Meknès History

There seems to have been no occupation of the site until, in the 9th century, the Zeneta Berber Maknassa tribe settled on flat ground .overlooking the Bou Fekrane River, attracted no doubt by the vast fertile plain (the Sais). The first to construct buildings more substantial than the little Berber villages were the Almoravids, who, in 1069, built a kasbah in what is now a city district. The town became rich and the Almohads started casting their eyes on it from 1120, although their sultan, Abd el-Mumen, succeeded in taking the town only in 1145, after a seven-year siege. The weakening Almohads did not rule long over Meknès, for in the beginning of the 13th century their successors, the Merinids, invaded the region and captured the town. They did not establish their capital here, but built a kasbah, a mosque, a medersa, and numerous buildings to house their gov­ernor. Meknès declined when the Merinid dynasty crumbled at the end of the 14th century. Although the Wattasids and then the Saadians occupied the town, it only really came into its own when the new Alaouite sultan Mulay Ismail chose it as his capital in 1672.

Sultan Mulay Ismail. Meknès and Mulay Ismail are inextricably bound together, for this powerful, long-reigning figure left an indelible mark on the town. Mulay Ismail was a young man of 26 when he came to the throne. Dark-skinned, of good physique, and extremely strong-willed, he reigned for 55 years. He was a great builder, though not a great architectural inno­vator/ One of his first tasks was to rebuild the city, using (it is said) between 1,000-3,000 Christian slaves and 20,000-30,000 prisoners from the sur­rounding tribes. The Merinid kasbah and part of the old town were de­stroyed and a new vast wall of trampled down earth and lime, with huge gates, was constructed. Mulay Ismail built kasbahs for his Black Guard, mosques, hangars in which to store supplies of grain, stables, and gardens. Much of the decorative building materials for the Imperial Town, Dar el-Makhzen, built to house his personal administration and harem (said to con­tain 500 women), which he built south of the medina, came from the nearby Roman ruins of Volubilis and the El-Badi Palace of his predecessors in Marrakech. Well aware of the need for a strong military force, Mulay Ismail got together an army of 150,000 men, made up of black slaves, immigrant Arabs, Andalusians, and Christians, whom he housed in a military camp be­side the palace. He needed a good army to keep his unruly compatriots under control and push the Europeans out of Morocco's coastal towns.

A diplomat too, Mulay Ismail worked to increase commercial exchanges with France and sent missions to France and England. His court in Meknès, in turn, became the destination of western ambassadors coming, often, to buy the release of their countrymen captured by the Moroccan corsairs. Up to 1678, the captured foreigners belonged to their corsair cap­tors, but after that date they became the sultan's personal property. Negotiations with France were particularly difficult, for the French king held far more Moroccan galley slaves than Mulay Ismail did French build­ing slaves. The Alaouite sultan was such an important figure that it is worth recalling a few stories about him, one of which concerned Louis XIV. The French king received one of Mulay Ismail's missions—headed by the ex-pirate Ben Aicha-'-at Versailles in 1699. Ben Aicha presented such an enthusiastic portrait of the French king's daughter that Mulay Ismail re­quested her hand in marriage (a request that Louis XIV turned down).

John Windus, who went to Meknès in 1720 with an English mission try­ing to buy back a number of English slaves, saw the sultan when he was about 74 years and described him as very active for his age. Mulay Ismail's strong personality ensured that a host of legends were attached to his name, some of them certainly true, others not. He had many good quali­ties, including determination, religious faith, abounding energy, political astuteness, and a certain tolerance towards his Christian slaves, allowing them to live apart in a sort of shantytown and have a Catholic priest to administer to their spiritual needs. He also had many less appealing traits, such as extreme cruelty, ruthlessness, and a fierce spirit of revenge. Stories of the people he put to death on a whim are endless. Many are true, but I won't dwell on them here. With his death in 1727, the civil war that broke out led to the decline of Meknès, a decline hastened by the Lisbon earth­quake in 1755.

However, the city maintained its military reputation. Under the Protectorate, a New Town was built in 1920, separated from the Old Town by the Bou Fekrane River (about a 15- to 20-mlnute walk). It housed an important French military garrison. French farmers settled in the rich sur­rounding plain and turned Meknès into a thriving agricultural center, also producing Morocco's best wines. When Morocco got back its independence, their farms were confiscated, many of them being taken over by the state (but the well-known wines such as Guerrouane and Ait Soualah continued to be produced).

One of the kingdom's imperial cities, Meknès' medina is one of the six Moroccan sites recognized as world heritage by UNESCO

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