After Meknes and Volubilis we arrived in New Town Fes, where we checked into our hotel and rested for the night. The next day we would venture out to an incredible city, the Old Town Fes or the Medina of Fes.
I woke up early that morning to the sounds of the call to Morning Prayer and to the calls of roosters in nearby farms. It was a very calming and different way to wake up. And I really liked it because it was a moment where I could not see nor feel nor taste anything but I could hear the sounds of Morocco. Though it was early, and though at first I asked myself what is that noise out there? I came to my senses and realized what it was and really listened as I lay there in a light morning sleep.
Fes means peacocks, but it also apparently refers to the axe that was used to break ground for the Medina.
Our first stop early that morning was to the main gate of the Royal Palace of Fes, constructed with 4 architectural elements of Moroccan architecture: plaster, mosaic, marbles, and cedar wood. The palace was located right next to the historically Jewish neighborhood of the city because when the Jewish population escaped to Fes, they found jobs as advisors in the Palace.
The next stop was a fortress atop a hill looking over the Medina of Fes. Here is where I was able to take in the true size of the world’s largest continuously care-free urban area. We learned that the Medina of Fes was unique in that it was flood, fire, and earthquake resistant. Why? There was a drainage system that surrounded the Medina walls which allowed flood waters to flow into the ground and soil rather than accumulate on concrete. The plaster, marble, mosaic, and cedar wood are all either fire resistant or slow burning materials thus if a fire occurs it can be controlled easily and wont spread and will allow time for people to save the not so fire resistant furniture. The Medina was built in a valley and was shaped along the land, thus when an earthquake occurred it moved with the land, much like how Incas built atop bedrocks.
I then witnessed the process in which Moroccan pottery was made at a pottery factory. We first saw how the famous Tagine was made. The masculine form of Tagine and feminine form of Tagine mean different things, one refers to the stew, and one refers to the famous triangular pot. Then we saw how the designs were first drawn on the clay then painted. Before we arrived at the Kiln. Which unlike many kilns, it uses olives to bring it to the right temperature. It apparently takes 2 tons of olives for one burning. I then witnessed how mosaics were created. Painted tile slabs were chipped and chiseled to the right shape and size based on the color and its placement in the design. Then the pieces are laid out and compacted by wooden borders before a layer of concrete is poured over it to secure the tiles, it is then flipped over and then you have a giant piece of mosaic art. The same process applies for mosaic fountains but it required a special mold that is created specifically for one design then destroyed once the product is complete. The whole time I kept thinking of Ying Ge in Taiwan and how similar the two places were.
We finally reached the Medina of Fes and began our journey through the 9000+ alleyways that make up this incredible city. The moment we stepped away from the road and entered the car-free alleys of the market I felt like I had been transported to the time of Aladdin or was in the set of Prince of Persia. It was really an incredible example of a Medieval Arab town. The fresh produce laid out in the market was amazing, from fruits and vegetables, to dried fish and Dromedary (1 hump camels) meat. But it was really the experience of going from a wide and brightly lit alleyway with stained glass coverings to a dark narrow alleyway with wooden crosswalks above me that really made the city to fascinating. It was truly a maze and I am glad I had a guide for if I did it independently I would probably still be in Fes finding my way out.
We came to the entrance of the University of Al-Karaouine, the oldest university in the world, and it is still running as a university! We could not go in, but we saw the main courtyard which was quite beautiful.
Then came the part of Fes that I really looked forward to seeing, the Leather Tannery. I have always seen pictures of the circular dyeing pits in textbooks and they always seemed so colorful and cool. Unfortunately the tannery I went to did not have multiple colors in the pits but it was nonetheless still very cool to see how the leather products were created. They use bird poop as a means to treat the skin of the animals before dyeing the skin, thus we each received mint leaves on the tour to help our nose cope with the tour. Our guide, who was a member of the family who owned the tannery pointed out a 92 year old man who was still working in the tannery! I also saw an ancient washing machine being used to wash the leather. It was really cool and once again like the rest of Fes it was a step back in time. Below in the gift shop I bought some Moroccan slippers, which are quite comfortable.
Madrasa+ Moroccan Education:
We then went inside a Madrasa, or boarding school. It was a central courtyard with a main prayer room which doubled as a classroom and the boarding quarters were located in the upper floors. We learned about traditional Moroccan education. It is an all male system, where young boys need to memorize and recite perfectly the entire Quran for the test to get into the school ,which is for free, is to recite the Quran. They can tell between those who really want to learn from those who just want free room and board by this test. It also trains the boys to know how to concentrate and memorize because in a Madrasa there is no note taking allowed and the teachers teach in each corner of the small room, so the student must not get distracted. Talk about discipline! It did remind me of some more traditional Chinese education methods though, so I felt I understood this concept more than many of my travel companions did.
Then we visited Zaouia Moulay Idriss II, the tomb of the founder of Fes. It is where many people, especially women go to pay respects and pray for help and guidance if they feel hopeless. Though according to our guide it was mostly people who were less educated because in Islam you are not supposed to take your prayers to a dead person, since that is putting a human at the same level as the only god in Islam. This was another interesting aspect of the Islamic culture the cross between what is considered true Islam and that which lesser educated people interpret as Islam.
Moroccan Carpet + Palace:
Our last stop in Fes was a former Palace in the Medina. This was both a restaurant and a carpet/ rug store. The owners gave us a briefing on Moroccan rugs, specifically the ones created by the Berber people. The Berber rugs are hand sewn by Berber women, and every design is unique. Not one is the same as the other because the designs are all in the head of the Berber women and they create something different each other. Some take only a few months while the more intricate ones can take up to 3 years to produce. Many of the rugs are double side usage, one side for winter and the other for summer. The furry wooly side is often for winter, and the flat side is for summer so that it’s easier to clean off the dust that accumulates during the dry summers. We listened as we sipped our mint teas, then waited for almost 2 hours as the persuasive owners tried to sell us carpets. It was not the most enjoyable experience sitting there during lunch hours wondering when we could head into the restaurant part to eat our meal. But we simply decided to all stand up at once and walk out on the owners who were still trying to sell us carpets, we entered our amazing dining room and sat down for lunch. After this we took our last walk through the alleyways and exited from the famous Blue Gate of Fes. Then we began our 4.5 hour drive back to Casablanca.
Fes really is an incredible Moroccan city. I highly highly recommend everyone to go, it is not bustling with tourists like Marrakech and it is not dirty or modern like Casablanca. It is a very well preserved Medieval Islamic city that transports you back to the times of the Prince of Persia. For me Fes is the image I have of Morocco, and I think it’s a great image to have because it’s a great representation of the culture of Morocco and the rest of the Arab world.