Published: July 28th 2010July 28th 2010
We've made it to Meknes now, one of the old Imperial capitals of Morocco. I think we left off in Chefchouen, but we've spent most of the last few days in Fes, which was fantastic.
Fes and its university are older than Oxford university. It seems to have operated a collegiate system that's quite similar to Oxford's, with a central library and medersas where the students lived and studied. We went into two medersas. They are astonishingly ornate, putting our Oxbridge colleges to shame. Nowadays the whole university functions as a mosque and theological college, so as non-muslims we can't enter much of it. However, the craftsmanship on what we did see was so detailed that it must have taken much more work than a mediaeval English cathedral, for instance, although perhaps not quite so precise.
The most unusual sight in Fes was the largest tannery, where they produce coloured leather from animal skins. There are dozens of 'honeycomb' vats, perhaps a metre across and a metre deep, each full of dye and leather. When they set them out to dry, most of them are taken to away from the tannery and guarded, but the yellow, saffron, is too
expensive to risk leaving outside the premises so you can see it drying on site. The place has been going since about 700 AD according to the salesman there - although he also made some unlikely claims when trying to sell us stuff later! He started at about eight times the proper price according to our guesthouse host. We thought we'd haggled well but were still three times the price for a leather bag and some slippers. Never mind, it wasn't bad value by UK standards.
Our guesthouse hosts are probably still laughing about us even now! Firstly we looked absolutely terrified when we arrived at the 'Riad'. We'd got there at half past eleven and expected it to be just next to the cinema where our taxi dropped us. We didn't get a chance to ring for directions before several teenagers came to lead us there. We followed down alleyways that got smaller and smaller, darker and darker and ever more deserted. We had literally just stopped to turn back, rather than carry on and be mugged, when our guide knocked on an unmarked door.
The next problem was whether we were actually in the right Riad.
We thought it might have been a ruse to get us to stay in someone else's Riad. They may have been worrying whether we were actually the guests who'd booked. After much mutual cagey questioning, Heather saw the diary entry with Gavin's name in it and 'three nights' so we relaxed.
Ironically given all our suspicions, the only misinformation was calling the place a Riad, which should have a large courtyard in the middle. It was in fact a large house. In line with the typical design it is open through all floors to the sky in the middle. It's a beautifully done up place, just opened by a French lady and (presumably) her Moroccan husband.
The first night was fine. Air conditioning! We could sleep easily and even have a siesta, for Heather to stay cool and Gavin to sleep. The next night, Heather found a dragon in our room, and couldn't sleep. So Gavin was sent off to wake the hosts (who weren't actually asleep), like a small child asking for the spider to be taken away. It was actually a large flying insect, literally three inches long, looking a bit like a cockroach. Amid some
teasing they got it out with a long pole. Gavin's French not being as good as Heather's, he managed to confuse everyone by asking how many hams, rather than legs, the insect had had. Heather's still laughing at him happily as he types.
No sooner had the door closed than the air conditioning packed up. We thought we couldn't disturb them again, so we tried to sleep with no aircon. Big mistake! Pampered Westerners that we are, we gave up in the small hours, and, when we heard the music still on and decided they were awake, shamefacedly asked them for help. It turned out to have been the whole Riad, hosts included, who then gave us their fan which got us to sleep at least. Even before dawn it was well over 30 degrees. When we came back the next day for our siesta, the aircon had just been 'fixed' but minutes after we got our hands on the remote it packed up again and the poor man had to come back.
The main experience of Fes is the very tall, narrow passageways, often just a yard or two wide and three stories high. Large areas of
them are crammed with souks, ie, markets or bazars, filled with shops of the craftsmen who make up 70% of the population (silversmiths, blacksmiths, leatherworkers, weavers, tailors, coppersmiths, carpenters, bakers, herbalists) and grocery stalls. It's enormous, a vast warren of alleys where tourists spend most of their time lost. There were touts galore, some extremely persistent, but most are extremely friendly people keen to chat and say 'welcome to Morocco', or perhaps preach the virtues of Islam.
There's a water clock pictured, dating from the middle ages, and no-one any longer remembers how it works. A contemporary account says that every hour, a ball dropped from a window into a rack below. The main point of it seems to have been to establish the time of prayer - maybe a bit like reading was mostly to read the Koran or the Bible at that time.
Up before dawn, we took the train to Meknes this morning and squelched into a grand taxi to Moulay Idriss and Volubilis. Volubilis must be one of the largest Roman ruins still left, right at the Western extreme of the empire. There are around thirty mosaics, some of them large and well-preserved, albeit
weathering. The surviving stone buildings alone would be enough for a large village in today's terms, but the monuments and luxurious houses suggest it was the centre of something much larger. It felt oddly familiar in Muslim North Africa. In contrast to European countries, the Roman past doesn't seem to have been incorporated into the nationalist myths of Morocco. A premeditated joint ambush, on tourists and driver, got us a taxi back to Moulay Idriss, even while he was being paid to wait for two Americans.
Moulay Idriss is the great grandson of the Prophet Mohammed. He fled to Morocco around 787 AD, and is seen as the founder of modern Morocco. Visiting his tomb is worth a fifth as much as doing the Haaj to Mecca. In Volubilis, still a live town in those days, he was welcomed as an Imam.
In two days, it's the Feast of the Throne in Morocco, which is apparently why there are quite so many Moroccan flags everywhere. King Mohammed VI is often depicted looking benignly over restaurants and elsewhere, but not often enough to signify anything sinister. We'll be coming down from the Atlas mountains that day, inshallah, but festivities
should go on for a couple of days so we still might see some fireworks.
There are more photos below