A Day in Volubilis, Moulay Idriss, & Meknes

Today many of us studying at ALIF went on an excursion sponsored by ALIF to the cities/towns of Voluvilis, Moulay Idriss, and Meknes. The excursion is included as part of the Minnesota program in Morocco, so the 6 of us on the program didn’t have to pay (well, it’s included in the program fee already).

We departed from ALIF at 8:50 am (scheduled at 8:30 am) on two small tour buses. It’s the kind that only seats 3 people in one row, and can only fit at most 20 people. We spread out in the two buses so everyone will have enough room. You can really tell that the buses were not designed for people with long legs or are bigger in size. The seats were a little smaller than what we were used to, and the distance between rows were not very wide. We drove from Fez first to Volubilis, stopping in the middle of the trip to take pictures of a lake.

Volubilis was the Roman Empire’s most remote and far-off base. It is located on a plateau, and was the end of the imperial road that stretched from France. Today the place is an UNSECO World Heritage Site that contains an entire city of Roman ruins dated back to as early as first century AD (archeological finds suggest that the city existed in third century BC as the western capital of a Berber kingdom). At first I really wasn’t that interested, as I thought that I already saw a lot of ruins in Rome, and this one probably isn’t going to be that different. Well, also have an open mind, as Volubilis turned out to be fascinating. You can still see the remains of houses, temple, forum, oil press, aqueduct, bathing house, fountain, and shops today at the site. It was really cool to walk through the different parts of the city and imagine how the Romans lived , even though the weather wasn’t particularly cool. We also saw a vomitorium (I did not make this up, the tour guide said it), which is a basin-like structure that’s part of a house, and was used for (as the name implies) vomiting when people eat too much, a common practice back in the days. Different rooms of different houses also have mosaics on the floor featuring different stories according to the names of the houses (i.e.: house of Orpheus, house of Venus). At the end of the tour, I went to the public restroom and had to, for the first time since I went to Italy and then to Morocco, pay a fee to the guy guarding it. He wasn’t really happy with me only giving him 2.60 Dh, but that was all I had in my pocket and I thought it would just be unreasonable to pay even more.

We headed for Moulay Idriss next. The town takes the name from its founder, Morocco’s saint and creator of the first Arab dynasty. His son was the founder of Fez. The town looks like two humps of a camel when seen from distance, and is actually on top of hills. We got into the town, and were told to meet back at the bus in half an hour. As it was noon, the 6 of us on the Minnesota program decided to get lunch at a small place next to the town square where the Moulay Idriss’ shrine is located. We ordered salads, fries, roasted tomatoes, kebabs, and a tajine. As the table was being set with food, my roommate got a phone call from someone else also on the trip saying that the buses are leaving for Meknes, where a free lunch will be provided. We had just started eating. Not feeling like wasting anything, we ate really quickly (though didn’t finish a lot of the food), and went to meet the group. It would be nice if someone has told us that there will be a free lunch, because then we wouldn’t spend that half an hour eating, but see the city.

Meknes used to be an imperial city, as a result of the Sultan Moulay Ismail’s (1672-1727) tireless construction. He transformed the city from a normal provincial center into the capital city with 20 gates and over 50 palaces. We arrived in front gate leading to the sultan’s mausoleum, and went to the restaurant for lunch. The place was really nice, with fancy table cloth, couches, and plates. We were served a huge plate of salad (consisted of chopped beet, tomato, boiled egg, cucumber, green pepper, potato, apple, olive, lettuce, carrot, corn, and rice, picture above), a huge tajine (carrot, potato, green bean, and chicken), and a plate of fruits (melon and watermelon). It was unfortunate that we had eaten something, as we weren’t be able to finish the food, and I felt really bad to see large portion still on the plate when the servers cleaned the table. But we were really full to the point that any kind of movement involving stomach hurts. After lunch, we went out to explore a shop next to the restaurant. Finding nothing particularly interesting, we walked out, and our bus driver told us to go see the Koubba el Khayatine and the Prison of Christian Slaves. Back in the days, the sultan’s court held thousands of prisoners and POWs. He had this underground prison built, which is 7 hectares in area, all underground and only illuminated by openings at the ground level. The prisoners were hung by chains, with one end attached to a spot near the ground level, the other end wrapped around both hands. They were left daggling in the prison, and often died on the spot. The only chance of getting out of the prison, was to go to the Koubba el Khayatine, which is this green-tiled roof building near the entrance to the underground prison. It served as the reception area for ambassadors to the imperial courts, and the place where prisoners could regain freedom with gold.

Our further exploration included visiting one of the most impressive gates in Meknes. Something quite amazing happened when we were there: rain. It does not rain much in Morocco, especially in the summer. Yet today, for at least 10 minutes or so, it was pouring marble-size raindrops. It did made the day a lot cooler than the regular 95 degrees Fahrenheit we have been getting every day. We went back onto the bus, was taken around the royal palace, visited this one cellar that was used for storage of many different things. Personally I thought it looked exactly like the prison, except it was above ground and inside a building. Our day ended with napping on the bus on the way back to Fez.

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