meknès

8 Frightening Facts About Sultan Moulay Ismail Ibn Sharif

He’s The most gruesome character in the history of Morocco. the country’s own Vlad the Impaler has some dubious claims to fame — including fathering more kids than anyone else in history.

Sultan Moulay Ismail Ibn Sharif believed he was a descendent of the Prophet Mohammed — and used that as an excuse for some very bad behavior

Sultan Moulay Ismail Ibn Sharif believed he was a descendent of the Prophet Mohammed — and used that as an excuse for some very bad behavior

Sultan Moulay Ismail Ibn Sharif was propelled to the throne of Morocco in 1672. His brother had been riding horseback after a victory banquet and was killed when his horse galloped beneath the low-hanging branches of the palace orchard.

Ismail’s reign as sultan, from 1672-1727, was longer than any other ruler in Moroccan history. Whether he should be remembered more for his beautiful creations or his cruel tyranny is a matter of dispute — but everyone agrees that Ismail was one of the most important rulers in Moroccan history.

Men who merely glanced at one of his wives or concubines were punished by death.

Here are some of the things that made the sultan so infamous.

 

1. He killed his servants at whim.

Ismail was not, by any accounts, a very nice man. In fact, he’s been quoted as having said, “My subjects are like rats in a basket, and if I do not keep shaking the basket, they will gnaw their way through.”

It’s estimated that 30,000 poor souls met their deaths at the hands of the sultan — often for no reason. He was well known to kill people during fits of rage. According to one story, the sultan lopped off the head of a slave who had been adjusting his stirrup as he was mounting his horse. They didn’t call him “the Bloodthirsty” for nothing.

Legend has it that Ismail had sex every single day — which wouldn’t be too tough to do if you had over 500 women to choose from

Legend has it that Ismail had sex every single day — which wouldn’t be too tough to do if you had over 500 women to choose from

2. Ismail was a sex addict — and fathered more children than anyone else in history.

Ismail was well-known for siring hundreds of children. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, he fathered 888 children — the highest number of offspring for anyone throughout history that can be verified.

Each of the 500 concubines in Ismail’s harem had their own eunuch and handmaiden

Each of the 500 concubines in Ismail’s harem had their own eunuch and handmaiden

3. He had 500 concubines, which no one else could even look at.

He was fiercely protective of his four wives and 500 concubines. Whenever a tribe surrendered to Moulay Ismail, the leader was forced to offer his most beautiful daughter to the sultan as a gift.

The women were treated like Ismail’s favorite toys. Each concubine was granted a personal eunuch, a castrated male slave, and an odalisque, or female attendant.

The lake-like Bassin de l’Agdal in Meknès served as an emergency source of water in times of war and a pool for his concubines in times of peace.

Men who merely glanced at one of his wives or concubines were punished by death. It’s said that men who encountered the sultan’s women laid facing the ground, so as to avoid any accusation of having looked upon them.

If any of Ismail’s harem were suspected of adultery, they were severely punished or put to death. The women were either strangled by the sultan himself or had their breasts cut off or teeth extracted.

Ismail fathered at least 888 kids — more than anyone else in recorded history!

Ismail fathered at least 888 kids — more than anyone else in recorded history!

4. The Sharif family claims to be descendants of the Prophet Mohammed.

Ismail succeeded the throne at the age of 26 and established Meknès as the capital of the kingdom. He was a member of the Sharif dynasty, which claimed to be descendants of the Prophet Mohammed, the founder of Islam.

Ismail used this pretense to justify his actions, both cruel and kind. His subjects bowed in his presence, and were not allowed to look him in the eye.

During his 55-year reign, he managed to create magnificent and enormous construction projects. His palace was built exclusively by European slaves, aided by bands of local criminals. The palace was four miles in circumference, and its walls were 25 feet thick.

As soon as he finished one project, he’d start on another. If he didn’t like something, he would order it demolished and a new one rebuilt.

Ismail killed people for the slightest offense, including even just looking at one of his concubines

Ismail killed people for the slightest offense, including even just looking at one of his concubines



5. The sultan’s favorite wife was once a concubine who convinced him to punish his son in a horrific manner.

Ismail’s favorite wife and queen of the palace was a black woman who started out as a concubine. Her name was Lalla Aisha Mubarka, or Zaydana, the name she acquired after giving birth to the sultan’s first son, Zaydan.

She held sway over Ismail and hatched a scheme to depose his favorite son, Mohammed al-Alim, suggesting that he intended to proclaim himself the sultan of Morocco. For his punishment, Ismail had his son’s left arm and right leg amputated for supposedly having rebelled against him. This was intended to send a message that any disobedience would mean severe punishment or death. Not surprisingly, Al-Alim died from blood loss.

Ismail’s Black Guard, made up of captured sub-Saharan slaves, acted as the sultan’s personal bodyguards

Ismail’s Black Guard, made up of captured sub-Saharan slaves, acted as the sultan’s personal bodyguards

6. Ismail created a massive self-generating army.

The formidable Black Guard was comprised of slave warriors acquired from sub-Saharan Africa. Considered loyal, as they no longer had any tribal affiliation, the Black Guard were Ismail’s personal guards and servants.

By the end of his reign, he had raised a powerful army of more than 150,000 men. These men had families and lived in communities of their own, but essentially belonged to Ismail. The boys were raised to serve in his army, which helped Ismail maintain his position and conquer the whole of Morocco from European kingdoms. The girls would marry, have children and continue the cycle.

The Black Guard exists to this day, though its name was changed to the Moroccan Royal Guard after the country gained its independence in 1956.

 

7. He also had an astoundingly large prison that mostly held Christians.

The Habs Qara (Prison of Christian Slaves) was a large subterranean prison beneath the city of Meknès. At its height, it held an estimated 60,000 prisoners, 40,000 of them believed to have been Christian sailors captured at sea by Barbary pirates. The Christians were used as slave labor to build the city during the day and were shackled to the prison walls in the evening and forced to sleep standing up.

Rumors of the existence of secret tunnels leading from the royal palace to the prison persist, despite lack of evidence.

Louis XIV, the Sun King of Versailles

Louis XIV, the Sun King of Versailles

8. The sultan and the Sun King were allies.

Ismail, the second ruler of the Alaouite dynasty, presided over Morocco at the same time that Louis XIV, the Sun King, ruled France. He and Louis XIV were close allies, and in 1682, Ismail sent Mohammed Tenim, the governor of Tétouan, to be his ambassador in France to sign a treaty of friendship and negotiate the release of Moroccan captives. French Baroque painter Charles Antoine Coypel depicted the Moroccan ambassador’s visit in his painting titled Mohammed Tenim, Ambassadeur du Maroc à la Comédie Italienne.

Mohammed Tenim, Ambassadeur du Maroc à la Comédie Italienne  by Charles Antoine Coypel, 1682

Mohammed Tenim, Ambassadeur du Maroc à la Comédie Italienne by Charles Antoine Coypel, 1682

Ismail proposed to Princess Marie Anne de Bourbon but was rejected

Ismail proposed to Princess Marie Anne de Bourbon but was rejected

Ismail sent his ambassador with a marriage proposal to Marie Anne de Bourbon, the eldest legitimized daughter of the king and his mistress Louise de La Vallière, but she declined. Thankfully, it didn’t lead to an international incident. –Duke

A History of Meknes, Morocco, the Bab Mansour and Heri es Souanifoot

Explore the historic gate, stables and medina on this day trip from Fès that can be paired with Volubilis.

Meknès, with its ruined stables, granary, gate and markets, makes for a fun afternoon after touring the ancient Roman mosaics of Volubilis

Meknès, with its ruined stables, granary, gate and markets, makes for a fun afternoon after touring the ancient Roman mosaics of Volubilis

One of Morocco’s four old imperial cities, Meknès lies west of Fès, in the foothills of the Middle Atlas Mountains. Our driver, Hafid, suggested we make a stop after our amusing guided tour of Volubilis.

Isamil was given the epithet “the Bloodthirsty” for his legendary cruelty. To intimidate rivals, he once ordered that the walls of Meknès be adorned with 10,000 heads of slain enemies.
A woman sells dates off of the main square

A woman sells dates off of the main square

There weren’t as many cats in Meknès as there are in Fès and Marrakech, much to Duke and Wally’s dismay

There weren’t as many cats in Meknès as there are in Fès and Marrakech, much to Duke and Wally’s dismay



A vendor sells greens near one of the arches of the old city

A vendor sells greens near one of the arches of the old city

Meknès was founded and settled in the 11th century by the Almoravids, a Muslim Berber dynasty, as a military settlement and received UNESCO World Heritage Site designation in 1996. The city has retained many of its historic elements, which can be attributed to the ambitious 17th century transformation and monuments constructed under the rule of Sultan Moulay Ismail Ibn Sharif.

A stamp depicting Moulay “the Bloodthirsty” Ismail Ibn Sharif

A stamp depicting Moulay “the Bloodthirsty” Ismail Ibn Sharif

The second sultan of the Alaouite dynasty (the current Moroccan royal family), Ismail ascended the throne at the age of 26, after the death of his half-brother Moulay al-Rashid, who died after a fall from his horse. A descendent of the Prophet Mohammed, Ismail moved from Tafilalt and made Meknès the capital, intent on a creating a grand city on a scale rivalling Versailles in France. It’s believed that Ismail enlisted over 25,000 Christian prisoners and over 30,000 criminals as laborers in the construction of Meknès. Some of the stones were taken from the ancient Roman ruins of Volubilis, a highlight of this area.

Meknès is much less touristy — and much easier to navigate — than Fès

Meknès is much less touristy — and much easier to navigate — than Fès



The market displays, like those of this fruit and veggie vendor, are works of art and riots of color

The market displays, like those of this fruit and veggie vendor, are works of art and riots of color

Off to one side of the main square, a doorway leads into a teeming local market

Off to one side of the main square, a doorway leads into a teeming local market

Ismail is remembered as one of the greatest and most notorious monarchs of Morocco. His reign lasted 55 years, from 1672 to 1727 — longer than any other ruler in Moroccan history — and left an indelible mark on Meknès. He was given the epithet “the Bloodthirsty” for his legendary cruelty. To intimidate rivals, Ismail once ordered that his city walls be adorned with 10,000 heads of slain enemies. Legends of the ease in which Ismail could behead or torture laborers or servants he thought to be lazy are numerous. During the half century of Ismail's rule, it’s estimated he killed 30,000 people.

The Bab el-Mansour gate was constructed to impress visitors — and doesn’t really lead anywhere

The Bab el-Mansour gate was constructed to impress visitors — and doesn’t really lead anywhere

Bab el-Mansour, the Gate to Nowhere

As a tourist in Meknès, you’ll feel like you’re stepping back in time. One of the most well-preserved and beautiful historic landmarks of the city is the Bab el-Mansour. The elaborate horseshoe-arched gate and its 52-foot-high wooden doors is located off the sprawling el-Hedim square and provides a glimpse of Ismail’s grand vision. The monumental gate bears an Arabic inscription that translates as “I am the most beautiful gate in Morocco. I’m like the moon in the sky. Property and wealth are written on my front.” What’s truly interesting though, is that unlike other gates we’ve encountered in Morocco, this one is a folly that leads nowhere and was commissioned by Ismail simply to impress visitors. It’s now the entrance to a building that features art exhibits.

Could the gate be more beautiful? Probably

Could the gate be more beautiful? Probably

To further illustrate his cruelty, one popular legend tells the tale of Ismail asking Mansour Laleuj, the architect responsible for the impressive city gate if he could have made the gate more beautiful. When Laleuj responded yes, the sultan immediately had him beheaded. This is unlikely, though, as the gate was completed by Ismail’s son, Moulay Abdallah, in 1732 — five years after his father’s death. However, the notion that the sultan would act so impetuously at the slightest offense makes for a great story.

Nature has taken over the massive stable complex

Nature has taken over the massive stable complex

Stable Conditions

Equally impressive is the Heri es-Souani, the former imperial granary and royal stables. A remarkable engineering feat, the massive stable yard was constructed to comfortably house no less than 12,000 royal horses. I can only imagine the amount of shit there was to shovel! It has been said that Ismail was a fanatic about his horses, and two slaves were employed to look after each horse to ensure that all their needs were met.

The granary complex was an architectural marvel of its day

The granary complex was an architectural marvel of its day

The granary was empty when we visited, lending it a creepy vibe

The granary was empty when we visited, lending it a creepy vibe

Underground cisterns kept the granary nice and cool

Underground cisterns kept the granary nice and cool

One Great Granary

We entered the complex and found ourselves in a cool, barrel-vaulted structure. The chambers are constructed of 13-foot-thick adobe walls with small rectangular windows overhead for circulation. Many chambers have their original cedar doors.

Be sure to look for the noria, a water wheel half submerged in the sandy floor, where horses were once used to raise buckets of water from an underground reservoir connected to the nearby Bassin de l’Agdal.

A series of cisterns beneath the granary kept the floors cool, perfect conditions for storing provisions to feed the city and the sultan’s precious horses.

The stables are impressive — because the sultan who built them pampered his horses

The stables are impressive — because the sultan who built them pampered his horses

Sturdy stone arches once supported the roof of the stables

Sturdy stone arches once supported the roof of the stables

Duke ponders the M.C. Escher-esque labyrinth

Duke ponders the M.C. Escher-esque labyrinth

Golden Arches

Stretching beyond the granary are the ruins of the royal stables. The wooden beams are long gone due to the seismic waves that radiated from the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. Nary a horse in sight, its walls remain intact with a great forest of columns and open-air arches forming the arcades of the massive stable. Nature, as well as a few cats, have taken over, lending an otherworldly quality to the ruins.

Wally likes to pretend that he’s playing real-life Dungeons & Dragons in settings like this

Wally likes to pretend that he’s playing real-life Dungeons & Dragons in settings like this

Duke thinks the seemingly neverending archways are a photographer’s delight

Duke thinks the seemingly neverending archways are a photographer’s delight

Regarded as one of Ismail’s finest architectural achievements, the stables are a testament to his immense wealth and the great lengths he went to ensure that his horses lived comfortably.

The ruins of the stables are a favorite with film scouts

The ruins of the stables are a favorite with film scouts

Additionally, filmmakers are drawn to this amazing structure. The site has been featured in Ishtar, The Jewel of the Nile and The Last Temptation of Christ.

The medina in Meknès pales in comparison to Fès’

The medina in Meknès pales in comparison to Fès’

If you’re looking for a day trip from Fès, Meknès makes for an interesting place to spend an afternoon exploring. –Duke

These Gruesome Photos of the Meknès Market Are Enough to Turn You Vegetarian

This is about as tame as the Meknès meat market got. More graphic shots to follow

Local markets provide a glimpse into the daily life of a culture. Just watch out for the decapitated cow heads.

 

One of the best ways to see a local culture in action is to visit a food market. You’ll also get plenty of awesome photo opps.

I first discovered this pleasure one day when I wandered off on my own in Cusco, Peru and stumbled upon a local food market. Since then, markets — whether they’re in Spain, Vietnam or Morocco — are must-stops for Duke and me.

It was as if we had found ourselves suddenly the unwitting victims of a horror movie.

So, when we noticed an interior market connected to the stalls of the main plaza in Meknès (on a day trip that included the Roman ruins of Volubilis), we were excited to wander through it. At first, we passed stalls of brightly colored fruits and vegetables. But at the back, it was as if we had found ourselves suddenly the unwitting victims of a horror movie. We had entered the horrific domain of the meat market.

It was unlike anything we had ever seen. In the United States, we’re so used to brightly lit, sterile supermarket aisles, where our meat is often deboned, trimmed of fat, individually wrapped in plastic. There’s no real hint that the pinkish cut of meat was once a chicken or that the hunk of red beef actually came from a cow.

That connection to the meat’s origin was like a slap in the face in the Meknès market. It’s inescapable.

Click on the photos below to enlarge. You know you want to see them in all their gory glory.

We wandered through the butchers’ stalls, dazed and amazed. Many chuckled at our reaction, while some of the men scowled as I snapped away quickly on my camera.

The images came quick and violent. Decapitated cow heads, their tongues lolling out. A boy digging his hands into a bowl of brains. Goat heads amidst a splattering of blood. Razor in hand, a young man intently shaving the side of an animal’s face. Haphazard piles of bloated legs, a nauseating yellow, ending in cloven hooves. Macabre dissections revealing raw, red tissue in stark contrast to the white of sawed-through bones.

Duke and I couldn’t stop smiling. –Wally

Decapitated cow heads, their tongues lolling out. A boy digging his hands into a bowl of brains. Goat heads amidst a splattering of blood.