Morocco Imperial Cities
Morocco Imperial Cities
Located by the Atlas Mountains, Fes (also called Fez) has been called the “Mecca of the West” and the “Athens of Africa” because it is viewed as the cultural capital of Morocco. It was the capital of modern Morocco until 1925, when that title shifted over to Rabat, though it remains the capital of the Fes-Meknes administrative region.
One of Morocco’s imperial cities, Fes is a medieval city that retains much of its old world feel. The city has not one, but two old medina quarters. The larger medina is Fes-el-Bali, which is listed as a UNESSCO World Heritage site and believed to be the largest car-free urban center in the world.
Upon entering the famous blue gate of Bab Boujeloud, its labyrinthine twists and turns take you through narrow streets where life remains much the same as it was 1,000 years ago. The University of al-Qarawiyyin, founded by Muslim woman in 859 CE, is the oldest continuously run functioning university in the world! Mosques and medersas pepper the city, particularly within the medinas, though most do not allow non-Muslims to enter. There are two exceptions within Fes-el-Bali – Medersa Bou Inania and Medersa el-Attarine, both beautiful examples of 14th century Merenid architecture, and definitely worth a visit.
The ancient Red City of Marrakech – named so for the color of its earthen walls – is perhaps the best known destination for travel in Morocco, primarily for its famous square. The Jamaa-el-Fna square is the social, cultural, and geographic center of the city. Over the centuries, it has served as a meeting place and trading spot for people from the north and south to come together.
Today, the square offers an intoxicating and lively feast for the senses. Musicians, dancers, acrobats, shopkeepers, snake charmers, beggars, healers, and onlookers alike form a diverse and motley crowd. At nightfall, the gargotiers (food stalls) settle and the place is transformed into a vast open-air restaurant. Performers of all kinds showcase their crafts, and the drums resonate into the night. The cultural significance of this spectacle inspired UNESCO to declare it a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.”
Else where in the city, there is much to captivate the intrepid traveler. Whether it is a love of history, nature, or shopping that drives one to explore, Marrakech has something for everyone. A bustling metropolis, Marrakech has its share of cafés, shops, and museums, along with the neverending options offered by the city’s ubiquitous souks. Morocco’s rich culture is likewise steeped in sites such as the Ali Ben Youssef Medersa, once the largest Koranic school in North Africa and the Koutoubia minaret, which towers over the city. North of the city lies the Palmeraie, a sprawling garden of over 100,000 palm trees that date back to the Almoravids in the 12th century. Meanwhile, the picturesque Jardin Majorelle, a landscaping project started by French painter Jacques Majorelle and later gifted to the city by French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, provides a peaceful sanctuary amidst hundreds of plant species from around the world.
The hilltop city of Meknes, one of Morocco’s historic imperial cities, and one-time home of the sultanate, is a beautiful blend of the Arab, Amazigh, Jewish and French cultures of which modern Morocco is comprised.
Originally settled in the 9th century by a Berber tribe called the Miknasa, the city grew under different ruling dynasties, before becoming the imperial capital in 1672 under Sultan Moulay Ismail, whose reign is considered a golden age in the Morocco’s history. His vision for the city led to the construction of numerous edifices that still stand today, including mosques, madrases, gardens and a 25 mile wall. Monuments such as the enormous and magnificent gate known as Bab-El-Mansour rival those found in more well-known destinations like Fes. Because of his prolific projects, he is often compared to his French contemporary, Louis XIV.
Some must-see sites in Meknes include the medina and the Old Mellah (Old Jewish Quarter). There is also the Dar Jamaï Museum, a palace built in 1882 for the Jamaï family, as well as the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, the ornate tomb of the sultan who gave Meknes its imperial status. Also unmissable is the UNESCO site of Volubilis, the impressive ruins of a Roman city dating back to the 3rd century BCE, located merely 40 minutes away from Meknes by car.
Rabat The capital of Morocco:
Rabat is one of Morocco’s four imperial cities, along with Fes, Meknes, and Marrakesh.
Located an hour away by train from Casablanca, Rabat is a prestigious stop with a more laid back atmosphere than other cities in Morocco. As the country’s administrative capital, it is also the home of the King, as well as various embassies and ministries.
With its wide sidewalks and efficient tram system, Rabat is an easy city for commuters looking to visit sights such as the Andalusian Gardens or the Udayas Kasbah, a 12th century fortress overlooking Rabat, the Bouregreg River, and even the Atlantic Ocean. Inside, its blue-painted walls bring to mind Morocco’s other famously blue city, Chefchaouen.
For some, the mention of Casablanca might bring to mind thoughts of Bogart and Bergman’s doomed silver-screen romance, but Morocco’s economic capital and chief port is more than just a Hollywood reference, it is a worldly and cosmopolitan city showcasing Morocco’s traditional charm as well as its hectic modernity.
On the doorstep of Europe, the city’s French and Portuguese influences are visible in its architecture, seen in Art Deco buildings such as the Cinema Rialto, or the neo-Gothic Sacré Coeur. As a true example of Morocco’s rich and diverse history, these coexist with the Moorish and Arabic-style structures such as the Hassan II Mosque, one of the largest and grandest in the world, and the Quartier Habous, often called the “new medina”, which was incidentally created by the French as an example of what an idealized medina might look like.
Besides being one of Africa’s largest financial centers, Casablanca is a commercial hub that is home to no less than 60% of Morocco’s domestic and international corporations, as well as many of its industrial facilities. The city’s urbane vibe is also reflected in its myriad restaurants, cultural institutes and events.
The Blue Pearl City: Chefchaouen
Set dramatically beneath twin peaked mountains, Chefchaouen (Chaouen) is achingly beautiful. It’s fresh, clean, lovingly taken care of and very friendly. Founded in 1471, Chefchaouen was a Moorish fortress for exiles from Spain. Over time, the city grew and welcomed Jews and Christian converts alike. Its buildings have all been dipped in shades of blue paint as Jewish teachings suggest by adding blue dyed thread to prayer shawls, people would be reminded of the power of God.
Essaouira or Mogadore:
Situated on the Atlantic coast, beautiful, breezy Essaouira is a relaxed, vibrant alternative to the frenzied pace of Morocco’s other coastal cities. Known as North Africa’s “wind city”, Essaouira’s famously strong winds make the city a popular destination for windsurfers, kitesurfers, and kiteboarding, but visitors less inclined towards extreme water sports will still find plenty to enjoy in this charming seaside destination. For one, these same winds keep the city relatively cool even in Morocco’s hot summers!
Film buffs may recognize Essaouira from Orson Welles’ film Othello, and for being a replica of Jerusalem in the movie Kingdom of Heaven. The massive stone fortifications featured in those films were constructed by the city’s Portuguese occupants in the 18th century, and still surround the well-preserved medina, itself a UNESCO World Heritage site.
A renowned art city, Essaouira boasts several art galleries and boutiques exhibiting the works of local painters and sculptors, but wood carving is the city’s main craft, and in the souk, the air is fragrant not only with spices, but with the particular scent of thuya wood.
Essaouira also vibrates to the rhythm of music, with Gnaoua percussions often to be found playing on the ramparts. The annual Gnaoua Festival of World Music in June sees the city come alive with musicians from all over the world coming to entertain hundreds of thousands of guests over four days.
Ouarzazate or Hollyhood of Morocco:
The city of Ouarzazate lies in the southern part of Morocco. Its name is derived from a Berber phrase meaning without noise or without confusion. It was traditionally the small crossing point for African traders moving towards the northern cities of Morocco as well as Europe. During the French regime it was developed and expanded as a garrison town and administrative center as well as a custom post. Today the city is often the favorite stop for Moroccan tour companies on their way to the Sahara Desert. Most of them stop over to stock up provisions for their further journey to the great deserts.
Ouarzazate is a quieter destination than other cities of its size, but it is not without its attractions. Near Ouarzazate, the historic and picturesque citadel of Ait Benhaddou is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is featured in many a blockbuster film or TV show, including Game of Thrones. So prevalent is the entertainment industry in Ouarzazate, in fact, that it has been dubbed “Hollywood!
Known as Europe’s gateway to Africa, Tangier is a bustling city at the northern tip of Morocco, on the Strait of Gibraltar. The history of Tangier has provided it with a particularly unique blend of influences. From its early days as a strategic Berber town and Phoenician trading center, to centuries of contested control under colonial Europe, Tangier was a refuge for many cultures, and in fact wasn’t even under Morocco’s rule for much of its history. In 1923, Tangier was considered a semi-independent international zone by foreign powers, and thus became a playground for many European and American diplomats, spies, writers, artists, and businessmen, as well as their more dubious counterparts.
In 1956, Tangier finally joined with the rest of Morocco following the restoration of the sovereignty, but retained a heady cross-cultural vibe even as it shed its seedy reputation. Contemporary Tangier is currently undergoing rapid development and modernization under both foreign and domestic investments. This includes new tourism projects along the bay, a modern business district called Tangier City Center, a new airport terminal, and a new football stadium. Tangier’s economy is also set to benefit greatly from the new Taniger-Med port, which aims to capitalize on the Mediterranean yachting scene.
Tangier is one of the cities that has life 24/7, making it a favorite place for tours to Morocco. From shopping in the markets during the day, to lingering in cafes in the evenings, to enjoying live music in a nightclub until 4am, there is always something happening in Tangier!