So, our first night in Morocco passed. The hotel, Golden Tulip Tghat, was nothing special as rooms and food, but had lovely decor and we were greeted with Moroccan cookies and green tea.
The breakfast was again typical continental, but with a Moroccan pastries and some kind of bread, really tasty, made by a woman in front of you.
Today we had a really busy schedule, but the weather was awful – raining and cold. However, we had to explore Fez, a city in northern inland Morocco. It is the second largest city in Morocco after Casablanca,with a population of 1.4 million. Located to the northeast of Atlas Mountains, Fez is situated at the crossroad of the important cities of all regions. It is surrounded by the high grounds, and the old city is penetrated by the River of Fez flowing from the west to east.
Fez was founded under the Idrisid rule during the 8th-9th century. It consisted of two autonomous and competing settlements. The migration of 2000 Arab families in the early 9th century gave the nascent city its Arabic character. After the downfall of the Idrisid dynasty, several empires came and went until the 11th century when the Almoravid Sultan Yusuf ibn Tashfin united the two settlements and rebuilt the city, which became today’s Fes el Bali quarter. Under the Almoravid rule, the city gained a reputation for the religious scholarship and the mercantile activity. Fez was expanded during the Almohad rule and became one of the largest cities in the world during 1170-1180 with the estimated population of 200,000.
Fez reached its zenith in the Marinid-era, regaining the status as the capital. Numerous madrasas, mosques, zawiyas and city gates were constructed which survived up until today. These buildings are considered the hallmarks of Moorish and Moroccan architectural styles.
Today, the city largely consists of two old medina quarters, Fes el Bali and Fes Jdid, and modern urban area of Ville Nouvelle constructed during the French colonial era.
Our first stop was the Royal Palace, a stunning example of modern restoration, but the 80 hectares of palace grounds are not open to the public. Visitors must be satisfied with viewing its imposing brass doors, surrounded by fine zellige (colourful geometric mosaic tilework) and carved cedar wood. The current King of Morocco uses the palace when he visits Fez. It has stunning gardens, mosques, beautifully painted ceilings, and an ancient school for Koranic studies, or Madrassa, dating back to the 14th century.
After that we visited the Southern tower, built by the Saadian Sultan Ahmed Al Mansour Addahbi (the golden) in a period of time ranging between 1587 and 1609 by Portuguese prisoners in order to improve the defense of the Medina and to intimidate the Fassis too. It is located face to face with the northern tower, and they are linked with an underground tunnel used by soldiers and guards to cross quickly and freely the Old Medina with their horses, but nowadays this tunnel is closed.
The tower offers a panoramic view over the Old Medina if you have the chance of a better weather.
Maybe most of you don’t know, but if you decide to go on an organised trip you are doomed to visit all kind of traditional workshops, no matter your desire. This trip was no different and we visited a ceramic factory, where all I did was taking photos. At least the place was photogenic, if not interesting 🙂
Checking this “vital landmark” we finally went to the real Fez – the Medina.
It preserves, in an ancient part comprising numerous monumental buildings, the memory of the capital founded by the Idrisid dynasty between 789 and 808 A.D. The original town was comprised of two large fortified quarters separated by the Fez wadi: the banks of the Andalous and those of the Kairouanais. It contains the royal palace, the army headquarters, fortifications and residential areas. At that time, the two entities of the Medina of Fez evolve in symbiosis forming one of the largest Islamic metropolis’s representing a great variety of architectural forms and urban landscapes. They include a considerable number of religious, civil and military monuments that brought about a multi-cultural society. This architecture is characterised by construction techniques and decoration developed over a period of more than ten centuries, and where local knowledge and skills are interwoven with diverse outside inspiration (Andalousian, Oriental and African). The Medina of Fez is considered as one of the most extensive and best conserved historic towns of the Arab-Muslim world. The unpaved urban space conserves the majority of its original functions and attribute. It not only represents an outstanding architectural, archaeological and urban heritage, but also transmits a life style, skills and a culture that persist and are renewed despite the diverse effects of the evolving modern societies. And to top of it all, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site.
As we took got off the bus we sumbled upon a man selling cactus fruits. Our tour guide has already told us about them, so we just had to try. One was 1 dirham (about 10 euro cents). It tastes like pomegranate but with more seeds, which you must spit, they are sour. Keep in mind that you should eat only few if you don’t want to have toilet problems later.
We met with our local tour guide, apparently only locals can pass through the Medina street labyrinth without getting lost. We were constantly reminded of that and to be really careful not to lose the group. The first landmark on the list was the Blue Gate – this towering entryway with its mosaic tiles is the most iconic portal to the old Medina, Fez el-Bali. The blue on the side that greets new visitors represents the color of the city of Fez, which is famous for its pottery, painted with elegant cobalt blue designs. The reverse side, which faces the Medina, is green—the color of Islam.
Built in 1913, the bab (gate) is a doorway between two equally colorful and dynamic scenes, one that feels distinctly 21st century, and the other an intriguing mix of different eras.
An interesting feature of the doors on the gates are the locks – they are put on the outer side, because the French used them to lock the people inside if they start to make trouble…
Once inside you are in another world – noisy, smelly and colorful. The Medina is divided in parts, each for every trade and craft. First we saw the butchers and the food market. The scent of sheep meat was everywhere, even now, just writing about it, I can smell it again.
The photos are made as we pass by, because some of the merchants may want money if they notice you. That is typical for Morocco, so remember to be careful.
Next we saw Magana Bouanania – the remains of and ancient clock. It was completed on the 6th of May 1357. It indicated the correct times for the muezzin to announce the call to prayer. However, the clock fell into disrepair and has remained silent and inert for almost five centuries.
The clock consists of 13 windows and platforms carrying brass bowls. The motion of the clock was presumably maintained by a kind of small cart which ran from left to right behind twelve doors. At one end, the cart was attached to a rope with a hanging weight; at the other end to a rope with a weight that floated on the surface of a water reservoir that was drained at a regular pace. Each hour one of the doors opened; at the same time a metal ball was dropped into one of the twelve brass bowls.
The tour continued with Medersa Bou Inania – the finest of Fez’s theological colleges. It was built by the Merenid sultan Bou Inan between 1351 and 1357, and has been impressively restored with elaborate zellige (colourful geometric mosaic tilework) and carved plaster, beautiful cedar mashrabiyyas (lattice screens) and massive brass entrance doors. Whereas most medersas(schools for study of the Quran) just have a simple prayer hall, the Bou Inania is unusual in that it hosts a complete mosque.
You can visit only the inner court and the entry fee is 20 dirhams (2 euro).
Next was another shop – of the copper craft. There were exquisite lamps, plates and jewelry. Of course, the prices were also exquisite.
Then we just wandered around the streets, where the rain didn’t matter. They were so narrow and the houses so high, that it feels like you are in a tunnel instead of a street.
We saw the stonemasons :
The tailors and the carpet makers :
Let’s not forget the carpenters. In the past they used to do furniture and carvings, but nowadays this is their work – thrones for weddings and other celebrations. Interesting fact – this yellow box you see is actually a coffin, but only for women. The men are buried covered only in fabric.
Our route continued through the Medina, but this time we were warned to look out for donkeys and kids with carts, delivering goods for the shops. The Medina is on hill so the heavily loaded donkeys are unable to stop and their owners shout loudly, so that you have a few seconds to step aside.
A little getaway from the craftsmen streets was the Kairaouine Mosque & University. Non-Muslims will have to be content with glimpses of the mosque’s courtyard from the main door on Derb Boutouil. Better still, take the view from any vantage point over the Medina: the huge green pyramidal roof and minaret immediately announce their presence.
The complex was established in 859 by Fatima El Fihria, a female Tunisian refugee, and expanded by the Almoravids in the 12th century, and can accommodate up to 20,000 people at prayer.
The Kairaouine Library has recently been impressively restored and is open to local students, but is not open to the public. The entrance to the library is at the other side of the complex, on Place Seffarine.
The tour continued with another shop -this time for fabrics and scarves. It was interesting, at least for me, to find out that you can make silk from a cactus, the Agave. All the scarves, that were made here were from that kind of silk or mixture of silk, sheep wool and cotton.
The entrance of the store had a typical traditional door with two knockers. Because of the Islamic religion the woman in the house, if there isn’t a man home, can’t open the door to a man. But because the doors are made of solid wood there’s no way for her to find out who’s knocking. So here’s the solution – the lower knocker knocks directly on the wood – it’s for men, and the higher one knocks on metal, made for the women. So, the sound is different and the lady of the house can decide if she should or should not open the door.
Oh, I almost forgot the most curios store – for appliances 🙂
Both of them, the appliances and the scarves stores are located in this “street” :
After another labyrinth of narrow streets we arrived at a square , where men where working on copper, right there in the open.
And last, but definetely not least – one of the most famous landmarks in Fez – the tanneries. Fez is famous for its leather products and most of it comes from the leather bazaar (souq). The souq is home to three ancient leather tanneries, the largest and oldest being the Chouara Tannery, which is almost a thousand years old.
Fez’s tanneries are composed of numerous stone vessels filled with a vast range of dyes and various liquids spread out like a tray of watercolors. Dozens of men, many standing waist deep in dyes, work under the hot sun tending to the hides that remain soaked in the vessels. The tanneries processes the hides of cows, sheep, goats and camels, turning them into high quality leather products. This is all achieved manually, without the need for modern machinery, and the process has barely changed since medieval times, which makes these tanneries absolutely fascinating to visit.
At the Chouara Tannery, hides are first soaked in a mixture of cow urine, quicklime, water, and salt. This caustic mixture helps to break down the tough leather, loosen excess fat, flesh, and hair that remain on them. The hides are soaked for two to three days after which tanners scrap away excess hair fibers and fat in order to prepare the hides for dyeing. The hides are then soaked in another set of vats containing a mixture of water and pigeon poop. Pigeon poop contains ammonia that acts as softening agents that allows the hides to become malleable so they can absorb the dye. The tanner uses his bare feet to knead the hides for up to three hours to achieve the desired softness.
The hides are then placed in dying pits containing natural vegetable dyes, such as poppy flower (red), indigo (blue), henna (orange), cedar wood (brown), mint (green), and saffron (yellow). Other materials used for dyeing include pomegranate powder, which is rubbed on the hides to turn them yellow, and olive oil, which will make them shiny.
One the leather is died it is taken out to dry under the sun. The finished leather is then sold to other craftsmen who make the famous Moroccan slippers, known as babouches, as well as wallets, handbags, furniture and other leather accessories.
The pigeon poop and cow urine produces a stench so pungent that the tour guide will often supply sprigs of fresh mint to visitors to help them overcome the odor.
This was the last piece in our tour in Fez. The tour around the Medina took us around 2.30 hours, but I think that you could spend at least a day here. As you can see, there was no time to lunch, so our guide decided to do it in the next town in our schedule – Meknes.
This wasn’t the best solution for us, because we wanted to see the city, not some restaurant, but there so much someone can do. There were only the two of us against forty hungry people. The trip from Fez took around an hour, so do not miss it if you have the chance.
Meknes is one of the four Imperial cities of Morocco, located in northern central Morocco and the sixth largest city by population in the kingdom. Founded in the 11th century by the Almoravids as a military settlement, Meknes became capital of Morocco under the reign of Sultan Moulay Ismaïl, son of the founder of the Alaouite dynasty. Moulay Ismaïl turned Meknes into an impressive city in Spanish-Moorish style, surrounded by high walls with great doors, where the harmonious blending of the Islamic and European styles of the 17th century Maghreb are still evident today.
With the title of Imperial City and a UNESCO-stamped ancient Medina, Meknes can rival the likes of Marrakesh, Rabat, and Fez, yet it struggles to attract the same loyal following of travelers. But this scenic hilltop city has plenty to offer the curious visitor, from intricate gates to marvelous museums and mausoleums.
We visited only the Medina, where you’ll find everything from specialist souks selling crafts and swathes of textiles, to knock-off trainers, souvenirs and carpets. At its heart is the twelfth-century Grand Mosque (although this is closed to non-Muslims), while teahouses in secret courtyards, ornate riads, and the odd hard-working donkey add to the atmosphere.
One of Morocco’s grandest historic gateways, the glorious Bab Mansour is also often celebrated as one of the most beautiful entrance gates in the whole world. Indeed, an inscription in Arabic along the top of the monumental gateway translates as “I am the most beautiful gate in Morocco. I’m like the moon in the sky. Property and wealth are written on my front.” Built in the 1730s, the grand entranceway is adorned with stunning zellige tiles in various colours, carved wood, marble columns, arches, and fine brickwork. The main door, which is usually closed, is 16 metres tall. It was named after the architect that designed the gate, El Mansour.
30,000 slaves had to build gardens, palaces and city walls of 40 km, which made Meknes the mightiest fortified city in North Africa.
With just a glimpse of the city Meknes our program fro the day ended. We had a really long way in front of us to one of the gems of Morocco – Marrakesh. We rod for at least six hours, but all was worth it. But what we saw and loved in Marrakesh you’ll read and see in my next story, until then – goodbye and don’t forget to travel 😉