“Fez is really just the medieval city that it was…. Fez is the soul of Morocco. It’s the last bastion of what Morocco really is.” – Abdelfettah Seffar, a craftsman and cultural entrepreneur (NY Times)
Exploring the alleys of the medina, an ancient Arab city situated within walls. The medina of Old Fes is said to be the oldest continuously inhabited walled city in the Arab world. It was founded in the 8th century as the capital of the Idrisid Dynasty.
Initial navigation of the medina felt overwhelming. It was a sensory overload. Its narrow maze-like streets were jammed with mostly shrouded figures and donkeys, the smell changed every few feet and the touts bothered us every few inch. It felt so surreal and mystical. At times, we felt we were in a movie set of a period movie.
This is the usual traffic jam on the 9,000 tangled streets of Old Fez, where the donkeys are the typical mode of transportation. The medina of Old Fez is believed to be the world’s largest car-free urban area.
We had to be attentive to the shout of “balak!” (“look out”) from the mule drivers. It was a warning that a heavily laden mule was about to approach.
The Souk of Fez
Located within the medina is an open market called souk. It is an integral part of life in the medina. It is where the locals avail of their essential needs and wide array of products. A souk is divided into small souks and are designated names based on the product it specialized in such as the meat souk, the spice souk, the clothing souk, the gold souk, etc.
Women in vegetable souk. This is how our memory of women in Morocco is like – a bit blurry. We didn’t have much encounter with them.
A spectacle of a testicle at the meat souk! The meat of the male lamb is preferred than the meat of the female as it is said to be much more tender. Hence, the display of the testicle to prove to the customer the gender of the lamb.
Keith watching the street scenes of the medina from high above the terrace of the Le Kasbah, a multi-level restaurant that serve good traditional Moroccan fare.
Our first meal in Fez at Le Kasbah – a vegetable tagine for me and a meat tangine for Keith plus the mintiest of mint teas. A tagine is a tradtional Moroccan stew that is named after the conical shaped earthenware in which it is cooked while the mint tea is the most traditional drink and an important part of Morocco’s food and hospitality culture.
View of Bab Bou Jeloud from the terrace of Le Kasbah. Bab Bou Jeloud is the main entrance to Old Fez, where the two main streets of the medina start from.
Fez at Night
We were traveling in Morocco during the period of Ramadan. The streets emptied out after sunset. People ran to their homes to break their fasting for the day.
This is the courtyard of Dar Roumana, an exquisite riad where we stayed in Old Fes. A riad is a traditional home or palace inside a medina that is built around a courtyard. Many riads in big cities of Morocco have undergone renovation and have been converted into guesthouses.
A high and ornate door that leads to one of the exquisite bedrooms of Dar Roumana.
When you walk along the alleys of the medina, you will not see any windows on the walls of the homes. It is because all windows of the riads face the interior courtyard, which is a design principle that supports the Islamic privacy notion of privacy and modesty, especially for women.
The beautiful rooftop of Dar Roumana where we had our breakfast every morning and where we unwind with a glass of wine each night.
The broken wall of the medina as seen from the roof top of Dar Roumana.
The Artisans of Old Fez
This is one of the ancient tanneries of Fez where the hides of animals are processed into leathers. They date back from the medieval time. Their sights and smells are the city’s most iconic elements.
The animals skin are soaked in these ancient vats filled with natural pigments — red from poppies, orange from henna, brown from cedar wood, white from mint, etc.
Before the skins are soaked in natural pigments they must first be placed in vats filled with limestone, water and —– pigeon excrement! The last ingredient is said to contain ammonia that makes the leather supple.
The techniques and mechanisms used in the tannaries are still very medieval.
Skins and wool being dried.
The finished leather products. Choices, choices…..
And the painful negotiation begins……..
The best location to witness the activities in the tanneries is from one of the terraces of the leather shops that lined the street along the tannery area. A salesperson from the leather shop will serve as your guide and will explain everything there is to know about the tanneries. They say it’s a free service, but they will expect a tip and a huge sale from you. Be warned, the vendors turn from gentle guides into hardcore, aggressive salespersons. Expect to be yelled at if you don’t make a purchase.