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Elaine Gelstein

Meknes, Volubulis, and Moulay Idriss

If Fes wasn’t an hour away, at the top of most travelers’ list would be the holiest city in Morocco; the capital of a former dynasty that happens to have some of the most beautiful city gates in the world and the ruins of a large Roman provincial capital city. As it is, with Fes so close, these places just don’t get the love they deserve.


It all started here in the fertile plains of central Morocco. The Phoenicians set up camp in the third century BC. The Romans needed food as well and developed Volubulis into an administrative center. Volubulis soon became known for its wealth.

Even if you have seen your share of antiquities, the ruins at Volubulis are particularly compelling. The site is extensive. In addition to the major public monuments, there are also a significant number of well-regarded in situ mosaics.

You get a sense of typical residential quarters and how the city functioned – which it did, in fact, until the 18th century, when the city was plundered to build Meknes for an ambitious monarch who fashioned himself after Louis XIV.

The best time to visit the site is in the calm of early morning.


The Roman columns and capitals of Volubulis didn’t go very far.

In fact, just 20 miles down the road. They were put to use long after the Romans left by one of Morocco’s most illustrious (and brutal) rulers. Moulay Ismail protected Morocco from both Ottoman and European ambitions and, in his spare time, was alleged to have fathered 867 children.

He had no small opinion of himself and needed a capital worthy of his exploits. With the grandeur of Versailles in mind, Meknes was transformed from a sleepy backwater village into a capital worthy of his exploits.

He put his 25,000 slaves to work plundering Volubulis, constructing his palace, creating 25 miles of massive ramparts and stables for his 10,000 horses. Most notably, they built some of the finest city gates you will ever see.

Don’t miss out on his mausoleum. Moroccans believe that a visit there brings baraka – divine blessing.


Watching all this commotion over the centuries were the holy men of Moulay Idriss.

Moulay Idriss is a small town spread over two hills, whitewashed, and visible from Volubulis.

It is considered the holiest town in Morocco and was forbidden to non-Muslims until 1916 (in fact, its most sacred precinct is still off-limits to non-Muslims). At its center lies the only round minaret in Morocco and, more significantly, the tomb of the man who brought Islam to Morocco 12 centuries ago.

It is hard to overstate the importance of Moulay Idriss, especially among older, traditional Moroccans, many of whom could never afford the pilgrimage to Mecca. Some believe that five pilgrimages to Moulay Idriss over the course of one’s life offer the equivalent blessing.

Enjoy a quiet lunch at a private home with a terrace overlooking the shrine at the center of town and, in the distance, the ancient ruins of Volubulis.