Salam from Meknès, Morocco!
The last few days have been absolutely packed! We traveled from Chefchaouen to Meknès, which took about four hours. On the way we stopped in Moulay Idriss, a holy Muslim city, and Volubilis, a Roman city site. We took a day trip to Fes, and then spent a day in Meknès. These city spaces have been able to communicate a deeper understanding of what is at the core of Moroccan identity. The city space has a purpose and a specific function. For Islam, the city is the center, it is the most important space. These four cities shared that idea in a deeper way than the previous cities, and allowed me to see deeper into the core of Moroccan identity. Moroccan identity is fluid, complex, and ever-changing, and it is not possible for me to describe an identity of a group of people that I am not of, however, these city spaces reflect that complexity and interconnectedness of the Moroccan identity.
Moulay Idriss is a holy city for Muslim people, and many make pilgrimages there every year. We are incredibly lucky, because it only became available for non-Muslims to visit a few years ago. The city was founded by a man named Moulay Idriss, who came to the area to escape being certain death. He was a member of the Umayyad dynasty, just like Abd al-Rahman—remember, the man who escaped Syria to Córdoba, Spain, and then began the building of the great mosque! Moulay Idriss wanted to establish his legitimacy as a religious ruler, and so he built his own city near the Roman site of Volubilis, overlooking the ancient site. He wanted to build an even bigger city, but it ended up being his son, Moulay Idriss II, who completed this ambitious project with the construction of Fes.
After visiting Moulay Idriss, we drove about 15 minutes to Volubilis, an ancient Roman city. Volubilis is an active archaeological site, with roots dating back to the Phoenicians. Volubilis was damaged in the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, but archaeologists have been working to restore the site for educational purposes. Sketches were made of the structure of Volubilis prior to the earthquake, so archaeologists are able to work from those to restore parts of the city. The site is expansive, and features several extremely large houses that reveal the wealth and status of some of the Roman families that lived in Volubilis. The site was chosen by the Romans for the fertile land, as they needed to produce more olive oil and wheat to sustain their large empire. After the Roman Empire collapsed, some Romans stayed at the site, and it also began to be inhabited by indigenous Amazigh people. Eventually, Moulay Idriss arrived to the area, bringing Islam with him. He founded the new city of Moulay Idriss, overlooking the old city of Volubilis.
We also took a day trip to Fes, the cultural and spiritual capital of Morocco. Moulay Idriss wanted to build a bigger city, but he was poisoned and died before he could, as he was a member of the Umayyad dynasty that escaped Damascus. Those who had killed the rest of his family finally caught up with him in Morocco. His son, Moulay Idriss II, ended up building the city of Fes, as his father had dreamed of. The Almohad dynasty of Morocco moved the capital to Fes much later in history, and much effort was made to further the city at this time. The city features many Quaranic schools, mosques, and intellectual establishments. The city also features the oldest university in the Muslim world, Al-Quarrayywine University, founded by a pious woman. We had a great lecture from a local professor, who shared the history of Morocco and the Amazigh people with us, as well as discussing current Arab-Amazigh relationships.
We visited a ceramic workshop, where they produced all kinds of beautiful ceramic vessels, as well as mosaics. It was fascinating to watch, as all of the workers had a speciality in the process, and everyone was instrumental to creating the artwork.
We also got to visit a leather tannery! Fes is famous for its leather, and rightly so. The tannery smelled so bad from all of the vats filled with limestone and pigeon droppings (for the ammonia). The tannery workers gave us mint leaves to put under our noses so we didn’t have to smell the leather making process! It was really interesting to see, and I had no idea that making leather smelled so awful.
Fes was considered a sister city to Córdoba during the height of Islamic rule in the Iberian Peninsula, and many scholars traveled between the two cities. I am glad we got to visit both of these important historic cities and trace the Islamic influence between them.
We also got to spend a day exploring Meknès! We visited the royal granary, built by King Moulay Ismail. He was a bit paranoid about a siege against the city happening, so he built notoriously thick and solid walls on all of his structures. The royal granary was filled with grain taxed from the subjects of the kingdom. The royal granary was connected to the royal stables. Legend says Moulay Ismail spent many years of his rule on horseback, moving from place to place, as he felt unsafe and a target. After the royal granary, we visited a few local workshops, one for traditional Amazigh textiles and one for silver and other metal work. We got a chance to walk around the médina souk, or market, which has a more open design than other Moroccan médinas, making it unique. The médina was very busy, and full of people and animals! There was a man with snakes, who I stayed far away from, and another woman with an ostrich and monkeys.
Visiting these cities helped me to get a better look at Moroccan identity, and how the city space plays such an important role in Moroccan culture. I am so thankful for the opportunity to experience so many different cities in Morocco! Tomorrow, we will be traveling to Rabat, Morocco, where we will be moving in with our host families!
Shukraan (thank you) for following along with my journey through Morocco!