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DISCOVER MOROCCO’S IMPERIAL CITIES

imperial cities in morocco article by maroc maker

To discover Morocco is to explore its history. This history is written through its cities: each time a new dynasty came to power, it founded a city to serve as its headquarters. Thus were born Morocco’s imperial cities of Fez, Marrakech, Meknes and Rabat.

Maroc Maker takes you to discover this thousand-year-old cultural heritage. Take your car, motorcycle or camper van on board one of our boats to Morocco. Once you’ve arrived in Tangier, you’ll be free to explore Morocco on your own, and organize your own tour of Morocco’s imperial cities.

FEZ, “QUEEN OF THE MAGHREB” AND IMPERIAL CITY

fez morocco

Of the four imperial cities of Morocco, the first is Fez. It was founded in 789 by Sultan Idriss I, also known as Moulay Idriss. He is also credited with founding the kingdom. On his death, his son continued the development of Fez, but chose to build on the other bank of the wadi. As an imperial city, Fez held sway over the country until 1069. It was at this date that the two parts of the city were reunited.

As well as being the oldest medina in Morocco, the Fez medina is also the largest.

Its 1,100 alleyways have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A trip to the heart of Morocco’s imperial cities also means a trip to its palaces. There’s no shortage of them in Fez: Palais Glaoui, Palais Mnebhi, Palais Royal… While not all of them are open to the public, you can still catch a glimpse of their ornate facades.

Morocco’s oldest imperial city grew by welcoming Muslims expelled from Cordoba, Tunisians expelled from Kairouan and Jews in exodus. Their skills and culture continue to live on in this metropolis of a million inhabitants. A visit to the Carpenters’ Souk in the Nejjarine complex is all it takes. Craftsmen carve wood here, and a museum is dedicated to their activity.

If your heart’s in the right place, venture into the tanners’ district. Here, leather is worked in the middle of the river and lime vats. But beware, the smell can be quite startling! To catch your breath, stop off at Jnan Sbil Park and breathe in the scent of 3,000 different species arranged in themed gardens.

MARRAKECH, “THE OCHRE CITY” AND IMPERIAL CITY

jamee lefna marrakech dish repas morocco

Marrakech succeeded Fez as capital under the Almoravid sultan Youssef Ibn Tachfin in 1062. The City of the 7 Saints was the seat of the Almoravid, Almohad and Saadian dynasties.

Its glorious past can be admired as you enter the El Badi or Bahia palaces, and history takes on its full meaning in front of the Saadian tombs. Here lie the princes who ruled the ochre city for over a century.

When asked what to visit in Morocco, Marrakech, the imperial city by excellence, is often the first answer. Renowned for its heritage and nightlife, this jewel of the kingdom is a must-see. The immersion begins at Place Jemaa El-Fna. In the heart of the medina, onlookers, storytellers and snake charmers mingle with stalls and cafés. Meanwhile, in the shadow of the Koutoubia minaret, merchants and shoppers negotiate bargains in the souk.

But Marrakech is also a modern metropolis, as evidenced by the western quarter of Gueliz. It’s here that you’ll find the photogenic blue of the Majorelle garden or the museums dedicated to fashion designer Yves Saint-Laurent and contemporary African art.

MEKNES, “CITY OF OLIVE TREES” AND IMPERIAL CITY

Meknes

Founded in the Middle Ages, Meknes saw its destiny change when the Alaouite sultan Moulay Ismaël decided to make it the country’s capital in 1672. The sovereign, an admirer of Louis XIV and, some would say, a megalomaniac, set about transforming the city into a Moroccan Versailles.

Unfortunately, the invasions and earthquake of 1755 left little trace of this splendor.

The royal palace now lies in ruins. Only the gigantic stables can still be visited. Legend has it that the monarch once housed 12,000 horses here.

The monarch’s last residence is also open to the public, including non-Muslims. Although they cannot enter the burial chamber where Moulay Ismaël, his wife and their sons are laid to rest, they can nevertheless contemplate the mausoleum’s antechamber, which retains its splendor.

Known as the city of 100 minarets, Meknes could also be the city of 100 gates. Bab Mansour el-Aleuj, considered by many to be the most beautiful in the whole kingdom, Bab Berdaine, its two towers and its twin Bab el-Khémis tell of the power of another era.

Neglected after the death of the sultan in 1727, Meknes was given a new lease of life at the beginning of the 20th century.

Under the French protectorate, the Ismaili capital became one of the most important garrisons. Today, the Meknes stud farm and racecourse are home to 270 animals. Curious visitors come to watch the stallions and ride their horses.

RABAT, “THE VICTORY CAMP” AND IMPERIAL CITY

rabat tour hassan morocco

The final stop on your tour of Morocco’s imperial cities is Rabat. Inhabited since prehistoric times, it had to wait until the 20th century to become the capital.

The journey back in time begins at Sala, two kilometers from the town center. Behind the walls of the Chellah necropolis, amidst flowers and storks, you can see the ruins of Roman baths, mausoleums and minarets.

Then on to the kasbah. Past the 12th-century Oudaya gate, bougainvillea and white-and-blue facades guide you to the Semaphore platform. After savoring the view of the Atlantic Ocean, cross the Andalusian garden to reach the National Jewelry Museum.

Do the treasures on display make you want to adorn yourself in gold? Go to Rue des Consuls. In the European-style mansions, you’ll find jewelers, antique dealers and even furniture and fabric stores. The architecture of the rest of the medina is much more typical of Moroccan and imperial cities.

Rabat is today’s imperial city. This is where Mohammed VI stays. Although it’s not possible to enter his palace, you can still take a look at its facade. While you’re in the new town, take the opportunity to visit either the Museum of History and Civilization or the Mohammed VI Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. The former displays archaeological treasures dating from the Neolithic to the present day. The latter showcases the country’s painters, graffiti artists, photographers and sculptors.

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