Imperial Cities of Morocco

The Imperial Cities of Morocco are the four historical capital cities of Morocco:

Casablanca, although not one of the Imperial Cities, is the largest city in Morocco and the country’s international airport hub.  Other Major towns and cities include Tangier and Agadir.

The Imperial City of Fes

Fes, the second largest city of Morocco with an estimated population of 1.1 million, was the capital of Modern Morocco until it passed to Rabat although Fez retained its status as the country’s cultural and spiritual centre.

Fes was originally founded on one side of the Jawhar river between 789 and 808 A.D by Idris I (Idrisid Dynasty) and his son Idris II later built a settlement on the opposite side of the river.  The two sites were heavily populated as a result of Arab emigration to Fes in the 9th Century (thus giving the city its Arabic rather than Berber character) and, over the centuries, the two sites grew into one city separated by only their walls.  The Medina of Fez is considered as one of the most extensive and best conserved historic towns of the Arab-Muslim world.

Fes el Bali, a World Heritage Site, is closed to traffic and said to be one of the world’s largest pedestrian urban zones.  Within the World Heritage Site stands the University of Al Quaraouiyine that was founded in 859 and considered to be the oldest still functioning university in the world.

Like many of Morocco’s cities, there is a Mellah (Jewish Quarter that was established in 1438) that was populated by Jews from Fes in addition to Berber Jews from the Atlas Mountains and Jewish immigrants.

Key Sites of Fes include (most of the medina is closed on Friday as it is Prayer Day):

  • Medressah (Quoranic School) Attarin or Bou-Inania.  A school of Koranic study with carved cedar wood and alabaster, mosaics and marble
  • Quaraouiyine Mosque, founded by Fatima Bint al-Fihria in C9th, whose minaret is one of the oldest in the world.  Non-Muslims are not permitted to enter but you are allowed to look in through the door
  • Nejjarine fountain and museum
  • Bab Boujloud, the blue and green gate
  • Mausoleum of Moulay Idriss II where many Moroccans come on pilgrimage
  • Chouara tanneries where leather is cured through a centuries old process (very smelly) and feel as if you have taken a step back in time
  • The water clock dating from the 14th century
  • Dar Batha museum
  • Ibn Danan synagogue
  • Souks
The Imperial City of Marrakec

Marrakech is the fourth largest city after Casablanca, Fes and Tangiers.  It lies north of the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains and Toubkal National Park. The city was founded in 1062 and the red walls later built around the medina (old walled city) gave the nickname of the ‘Red City’ to Marrakech.  In 12th century the Almoravids built many of the Koranic Schools (madrasas) and Mosques and the city rapidly grew to become a key cultural, religious and trading centre for the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa.  Like most Moroccan cities, Marrakech consists of a medina (old walled city) and modern areas such as Gueliz and Hivenage.

Marrakesh was, for a long time, a major political, economic and cultural centre of the western Muslim world.  Monuments dating back to that time include Koutoubia Mosque, the Kasbah, ramparts, gates and gardens.  Later, the town welcomed other sites such as Badia Palace, Ben Youssef merdersa, Saadian tombs and Bahia Palace.   The central square of Jemaa el Fna Jamaâ El Fna is the most famous square in Africa and continues to attract Moroccans and visitors alike.

Marrakesh has the largest traditional market (souk) in Morocco with separate areas (souks within the souk) selling wares ranging from traditional Berber carpets to (fake) modern designer goods; a high percentage of the goods are sold to tourists.

Key Sites of Marrakech include:

  • Souks.  A vast network of interlinked quarters, each focusing on a separate trade i.e. woodwork, metalwork etc
  • Mellah.  Formerly the Jewish quarter including gold shops and a Jewish cemetery
  • Palace Bahia.  A huge former palace with mosaics, painted doors and fountains
  • Koutoubia Minaret and gardens.  The minaret that dominates the Marrakech skyline
  • Saadian tombs.  Only discovered in 1917 through an aerial photograph and where sultans are buried in splendour
  • Medressah Ben Youssef.  A school of Koranic study with carved cedar wood and alabaster, mosaics and marble and the Marrakech Museum alongside.
  • Berber Pharmacy (apothecary).  Learn about the oils and spices used in Moroccan daily life.
  • Maison de la Photographie.  Exhibition of old black and white images of Morocco
  • Djemaa el Fna.  The old central square that turns into a vast open-air restaurant at sunset
  • Majorelle Gardens where there is a fine museum of Amazigh (Berber) costumes and jewellery.
The Imperial City of Meknes 

Founded in 1061 A.D. by the Almoravids as a military stronghold, its name originates from the great Berber tribe Meknassa who dominated eastern Morocco as far back as the Tafilalet in the 8th century. Geographically, it is located in the Saïss Plain between the Middle Atlas and the pre-rifan massif of Zerhoun. It contains the vestiges of the Medina that bears witness to ancient socio-economic fabric and the imperial city created by the Sultan Moulay Ismail (1672-1727).  Behind the high walls, with nine monumental gates, are key monuments including twenty-five mosques, ten hammams, palaces, vast granaries, vestiges of fondouks (inns for merchants) and private houses, testimonies to the Almoravid, Merinid and Alaouite Periods.

Key Sites of Meknes include (some closed on Fridays as it is Prayer Day):

  • Bab al Mansour Gate
  • Moulay Ismail Mausoleum
  • Heri es-Souani (Moulay Ismail’s igranaries and stables partly renovated/accessible)
  • El Hedim central square
The Imperial City of Rabat

Rabat is the current capital and second largest city in Morocco. It is sited on the Atlantic coast at the mouth of the River Bou Reg and, on the other side, lies Sale.  Rabat was conceived at the time of the French Protectorate at the beginning of the 20th century and  embodies a distinctive architectural and decorative style that is characteristic of contemporary Morocco.  Well planned to preserve its historic monuments and traditional housing, the presence of all foreign embassies adds to its modern day importance.

Key Sites of Rabat include:

  • Chellah Necropolis, a park and archaeological site on the ancient Roman town of Sala
  • Kings Palace constructed on the site of an 18th century palace
  • Kasbah of Oudayas, named after the tribe sent here to defend the city against the Andalusians
  • Tour Hassan, minaret of an incomplete mosque circa 1195-1199.  In place of stairs the tower is ascended by ramps
  • Mausoleum of Mohamed V who saved Moroccan Jews from the occupying Vichy regime during World War II
Casablanca (not one of Morocco’s Imperial Cities)

Casablanca is the largest city in Morocco and, with a population (2014) of over 3.5m, is the main business/industrial area of the kingdom; it is not one of the Imperial Cities. Casablanca is however Morocco’s international airport hub and well placed for Tours of Morocco that include the Imperial Cities, Desert and High Atlas.  The city itself does not have the history and charm of the Imperial Cities.

The key site of Casablanca is Hassan II Mosque, the one mosque in Morocco that non-Muslims are allowed to enter so long as they pay to join an escorted walking tour.

Tangier (not one of Morocco’s Imperial Cities)

Tangier lies in the north of Morocco at the southern entrance to the Straits of Gibraltar where the Mediterranean  meets the Atlantic Ocean off Cape Spartel.

The rich cultural history of Tangier is due to many internal and external influences across the centuries.  At times is has been a strategic Berber town and at others a Phoenician trading center.  In the 1920s  it was a popular destination for, it is said, many European and American diplomats, spies, writers and businessmen.

Like the rest of Morocco, the city is undergoing rapid development and modernization. Projects include new tourism projects along the bay, a modern business district called Tangier City Centre, a new airport terminal and a new football stadium. Tangier’s economy is also set to benefit greatly from the new Tanger-Med port.

Key Sites of Tangier include:

  • The areas of Grand Socco and Petit Socco
  • Kasbah Museum
  • American Legation Museum
  • Medina and souks
  • St Andrews Church
  • Cap Spartel and Caves of Hercules
  • Old medina and souks