marrakesh and Rabat. They are collectively known as the imperial cities, and have all, at some point in Morocco’s history, been the capital; Rabat is the current holder. The oldest is Fez, first established as capital in the ninth century under Sultan Idriss II, a great-great grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. After the fall of his dynasty, the Almoravides took over, and Marrakesh became their capital; but Fez remained an important city, and has been capital twice since under different rulers. The Almohads took control in the 12th century and built a new city, Rabat, as their capital; this was replaced, during the rule of Morocco’s notorious sultan, Moulay Ismael, by Meknes. Rabat again became the capital under the French protectorate, which began in 1912, and retained the title after independence.


     The most exciting of the imperial cities is built on a grand scale, with surrounding walls that extend for nearly 10 miles. The best views over the city are from the Merenid tombs on the north side. Fez is really three towns in one. The core is Fez el Bali, the medieval city, or medina, where half the population of the city still lives; most visitors concentrate on the sights and streets here. Next is Fez el Jedid, the new city (although new in Fez means late-13th century) where you’ll find the Mellah, or old Jewish quarter. Most visitors sensibly ignore the third part, the modern ville nouvelle, built by the French during the Protectorate.

None of the mosques is open to non-Muslim visitors, although it is worth looking through the entrance of the Zaouia Moulay Idriss at the tomb of the city’s founder. There are many lovely buildings in Fez, especially the Medersa, or religious college, Bou Inania, an ancient and incredibly ornate courtyard, surrounded by the very plain cells once used by the students. The newly opened Belghazi museum is also worth seeing; its treasures are all exhibited in a 17th-century riad, or town house built around a courtyard garden. But the main attraction for most visitors is the medina, with its narrow alleys. Horses and donkeys have right of way here, as they deliver supplies to the little shops in the souk. These are side by side with the essentials of everyday life: every district has its own bathhouse, bake house, knife-sharpener and so on. The whole medina is a maze, in which getting lost is (usually) part of the fun.


       A much more relaxed place than Fez. The main focus of interest is not the medina but the 17th-century imperial headquarters of Moulay Ismael. This is a fortified city-within-a-city containing several palaces, mosques, dungeons and gardens. The highlights are the dungeons; the royal stables containing grain silos that used to hold enough food for the populace for a year, as well as stabling for 12,000 horses; and the Moulay Ismael Mausoleum, one of very few holy places that non-Muslims are allowed to enter. You will find another in Rabat: the Mausoleum of Mohammed V.


    The ruins of Volubilis, once the furthest outpost of the Roman Empire, are a half-hour drive from Meknes, and are a lovely place to spend a couple of hours. The ruins are well-preserved, and it is easy to imagine how the settlement would have looked. Most of the houses were along both sides of the main paved road, the Decumanus Maximus; at the far end is a triumphal arch, built by the people of Volubilis in honour of the Emperor Caracalla.

      In what would have been the town’s administrative centre are the remains of the forum, basilica, capitol and public baths. Many of the buildings have well-preserved mosaics, the most impressive depicting the Labours of Hercules, and Orpheus with dolphins, elephants and other animals. The ruins are open every day from sunrise to sunset.

           the capital, Rabat 

       The city has a long history, and ancient and modern have been sensitively blended together. This is particularly noticeable in the way Rabat’s two most famous landmarks have been combined. The Tour Hassan was built by Yacoub el Mansour – also responsible for the Giralda in Seville, as well as the Koutoubia minaret in Marrakesh. The tower was originally part of a mosque, built at the end of the 12th century; the stumps of the mosque’s columns are all that now remain. At the far end of this site has been added the second main sight, the Mausoleum of Mohammed V, grandfather of the present king.

    At first, many Rabat residents were outraged at this combination of old and new; but the mosque incorporates many of the same motifs that were used in the old tower, and the craftsmanship in the modern building is exquisite. Another ancient corner of Rabat that is worth exploring is the kasbah, or fortification, overlooking the coast, and completely different in feel from the rest of the city. It consists of vast ramparts, which enclose a huddle of small, blue and white, flat-roofed houses that look more Andalusian than Moroccan.


    The obvious sights – the square, the souks and the Koutoubia tower – many of the highlights are hidden away. These include the Saadian tombs, the mausoleum of 66 kings from the Saadian dynasty; the Koubba el Baadiyin, one of the oldest buildings in the city, which is believed to have covered the ablutions pool next to the mosque; and the magnificent Ibn Youssef Medersa, the largest in Morocco. The Bahia Palace was built in the Alhambran style by a slave who managed to become wealthy and powerful. Despite being empty of furniture, it is a wonderful example of 19th-century architecture on a grand scale, as is the nearby Dar El Said, a former palace that is now a museum.

      Marrakesh is also famous for its gardens, the finest of which are the Jardins Majorelle, created by a French painter and now owned by Yves Saint-Laurent.