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Fez: Inside Morocco’s sweltering melting pot

Fez was three times the capital of the Moroccan kingdom – in 808, under Idriss II, in the 13th century under the Merinides and in…

Fez was three times the capital of the Moroccan kingdom – in 808, under Idriss II, in the 13th century under the Merinides and in the 19th century, during the reign of Moulay Abdallah. It was and is the spiritual and cultural center of Morocco, a multicultural melting pot of races and religions.

The old city, to this day, has distinctly different districts. The right bank of the Fez River was originally settled in 818 by several hundred Moslem families who had been expelled from Spanish Andalusia by Christian armies. Shortly thereafter, 300 Kerouan families made their home on the opposite bank. A large Jewish population, mostly salt traders, inhabited the Mellah or Jewish Quarter. These three races, along with nomadic Berber tribes, make up the exotic, vibrant metropolis that is Fez.

Spread out over several hills which overlook the old city in the valley, Fez is reminiscent of Rome and its seven hills. From above, minarets are as plentiful as Rome’s church steeples. The Kerouans built the magnificent El Qaraouiyin mosque, its roof a sea of emerald tiles. It is said to be one of the oldest centers of learning, pre-dating even Oxford and the Sorbonne and boasts a library of 30,000 volumes, among them a 9th century edition of the Koran.

A unique feature of the old city is its combination of living and merchant quarters. Unlike bazaars in Turkey or souks in other cities of Morocco, which are in essence open or covered markets, trades and sales are carried out as part of the residential areas. As in olden times, within each district can be found a public bakery, a fountain for drinking water, a hammam (public bathhouse), a medersa (Koranic school) and a public lavatory.

Buildings were constructed around a courtyard and very close together for warmth in the winter and coolness in the summer. Wooden windows with small slots allowed women to look out without being seen from the street. Shops are located at street level or below ground and segregated according to wares and services.

Haj Rashid, our guide who speaks half-a-dozen languages, dressed in his djelabbah and sporting sunglasses, met us at the Beb Abi El Jenoud Gate, not only to guide us through the old neighborhoods but to keep us from getting hopelessly lost in their maze. Despite each area’s donkey police patrol, our chances of ever finding our own way out were nil.

The gate, a relatively new structure, built in 1911, bears the green and white imperial colors and is decorated with intricately sculpted plasterwork. Within seconds we were swallowed up and completely absorbed in the womb of the old city. We soon reached a medersa. Young voices could be heard chanting lessons in a room above as we admired the carved, inlaid cedar wood construction, the marble floors and the richly decorated mosaic wall and ceiling tiles. Here were the dormitories for out-of-town students who come to Fez to study.

Nearby we were seduced by the smell of baking bread. One of many such bakeries, it was subterranean. An enormous wood-fired oven begins operations at 6 o’clock in the morning when the baker carries out his commercial baking. Later in the morning, the wooden shelves along each wall are filled with the daily baking needs of neighboring households, each of which has a special marking to identify ownership. We tasted a round loaf straight from the oven and found it delectable.

Headed toward the tannery section, we shared the laneways with the hard-working mules and donkeys which were shod with rubber shoes to prevent them from slipping on the cobbles. We passed small hardware shops where screws, nails and the like were weighed on small scales and bagged according to request.

Our noses could not miss the sharp, acrid smell of leather as we approached the tanneries. Skins are brought here to be salted, washed and dyed in huge open vats, ‘shaved’ in the case of goatskins, and then dried in the sun on every inch of available space on rooftops and balconies. Sheep and cow skins are softened with a mixture of extremely pungent pigeon droppings. Not an occupation for everyone.

In the copper and brass shops, enormous cooking pots are available for rent for special feasts and celebrations; smaller ones are sold for everyday use. The pressure to buy is not as great as in most souks although, after some energetic haggling, several in our group acquired fezes from Fez. A metalworks enterprise was training children in that fine art. They begin working on tin while the adult artists work on brass and hammer out their complex designs from memory.

Eager to preserve the skilled crafts of the past as well as provide employment for the young, apprenticeship is widespread in Morocco. At a potter’s guild, children begin early to master the arts of potting, plasterwork and mosaic tile design. They proudly show off their skills and finished works.

Donkeys bore great bundles of raw wool to be sold, dyed, spun and woven into the rich carpets for which Morocco is famous. A co-op was housed in a palatial former private home in which hundreds of fine carpets, many bearing Berber designs, hung from the ceilings, walls and elaborate wooden balconies. Sipping sweet mint tea, we were entranced by the richness of colors and variety of patterns, many of which replicated the tattoos worn by Berber women. These all-wool works of art are double-knotted and can have as many as 210 knots per square centimeter.

We paused for lunch, a veritable feast. Fresh bread, spicy olives, vegetable plates of carrots, chickpeas, tomatoes, cucumbers and eggplant were a meal in themselves. We soon found out that they were merely the appetizers. Two ‘tajines’ followed, one a beef stew with fried eggs, the other, couscous with lamb and vegetables, both served in large terra cotta platters covered with high, triangular tops which resemble upside-down ice cream cones and are also called tajines. ‘Gray’ wine, a refreshing Moroccan rose was served followed by huge bowls of sweet, local oranges, clementines, gigantic strawberries and the omnipresent mint tea.

Morocco’s ideal climate and fertile soil in a large part of the country allow for two crops of citrus fruit a year. Despite annual export of 800,000 tons, there is plenty left for home consumption. Fruits and vegetables are abundant and grown without chemical fertilizers or pesticides on collective, government, private and ‘charity’ (for the poor) farms.

Leaving the old city, we drove past 10th and 14th century cemeteries. We entered another world as we reached the European section of Fez, which was built after World War I. The ‘new’ city, high above the old, has wide, palm tree-lined boulevards, elegant modern boutiques and luxurious five-star hotels. It is a calm oasis in which to explore the treasures of Fez’s more recent past.

As the sun began to set, echoes of the call to prayer from the mosques resounded in the air. Dozens of cats appeared in search of dinner. From the large open terrace of our hotel we could see the jumble of tiled roofs of the old city shimmering like gold below us. The pre-Rif mountains rose to the north, the mid-Atlas mountains to the east. The Royal Palace we had visited, eight palaces on 200 magnificent acres, could be seen in the distance. Surrounded by the trappings of modern luxury, we felt as though we had entered a new era.

That is the lure of Morocco, a country of innumerable physical and cultural contrasts. In the morning one can ski in the snow-covered Atlas Mountains, have lunch in a lush Berber valley and, by late afternoon, be swimming on an Atlantic beach.

Fortified and walled cities, desert oases, cedar forests: each possesses its individual allure. Sharing the natural wonders of this seductive country, its perfect climate, vibrant colors, exotic sights and peoples provides a sensual, visual and intellectual tapestry as inspiring as it is relaxing.

Culled from TravelScribbles.com