preparation of hides
Fez was not one of my favorite cities. I spent most of my time there sweaty, hungry, lost, and frustrated. It says a lot about my personality that I much prefer cities like Tokyo and Singapore – clean, orderly, and no-nonsense.
I full recognize that many of my issues with Fez came down to a lack of my usual research and poor planning on my part. As I mentioned in my previous post The Curmudgeon Has a Bad Day
I was in Fez during Ramadan; as a non-Muslim, I was not expected to fast or follow any of the other Ramadan requirements, but it was difficult to find a restaurant that was open.
However, probably one of the most frustrating parts of my trip had nothing to do with Ramadan; it was the number of places I wasn’t allowed to visit because I wasn’t Muslim. One of these was Al-Quaraouiyine University, sometimes written as Al-Karaouine University, the oldest continually operating university in the world, and the first educational institution to award degrees. It was founded over a thousand years ago, in 859. Its library has over 4,000 manuscripts, including a 9th century Quran. Sadly, I could only look at the outside walls.
– well, at least interesting to me - it was founded by a woman, Fatima bint Muhammad Al-Fihriya Al-Qurashiya. She and her sister were the only children of a very wealthy merchant who had brought the family to Fes from Tunisia. When he died, Fatima and her sister Maryam inherited his considerable fortune. Maryam went on to sponsor the construction of the al-Andalus Mosque while Fatima spent her inheritance on the mosque and madrasa (school) of Al-Quaraouiyine.
Among its many graduates are scores of accomplished African and Arabic scholars, but the one who stood out to me was Moses ben Maimon, also known as Maimonides. Maimonides was born in Spain and went on to become one of the most respected scholars of Jewish law. He wrote "The Guide for the Perplexed"
in 1186 which has never been out of print; it is currently available from Amazon
I also wasn’t allowed to enter the mausoleum of Moulay Idriss II, the founder of Fes. Idriss II was the son of the man who founded the first Islamic dynasty in Morocco and was a pretty smart kid. It is said the he could read by the time he was four, and
had memorized the Quran by the time he was eight. As a young man, he began to unify the Berber tribes into a Moroccan state. Moulay Idriss II was from a family that claimed to be direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammed; the current king, Mohammed VI is thought to be able to trace his lineage back to Moulay Idriss.
allowed to visit the tanneries which are out in the open. The tanneries have been here since the 11th century, and I don’t think the process has changed at all since then. Hides – from sheep, goats, cows, and camels -are first cleaned in vats of cow urine, quicklime, and pigeon feces. This helps with removing the hair from the hides and making them softer. After being rinsed the hides are ready for dying with natural vegetable dyes.
All this work is done manually, from stomping the hides to make them softer, hauling the hides out of the cleaning vats, rinsing them off, hauling them into the dye vats, stomping some more, hauling the dyed skins out of the vats, and then hanging them up to dry. Much has been made of the smell of the
tanneries, but I honestly didn’t find it off-putting. I’ve been around farms and livestock and the tanneries don’t smell much different. As one of my neighbor in the Midwest once told me “You say it smells like pig shit, I say it smells like money.” And in case you don’t like the smell of “money,” the tannery gives you a sprig of mint to hold to your nose.
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