Meknes is an easy 4o minute train ride from Fez. Though much smaller than Fez, Meknes has also had an illustrious history, as one of the four imperial cities of Morocco, with its own spell in the limelight as the country’s capital, back in the 17th century in the reign of Moulay Ismail. Today, most visitors arrive in tourist buses, being dropped off in Place Hedim with an hour to wander through the souk, famous for its sweets, and then scooped up by the bus to move on. But Meknes is worth much more than that.
The Museum Dar Jamai is one very good reason to spend much more time in Meknes. Built on a site occupied by important families, by the late 19th century the Jamai family set about building their own palace. With an Andalucian garden at the centre, the palace now holds an impressive collection of textiles, carved cedarwood pieces and artefacts from the 16th century onwards. The palace is beautifully preserved, and also houses important carpets made locally.
The garden is set out in squares, with fruit and other trees planted inside low privet hedges, and lined with faded green and cream tiles, edged in green. The light that streams in over the walls creates brilliance, contrasted with the accompanying shade thrown by the high walls and the buildings. Tucked away is a charming pavilion or manzah, which I think must be original to the creation of the palace.
The two wooden panels contain scrolled stylised plant and flower shapes in a soft blue shade, tying the interior of the manzah to the painted exterior. Luckily, at the beginning of our visit, access was allowed to the interior of the manzah, but at the end of our visit, it had been closed off. A real pity.
The gardens themselves evoke the Andalucian style, but could do with some more amplified planting, and sadly, the beautiful bowl-shaped fountains and basins contain no water anymore.
But the palace architecture pulls the garden in wherever it can, by placing doorways and viewpoints to frame the garden. The symmetry is captivating.
And, upstairs in the museum, is the recreation of the Vizier’s salon area, an evocation of the splendid past of the rich and influential Jamai family. Breathtaking. I came across a blog by Jeffrey Bale, a garden designer, in which he talks of the emotional impact of colours in Morocco- he describes almost crying at seeing some of the glorious colours of handicrafts, buildings and gardens. I understand that completely.
In the 14th century madrasa, Bou Inania, which you can visit, and unusually, go upstairs to see the scholar’s cell-like accommodation, where they lived and worked, the cedarwood carving is spectacular, the darkness of the wood contrasting with the brilliance of the sunshine in the central courtyard.
Up on the roof of the Madrasa, the classic and distinctive green tiles of a holy place are shaped almost like flowerpots. They have a lustre and sheen to them which catches the light.
Looking the other way from the roof of the Madrasa, a scene of more ordinary life can be seen across the rooftops of Meknes.