The spectacle of Fes el Bali
Most Moroccan cities have preserved at least portions of their medinas; Fes has preserved it all! We saw the newer part of this walled city yesterday, and today we explored the oldest part of the medina: Fes el Bali. Famous for its myraid of souks (translation = open air market) and crafts districts, Fes el Bali was an assault on our senses – in the best way possible! We had the most amazing day navigating the narrow lanes of the medina, seeing how the leather tanneries work, how the weavers make cloth from “vegetable silk”, and how other master craftsmen practice their craft according to centuries-old traditions.
Fes el Bali is the oldest part of Fes, built in 808AD as the capital of the Idrissis Dynasty. It is home to a dozen mosques, half a dozen madrasas, 156,000 inhabitants, 10,500 retail businesses, and the world’s oldest university. This walled city, with its narrow lanes* and historical buildings, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the main commercial district in Fes.
*Some streets are as narrow as 60cm and few streets are more then 4m wide. Therefore, for practical reasons, Fes el Bali remains car free, although not always motorcycle-free and certainly not donkey-free!
Space inside the walls is at a premium and the main streets were lined with thousands of small businesses. Their premises were rarely more than a few meters wide, and sometimes only a couple of meters deep. We learnt that these shops are typically family businesses, with the good inside more often than not being produced right in the medina.
We spent hours winding our way through the medina. We went through the fruit and vegetable souk, the butchers’ souk (with chickens, lamb, beef and even camel meat for sale), the tailor’s souk, the weavers district, the tanneries, the coppersmiths area, the spice souk and so much more!
We got to see weavers at work on their looms, weaving wool, cotton and “vegetable silk” into cloth the tailors from the souk next door then turn into kaftans and djellaba (translation = traditional Moroccan floor-length gown with a hood). It was great seeing how they use pedal power to work the looms, and how they extract the fibres from the leaves of desert succulents like Aloe vera to create “vegetable silk”. These fine, plant-derived fibres are stretched and braided to form strong, sikly smooth threads very similar to the regular “animal silk” from silk worm cocoons.
We even saw fezes being made – in Fes! The fez was actually developed in Morocco in the 17th century and was worn by fashionable locals for a couple of centuries before anyone noticed. Then in 1826, when Sultan Mahmud II of the Ottoman Empire, wanted to modernise his kingdom, he banned the wearing of turbans and within the Turkish army and had them wear fezes instead. In this way, fezes became a symbol of modernity throughout North Africa and the Middle East. Today the making of fezes in Fes is carried out by artisans in the fez souk.
The tanneries were the most fascinating part of the medina. Positioned right in the heart of the leather souk, the tannery is the oldest in the world. We could smell it well before we could see it, as the smells of fresh animal hides mixed with smells from the cow’s urine, pigeon poop, limstone and dyes used to make the leather. Stinky business, leather making! We got given sprigs of frsh mint to shove up our noses to try and mask the scent, but all that did was make it minty-pigeon poop/cow urine!
We got to stand on a balcony above the actual tannery and watch the men at work. From our position we could see dozens of large stone vessels, neatly arranged in rows. In one section the vats were full of water, limestone and pigeon poop – this is where the raw animal hides get soaked for a week or 2 initially to soften them and help remove the hair off them. Then there were vats filled with vegetable dyes from henna (for brown), pomegranate skin (for yellow/orange), mint (green), poppy flowers (for red leather), and indigo flowers (for blue).
When the dying process has been completed the hides are dried on the roofs of the medina. The tannery processes the hides of camels, cows, sheep and goats, turning them into soft, pliable, coloured leather than the leather tailors then turn into everything from wallets, to jackets, bags and belts. It was amazing to watch the men at work, despite the smell. It’s amazing to think they have been producing leather the same way, in the same place, for over 1,200 years! Amazing enough that we bought ourselves a couple of leather jackets! There was the usual haggling and bargaining required, but at the end of it we had ourselves a couple of soft goat skin jackets, made to measure and delivered to our hotel this evening.
As well exploring the streets of Fes el Bali, we saw inside a number of old buildings too. Most of these were 3-4 stories tall with a central courtyard about 5mx5m in size. These central courtyards allow light and airflow thrugh the building, without impacting on privacy. It’s a great way to build houses if you want to ensure peace and quiet – it seems that little of the hustle and bustle from the medina penetrates into the home when the exterior walls have no windows and just the one entry door! Many of the buildings were pretty rough on the outisde – with peeling paint and seemingly unloved exterioirs; walk within however and you enter a different world! The interiors we saw were beautifully decorated and havens of warmth and serentiy. Our guide was telling us that this aesthetic reflects the Moroccan (and broader Islamic) ideal of “beauty lies within“. That is: what matters is not the external facing or appearance, but the beauty within – within buildings, within gardens, and also within people. It’s a wonderful concept, but is ceratinly different to what we’re used to in Aus (and most of the Western world) where the emphasis seems to be perpetually on exterior beautification, often at the expense of “the beauty within”.
Our final stop was Al Karaouine, the great university of Fez founded in 859AD. It is considered the oldest continuously functioning university in the world and, during the Middle Ages, attracted intellectuals, artisans and mystics from all over Europe, Africa and the Middle East. We couldn’t go into the university itself as classes were in session, but it was still cool to learn about the university and the importance it played in Islamic history as a centre of scholarship.
As if the day wasn’t exciting enough, for dinner our guide took us to “a special place”, deep in the medina. The restaurant we were going to, Tariq said, was different in that it was run by a man and his wife in their famiy home. We weren’t quite sure what to expect with an introduction like that…., but it turned out to be the best meal we’ve had in Morocco! The family’s home was an 800 year old house, built in the typical Moroccan fashion: with a cental courtyard and roof top balcony. Unlike the average medina house, however, all the rooms on the ground floor had been converted into small dining rooms. The whole place could only accommodate 20 people at most and had a wonderful homely feel to it. We met the owners of the restaurant as they welcomed us into their home/restaurant; she then disappeared to cook our dinners for us and he served us drinks and entertained us with stories from his childhood, growing up in Fes el Bali. The food, when it arrived was incredible – we had a dish of couscouse and steamed lamb served with cumin and salt that was deceptively simple but divine, and a chicken pastille. After dinner we lingered over hot Moroccan mint tea, marvelling at the great day we’ve had and how lucky we are to be on this amazing adventure!