“Green is the sweetest colour; white is a good sign for those appealing to him; but when he is dressed in yellow, all the world trembles and flees his presence, because it is the colour that he chooses on the days of his bloodiest executions.”
~ Dominique Busnot, Histoire Du Regne de Moulay Ismail, Roi de Maroc (1704)
Once upon a time lived a Sultan in Morocco who loved his imperial city called Meknes with every fibre of his being. The 55 years he reigned, the longest by any Moroccan Sultan, were spent building gates, mosques, madrassas, palaces and gardens in it, each more magnificent than the other. When he died, aged 82 in 1727 AD, he had one of the most beautiful mausoleums ever built in the Kingdom made to house his corpse.
A slender man of medium height, a long face and dark skin [his mother was an African slave], he was the 2nd ruler of the Alaouite Kingdom. His name was Moulay Ismail ibn Sharif aka the Warrior King of Morocco.
Apart from Meknes, if there was anything else Moulay Ismail ibn Sharif loved—it was women, and sex. A lot more than the ordinary. Better known as the Sultan who had 10 wives, 500 concubines, and 1,171 children, his 700th son was born just after his death. His 10th wife was an Irishwoman by the name of Mrs. Shaw. He also proposed to his contemporary, Louis XIV’s, daughter. He was quite smitten by her charm and beauty. However, she declined.
The other two things he is still remembered for, nearly three hundred years after his death, are his cruelty and his army of Black Guards.
A staunch Muslim and cat-lover, he had over 36,000 people executed over 26 years and even beheaded his cats in public if they were to displease him. Through his fleet of pirate ships plying the Mediterranean he had a constant supply of White Christian slaves. Should he find out any woman in his harem had been unfaithful, he strangled her, chopped off her breasts or pulled out her teeth. Should any man look at one of his women, he would have him killed.
He would cut off the heads of the slaves who would help him straddle a horse for no rhyme or reason. He even cut off his son’s right leg and left arm because he believed he was going to rebel against him. Brutality came easily to Moulay Ismail ibn Sharif.
Bab al-Mansour, Mekne’s iconic gate does not lead anywhere. It is only for show. An Arabic inscription on it reads: “I am the most beautiful gate in Morocco. I’m like the moon in the sky. Property and wealth are written on my front.”
A key reason why the Sultan was able to take up complex construction projects in Meknes was because of the peace and security the city, and the Kingdom at large, enjoyed during his reign. Diplomatic relations with France, Britain, and Spain strengthened under his rule. The economy and arts flourished. There was one reason for all of this—the Black Guards, his Islamic slave army.
Incredibly loyal and disciplined, they numbered 150,000 at its peak and comprised of Africans from West Africa and Southern Africa brought into Morocco, and their descendants. The Guards’ job was to collect taxes, patrol the borders, crush dissidents, including the Sultan’s sons. Eighty of these soldiers escorted the Sultan as his personal bodyguards at all times.
Moulay Ismail Ibn Sharif built many edifices to adorn his beloved Meknes—the city he declared his capital when he ascended the throne at age 27. Some of his palaces no longer exist but historical records describe them as places of sheer beauty. What remain, are testimony to this statement.
He laid the foundations of the current Dar-al-Makhzen, Royal Palace of Meknes, a collection of 50 palaces with its own hammams and mosque. Heri es-Souani is an immense granary kept cool with underfloor water channels from the Agdal Reservoir. Inside the granary are stables for 12,000 horses arranged such, the stable masters could see them all at one go. Below the city is the vast subterranean Kara Prison which used to house tens of thousands of Christian slaves along with criminals. Bab al-Mansour Gate and Bab el-Khemis Gate, two of Meknes’ most iconic gates still stand, the former adorned with Corinthian pillars the Sultan ripped Volubilis, the ancient Roman site of.
After his death, the Alaouite imperial capital was shifted to Marrakesh. But each block of stone in the historic city of Meknes, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, still recounts tales of Moulay Ismail ibn Sharif, the flawed Sultan who loved his city dearly.
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[Note: This blog post is part of a series from my travels to Morocco for 3 weeks in November-December 2018. To read more posts in my Morocco series, click here.]