We’re in the ancient city of Meknes, west of Fez, and we’re standing in front of a huge gate of marble, stone and colorful tiles, and wondering, Now what? The gate, Bab el-Mansour, is enormous, one of the biggest in Morocco, a country with an abundance of massive doors set into thick walls. It’s fabulous, a chunk of history and craftsmanship. But we’re surrounded by honking traffic, gawking tourists, donkey carts and shoppers, plus a horse-and-carriage lineup. We know Meknes has a lot more than this, it’s a World Heritage Site. We need a guide.
There’s never a shortage of guides. Several magically appear, eager to help. We go with Mohammed, a pleasant-faced man who offers a 1-hour tour of the Berber medina for a few dirham, about $5. We traipse after him, across El Hdim square into the winding, narrow streets of the old section, where artists work in little shops. Silk weavers, tile workers, cedar carvers, saddle makers, furniture painters. These are some of the finest craftsman in Morocco, we’ve heard.
Mohammed has another mission: get these tourists shopping. A man who demonstrates a process of engraving silver on metal, called damascene, sells us a little plate, and as we leave Mohammed ducks back to the shop for, he says, “the toilet”–of course it’s his commission. That’s fine with us, it’s helping him and the economy. He hustles us off to fabulous Kilim carpets, embroidered linens, hand-woven scarves. No more sales, but we have a good time admiring the work, and he gets a handsome tip. We end up back on the square sipping mint tea in a cafe and watching the acrobats and musicians.
Meknes was founded in the 11th century. It had water, fertile soil and olive trees, and did well. Then came Moulay Ismail, a sultan with 500 wives and grandiose dreams. Some 250 years ago he built (or rather, his slaves built) miles of walls, huge granaries and stables, stone palaces and gardens. Also some very big arched gates, including Bab el-Mansour. Under the sultan, Meknes became the largest fortified city in North Africa. This man had more power than your average king. Visitors can see the mausoleum where he’s buried, but non-Muslims can only peek at the tomb room.
Moroccan craftsmanship is outstanding. Pottery, gorgeous embroidery, wood carvings, jewelry, stunning carpets and more are on display in the Dar Jamai museum, itself a work of art. Once a 19th-century mansion, it’s elaborately painted and carved, every room a jewel box. And there’s a pretty courtyard garden.
As if architecture and design weren’t enough, Meknes is also known for its wine. The French planted grapes in the early 20th century, and now some good wines are produced here. This is not a common thing in a Muslim country, and we’re happy to find it and taste it wherever wine is allowed.