Day 8, Part 1 – Meknes and the Roman ruins of Volubilis (Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4 Day 5 Day 6 Day 7)
Fes’s location allows for some neat day trips. A popular destination from Fes is the city of Meknes and the Roman ruins of Volubilis. Mark and I have always enjoyed Greek and Roman ruins, and the ruins and Volubilis were said to be impressive. So much so that the site was a key location for Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ.
I made reservations in advance with a tour company, and on the morning of our third day in Fes, we were met at our riad by Naji Redouane, our driver. The van he was driving was equipped to hold six passengers, and I knew that there was a possibility that we’d be touring with a small group, but as luck would have it, Mark and I were his only passengers and we had the van to ourselves.
The drive to Volubilis was about 90 minutes. Most of the drive was like the drive from Marrakech to Essaouira: brown, dry, and boring, however, as we got closer, a spectacular vista appeared on our right.
Naji, having made the drive countless times, knew it was coming up, and stopped for us to stretch our legs and take in the view.
There was a beautiful late, some scenic farmland, and a grove of olive trees.
I took this peaceful photo of a farmer riding a donkey while another walked behind.
The drive continued for another uneventful half hour, and then, as the rroad took a bend, the Roman ruins of Volubilis, occupying the ledge of a long high plateau came into view.
The city has an interesting history. Except for a small trading post on an island off Essaouira, Volubilis was the Roman Empire’s most remote base. Direct Roman rule here lasted a little over two centuries.
We paid our entry fee (very cheap) and started to explore.
Starting at the southern end of the site, the first area of note was the House of Orpheus.
Here’s the entrance.
Situated in what was a suburban quarter, the House of Orpheus was a huge complex of rooms and was likely a mansion perhaps for one of the town’s richest merchants. This area is substantially in ruins, but you can see some private rooms grouped around a small patio, which is decorated with a dolphin mosaic.
The other spectacular mosaic is that of Orpheus charming animals with his lyre. The mosaic is partly damaged, but here you can see Orpheus holding the lyre in the center, with animals at the periphery.
Here’s a better view of Orpheus and some of the animals he’s charmed.
South of the House of Orpheus is a small building that houses an olive press.
The fact that these presses were found in even the grandest mansions demonstrates the olive’s central importance to the city. A significant proportion of the 20,000 people that lived here must have been involved in the production of olive oil. Here’s the olive press, viewed from the side.
From the House of Orpheus, a broad paved street leads up toward the Forum, Capitol, and Basilica.
Storks have colonized a few columns of the Capitol and Basilica.
The arches to the east of the columns were an impressive site.
Nearby was the House of the Acrobat, also called the House of the Athlete. It retains a cool mosaic of an acrobat or “chariot jumper”, depicted receiving the winners cup for a “desultor race”, a display of great skill that entailed leaping on and off a horse in full gallop.
In this photo, the mosaic is all dull and faded. A few years ago, when we visited roam, we took a tour of some ruins, and our tour guide showed us a neat trick. She showed us a similarly dull mosaic, and then she took out her water bottle and poured water on it, and the marble came to life. We had water with us, so we tried, the same thing, and sure enough, the beauty of the mosaic was revealed.
A few steps away is the grand stone arch of Volubilis, the cenerpoint of the ancient Roman site.
It is supported by marble columns, built by Marcus Aurelius Sebastenus to celebrate the power of Emperor Caracalla. It was once topped with a bronze chariot.
Further down was the House of Columns and then a pretty cool mosaic entitled The Labours of Hercules.
The caricatures are almost like comic books, giving a good idea of provincial Roman mosaics.
Again, I wet them, to bring out the colors.
The next house along, the House of Dionysos, holds the sites best preserved mosaic, Dionysos and the Four Seasons.
In the neighboring house, the mosaic of the Nymphs Bathing is pretty badly damaged, although you can make out one of the nymphs on the left, holding a red drape.
We then got on the main road in Volubilis, the Decumanus Maximus, which, when you turn around, affords a pretty spectacular overview of the city.
At the northern end of the road is the Tangier Gate.
With this, our tour of Volubilis was complete.
We got back in the van for a brief 25-minute drive to the city of Meknes.
On the way, just 4 km from Volubilis, spotted on a hill up ahead, the city of Moulay Idriss.
Named after Morocco’s most venerated saint and creator of its first Arab dynasty, his mausoleum in the city is the object of constant pilgrimage. In fact, it is so holy that it is worth a fifth of the hajj to Mecca. In other words, Muslims who cannot make the hajj to Mecca in their lifetimes could theoretically take five trips to Moulay Idriss instead. For Western tourists like us, there isn’t much to see, and certainly nothing we’d be allowed to visit, so we just passed through.
In short order, we arrive in Meknes. The city is said to have a friendly, laid back atmosphere, probably due in part to a large student population. It, too, has earned a place on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. The entry to the medina is Bab Mansour, widely considered to be North Africa’s most beautiful gate.
The huge horseshoe-shaped triumphal arch was completed in 1732 by a Christian convert to Islam named Mansour Laalej, whose name means “victorious renegade”. The small marble Ionic columns that support the bastions on either side of the main entry were taken from the Roman ruins at Volubilis, while the taller Corinthian columns came from Marrakesh’s El Badi Palace.
The main attraction in Meknes is the Heri el-Souani, or The Royal Granaries.
The granaries were one of Moulay Ismail’s greatest achievements and are the first place any Meknessi will take you to give you an idea of the sultan’s grandiose vision.
The Granaries were designed to store grain as feed for the 10,000 horses in the royal stables, and not for just a few days or weeks.
They were built to hold enough grain to weather a 20-year siege if necessary! Ismail and his engineers counted on a few things to keep the granaries cool enough that the grain would never rot, and that included thick walls and an underground reservoir with water ducts under the floors.
Out behind the granaries are the remains of the royal stables.
They used to be covered, but they are roofless now, a result of the 1755 earthquake in Lisbon. Some 1200 purebreds, merely one-tenth of Moulay Ismail’s cavalry, were kept here. Horses are still kept here today.
Yes, I’m a cat guy, but like all veterinarians, I love all animals, and I certainly do love horses.
The reddish-tan color was beautiful in the sun, and the symmetry in the stables was perfect.
It wasn’t crowded on the day we went, and the ancient architecture, lovely weather, organic smell of the hay, and the peaceful solitude of the horses made for a really memorable visit.
After the granaries, we were scheduled to explore the medina of Meknes, however, in talking with our driver Naji about the horses and about veterinary medicine, he asked me if I knew about the American Fondouk in Fes.
I told him that I had never heard of it.
He told me that this was a famous veterinary hospital that operates in Fes.
The Fondouk provides free veterinary care for the animals of Fes.
He suggested that, instead of visiting the Meknes medina, we try visiting the Fondouk instead, although he wasn’t sure of their hours and could make no guarantee that we could get in.
We had already explored the medinas in Marrakech and Fes, and were on tap to explore the medina in Tangier in a day or two.
I’m not going to say hey, you’ve seen one medina, you’ve seen them all, but it was an easy choice here.
I wasn’t going to miss out on the possibility of seeing a Moroccan veterinary hospital!
Were they open?
Day 8, pt2