Saturday, August 1, 2015

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 29. Meknes to Fez

Today we had the morning free to explore Meknes, and by 8 am I was already in the old city, only to find out that everything was closed L A bit later I serendipitously met some of the members of my group, and with the power of many managed to find a very charming old gentlemen, who held the keys to the mausoleum of King Ismail (ca. 1650 to 1710). Back then Morocco was a powerful empire that extended over what now is Algeria and Tunisia, and the King was the official sponsor of the famous Barbary Pirates, who preyed on Mediterranean commerce. Whenever a ship was captured the women would be sent to the harems of the powerful, the male passengers and officers were held for ransom by their governments, and the sailors would become slaves. The King kept the prisoners held for ransom in an underground prison (and here our charming host produced, as if by magic, the keys to the dungeons), notified the ambassadors of the corresponding nation about the captives, and waited for months until the ransom was delivered. In the dungeons, the prisoners dragged a ball by a chain attached to their ankles, and withered sleeping in straw and very basic food and drink, with some air and sunlight entering through the vents in the ceiling. The British battled the Barbary Pirates with little success, but were certainly a thorn on the side of the kings, so when the 16 American colonies declared themselves independent, the Moroccan Empire was the first to recognize them as a new nation.

Meknes was the capital of the empire only during the reign of King Ismail (before and after the capital was either in Fez, Casablanca, or Rabat.

The temperature is soaring, so after a short walk through the marketplace I sat with a couple fellow travelers to drink mint tea in the shade. At noon we met with our guide, who took us to the house of one of our vendors, to have a lunch of camel burgers. Very good indeed.

After lunch we boarded a little bus that took us to the ancient Roman city of Volubilis (100 BC to 500 AD). When Rome defeated Carthage in 176 BC, it immediately started colonizing the Mediterranean zone. In Morocco the most important Roman city was Tanger, which is a coastal city. Volubilis, in contrast, is a good 100 miles inland, but overlooks a very fertile valley. Springs in the mountains provided the water to be transported to the city via aqueducts, so Volubilis grew to become a rather large city. The city decayed after the separation of the Western and Eastern Roman empires, but was occupied on and off by local tribes, until the 1755 Lisboa earthquake destroyed it completely (the earthquake was devastating throughout northern Africa).

The temperature was 44ºC, but our enthusiastic local guide, who was a font of knowledge, did not let the heat deter him, and he gave us a marvelous tour of the city. Some archeologic restoration has been done, so you can see the walls of a large country estate, the baths, the temple of Jupiter, the Christian Basilica, the triumphal arch, the brothel, and the columns of the forum, but what I found most wonderful were the beautiful floor mosaics. My favorite sight so far.

We arrived to Fez around 6 pm, settled in our hotel (OK, but not as luxurious as the one in Meknes), and by 7 pm went out for a very special dinner in the old city. A family has turned their home into a restaurant, where you eat fixed menu of small plates of beets, eggplant, rice, potatoes, carrots, hummus, and olives; followed by a delicious flaky pastry filled with a yummy chicken stew. It was absolutely delicious, and we all groaned with satisfaction when we stood up from the table. And now we better go to bed, because tomorrow we will be walking all day around Fez

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