We are now heading inland, and as we move further from the coast the weather gets noticeably hotter and drier over a surprisingly short distance. We are approaching the Atlas Mountains; whereas the Rif mountains delineate the wild and wooly northernmost part of the country (centered, more or less, between Tetuan, Casablanca, and Chefchaouen), the Atlas range sets off the Saharan south. So as we head east and south and approach the Atlas (which we will not cross until after we leave Fez), the countryside gets hilly as well as dry.
Before the terrain dries out completely we pass through the town of Khemisset, which appears to thrive, and is in the vicinity of lots of fruit farms. And indeed, just outside of town there is a row of curbside vendors about a quarter miles long, all selling melons and squash…definitely the largest agglomeration of melons in one place I’ve ever seen. A lot of pedestrians and passing cars stop to fill up, including one determined woman in a donkey cart who loads up on day-old melons to feed her animal, then does an intrepid U-turn across 4 lanes of traffic to head back from whence she came.
It doesn’t take long after we leave Khemisset for the landscape to go more or less to hell, an endless expanse of brown hills punctuated by the occasional olive grove. It is like some kind of prelude to the Sahara, but this seems not to stop the farmers, who till what to our citified eyes looks like an endless expanse of burnt dirt. Here is the view from our bus.
There is no irrigation and so not much of anything will grow until the rains come in the winter. Still, there’s enough plant activity to sustain a sparse local economy and, apparently, some very determined animals: we can see the occasional small flock of sheep and random cattle standing stolidly in an endless expanse of scorched earth, grazing on the rare blades of grass that only they can see. And the olive trees tough it out: that’s the greenery in the photo.
We continue through this unpromising terrain for hours until we reach Meknes, the sixth largest city in Morocco with a population of about 750,000. Its claim to fame is having been the actual capital for a short time around 1700, under the reign of Alpha Sunuvabitch Moulay Ismail. Old Moulay’s nickname was “The Bloodthirsty”, which is probably a lousy nickname for your Match.com account, but it seemed to suit him. He was a big fan of the Sun King, Louis XIV of France, and so decreed that his imperial palace and the town’s architecture be modeled after Versailles. It is doubtful that the admiration was reciprocal insofar as, unlike with Moulay Ismail, there are no reports of Louis XIV festooning the walls of Versailles with the heads of 10,000 decapitated enemies.
It is certainly true that Meknes has rather French looking broad avenues, and its architecture does have a hybrid look, Islamic with some French influence but certainly a lot more of the former. (It does not have nearly the ornate columns or cornices that I would think of as French.) Our first stop was a market square across from the royal palace (this country certainly has a plethora of Royal palaces, doesn’t it?), where the area’s reputation for olive growing was quickly confirmed. The outdoor portion of the market was a successful-looking concern of pottery vendors, like this…
…but the indoor part, in addition to the butchers, sweets, and spice vendors, was Olive Territory in a big way, with many stalls resembling this one:
Meknes’ two biggest attractions are an enormous granary and a stable that could hold 12,000 horses, both from Moulay Ismail’s reign. The former is a network of high-ceilinged rooms, otherwise empty as you would expect for a storage area; the former has lost its roof and is a series of parallel rows of archways that, with some imagination, one could see as a stables. And here they are:
It is said that Moulay Ismail learned of a very talented architect who was languishing in one of his prisoners, and had the architect brought before him. He asked him whether he (the architect) was capable of designing a stable even greater than the 12,000 horse one that Ismail already had. The architect — who was indeed very skilled — said that he could. So Ismail…
POP QUIZ TIME! WHAT DID MOULAY ISMAIL DO TO THE ARCHITECT?
(a) Said, “Wow, pretty impressive!” and sent him back to prison.
(b) Said, “Wow, pretty impressive!” and freed him so the architect could design a new and bigger stable.
(c) Said, “And who the hell do you think is going to hire you to do that?” and had the architect executed.
The answer is of course (c). The moral of the story is that a guy who decorates his city walls with 10,000 heads is pretty tough to impress, and if he asks you something you should assume that it’s a loaded question.
You know who else was tough to impress? The Romans, that’s who. They were here, of course, and left an impressive set of ruins in the town of Volubilis, a little bit north of Meknes. They date from about the first century AD, an impressive 100-acre site that includes a triumphal arch, a large temple colonnade, and the remains of some very luxurious houses where you can even see what’s left of some swimming pools and hot tubs. There are a number of surprisingly intact floor mosaics (there good state surprising in part because they are unprotected and completely exposed to the elements); the tiles have remarkably retained much of their original color because they are natural stone, not dyed. Here’s the temple colonnade (the bricks are restorations):
This was really kind of the boondocks of the Roman Empire, the endpoint of the Appian Way. (The other end of the Appian Way is Hadrian’s Wall in England. The Roman Empire was big.) As the Roman Empire began to totter and fragment around the 4th century AD, Volubilis did not hold up; it was overrun by one or another barbarian tribe in 285 AD and the Romans never returned.
We rolled into Fez at about 5 PM or so and before heading to our riad we had a delightful little side visit to Momo’s apartment, where we met his wife, 8 year old nephew, and 6 year old niece. His wife Amal was welcoming and gracious and prepared an astounding array of sweet snacks for us, including a homemade cake. Here they are:
The spread that Amal prepared was spectacular: a variety of pastries and a world class cake. Gotta tell ya, whatever else we take away from this trip, the Moroccans take their pastries seriously and are really good at making them. We were very impressed by the visit.
Our riad is a sight to behold, an old family dwelling dating to the 16th century that has been owned by the current family since about 1948… the handover being in that year, I suspect, because the previous owners were a Jewish family (this much we know to be true) who I am guessing hightailed it to Israel at the same time as all the other Moroccan Jews. In any case, the current family converted it to an inn several years ago, and we get to enjoy it now.
Tomorrow: city tour of Fez, and lunch in the souk!