Gillian Birkby writes in response to Building’s challenge to name the most disastrous project of all time. This Moroccan palace had problems with delays, disputes, deaths and torture

The project in question was a series of interlocking palaces centred on Meknes in northern Morocco, surrounded by three sets of walls. Within the walls there were to be 50 adjoining palaces, each with its own mosque and bath house. There was a storehouse large enough to contain a year’s harvest from the whole of Morocco. There was also a reservoir and boating lake and stables to house up to 12,000 horses. In addition, there was a diplomatic quarter and a military barracks housing 130,000 troops.


Understandably, this building project lasted for more than 40 years. It was the brainchild of the Sultan of Morocco, Moulay Ismail, who ruled at the end of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th. He was a contemporary of Louis XIV of France, and was determined to build something more magnificent than Versailles.

The employer and professional team

Moulay was all of these. He also acted as hands-on supervisor of the works. He would visit them every day and was extremely thorough in his inspections.

Standard of workmanship

This was very high because Moulay insisted on it. If he found that there was poor workmanship, he would be quite unforgiving. It is reported that on one occasion he was inspecting bricks when he discovered that some were very thin. He called for the master mason and after criticising his work, ordered his black guard (rather like a cross between a clerk of works, a tough foreman and a prison warder) to break 50 bricks over the mason’s head. He was then thrown into prison.

The workforce

These were all Christian slaves from countries around the Mediterranean, England and as far afield as Iceland. Many were sailors who had been captured by pirates and brought to Morocco. Moroccan criminals were also required to labour on the construction.


Working conditions were not good. Workers were required to work at all times of year up to 15 hours a day. If they were too sick to stand they were excused duties, but since the method of treating illness was rather rough and ready, it was better not to be sick. The favoured method of curing sick people was to take a metal rod

which had a metal piece on the end about the size of a walnut. This was heated red hot and then applied to various parts of the sick person’s anatomy. If workers were sick, but could still stand, they were beaten if they did not work as hard as their healthy workmates. Large numbers of slaves died from sickness, plague or exhaustion.


The slave labour was all male, since the female slaves were taken off into the harem. The guards were also slaves, taken from countries further south in Africa. They had higher status than the workforce, and were fed better, but they were still slaves.

After criticising the mason’s work, the Sultan ordered his black guard to break 50 bricks over his head

Construction techniques

A large part of the palaces and walls seem to have been constructed of blockwork made from powdered earth, lime and gravel, to which water was added. It was then allowed to harden. The block work was often constructed in situ, 30 or 40 ft up the walls. Scaffolding and ladders were not used, only pulleys. The walls were then faced in marble.


Unknown, but much increased by the Sultan’s habit of extending the works or ordering parts to be pulled down and then re-erected in exactly the same style.


Even Moulay Ismail was concerned about the number of his slaves who died – it affected progress on the works. He was advised that Christians “were much strengthened by the drinking of wine and brandy” and that if they were given alcohol rations this would slow the death rate and encourage them to work harder.

The Sultan experimented with this, distributing wine to the workforce. He then returned some hours later to find that the Christians had done more work in two hours than they had achieved in 10 or 11 hours the day before. After that, they were given a supply of raisins and figs in order to make brandy. Since the slaves were working on starvation rations (12 oz of mouldy bread and 1 oz oil a day), the wine must have had a dramatic effect on them.


Not advisable, especially if Moulay was wearing yellow, which meant he was in a killing mood. He was prone to kill anyone who annoyed him, so asking for better working conditions was not really a life-prolonging option.

Wow factor

Full marks for this. Although Moulay’s grand scheme to connect Meknes with Marrakesh, hundreds of miles further south, was never realised, the palaces were extraordinarily beautiful structures faced in marble with much intricate plasterwork. Ah, so it was worth it after all …

  • Source: White Gold by Giles Milton, published by Hodder and Stoughton 2004

Gillian Birkby is a partner in solicitor Fladgate Fielder