Tuesday, 21 June 2011
Meknes medina: streets, gates, fountains
It's become a point of honour on this blog, whether anyone's interested or not, that I try to do justice to any town or city I've visited and adored. So I felt that my April and May entries on Morocco's most genial civic treasure needed completing by a tour around the area in which we spent most time, unhassled and often pleasantly lost - the medina or walled old town of Meknes.
Of course it's not on the scale of glorious, once-wealthy Tunis or Fes, but it has enough authenticity and charm to make it a place to return to again and again. We took three or four trails in different directions, with an excellent French guidebook on loan from Mona and Simon at the Riah Lahboul, so forgive if the details here are relatively hazy. Mona especially recommended the rather run-down but fascinating area of the Mellah Qdim, once the old Jewish quarter - the new Mellah has a modest synagogue frequented by a small community - via Berrima, where her family still lives. You sense the change in building styles once through the arch that separates the Mellah from the Medina proper. Here there are more balconies and handsome old houses, most in a state of disrepair
and the striking scallop fountain which, like all the others, is still very much in use.
It's worth exiting the Mellah by the old Jewish cemetery (closed whenever we happened to be in the vicinity) to go out and look at the Bab el Khemis
built by the Almohades but substantially elaborated by our tyrannical Moulay Ismail - who did have one thing in his favour: religious tolerance. The inscription reads: 'I am the gate of the fifth day, open to all races whether from the east or the west'.
Back on the Sekkakine, another old arch leads to the tailors' quarter
and there are also iron and metal workers along the main street
as well as several old musical instrument shops, several inside the Bab Djedid.
Turn right here and you're in the quietest and - to me - most suggestive part of the medina, with quite a few white minarets including that of the Berrima Mosque
a fascinating glimpse of 'sky' in a ruined building
old alleys with twisting vines
and another old fountain by the Serraria Mosque. The lady washing her clothes is helpfully colour-co-ordinated.
Eventually you'll meet up with one of the main streets of tailors' shops via an alley with my favourite coloured walls
where you can either turn left and head for the Bab Berdaine, designed by Moulay Ismail as the main entrance to the Medina and almost as grand as the Bab Mansour which dominates the main square
or if you were to go right along the narrow main drag with its high booths you'd reach a pretty open area dominated by a welcome shady tree beneath which the traditional furniture-painters work.
Much silk weaving goes on around here. The threads adorn the shop booths
and the clatter of machines can be investigated, if you wander into one of the old foundouqs. Worth watching this little film for the evocative sound.
Now we're back in the heart of things, with more tourists to boot, around the Great Mosque
with its splendid doorways
and the Medersa Bou Inania nearby.
We didn't visit, but we did go inside the old vizier's palace that now houses the Dar Jamai Museum.
The courtyard is better kept than the museum. Visitors' comments in the book were way over the top - 'this is the best museum I've visited in Morocco' etc - or perhaps there's nothing in better nick, but good as the collection is, with some fabulous garments and the cedarwood painting in the old harem rooms,
it's badly in need of renovation. But it seems that, thanks to the interest of the now-beleaguered king, quite a bit of the medina has been tarted up - which, perversely, I also didn't feel quite comfortable with. But there's no pleasing a tourist randy for antique, and at least this is very much a working old town, with the relaxed attitude to furriners that comes with that.