History of Meknes, the third imperial city of Morocco

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The history of Meknes, the capital of Morocco for only fifty years, but able to be remembered forever thanks to its beauty

Origins of Meknes

Although it rises very close to the ruins of Volubilis, the ancient Roman capital of Morocco, the origins of Meknes must be sought in the 8th century AD, a period in which these areas passed under the control of the Amazigh tribe of the Miknasa, from which it takes its first name. The first fortress will be built by the Almoravids when they conquered these areas in 1061, which is why some historians say that the real founders of the city as we know it today are attributable to the second dynasty in Moroccan history.


Like all cities in Morocco, this last too passed under the Almohads, who, like Marrakesh, destroyed and rebuilt it, and then under the Marinids, under whom it managed to rise as the residence of princes and viziers. This is also due to the fact that Meknes is just 60km away to Fes, capital of the country under this dynasty; it is no coincidence that the city kasbah was founded by the Marinides in conjunction with the foundation of the citadel of Fes el Jdid and that there are architectural elements in common, such as the Madrasa Bou Inania.

Madrasa Bou Inania of Meknes

With the collapse of the Marinids it will then pass for a short period to the Wattasids and finally the Sa’adians, who, coming from southern Morocco, were almost completely disinterested in it, so much so that it will be necessary to wait for the arrival of the ‘Alawides, a dynasty that still today rules the country, before seeing significant changes.

Meknes capital

The exploit of this new lineage will take place in 1666, the year in which Moulay Rashid will conquer all of Morocco, nominating Fes as the capital and entrusting Meknes to his brother, Moulay Ismail. When the first died, the second fought a very hard civil war against his nephew to take over his kingdom and, once he triumphed in this civil war, he decided to definitively transfer his court to Meknes, making it the new capital of the kingdom. The reasons for this choice are linked to several factors: first of all, while Fes and Marrakesh, the historic capitals, had sided with the son of Moulay Rashid, Meknes had always remained by his side, demonstrating to him more than once its absolute loyalty; secondly, the location of Fes was much less defensible against the arrival of the Ottomans or of Amazigh tribes and this had made it a city historically prey to continuous conquests.

Moulay Ismail

Whatever the reasons, in 1672 he ascended the throne and immediately set about making the city the capital he had always dreamed of. The first thing he had built was the kasbah that bears his name, a work so mammoth that it will take 60 years to complete, as well as the destruction of several pre-existing buildings; it is no coincidence that the square in front of Bab al Mansour, the monumental gate of this building, is called el-Hedim, or “the ruins” and refers to the ruins that were accumulated there. In addition to the immense kasbah with the royal palace attached, Moulay Ismail had the walls rebuilt, the lodgings for his famous Black Guard, he restructured the mosques and created the first citizen mellah.

Bab al Mansour

As often happens in Moroccan history, however, with the death of the sovereign, the kingdom soon fell into the frenzy of dynastic struggles and the capital soon returned to being the ancient Fes.

From the post Moulay Ismail to today

Not surprisingly, from that moment on Meknes will turn into a decidedly more anonymous city, not enjoying any type of urban planning works other than those of Mohammed III who, however, was more concerned with restoring than with building. With the arrival of the French there will be the construction of Ville Nouvelle, the European district built outside the historic centre, but it must be said that their choice to move the capital to Rabat will lead the city to even greater marginalization.


With the independence of Morocco, the city grew in number of inhabitants, however losing the wealthiest families, who moved to the more modern Casablanca and Rabat. In 1996 the historic center was declared a UNESCO heritage site, an organization that has also repeatedly testified to how much of that place is extremely vulnerable to city transformations and for this reason places particular emphasis on its conservation.

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