Following breakfast in our riad, we began a full-day exploration of Fez with our local guide Mohammed. First stop was the Palais Royle or Dar el-Makhzen, used by the King when he is in Fes; it is not open to the public still worth a visit just to see the magnificent 7 golden gates that mark the entrance to the palace. I can only imagine how grand it is inside.
From the beautiful Palais Royale we time traveled back to the 14th century, entering the medina of Fes considered the world’s most well preserved medieval city, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We start by exploring the traditional Jewish quarter, called the mellah and move on through the maze of narrow streets and tiny lanes of the 9th century medina. We visited the 17th century Ibn Danan Synagogue, entering through a simple doorway indistinguishable from the doors of nearby houses. Inside the walls are wainscoted with blue figured Moroccan tiles and a large carved wooden cupboard filling the width of an entire wall contains the Torah.
Climbing rickety stairs to the roof we got a bird’s eye view of the medina and of the Jewish cemetery just outside; it is one of the oldest cemeteries in Morocco. People still live in these crumbling buildings, walls are reinforced with 2x4s and patches made here and there. I can’t even imagine what the inside of these residences look like because one thing that I have learned is that you cannot judge a building by the exterior appearance here in Morocco.
From here we move on to the more “modern” 14th century medina and souks where craftsmen still produce beautiful copper pots sitting outside on stools banging away. Inside dark doorways men sit at sewing machines with just a bare bulb for light, inside other dimly lit doorways men work with wood or large looms creating beautiful hand-crafted products, pieces of art really; I wonder how they can see what they are doing. All through the narrow lanes vendors sit outside their stalls conversing the day away with their neighbors while people rush by; very little sunlight penetrates here and every inch of space is filled with bazaars, cafés, shops, donkeys, and people. Even though it is 2016 it feels that this could be any century in the past millennium.
Life becomes very real here as chickens count their lives in minutes and the heads of animals hang over the cut meat so you can tell what animal your meat is coming from. It is not for the squeamish and I won’t post any photos, I am sure you can imagine what that looks like and I find I it strange that there are no horrible smells emanating from the butcher shops, the meat is that fresh. So as unsettling as it is to see dead animals hanging it also seems quite natural here and there is an authenticity that we have forgotten about in our shrink-wrapped world.
Mohammed took us to a small cafe where we could sit above the crowd and enjoy a cup of mint tea while trying to digest all that we had seen. Sensory overload!
Still inside the walls is the beautiful Zaouia (shrine), dedicated to Moulay Idriss II who ruled Morocco from 807-828 and is the patron saint and founder of Fes. Muslims make pilgrimages here in the hope that they will gain good luck.
It is believed that Idriss II is a descendent of the prophet Mohammed and that he has superpowers even in his death; he can change lives of people so people come to this wall, throw a coin through that hole put their hands on the octagonal star and make a wish…
We aren’t done yet with the old city . . . there are still the tanneries and a wonderful weaving shop where agave silk scarves are woven.
The tanneries are quite amazing, hides are brought here from all over to be processed and dyed; it is a toxic process involving soaking the hides for a number of days in either urine or pigeon poop to soften them and to remove the hair before they are moved to the dye baths. The smell is enough to knock you out. Before going up to the roof where you get a good overview of the dying area you are handed fresh mint to hold under your nose to help with the odor. The products for sale are all priced based on color and type of hide with goatskin being the softest and most expensive to sheepskin the coarsest and least expensive, the color ranges from the most expensive yellow (saffron) to black, the least expensive. The jackets and purses are beautifully tailored and they will alter them for you and deliver to your read, purchases were made (not by me). I don’t think I will every look at leather purses or shoes the same again.