Fes. Ancient city. Quintessential Morocco. Not to be confused with fez, a hat, usually with a tassel, often red, worn throughout Morocco and many other countries.
We ended our day in Fes, and awoke the next morning to something closer to the Morocco which had imagined.
Our visit to Fes began with arrival at Riad Fes. This being our first experience with a riad, we were stunned by the beauty and by the service we encountered. It was almost oppressive to our American tastes to have someone catering to our every whim, but we decided we must accommodate and managed to carry on under the burden. Although Fes has two medinas, the larger was the one where we spent time, and our riad was on the upslope edge of the medina, giving us panoramic views of the ancient walled city from the rooftop terrace of the riad. It is easy to define riad - quite simply it is a home with plain external walls without openings, which contains a central courtyard to which the interior rooms are open. It is much more difficult to define a riad as a place of lodging. It is often run by a single
family, but is much more elaborate than a bed and breakfast. Probably best thought of as a very nice boutique hotel. Foregoing offered formal meal in the central courtyard, we retired to the rooftop terrace and lighter fare with much wine. The next morning we began our visit to an ancient city with ancient ways and a modern wrapper.
Fes was founded in 789 by Idris I, and then his brother started a new city on the opposite bank of the Jawhar River a few years later. These eventually combined into present-day Fes. The city is now the second largest in Morocco, with over 1 million inhabitants, but at one point in the late 12th century was the largest city in the world, with over 200,000 residents. United into one city by the Almoravids, Fes became known as a center of legal knowledge and as the site of the oldest university in the world, the Al-Qarawiyyin Madrasa, founded in 859. (Presumably owing to translation differences, the madrasas are also known under different but related names, such as madrassa, medersa, etc) The largest of the two medinas, made from the conjoining of the two original settlements on each bank of
the river, is the Fes el Bali, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The other medina is Fes Jdid ("new Fes"), so named because it was not built until 1276. Fes el Bali is said to contain 9000 alleyways. Although guidebooks will suggest that you can visit it without a guide, I would not recommend it. You will almost certainly end up needing to pay someone to guide you out.
Our visit began at the Musée Batha, a small but very nice museum of artwork of Moroccan life. As usual, we were somewhat hampered by the lack of signage in English, but they had wonderful examples of the pottery for which Fes is famous, as well as ancient astrolabes and other more prosaic parts of life long ago. The collection is rather small, but of high quality and well worth a visit.
Our next stop was outside of the medina at an artisan shop called Art Naji. Here they craft clay from the Atlas Mountains into ceramics and pottery, including such mundane items as roof tiles and much more ornamental objects such as beautiful hand-painted tagines, vases, and perhaps most remarkable, hand-crafted tables. The tiles are hand-formed,
dye and glaze is applied, they are fired, and then they are hand-chipped to the right size and shape to use in the object being assembled. Most remarkably, the tables are assembled face-down with the assembler having no guide other than his memory as to what colors and shapes go where, and with no reference to what has already been done. One mistake and the table is ruined. After the usual feeding frenzy of shopping for items to ship back home, we moved on into the medina itself.
It is hard to describe what it is like to be in one of these medinas in Morocco. The twisting, branching alleys run organically, without any apparent planning, in every direction. Sometimes they open up enough to allow the passage of three people abreast, but at other times you almost have to turn sideways to get through. In the wider areas, every foot is lined with shops of people selling everything you can think of, and quite a few things that I would have never imagined. A shop selling babouches (those pointed Moroccan slippers) and American-made sneakers shares a common wall with a shop where women stretch dough very thing and
drape it over an egg-shaped heated rock to make the phyllo-like pastry they use so many ways. A shop with piles of spices faces across narrow alleyway to a shop selling cheap kaftans and djellabas (loose-fitting hooded Berber robes). Eventually we began seeing more and more leather goods, often just hanging on the walls of the alleyways, and this was our clue that we were approaching the Chouara Tannery, and its noisome open-air tanning and dying vats, unchanged in form and function since the 14th century. Some in our group were almost overcome by the smell. It is indeed quite powerful, and they hand you large sprigs of mint to hold under your nose as you enter the leather shop from whose balcony the vats are visible. (My brother and I simply remarked that it was obvious that the others who were so overcome had obviously never autopsied a 7-day floater.) The entire process of softening, scraping, dying, and drying the hides plays out beneath you. The hides are first soaked in a mixture of lime and pigeon droppings to soften the leather and remove the fur, then they are scraped and dyed, then dried before going to the craftsmen
who actually make the leather goods for which the area is famous. The various processes and dyes produce a rainbow of colored vats. It is difficult to imagine the health consequences of working in such a place. The aniline dyes have multiple biologic effects, and at one time were considered causative for bladder cancer, although it is now thought that the offending culprit was another chemical species often found at the same places.Several disease can result from pigeon droppings. The workers start in the industry as early as age 11, and I suspect their lifespans are short.
After the usual shopping time in the leather shop, with the usual high pressure sales pitches, we headed on out into the medina again, this time headed to another artisanal shop making another of the Fes specialties, woven cloth. Ducking through a small doorway brought us into an inner courtyard where men sat at old-looking wooden looms, patiently sending a flying shuttle back and forth between the weft threads, with the threads of the weft alternately raised and lowered using foot controls. It is an ancient technique, and one still used with modifications in many modern weaving plants. The cloth is made
of the usual cotton and wool. but also very interestingly from Sabra (agave, aloe vera) "silk". These fibers are very tough and very flexible, resulting in nearly wrinkle-free fabrics that looks very much like silkworm produced silk, but comes from a locally abundant plant and does not require mulberries.
Further trekking through the medina brought us at last to the Al-Qarawiyyin Madrasa (or Mosquee al Qaraouiyine), elaborately decorated as are all such places in Morocco.
That evening we went to another riad for dinner, where we again enjoyed exemplary hospitality and finished the evening with music and dancing with the fez tassels twirling. (When researching to find out the nam of this type of dancing, I came across several references to show you how to use nipple tassels - references sent upon request).
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