If you’ve heard of Fes, Morocco’s second largest city, you may have heard of its UNESCO-listed medina, Fes el Bali. Medinas, or ancient walled cities, are found all across North Africa, but this one is special. Founded by Moulay Idriss II at the end of the 8th century, and packed with early Islamic architecture (including the world’s oldest university), it’s considered the best-preserved medina in the Arab world. People say that delving into Fes el Bali is like stepping back into the Middle Ages, and on Day Four of our Intrepid Best of Morocco trip, my group and I are ready for some time travel.
Led by our local guide, Aziz, we enter the Medina through a gate in the wall, inching through mudbrick passages as narrow as slot canyons. Here, the houses front directly onto the street, although it’s hard to tell as most are enclosed behind old walls. Our guide explains the reason: traditionally, Muslims aren’t splashy about their wealth. The ubiquitous Hand of Fatima appears at many a door, protecting residents from evil spirits.
When the Idrissids built the Old Medina, they designed a labyrinth of narrow, winding streets to keep enemy soldiers on horseback out. And labyrinth it is. Around every turn is another turn, and the deeper you get, the easier it is to get lost. Although you’d survive without one, it’s definitely worth hiring a local guide to show you around. Even Fassis (Fes natives) visiting the Old Medina lose their way sometimes.
Fes el Bali is the largest car-free urban zone in the world. Transport is by mule, donkey, handcart and bicycle only. Outside the city gates, Aziz had equipped us with one vital word: “balac”. Roughly translated: “Get the @#$& out of the way!”. If you hear a gruff “balac” behind you, you’ve got a few seconds to move before a donkey – laden with firewood or animal hides – comes crashing into you. Hear “balacbalacbalac!”? Well, it’s too late.
The Medina is divided into themed bazaars, or ‘souqs’ – meat, spices, leather, carpets – each accompanied by distinct sights, sounds and smells. In Place Seffarine, the air rings with the banging of coppersmiths; in the meat souq, butchers cheerfully hang camel heads outside their stalls to announce a new batch of dromedary. You can get just about anything in the Medina, from musical instruments and olives to ornate wedding carriages and tiny, sad tortoises.
Fes is famous for its tanneries. The oldest and largest is Chouara, where manufacturing practices have barely changed since the Middle Ages. Goat, sheep, cow and camel pelts are cleaned and softened using cow urine, quicklime and pigeon poop, then soaked in tubs filled with natural dyes – saffron for yellow, poppies for red, mint for green. The tanneries are renowned for their pungent aroma (visitors are given a fistful of mint to stem the stench).
The souqs aren’t just a place where people come to sell their wares; they’re a center of industry. Everywhere we look, people are busy at work – gutting fish, cutting leather, working brightly strung looms into coarse Berber carpets. In many ways, Morocco still operates as a small business economy. Locals shop at markets and buy directly from farmers and craftsmen. Industry in Fes el Bali is a well-oiled machine that has been grinding the same cogs for centuries.
We pass a bakery, where women bake flat loaves of bread in communal ovens. It’s the equivalent of the modern water-cooler: a hive of gossip and activity (and once, matchmaking). A few doors down, tagines roast in ash used to heat an upstairs hamam, another example of Moroccan ingenuity.
The old spice quarter is now more of a Moroccan China Town. Vendors hawk cheap jewelry, toys and electronics, their prices jumping aerobically. In stark contrast, we see men teaching their sons the art of tile restoration at a ceramics center. If these skills are lost, Aziz explains, so too will the heritage of Fes’ ancient madrassas (religious schools), mosques, palaces and riads.
As we wander, we pass clutches of old men dealing cards in alleyways. TVs blare from inside gloomy enclaves, their owners flicking through phones. When call to prayer bounces around the city walls, people quietly unfold mats or head for the nearest mosque. The huge apartment buildings bristle with satellite dishes, watching over the city like a sea of extraterrestrial eyes. Old ways persist, but touches of the new are everywhere. Life in Fes el Bali is both different and no different to anywhere else on earth.
Towards the end of the day, we meet a group of kids throwing a spinning top. They smile shyly as we pass before returning to their game, shrieking with delight. Times may be changing, but there’s still a lot of life in these old city walls.
Have you ever lost yourself in a Moroccan souq?
Had your senses offended at a tannery?
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