Medina: translated literally as simply “city,” this word has a connotation beyond the literal translation. I, along with local Moroccans and ISA students alike, use it to describe the Imperial city, the old city. Morocco is home to 4 Imperial cities, which is any city that was once the capital of Morocco. These include Fes, Marrakech, Rabat, and Meknes. These 4 cities are home to some of the architectural and cultural marvels of the ancient world. The Meknes medina, which was the capital for most of the 17th century, is even considered a UNESCO World Heritage Center.
I bring this up because I was fortunate enough to tour the medina twice in a 24-hour period. Once on Friday (July 5) for class, and then the next Saturday as part of an ISA excursion. On Friday, I, along with the rest of my Islamic Society and Politics class, met at 8 am outside of Bab Mansour. Bab Mansour (translated to Mansour’s door- Mansour was the Portuguese architect who built it) is the largest entrance into the medina.
As both my taxi driver and my professor said, it’s widely considered the most beautiful gate in all of Africa. Since we went in the early morning on Friday, the holy day of Islam, the medina itself was like a ghost town. We were studying the architecture and layout of the city, so the peaceful morning made it easy to appreciate the fine craftsmanship and design within the city walls.
Simplistically, one of the core beliefs of Islam is that beauty is sacred. If it is seen by all, it loses much of its poignancy. Because of this, walls are erected and kept in place as an effort to preserve the beauty within. This can be seen in the quintessential walls surrounding many of the old cities, as well as the conservative clothing many Muslims wear. This results in a city filled with secrets and juxtapositions. As we soon discovered, you cannot judge a book by its cover. Many buildings we saw that looked modest and unassuming on the outside were grand and stately on the inside.
The only indication of what lies within the house is the doorways. This is the only time when families could truly express their status or lifestyle. In the picture below, you can see how both homes share the same plaster walls, and live in harmony next to each other. However, the family on the right was a much wealthier family, seen by the size and intricacy of the door.
The layout to the medina is along the same lines. Everything sits in harmony and relation to one another. However, many tourists and Westerners find the medina very difficult to navigate–but the math major in me knew that there had to be a sort of pattern. And I was right! As best described by my professor, the medina is like the human body–the circulatory system to be more exact. The heart of all the medina is a mosque, with large arteries (roads) stemming off into other important public buildings such as the madrasa (school) and marketplace. From there, it branches off into the smallest pathways that lead to various residences.
After the wonderful architectural tour I had on Friday, Saturday had a much more historical edge to it. We began at mausoleum of Moulay-Ismail, the sultan of Morocco from 1672-1727.
Aside from this building where he now rests, Moulay-Ismail made several more important contributions to the infrastructure in Meknes. The buildings that we saw included a prison, which at its peak held 40,000 people (mostly captives from piracy), a granary and horse stables, which housed nearly 12,000 horses.
After our tour of the Moulay-Ismail compound, we went back into the medina–what a difference 36 hours makes! The former ghost town was filled with merchants and consumers alike. Our tour guide took us around to a few key shops, and then we were let loose to try our hand at haggling.
I must admit–it’s not a strong suit of mine. My first attempt at haggling resulted in a 20 dirham decrease ($2.50). Since then, I’ve gotten a little bit better, but not much. Clearly, it’s just not a skill I have. That being said, I still feel like a got a fair price for what I bought at the medina, and I’m looking forward to going back soon!