With shifting sands of time, four cities have vied for Morocco’s crown
“The tar of my country is better than the honey of others.” So goes the old Moroccan proverb, revealing the deep pride of its people-a pride justified by its sweeping history, abiding culture, and dramatic settings. And there’s no better way to peer behind the veil of centuries than to explore Morocco’s four Imperial Cities. Fez, Marrakesh, Rabat, and Meknes have all held the title of capital-often swapping back and forth-but each has its own unique flavor.
A Son Shows Off: Fez
Sultan Idriss II, a great-great grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, established Fez, Morocco’s first capital, early in the 9th century-directly across the river from the city his father founded. The city takes it name from the word for pickaxe, as Idriss II is said to have used one made of gold and silver to mark the glorious city’s borders. The son’s handiwork soon outpaced the father’s when the new city welcomed 800 Berber families fleeing conflict in Andalusia; they were soon followed by 2,000 displaced Arab families.
Over centuries, the two cities-Idriss II’s and his father’s-became one, blossoming into an epic metropolis whose city walls extended for nearly 10 miles. By 1170, it was home to over 200,000 and the largest city on earth. See the city from above today and its scope remains staggering, with the constantly bustling medina (the world’s largest car-free urban area), the “new” city from the 13th century, and the French-influenced ville nouvelle.
Here, one experiences a panoply of delights from the colors and textures of ancient madrasas to the artisan district where carpets are made, leather is dyed, and copper craftsmen ply their trade. The world’s oldest continuously operating university, the Islamic Al-Karaouine, is here, coexisting for centuries with the adjacent Mellah, the Jewish Quarter. But it’s more than architecture and monuments that inspire visitors: sharing a meal with a local family will offer you the best insight of all into life in this storied city.
A palm-dotted sight for sore eyes: Marrakesh
Even while Fez was still growing, an upstart nabbed the title of capital. Marrakesh was made an Imperial capital by successive Berber empires in the 12th century, the first of which laid the groundwork for a true city. The second included a building spree that yielded the Marrakesh we see today, with its royal palaces, imposing Kasbah, and city walls. An array of entirely new mosques was built as well; the second rulers tore down the old ones because it was deemed that they had been positioned incorrectly in relation to Mecca.
With the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains to one side and deserts stretching into the distance on the other, Marrakesh was a natural caravanserai for camel-riding traders. It greeted weary travelers with hundreds of acres of lush greenery and a stand of more than 100,000 palm trees-an oasis better than any mirage could be. No wonder the Berbers called it the “land of god.”
Not everyone agreed with this praise, and the capital returned to Fez, launching a rivalry that, in many ways, continues to this day. From copper-topped Koutoubia Mosque to the 360-room Bahia palace, it’s easy to see how Marrakesh stakes its claim. And there’s still something for everyone here, from the serenity of the Majorelle botanical gardens to the electricity of lively Djemaa el Fna square, the souk of all souks.
Pirate’s bounty: Rabat
It is said that when coastal Rabat was made capital, it was to shut up Fez and Marrakesh both. Rabat was an old city, settled as Chellah in 300 BC and renamed Sala Colonia by the Romans in the first century. It was the Almohads who made it a capital in the 12th century-rebuking both former capitals in the process and calling it “The Stronghold of Victory.” The ruling Sultan ordered the building of the world’s largest minaret, the Hassan Tower, with a grand mosque and madrasa, to show his kingdom’s might-but he died and the tower was capped at 140 feet (just over half the height he imagined). It still stands today.
The sultan’s death led to the decline of the city and the loss of its capital status. By the 17th century, it had a new reputation as a pirate lair. As the base for Barbary pirates who called their territory the Republic of Bou Regreg, Rabat was the launch pad for countless sailing attacks on western traders for nearly 200 years. But the days of lawlessness ended when France set up a protectorate in the early 20th century, and Rabat became a port to visit-not fear-once again.
From its ruins of Chellah and Sala Colonia to the unfinished tower and lush French-Andalusian gardens, it’s easy to see why UNESCO named Rabat a World Heritage Site.
A Bloody Showoff: Meknes
While pirates were running the show in Rabat, Moulay Ismail had moved the Moroccan capital to Meknes in 1672. Meknes was not a new city: it had been settled by the Berber people known as the Miknas (who gave the city its name) in the 9th century and had grown steadily under three successive dynasties. But Ismail had a vision for something bigger.
He built a 25-mile wall, along with massive gates, lush gardens, and dozens upon dozens of mosques, earning Meknes the title “City of a Hundred Minarets.” It was also a city of blood: the “Warrior King,” as he was known, once adorned those new city walls with 10,000 human heads. Though legend of his barbarism endured, he himself perished, and Meknes was displaced as capital in less than a century. Marrakesh reclaimed the honor – at least for a time.
For the last century, Rabat has been capital, its seaside location making it both a practical and visually appealing choice. Any visitor is quick to choose their favored Imperial Capital, regardless of the tales that history tells. But this much is clear no matter which modern capital calls to you most: the pride of Morocco endures.