60km (37 miles) from Fes
Meknes is Morocco's third imperial city and perhaps its most overlooked. Most visitors to Meknes at best stay one night as part of an itinerary that includes visits to Volubilis and Moulay Idriss Zerhoun. Some see the city only as part of a day trip from Fes. Perennially compared to Fes, Meknes is certainly yet to embrace tourism with the same vigor. The city boasts no great hotel chains, very few decent restaurants, and less than a handful of restored maisons d'hôte in its medina. Meknassis, the residents of Meknes, themselves are different from their Fassi cousins; they are somewhat more dark skinned and diminutive in stature, speak with a distinct accent, and often have different political views. For the traveler, however, the differences are the very reason to visit Meknes. The city has its fair share of monuments within a medina that is still largely residential and hassle-free. Untainted by a desperate desire to cash in on the increase in tourism to Morocco, Meknes is a joy to discover.
Meknes joined the select group of imperial cities when Moulay Ismail became the second sultan of the Alaouite dynasty that still rules today. Ascending the throne after his brother's untimely death from a horse fall, Moulay Ismail promptly moved the seat of power from the desert-fringed Tafilalt to fertile and well-watered Meknes, less rebellious than Fes or Marrakech. The town itself had been settled in the 10th century by the Berber Meknassis tribe and had, over different periods, housed Almohad and Merenid sultans. Meknes's greatest -- indeed, its only -- golden age was solely due to the reign of Moulay Ismail. His 55-year rule was the longest in Moroccan history and is regarded as one of its greatest. Inheriting a country weakened by internal tribal wars and royal successions in 1672, the 26-year-old Ismail became, at least in European eyes, the most notorious of Morocco's rulers. The builder of an imperial city intended to equal Versailles (Louis XIV was building his palace at the same time and the two grew to become close allies), Moulay Ismail is the sire, according to legend, of more than a thousand children, yet also a monster of cruelty in his treatment of both his slaves and subjects. For those who crossed the sultan's path or were in the wrong place at the wrong time, death was their imminent fate. He constructed his Imperial Palace with captives from military campaigns in Algeria and Mauritania, along with Christian slaves captured by the notorious Sallee Rovers during their raids on western Europe. He would often use these Christians as bargaining tools with the European powers, receiving vast sums of money in exchange for their return.
The sultan was also an extremely able ruler who kept a tight hold on the country and based his power on a standing army of 150,000 West African slaves called the Black Guard. During his reign, Ismail expelled the British, Ottoman Turks, and Spanish from Morocco's shores, and was a prodigious builder of roads, bridges, kasbahs, and mosques. His vision for his beloved Meknes was grand, and before his death at the age of 80, he had endowed the city with more than 25km (16 miles) of protective walls, seven monumental babs, or gates, and a vast palace complex.
Moulay Ismail's death in 1727 also signaled the demise of Meknes's stature, and within 30 years his grandson, Mohammed III, had transferred the Alaouite capital to Marrakech. The city's fortunes were somewhat revived during the protectorate era as the French installed Meknes as their military headquarters. As elsewhere throughout Morocco, they constructed their ville nouvelle apart from the medina and encouraged French settlers to farm the land around the city. The majority of the country's vineyards are still to be found here.