Morocco is the home of colorful culture and diverse heritage, perfectly displayed in its four imperial cities: Fez, Marrakech, Meknes, and Rabat.
These cities were each the country’s capital at one point in history, during the different Moroccan dynasties.
The magnificent cities are decorated with historical architecture that reflects Morocco’s fascinating and diverse history. They each have their own unique charm and are home to ancient cities, called medinas, divided by market areas called souks.
The souks host a variety of shops as artisans possess diverse specialties, such as leather, pottery, and textiles. The medinas also feature other types of markets, which are still growing today.
Fez is the oldest of Morocco’s imperial cities and was the capital in the ninth century, under Sultan Idriss II. After the fall of his dynasty, the Almoravids took over to make Marrakech their capital. The Almohads took over in the 12th century, built Rabat, and made it their new capital.
Meknes became the capital during the rule of Sultan Moulay Ismail in the 16th century. Rabat became the official capital of the country under the French protectorate, which began in 1912.
Fez, oldest Among Moroccan Imperial Cities
Fez is the second-largest city in Morocco with surrounding walls that extend for nearly 10 miles and an estimated population of 1.1 million. It is the largest of Morocco’s imperial cities. Fez was built by Idriss I and has been Morocco’s capital for four different dynasties: Idrisid (789), Marinid (1248), Wattasid (1465), and Alaouite (1666).
Fez is considered as one of the great preserved historic towns of Arab-Muslim World. It hosts UNESCO World Heritage sites, such as the University of Al Qarawiyyin. The institution, founded in 859, is the oldest still functioning university in the world.
At the heart of the city, there is the colorful maze-like medina, which is a car-free zone. Only horses and donkeys walk in the 9,000 different alleys to deliver supplies to shops in the souk. Many shops also close on Fridays, Islam’s holy day.
Besides the medina, some other worthwhile attractions in Fez are the Zaouia of Moulay Idriss II and Al Attarine or Bou-Inania madrassas, schools of quranic study.
The Al Qarawiyyin Mosque, founded by Fatima Al-Fihria and the Al-Andalus Mosque, founded by her sister, Maryam, are definitely worth a visit. Non-Muslims are not permitted to enter but it is worth looking through the entrances and admiring the architecture.
Other sites are the Nejjarine museum and fountain; Bab Boujloud, or the blue gate; Chouara tanneries, where leather is cured through a centuries-old process; Dar al-Magana, home to the city’s famous water clock; and the Dar Batha museum.
Marrakech is the fourth largest city in Morocco and the most famous among tourists. Almoravid King Yusuf Ibn Tashfin founded the city in 1062.
The red walls later were built around the medina with many of the Quranic schools and mosques. The city became a major cultural, political, religious, and trading center between the western Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa.
The Almohads took over the city in 1147 and destroyed almost all the monuments and palaces. They later built the Koutoubia Mosque. In the 16th century, Marrakech became the capital of the Saadian empire under Sultan Ahmed Al-Mansour Ad Dhahbi.
Like the other imperial cities in Morocco, Marrakech consists of the ancient medina and modern areas alike. The colorful medina has a large traditional market with shops selling wares from traditional Amazigh (Berber) carpets to intricately-crafted lanterns.
In the red-walled medina, you will get to visit Jemaa El Fna Square and witness performances by musicians, dancers, storytellers, snake charmers, and more.
Outside of the medina, in the newer part of the city, you will find the famous Majorelle Garden. The garden is a beautiful escape, full of plants, cacti, an art gallery, and a fascinating Amazigh history museum.
Try to make time to see the beautiful High Atlas mountains. Also try to visit Amazigh villages and enjoy the cool air of a mountain lodge.
Other popular sites you can visit in Marrakech are Maison de la Photographie, which contains hundreds of old photographs and films showcasing the High Atlas and the Amazigh and Arabic culture in the country; Palace Bahia, a huge former palace; Madrasa Ben Youssef; and the traditional Amazigh pharmacy to learn about the oils and spices used in Morocco’s traditional treatments.
Meknes, Quietest Moroccan Imperial City
Meknes is less than an hour’s drive from its neighboring imperial city of Fez. It was founded by the Almoravids from the great Amazigh tribe, the Meknassa, that fled Tunisia. Between 1199 and 1213, the Almohads destroyed the city and rebuilt it.
The Almohads and the Marinids built madrassas such as Bou Anania, some mosques, and walled fortresses called kasbah.
Later, the Alaouite Sultan Moulay Ismail began the construction of great palaces, gardens, monuments, and over 40 kilometers of walls 15 meters high. In 1672, the sultan chose Meknes as the capital of his empire.
Perhaps the quietest of Morocco’s imperial cities, Meknes is smaller than Fez and less crowded than Marrakech.
Its medina showcases the traces of an ancient socio-economic imperial city with its high walls and nine monumental gates. Meknes also hosts many other historical landmarks such as mosques, hammams, palaces, vast granaries, and private houses.
The El Hedim central square is the place to be in the evening, as the medina lights up with its bustling souk surrounded by monumental buildings, cafes, restaurants, and alleys.
Some other attractions to visit in the imperial city of Meknes are Bab al Mansour, which is one of the most beautiful gates in Morocco; Moulay Ismail Mausoleum; a mosque that was built in 1703 by the Sultan Ahmed Eddahbi; and Heri es-Souani, one of the most prestigious historic sites in Meknes.
The current capital experienced many important events throughout its history, from Yaqub al-Mansur, who started the construction of Hassan Tower and transformed the Phoenician site of Chellah into a necropolis, to the Andalusians that settled in the Kasbah and built the Andalusian Wall.
Rabat joined the list of Morocco’s imperial cities under Alaouite Sultan Mohammed III in the 18th century, and is also the second-largest city in Morocco.
The imperial city’s different monuments embody Rabat’s historical heritage. Rabat showcases its modernity with its European architecture and decorative style. It is also the home of King Mohammed VI’s palace and all foreign embassies.
The Kasbah of the Oudaya, which overlooks the Atlantic Ocean, is lined with blue-walled alleys and features beautiful Andalusian gardens.
In the Kasbah, there is also a museum that contains Moroccan handicrafts, traditional jewelry, ornaments, traditional clothing, weapons, and astrolabes (an Arab astronomy instrument).
Another must-see place in Rabat is Chellah Necropolis, an archaeological site of an ancient Roman town. The Hassan Tower, Rabat Medina, and Rabat Zoo are also worthwhile stops.
Make sure to also stop by the Mausoleum of Mohammed V where King Mohammed V and his two sons, King Hassan II and Prince Abdallah, are buried.
Visiting Morocco without some previous knowledge about its history and culture might lead you to miss out on some of the amazing ancient sites to which Morocco is home.
Following this guide will help you understand some of the most significant events that happened in the imperial cities of Morocco and help you come closer to Morocco’s culture and heritage, which will lead you to have a more enriching and unforgettable adventure.