“The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it.” – Rudyard Kipling
In a country that overwhelms your senses, Fes is a riot of colours, sounds and smells. To get lost in one of the almost 10,000 alleyways and streets of the medina is absurdly one of the biggest appeals of Morocco.
Considered the medieval capital of Morocco, Fes has the best preserved “Old City” in the Arab world. It is a labrynth of narrow alleyways that take you further and further into the heart of a Medina that is bursting at the seams with people and produce. Interestingly it is the largest car-free urban zone in the world, transportation of goods and people is by donkey, carts and motorbikes.
We start our day in Fes somewhat removed from the chaos and madness. From Borj Sud – the old fort on the hill on the southern side of Fes, the view is breathtaking. The medina stretches endlessly through the valley, seemingly calm and at peace from our vantage point, though the prospect of getting lost in the thousands of streets below provides a moment of panic.
I know the others are keen to throw themselves headfirst into the throng – but not quite yet.
Moroccan tiles and mosaics are one of the most recognisable aspects of Moroccan art and architecture and just outside the walls of the medina is Art Naji, a co-operative that teaches students the art of kellij and pottery. Here you can see the process, from making the clay, throwing pots on the potters wheel, making tiles for mosaics and mosaic design. The finished products – mirrors, tables, fountains, tagines and tableware are sensational and I couldn't help but mourn the fact that I would not be able to carry a handcrafted 6 person table setting around the middle east for the next few months!
The time was drawing nearer to venture in to one of the largest and most famous medinas in the world, but it is worth understanding some of the history of Fes first.
The oldest of Morocco's imperial cities, Fes was founded in 789. Emigrants from Andalucia and Tunisia helped to give the city a definite Arab character. Subsequently, there were arrivals by Muslims from elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East, as well as many Jews, who developed their own quarter in the city called The Mellah. By the 11th century, it had a population of more than half a million inhabitants including Moors, Berbers, Jews, Turks and Christians.
Fes reached its pinnacle as a center of learning and commerce in 1269 when the Merenids make it their new capital. Many great buildings and monuments sprung up during the following two centuries. It was an important trading centre and its artistic and academic prestige became known throughout Europe.
By the 16th century, the city had lost its capital status and suffered several changes of fortune, but in the 18th century – during the reign of Moulay Abdallah – it became the capital once more. Although the political capital of Morocco was transferred to Rabat in 1912 under French rule, Fes has retained its status as the country's cultural and spiritual centre.
But time to experience the highlight of Fes firsthand. By far the easiest way to begin navigation of the medina – and a point of reference if…sorry when…you become lost is to find the “Blue Gate”. It is among the most famous of all the gates of Morocco. The gate was built in 1913 making it so young a monument next to the rest of the medina and stands as an amazing feat of architecture. It has a strange striking beauty about it that is most attractive and impressive as well. It is interesting to note how the color of the mosaics change once inside the gate – from the outside it is blue, the color of the city, but inside the tiles are green – the color of Islam.
Once inside the gate, chaos reigns in the narrow alleyways. The smells of the medina immediately assault your nostrils: bread, spices, meat, donkeys, people – all combined in an indescribable odour. Shop keepers shouting to look in their stores, young men commenting as women – western women – walk past. “Nice bum” “Ooh La La” ” Beautiful Women” and my favourite “How many Camels?” Stefan could have made a fortune seling us off… offers anywhere between 200 and 1000 camels – with a few chickens and goats thrown in. At 2000 Euros a camel, it seemed the girls in our group were worth a bit. It all had the air of good natured jesting and we never felt unsafe or threatened by their calls. However its not all joking with the younger generation. Sadly, despite being clothed appropriately (Long pants, long sleeves, scarf around my neck even in the sweltering heat) and conducting myself conservatively, I was spat on by an older, obviously more extremist, Muslim man as I walked by – as had been one of the other girls earlier on. However, I choose not to let that colour my opinion of Morocco and Muslim culture in general – there are extremists in every pocket of life.
Of course a trip to the Medina would not be complete without seeing the famous tanneries, one of the most interesting sites in Fes. The tannery dates back at least nine centuries and is one of the oldest in the world. Entering through one of the leather shops we are given sprigs of mint to stick under our noses to overpower the odour of the tanneries. Much fuss is made about the smell and whether it was that we had become accustomed to the strange and pungent smells from the medina, it was far less worse than my expectations. The leather shops around the tannery and dye pots provide balconies, allowing those watching to see a sight that has not changed since the 11th century. A great view, but like all great tourist attractions back home – you have to exist through a shop – and a number of somewhat enthusiastic sales men. While we weren't in the market for leathergoods, this would be the place to come if you were.
The tannery contains a honeycomb of dry earthen pits where skins – mostly sheep goat, cow and sometimes camel – are treated with cow urine and pigeon dung before they are skinned and soaked in natural dyes tht come from a range of mnerals and plants. The entire process takes around three weeks. The pits are run by a co-operative of families who have passed down the ancient techniques from generation to generation. The men work in terrible conditions, standing in pots of dye for hours on end in sometimes 40 degree heat. Even the locals consider it the hardest job in Morocco.
Also situated in the heart of city of medina, is Al Karaouine University, considered by some, including the guiness book of records, th oldest continuous degree conferring university in the world. Dating back to 859, the university is said to be older than its European counterparts, University of Oxford and University of Bologna, two of the world’s oldest universities. The mosque and the seat of learning was created when Fatima and her sister Marian inherited a large sum of money from their father, they pooled in to create a seat of learning for their adopted city and its inhabitants.
Around the Medina are also sights worth stopping at. Our second day in was free time – allowing us to explore both the medina – this time with no guide – and its surrounds. The Jewish quarter, or mellah, sits not far from the medina. In contrast with the young mellah of Casablanca, the mellah of Fes is over 650 years old. This picturesque neighbourhood adjoins the royal palace, noted for its recently constructed bright brass doors. Jews took shelter in this palace during the 1912 riots.
Throughout the old city of Fes, there are traces of ancient Jewish life, including the home of Maimonides, who lived in the city from 1159-1165. Suffering from the persecutions of the Almohad dynasty, Maimonides emigrated to escape forced conversion. Also in the old city is the mausoleum of Moulay Idriss II, the founder of Fes in the ninth century. His father, Idriss I, fought the Jews to establish the first Muslim State in Morocco. Idriss II, however, encouraged the Jews to move to Fes, so the city could benefit from their skills and finances.
The southwest corner of the mellah is home to the jewish cemetry – a blindingly white sea of tombs that house more jewish saints than anywhere in Morocco. One of the oldest tombs sits against the northern wall and belongs to Rabbi Vidal Hasserfty who dies in 1600. Another tomb of note is that of 14 year old Solica, a martyr who in 1864 refused to convert to Islam and consequenty had her throat cut.
Outside the cemetary at the far end of the mellah's main street, is Place des Alaouites, with the new ceremonial gateway to the Royal Palace. The palace, which has been constantly rebuilt and expanded over the centuries, is one of the most sumptuous complexes in Morocco, set amid vast gardens, with numerous pavilions and guest wings. Entry into the palace complex with its riads, mosques and gardens is not permitted but the golden gates are a worthwhile sight.
Free days on our tours give us an opportunity to explore and search out new experiences ourselves and one expereince some of us were keen to try was Sheesha or a waterpipe – for smoking flavoured tobacco – although you can get tobacco alternatives such as molasses – strictly no funny stuff! Nightlife in Morocco needs to be searched out – unless you are into sitting on the streets drinking mint tea and watching the world go by with all the local men – somewhat daunting prospect for western women at times. Being a Muslim country – alcohol is not noticeably available, but many cafes and hotels cater to non-muslims, in back or upstairs rooms, and wandering the sreets it becomes easier with practice to spot these out and a bar was more likely to provide sheesha than anywhere else. After a long wander through the streets, we eventually found somwehere and settled in to try our apple flavoured sheesha, have a tagine, a beer and watch our karaoke mad waiter (who was keener to sing rather than serve, once he had an audience). It was a great way to end our time in Fes.