Morocco 2017 – Fez Day 2: tiles, souks and cemeteries

We’re off to see the Souk!

Wafi, our local guide for today, meets us at our hotel and rides with us to our first stop. In the car he gives us a brief history of Fez el Bali, the original medina-city.

  • It is the second oldest city in the world after Jerusalem, and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1989.  It lays claim to the first psychiatric hospital in the world, as well as the first surgical hospital, the oldest university and library, and the world’s 3rd largest mosque behind Mecca and Medina.  A US flag marks the veterinary hospital, which was also founded by a woman.

Fez has been predominately Muslim since 789. In spite of that, almost every city in Morocco has a Jewish quarter, and Fez is no exception.  Our first stop is the Jewish Cemetery, one of the oldest in Morocco.  I remarked on the square openings at the end of some of the sarcophagi, and learned that it was where a lit candle would be placed for the dead. A little further on was a section where 500 children were buried in unmarked graves, most of them dating from the 1930s-40s.  I learned later that there were both malaria and cholera epidemics that crossed North Africa during that time, and wondered if that was a contributing factor.

Our next stop is the Royal Palace, with a huge, nearly empty courtyard and scant police presence. Wafi explained the colors of the uniforms and the branches of the armed services that the officers represented, and cautioned us against photographing anyone in uniform in Morocco.

The general populace is not allowed beyond the grand brass doors, but there’s plenty to look at from this side of the gate. Wafi said that nearby residents keep an eye on the doors, and when they see workmen polishing the doors with lemon juice, they know the King will be in residence within the week.  

I note the patina brass gutter along the top of the door, just under one of the mosaic archways. The knockers on the main doors are well above my head, and about the size of dinner plates.

Our next stop is an outdoor mosque, marked by an immense flat circle on a hilltop offering a panoramic view of the old medina and a graveyard that dwarfed Arlington cemetery in Virginia.  There’s a minbar at the East side, painted yellow, and gates with green tiled roofs at the other compass points. Services are held here during the summer when enclosed buildings are too hot. I can’t even estimate the size of this place. The view is outstanding.

Next stop, the Art D’Argile Tile Factory.  What a fascinating place! They produce wares mostly for restaurants, from a white lead free clay which is very hard to break. We watch a potter with an electric kickwheel, pull small goblets off of a mountain of wet clay at the rate of one every 45 seconds. He then whipped out a small tagine, the size that Moroccans use for mezze dishes, with a perfectly fitting lid, without the aid of a template or any form of measure beyond his hands and eyes.  

I stop to watch a craftsman painting a pot, nearly freehand with the exception of equally spaced vertical pencil lines on the outside of the piece. The flourishes between the geometric shapes were completely freehand and as even as could possibly be.  I bet he’s done that design a million times… 

Past the glaze room and the kiln that was tall enough for a man to stand in, were the mosaic tile cutters. Ahmed, the manager who was guiding us through the factory, explained that Roman mosaic work has 4 shapes, compared to Zellige – Moroccan mosaic – which is made up of 700 shapes.  I learned from the museum at the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca that the white clay is hydrated, kneaded and rolled out before being cut into tiles.  The tiles are fired at 1000 degrees Celsius, and then enameled and fired again at 800 degrees Celsius. 

The tiles are then marked and cut with a hammer.  Ahmed led us to the pair of tile cutters, who cut precise shapes (called ‘froma’) at an alarming speed, using a hammer with a flat chisel where the claws would be on a carpenter’s hammer. Piles of cut pieces and shards were at least a foot deep on the floor at their feet. The froma are chiseled on the back, which is also different from tiles I have seen everywhere else.  This allows the froma to butt up against eachother, with the mortar (called ‘hamri’) filling in the backside to produce the panel. Additional photos are at Daveno Travels.

We shop the gift show and then I wander out into the back courtyard, where I find a fountain sitting in the center of a star-shaped mosaic sampler.  I’m literally on my hands and knees taking photos of individual tiles, aware that a couple of older gentlemen are watching me as they sip their tea.  When I am done with my camera, Wafi comes over to forward a compliment on my djellaba (the one from Chefchaouen) and relays that one of the gentlemen who have been watching me, wants to know if they can buy it from me for their wife if I ever find my luggage …

We pile back into the car and we are at last, off to see the souk.  Mohamed drops us off outside the medina wall, and we enter the snake-like labyrinth of alleyways, some dark with filtered light, others open to the sky, twisting through open courtyards and then back into covered alleys.  Wafi says its really easy to get lost here…

The souk, in addition to being the ‘shopping mall’ of the medina, also houses several historic sites. The first one we see is also the one I’ve been most excited about – the Qarawiyyin Library, the oldest working library in the world. Established originally as a mosque by Fatima Al-Fihre in 859, it houses 4,000 rare books and manuscripts, and was at one time attached to a university which has since moved to another part of Fez.

We stop for a glimpse of the Kairaouine Mosque.  As with all mosques in Morocco, non-Muslims cannot enter but we saw a little of the gleaming white courtyard through the heavy gate doors.

We enter via a staircase, a beautifully restored building that was either originally a caravansary (traveler’s rest) our or a fondouk (another form of lodging for traders and their mules), which now houses a women’s weaving cooperative.  At the top of the building I find a woman at her carpet loom.  The back of the loom faces the room, so I peer around to get a glimpse of the rug, and the weaver invites me to sit with her on her workbench.  (Photos courtesy of Mark Charteris)

She shows me how she ties the knots, and then hands pieces of wool to me so I can try.  I expect to get a couple of pieces, but she continues to hand them to me until the row is finished.  She hands me a pair of barbers shears to trim the pile, but I decline as I am terrified of ruining her work.  She hacks off the yarns with some abandon, and starts her next row.   What an experience that was!

The next flight of stairs takes us up to the top of another shop, this one filled with leather goods. The top floor is open to the air, and overlooks the Choura Tannery, one of the three largest in this souk. There are dozens of vats, with men scraping hides from goats, sheep and cows.  Although we were warned of the stench, and handed sprigs of mint to hold under our noses, I don’t find the aroma that overpowering, and ultimately I just eat the mint.  

The vats include mordants made from lime, salt and pigeon droppings, and there are cages of pigeons nearby to supply the droppings.  Colors are only derived from natural organic sources, and there are several steps in the process of tanning, ending with skins in every imaginable color, grade, suppleness and sheen.  This shop sells handbags, coats and leather ottomans made from the leathers dyed in these vats.

After lunch at Restaurant Asmire, we find another leather shop, and I find a pair of delightful turquoise leather mules with upturned toes.  A nearby textile shop draws us in, and after a few minutes, we are seated and served tea. The shopkeeper teaches us about fibers, and shows us an agave leaf which is stripped for its fiber and blended with cotton to make scarves, shawls and other garments. He then starts unrolling lengths of woven goods in a process similar to buying a carpet in Istanbul.  I excuse myself from that process but I find a traditional fez here for my brother, and try on one of the conical slave hats that our waiter was wearing at lunch.  I buy the fez, and leave the conical hat behind.  But it gets presented to me in the car, a gift from Mark and Catherine, whose generosity seems to be endless.  I wear it to breakfast the following day.

We barely scratched the surface of the souk in Fez el Bali, and did not venture very far into the medina.  There are also two other medina’s in Fez – Fez el Jdid, established in the 13th century, and Ville Nouvelle, built by the French in the 19th century.  We did not visit those sections either. To learn more about its history, click here.  

It would take a week to see all the major sites in this city.  If I ever return to Fez, my list of things to see includes the Batha Museum (of Moroccan craft), and the Arms Museum, housed in a 16th century fortress. Additional photos are collected at Daveno Travels and several boards on Pinterest.

Tonight, Brenda, Catherine and Mark have opted to stay in,  so I join Doug and Mohamed for dinner at a nearby BBQ house.  It was a meal of meat, meat and more meat, but it sure was tasty.  Then, it’s back to the hotel to pack.

No sleeping though – I’m way too excited. Tomorrow’s destination is Merzouga and the Red Dunes of the Western Sahara. And camels!

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