Fes (Fez), Morocco

June 23, 2019

In the middle of the medina square in Fes, Ki and I bumped into a mariachi-looking water vendor garbed in bright tunic and trinkets peddling water in brass vessels. This enterprise was an age-old Berber tradition of quenching the thirst of desert nomads as it drew the line between life and death. In the age of bottled water, these vendors had practically become obsolete and, most likely, earned more from photo ops with tourists. I gave him a generous tip. He represented the face of this ancient city that stood through changing centuries, after all. There was history in his story as writer Paul Bowles distilled in his essay:

Fez does not have to rely upon its ancient structures for its claim to importance. Its interest lies not so much in relics of the past as in the life of the people there; that life is the past, still alive and functioning. It would be difficult to find another city anywhere in which the every day vicissitudes of medieval urban life can be studied in such detail.

Paul Bowles
The Water Man @ Place R’cif, Fes el Bali

Fes el Bali, the oldest district of Fes, had been likened to that of Jerusalem. Months later I would visit the Holy Land and, from the tour bus window, the massive fortifications of the Jewish holy city were twinning Fes’ enclosing and imposing ramparts as seen from our careening taxi.

One of the city’s main attractions (for the visitor) is also one of its major annoyances (for the inhabitants): its ancient wall. These miles of walls, without which Fez could not have existed, are beginning to stifle the city. There are not many gates, and to get out of it is necessary often to make long detours.

Paul Bowles
Bab Bou Jeloud (The Blue Gate) @ Fes el Bali
TTT and Ki @ Bab Bou Jeloud (The Blue Gate)

The taxi dropped us off at the shadow of Bab Boujloud, or the Blue Gate to tourists. Its arabesque mosaic in blue (for Fes) on the front façade and green (for Islam) on the back stopped every visitor entering Fes el Bali. It was built only in the early 20th century as a French-controlled access. Tellingly, the keyhole arch and its smaller side arches, crowned with crenellations, could be locked only from the outside. It kept inhabitants in rather than kept foreigners out. Such was colonial life during the French occupation.

TTT @ Bab Bou Jeloud (Outside Fes el Bali)
Bab Bou Jeloud (Inside Fes el Bali)
Ki @ Bab Bou Jeloud (Blue Front and Green Back)

Thus ushered into the well-preserved ancient quarter of Morocco’s oldest imperial city, we felt we backtracked more than a thousand years. Fes el Bali, after all, was known as the world’s largest car-free urban area. Only crowds of tourists and the occasional freight-laden donkey held up foot traffic in its narrow, labyrinthine alleys. This UNESCO World Heritage Site medina had been the center of commerce and culture with its distinct souq sections and hidden mosques and madrasas (institutions for Islamic instruction) since it was founded in the eighth century.

Fes el Bali @ Fez
TTT @ Fes el Bali

Fez is a relatively relaxed city; there is time for everything. The retention of this classic sense of time can be attributed, in part at least, to the absence of motor vehicles in the medina. If you live in a city where you never have to run in order to catch something, or jump to avoid being hit by it, you are likely to have preserved a natural physical dignity which is not a concomitant of contemporary life; and if you still have that dignity, you want to go on having it. So you see to it that you have time to do whatever you want to do; it is vulgar to hurry.

Paul Bowles
Genie Lamp Incense Burners @ Fes el Bali
Guide Books, Postcards, Fridge Magnets @ Fes el Bali
Painting of a Minaret @ Fes el Bali
TTT Amongst Art @ Fes el Bali
Painting of a Door @ Fes el Bali

It was easy to lose our way in the maze of the medina. From the Blue Gate, we kept to the narrow ascending street, Talaa Sghira, parallel to Talaa Kbira (the broad counterpart). It cut through what appeared to be one huge market of assorted goods. Soon we noticed the zoning based on guilds of artists and artisans: tanners, ceramists, weavers, blacksmiths, carvers, perfumers, herbalists, shoemakers, even bakers. Most of these guilds occupied their particular souq, which we walked through except for the tanneries on rooftops. Despite the promise of iconic photo ops, we were put off, at times creeped out, by persistent touts. Nevertheless, there was order in all this chaos.

Brass and Ceramic Shop @ Fes el Bali
Ki with Brass Water Dispenser @ L’Art du Bronze, Fes el Bali
Colorful Brass Lamps @ Fes el Bali
Calligraphy Stone Tablets @ Fes el Bali
Embroidered Textile @ Fes el Bali
Berber Rugs @ Fes el Bali
Culture of Commerce @ Fes el Bali
Culture of Commerce @ Fes el Bali
Culture of Commerce @ Fes el Bali

We found every kind of souvenir in Fes el Bali. Among colorful and traditional Moroccan products were stalls selling Nike shoes and Team Morocco t-shirts. This part of the medina was just like any flea market. As we were documenting with photos, a teenage boy called us out. I had read that Moroccans generally disliked pap shots, so I mouthed sorry right away. But then, Ki lashed out by saying we were photographing the goods, not him. The boy looked shocked by Ki’s triggered response and muttered an apology. Sometimes there was chaos in the order.

Berber Tea @ Fes el Bali
Ki @ Parfum El Madina El Monawara
Argan Nuts @ Fes el Bali

Traveling light, we never had the luxury of luggage space for any souvenir larger than fridge magnets. Ki could not resist a bag of Berber tea, though. Unable to identify the mixed herbs that comprised it, I learned through Google results: thyme, mint, lemongrass, sage, wormwood and dried flowers. The medley of ingredients, surprisingly, was naturally sweet, no sugar needed.

A friend back home also asked for some argan oil. We wondered why it had to be bought in Morocco, then later learned that argan trees only grew in the dry sands between the Atlantic and the Atlas. This elixir of beauty was truly Moroccan.

For some carbo-loading in our long walk through the medina, the ubiquitous Moroccan round flatbread, khobz, rose to the occasion, literally as it was the leavened kind. Watching vendors handling the bread like it was any object killed my appetite. They casually laid them on uncovered surfaces. One fell off a customer’s hand; he simply dusted it off and went on his merry way.

Khobz (Moroccan Bread) @ Fes el Bali
Ki Having Khobz @ Fes el Bali

Fes el Bali was not only a patchwork of souq districts. Inner passageways none wide enough for more than two pedestrians to walk side by side led to dense low-rise residential buildings. Some of these riad-style, stucco-walled houses had become hostels. Unlike in Tangier, though, medina accommodations in Fes were beyond our limited budget; hence we settled for a hotel outside the walled city. Being the country’s oldest and best-preserved came with a premium.

TTT @ Derb Aguoual Safli, Fes el Bali
Typical Keyhole Door @ Fes el Bali
TTT @ Derb Lfahham, Fes el Bali

The medina of Fes was an important urban center even in history as evidenced by the learning institutions established therein. One was 13th-century Maristan Sidi Frej, perhaps the world’s longest-running medical school. Sadly, it closed towards the end of WW2. The site had since been taken over by large trees and a shopping funduq (a multi-story inn with a courtyard). The marker explained:

This maristan was a multi-medical specialties institution and a teaching hospital. It was built around 1286 by the Merinid king Youssef Ibn Yakoub. It is most probable that this maristan was taken as a model to build the first psychiatric hospital in the Western World (Valencia, Spain, 1410). The maristan was open until 1944.

Moroccan Association of History of Medicine
Funduq-Style Building on the Site of the Former Maristan @ Fes el Bali
Ki @ Souq el-Henna (West of the Former Maristan)

The maristan may have disappeared, but a madrasa remained standing and stayed true to its purpose. Years prior my visit, I had seen a video about University of al-Qarawiyyin, also spelled Al-Karaouine or Al Quaraouiyine. The Guinness World Records hailed it as the “oldest existing, and continually operating educational institution in the world.” That fact alone was impressive enough, but what struck me was that it was regarded to be founded by a woman. In 859 CE, Fatima al-Fihri of Tunisia put up a mosque that later grew into a higher education institution. That a Muslim woman went on to occupy this significant place in Islamic history was not lost on me.

University of al-Qarawiyyin @ Fes el Bali
University of al-Qarawiyyin @ Fes el Bali

The university had since moved elsewhere in Fes, but the mosque and the library remained at the historical site. Alas, non-Muslims were not permitted to enter mosques. We could only peek through the keyhole arch’s door, thankfully flung wide open. Three children were playing around a central fountain, their laughter echoing within the courtyard walls. Fatima would be elated to see her legacy of learning benefiting generations of young Muslims.

Ki @ University of al-Qarawiyyin
University of al-Qarawiyyin @ Fes el Bali

As we made our way towards Fez River, we were stopped at our tracks twice. We had to make way for some working donkeys lumbering past us. As vehicles were not allowed in, these rather pitiful beasts of burden still delivered the goods, literally. Then vigorous chanting and clanging drew our attention to a group of street musicians in bright red tunics, performing with their brass instruments to tourists dining al fresco. The sights and sounds of the medina had barely changed over the centuries.

Delivery by Donkey @ Fes el Bali

The dozen miles or so of high ramparts have consistently shut out not only the Berber’s unwelcome person, but also his incompatible African culture. I found myself talking to a group of young Moroccan musicians who played popular urban music. I said that my experience had been that there was music practically everywhere in Morocco. He smiled. “Oh, you mean the Berbers! I’ve never heard any of their music.” The Fassi is a metropolitan, bourgeois in his habits and isolationist in this attitude. Civilization ended at the gates of the medina; outside was the wilderness.

Paul Bowles
Sights and Sounds of the Medina @ Fes el Bali

We reached the well-paved banks of Oued Fes or Fez River, the city’s main water source in the old days. Perhaps this was where the ancient water vendors filled their brass vessels. All we knew was how the government had face-lifted the riverbank into a modern promenade, a big reveal coming from the old medina. At least, they retained the city’s color of clay.

The Banks of Fez River @ Fes el Bali
Ki @ Fez River and Sebbaghin or Khrashfiyin Bridge
Sebbaghin or Khrashfiyin Bridge over Fez River @ Fes el Bali

Major restoration work was done on the ancient bridges as well. The 14th-century Sebbaghin Bridge, also called Khrashfiyin Bridge, looked majestic instead of crumbling, as I would expect a 700-year-old bridge to be. The geraniums on planters provided soft contrast against the formidable masonry all around.

Ki with Fes Boys @ Place R’cif

Finally, we walked out from the cramped and crowded medina to the space and sky of Place R’cif. The public square was, perhaps, the entrance for locals as vehicles were let in. It must be the air and sun because we had more laid-back interactions with them here than with their competitive and pressured compatriots in the medina. Also, there were just more locals milling about in the square than fellow tourists. Case in point was the aforementioned water vendor. Young Moroccan men and at least one niqāb-clad woman photobombed Ki’s photo and video. A fruit juice vendor never had to hard-sell as Ki tried two different flavors despite the swarm of bees around his cart. We finally had meaningful encounters.

TTT @ Place R’cif
Fresh Fruit Juice @ Place R’cif
Ki Having Fresh Fruit Juice @ Place R’cif
Fruits and Nuts @ Place R’cif

R’cif Mosque‘s skyline-defining minaret, one of the city’s tallest, made for a postcard-pretty panoramic shot. Both the 18th-century mosque and the 20th-century square comprised recent development in the ever-expanding medina. Its modern gate, Bab R’cif, mimicked the Blue Gate with less delicacy of form and design.

Ki and TTT @ Bab R’cif, Fes el Bali
Bab R’cif @ Fes el Bali

Through modern expansion and enhancement, Fes el Bali and the surrounding souq retained much of its original face. Apart from being Jerusalem’s twin, it also went by the moniker Athens of Africa. As those two age-old cities defied time with their well-preserved heritage, so did Fes. Even Mr. Bowles wondered about its longevity despite the changing of hands running the city:

And so at last, it is the people from outside the walls who have taken over the city, and their conquest, a natural and inevitable process, spells its doom. That it should still be here today, unchanged in its outside form, is the surprising phenomenon.

Paul Bowles
TTT @ Place R’cif and R’cif Mosque

Thank you for reading! Your support is much appreciated. Donate now:

Donate Button with Credit Cards