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Moulay Idriss, Morocco

Set in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, Moulay Idriss is one of Morocco’s most important pilgrimage sites.

The sacred Muslim town is named after the great-grandson of the Prophet Mohammed. Facing persecution, Moulay Idriss fled Mecca in the late 8th century and resettled in the picturesque hilltop town. In the years that followed, he converted the locals to Islam, became the area’s leader, and established the Idrisid dynasty.

Today, Moulay Idriss remains a popular place to visit for Moroccans and tourists alike. While staying in Meknes, we made the short day trip to Moulay Idriss, located near the well-preserved Roman ruins of Volubilis. The journey involved taking a “petit taxi” from Place el-Hedim to the “grand taxi” stand. From there, we shared a car with five strangers for the hour-long ride.

The taxicab culture of Morocco is as fascinating as the country itself.

A petit taxi, used for short distance, is a smaller, more inexpensive car (like a Peugeot or Fiat) that carries up to three people. Its designated color differs from city to city. In Marrakesh, the petit taxis are brown; in Ouarzazate (near the Sahara Desert), they are white; and in Meknes (as well as Chefchaouen and Tangier), they are blue. 

A grand taxi, used for longer distances or a fixed route to a set destination, is a bigger car (often an old Mercedes) that carries up to six passengers. Acting as a shared van, it allows people to save money by dividing up the cost of the trip. It’s also more efficient than traveling by public bus.

There are also illegal taxis, unmarked cars. We mistakenly took one of these on our arrival to Fes. Thankfully, nothing bad happened except being overcharged.

Upon arrival, we immediately headed to the main plaza to grab some lunch.

A mustached-street vendor in a red cap with a big smile caught our eye. After we caught a whiff of his grilled kefta kebabs, he gave us a knowing nod. Moroccan kebabs, seasoned ground meat (typically beef or lamb) served hot on skewers, are a popular street food.

We immediately ordered a couple and took a seat at a small table in his open-air stall. Taking in the scene, we watched as a man passed by riding side saddle on his mule. We often witnessed moments like this which conveyed how in many ways, Moroccan life has gone unchanged for centuries. 

After lunch, we began the ascent to the terraces, the vantage point overlooking Moulay Idriss.

Along the way, we passed the entrance to the Zawiya of Moulay Idris I. A zawiya is a religious complex that typically includes a mausoleum and mosque. The site is closed to non-Muslims so we could only observe people coming and going on the long, tiled entryway.

As is typical in Morocco, a local man approached us offering to be our guide. We politely refused and kept walking, continuing to feel his presence. 

Next, we spotted the iconic Sentissi Mosque, built by a local man upon his return from Mecca in the 1930s. It’s covered in bright green tiles and white Arabic letters. Consulting our guide book, we learned that it now serves as a Qur’anic school (madrasa), known as the Medersa Idriss. Additionally, it’s the country’s only cylindrical minaret.

Suddenly, our would be guide appeared, recapping everything we had already read in our book. We nodded, not wanting to be rude, and continued on.

Finally, we reached the summit with a stunning view of Moulay Idriss before us.

From this vantage point, it’s easy to understand why the UNESCO World Heritage Site wants to include teh whole town on its list. Pastel buildings cling closely together on top of the enormous mound as the Moulay Idris’ mausoleum dominates the landscape. 

“A beautiful sight,” said our unasked for guide. “And I have brought you to it. You are most welcome.”

We stood taking in the sight for as long as we felt comfortable given the man hovering beside us. Then, while ignoring his continued requests and comments, we turned to make the descent down.

“Volubilis next? I can be your guide!” we heard him say. Halfway down the hill, he shouted,“Comme vous voulez” meaning “as you wish.” This statement is usually a sign of acceptance or resignation when an offer has been declined. Thankfully, he left us as we wished – in peace.

Indeed, Volubilis was next – considered the best-preserved archaeological site in Morocco.

We passed through the main square and found the trail to take us through a beautiful field of wild flowers. In less than an hour, we arrived at what was once the capital of the ancient Berber kingdom of Mauritania.

Volubilis was first constructed in 146 BC and later came under Roman rule. As the royal capital of the state, it grew to one of the region’s wealthiest cities. Eventually, it fell out of power with the decline of the Roman Empire, as well as multiple earthquakes that reduced it to rubble. 

The first excavations at Volubilis began by French archaeologist Henri de la Martinière in the late 1800s. Since then, excavations have continued to take place. In the 1950s and 1960s, a few buildings were reconstructed to better demonstrate what the grand city once looked like. Those specific buildings include the basilica, the capitoline temple, and the triumphal arch.

The basilica, characterized by its row of tall arches, is the former center center for government and the justice system. The capitoline temple, with its distinct Corinthian columns (a few topped with stork nests), was once dedicated to the gods Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. And the hulking triumph arch was built to honor the emperor Caracalla in its strategic location at the intersection of the main roads leading to the Forum. 

In addition to ruins, Volubilis features exquisite mosaics that are remarkably well preserved.

Seeing the mosaics in situ is particularly special. Venues like the Labors of Hercules House and the House of Venus offer a rare glimpse into upper class life in Roman times. Strolling the grounds, we marveled at ingenious inventions like the temple baths, olive presses, and even Roman drain covers. 

Like our visits to Pompeii, Italy and Ephesus, Turkey, Volubilis gave us time to reflect on the Roman Empire’s vastness and in turn, its incredible impact.

And no, we didn’t need a local guide to tell us that.

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