Travels to Morocco Part V: Exploring History in Fez

Published in Dawn’s Prism on 22 January 2020

After a six-hour journey from Shahfshawan, we got down at the bus station in Fez, the highlight of our journey, wherein lies the oldest Islamic metropolis, that has retained its character and structure through the centuries.

We took a taxi to reach Riad al-Tayyur, or ‘House of Birds’, in Fez al-Bali, the old medina. At the small square outside Derb al-Miter, one of the many entrances to the medina, a man from the guesthouse was waiting to guide us through the alleyway.

Stainglass door at the guesthouse.

When we entered the tall arched main door of the guesthouse, stepped into the vestibule and came to the central open courtyard of the guesthouse, an alluring inner garden awaited us. At the centre of the beautifully tiled quadrangle space, lay a marble fountain inside an octagonal basin decorated with intricately patterned tilework, surrounded by four earth patches, each with a tall fruit tree at the centre ringed by herbs, plants and foliage. The verandas on four sides had seating and dining arrangements. On the main veranda were inscribed in calligraphy verses about the birds Simurgh from Shahnama and Hudhud from the Holy Quran. Underneath was a beautiful cage with a white dove perched on a delicate swing. On each veranda a tall, exquisitely painted, carved wooden door panels opened to an arched stained-glass door leading to a finely furnished guest room.

The courtyard echoed with the chirping of different birds. The manager told us the owner, a Frenchman, loves birds. On the first floor, the colonnade balcony had several more bird cages.

We had reached in the evening and came to know that Riad al Tayyur did not serve dinner. The manager recommended another guesthouse and a young man guided us through the labyrinthine alleyways. After a long tiring walk for me, we reached Der Attajalli, another guest house, this one was owned by a German woman who bought the place in 2006, renovated it and opened it as a guesthouse in 2008. “In those days, not many riads were turned in to guest houses,” the young manager told us.

Riads, or stately mansions, once owned by rich merchants and elite of the medina fell into ruin with the development of new residential areas outside the historic neighbourhood. In the 1960s and 1970s, local and foreign artists and writers bought and renovated these architectural gems to use as personal retreats. In the 1990s, with state policies promoting tourism and foreign investment, Europeans, especially the Spanish and the French, started buying property. “And now we have many riads owned and run by foreigners as guesthouses,” he said.

Courtyard of Riad al-Tayyur.

After we had a delicious tagine, another young man guided us back to Riad al Tayyur. A caring person who seemed to have all the time in the world picked up a plastic chair from a nearby kiosk and made me sit to catch my breath intermittently at suitable spots in the winding alleys. Later, I would read what Rachid Moumni, a contemporary poet from Fez, has to say about these alleyways:


What hidden melodiesNearly awaken the twisting lanes,the doors,and the slumbering roofswhat effects will be written on the earthen stairsswept cleanwith a broom of light? 

The medina of Fez has more than 9,000 alleyways and it is said unless a local guides you, you would be lost in the labyrinth. I would say you can negotiate the maze with Google maps: you need a local sim with a speedy wi-fi and a lot of patience because at times you may go bonkers with Google’s confusing direction for turns left and right. My daughter managed with her smartphone to find our way to the sprawling alleys and back to the guesthouse. But for a visit to the oldest and continually functioning university, Al Qarawiyyin, and the historic Madarsa al-Attarine and Madarsa Bou Inania, located inside the medina we sought the help of a guide.

The guide showed us the way to Derb Boutouil, a wide street inside the old quarter, where the main door of the Al- Qarawiyyin is located. When we entered the tall, wide, ancient brass door of the historic complex, a simple yet majestic structure of white columns and arches, green-tiled pyramidal roof, a quadrangle minaret and an open courtyard with a fountain at the centre lay before our eyes. I felt ashamed of my ignorance: I did not know that the first-degree awarding institution of higher education in the world was founded by a Muslim woman, Fatima al-Fihri, daughter of a wealthy merchant who migrated from Qarawan, Tunisia, and settled in Morocco.

Courtyard of Al-Qarawiyyin.
The Al Qarawiyyin complex comprising a madrassa, a mosque, and a library was established by her in 859 CE in the city of Fez. The list of alumni of this school includes historian Ibn Khaldun, geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi, philosophers Ibn-e-Rushd and Abu Imran Musa. The institution was expanded over the centuries by different Muslim rulers.

In 1947, Al-Qawariyyin was integrated into the state educational system and in 1963 as a university and the campus shifted to another building outside the medina. Besides Fez, Jami’a Al-Qarawiyyine has a faculty each in Marrakech, Tétouan and Agadir. The library which is part of the complex in Fez, with a collection of 30,000 old manuscripts, including one of the oldest copies of the Holy Quran in the world, is not open to the public. We sat for some time in the women’s prayer gallery of the Al-Qarawiyyine mosque. There were many old women in abaya and kaftan with tasbih in their hands. Children played at and men performed ablution at the fountain.

The guide, who was waiting outside, led us to Madarsa al-Attarine, named for its location at the entrance of the spice and perfume market, Souk al-Attarine. Built in 1325, as an annexe for nearby Al-Qawariyyin, by Sultan Abu Sa’id Usman II, the Madarsa al-Attarine has a rectangular courtyard that opens to a prayer hall lined by small rooms which once served as students’ accommodation. It was calm and peaceful inside, with just a Moroccan couple and a few tourists admiring the filigreed arches, walls decorated with intricate, multi-coloured, hand-cut zellij (glazed tile) patterns, beautifully calligraphy of verses from the Holy Quran, cedar lattice and intricately carved wooden eaves and awnings.

Medina of Fez is the largest automobile-free, pedestrian-friendly area in the world. Aside from hand-carts, once in a while we came across mules, donkeys and horses, carting food supplies and other stuff to the souks and construction material to the sites under renovation or repair. We walked down further and after a 10-minute stroll reached another massive brass entrance door of Madarsa Bou Inania at Rue Tal’a Kabira.

A view of Madarsa Bou Inania.
Built by Sultan Bou Inan in 1357, the madrassah was restored in the 18th century and again during 1994 to 2004. Another gem of Islamic architecture, its grandeur artistry displayed in stone, marble, plaster, wood and ceramic is breath-taking. All these historical places, restored in their glory, preserved and maintained so meticulously, made me wonder why we, in Pakistan, have failed to preserve our heritage, let many of the historic structures come to ruin, and why the restored structures indicate lack of skills, poor aesthetics and apathy towards the original finesse? One of the reasons on reflections after my visit to Morocco appears to be the lack of continuity of historic craftsmanship in Pakistan and a disconnect between the past and the present. Moroccan society has preserved their traditional arts and crafts and refined the skills through new tools, technology and training.
A woman painter at the ceramics workshop.
Another factor that seems to have played a role in the preservation of traditional crafts in Morocco is artisans’ cooperatives. After the visit to Madarsa Bou Inan, our guide took us to Herboriste Zaouia, a shop full of herbs, argan oil products, lotions, organic soaps and cosmetics. This was an outlet of a women’s cooperative, we were told. An old woman sitting on the floor with baskets of organic ingredients was crushing argan nuts. I learned that there are around 12,000 cooperatives, mostly of agricultural products. Of these, argan oil products are prepared by women’s cooperatives. In Morocco, artisans’ cooperatives date back to 1930s. After the land reforms in 1972, the state encouraged the formation of agricultural cooperatives. A supportive legal framework has led to a flourishing of cooperatives in recent years. From the young saleswoman at Herboriste Zaouia, I bought some zafraan, kalonji, and organic soap.

The next morning, we set out to explore the city of Fez outside the medina, to have a look at the new city. Our taxi driver, a middle-aged man called Abdul Qadir, drove us first to the southern Burj (tower). The tower was closed. The structure looked ancient with its mud-coloured stone walls and iron-grilled, arched-shaped roshandaan, indicating restoration, good upkeep and care, quite unlike historic structures in our country. Built on a hilltop in 1544 by the Saadian, the ramparts provide a panoramic view of Fez al-Bali and Fez al-Jadid. From here, you can have a holistic view of the city of Fez. The historic city, Fez al-Bali, was founded on the right bank of the Jawhar river by Idris ibn Abdullah in 789. The new city, Fez Jedid, I learned, dates back to 1276. It is amazing how these two historic parts blend and connect with each other and with the new urban spaces that have been added to Fez Jedid in modern times. There were a few tourists at the fenced terrace. We looked down at the sprawling medina, the rooftops embellished with satellite dishes, the winding highway and the road network leading to new urban spaces.

Inside a ceramics workshop.

From the south Burj, the taxi driver took us to a ceramics workshop Artargile — located at Hay Lala Yakout in the potters’ quarter Ain Nokbi — where pottery and mosaic-tiled objects such as fountains, water basins, tables, fireplaces, etc. are handcrafted. Owned and run by the Lahkim family of artisans, the workshop had several sections for processes of pottery making and zellij tile work. A guide took us to each section. He told us that the potters’ quarter was located near the souks but owing to pollution from the kilns the government moved it outside the medina near the southern ramparts. The clay is sourced from the surrounding hills, soaked in water for days, kneaded and wedged, put into forms through potter’s wheel, dried in sun, baked in a kiln, glazed, decorated through drawing and then meticulously painted. We saw several women in the painting section. We also saw the making of zellij the mosaic tile-work: how square-shaped small tiles, painted on one side, are chiselled into tiny geometrical pieces and then put together to make a pattern.

The Artargile outlet had very expensive pottery and objects d’art on sale. I understood that the company was paying commission to the drivers who bring visitors to the workshop and the outlet. We bought a couple of small objects. The visit was worth it. Our taxi driver then took us to Chouwara Tanneries. Located at Hay Lablida, rue Chowara near the Madarsa al-Saffarin, in the old city along the river, the tanneries were built in the 11th century. We were taken to a three-storey labyrinthine building comprising leathercraft shops and narrow staircases leading to a couple of terraces. Everyone going upstairs was given mint twigs to ward off the pungent smell of the tanneries. The tanneries are run jointly by 20 families who live in the surrounding buildings, the guide told us.

Chouwara Tanneries.

From the terrace we had an amazing view of the ancient tanneries. Square-shaped stone vats were filled with white liquids where the hides of cows, goats, sheep and camels are soaked for cleaning and softening. Brown circular stone vats held dyeing solutions made from natural colourants — red from poppy flowers, orange form henna, yellow from saffron, green from mint, blue from indigo, and brown from cedarwood. On the roofs of adjoining buildings, hides dyed yellow lay in rows for drying. We were told that this month (July) of the year is suitable for dyeing shades of brown, grey and yellow. The spring months are allocated to vivid colours such as red and green.

On our way back to the guesthouse, the driver showed us the Royal Palace دار المخزن, spread on 80 hectares. The palace has seven arched golden gates leading to beautiful gardens, mosques and a 14th-century madrassah, we were told. The tallest and the biggest brass gate, ornamented with zellij tile work and cedar wood carving, was being cleaned when we visited it. The palace is not open for public viewing. The King uses the Palace when he visits Fez.

The taxi then drove through the Jewish quarter Mellah located near the Royal Palace. Literally meaning ‘the saline area’, Mellah was established in 1438 to house the Jews driven out from Spain. Almost all Moroccan Jews have now emigrated to Israel, the US and Canada. “Rich merchants have now opened gold jewellery shops in this area,” the driver told us. Morocco had the largest Jewish community in the world until 1948. “Very few Jews have remained in Fez,” the driver said. A synagogue still functions for those who opted to stay.

A destination on our ‘must visit’ list was an English bookstore in Fez. We did not come across many bookstores anywhere. The few book shops we encountered inside the medinas of various cities and outside had books only in Arabic or French languages. We wanted to buy books by Moroccan authors translated in English, or books about Morocco written originally in English. We came to know about the American Language Center, which has an English bookstore on its premises. Through the help of Google maps and the taxi driver, we reached the language centre. The courtyard and garden bustled with activities: young Moroccans boys and girls, fetching tea and snacks from the canteen, sitting in groups, proceeding or coming out of the classrooms. We were thrilled to find its bookstore full of African-Arabic literature translated in English and books about Morocco. We stayed for a long time browsing and deciding which book to buy and which to let go for want of budget.

Just across Derb al-Mitr, the entrance leading to Riad al Tayyur, was an alleyway that opened to a souk dotted with cafés and tea shops. The man who served lunch at a café told us about the music sessions in the afternoon. “You should come. It is good music. You will like it.”

Gnawa music session.

In the evening we were taken upstairs. It was a small dining area and at the front were seated the ensemble of the musicians — three young men in skullcaps. The one in white dress held iron castanets called qraaqab with a drum in front of him. The man in the centre with gold-rimmed black waistcoat and matching trouser, was playing a three-string lute hajhuj and the youth in green t-shirt was singing gnawa, a form of ancient African-Islamic music accompanied with Sufi poetry, akin to a qawwali, I would say. We were served green tea in tumblers half filled with fresh mint leaves. A woman, looked like she was from east Africa, rose from her chair and started to whirl — with her hair loose — at the rhythmic lyrics.

Next morning, it was time to leave the enchanted city. We packed our bags. The man in the riad helped us carry the bags to Derb al-Mitr taxi stand. The taxi dropped us at the train station. As the train proceeded to Marrakech, I kept wondering about the Fez medina. I had never seen such a city anywhere in the world: a city built more than a thousand years ago by Muslims, never demolished but continually restored, repaired, renovated; the medina has narrow cobble-stoned alleys as well as wide mosaic-tiled beautifully covered streets as in modern shopping malls. Souks are organised around merchandise and services. You would find quarters of meat sellers, vegetable and fruit vendors, kitchen utensils, tailors, tile-makers. We even came across an entire souk devoted to the preparation of wedding dresses and wedding paraphernalia. The historic city is sustained until today on traditional industries — tanneries, ceramics, textile, soap-making, flour mills, woodwork, and is served by efficient networks of utility services — sewerage, garbage disposal.

Fez Railway Station.

Culturally evolving, the medina has embraced changing times — empowerment of women and the emergence of female-headed households. I remember different shops in the medina run by women. A female ceramics shop owner, confident and cloaked in an abaya, from whom we bought pottery, told me she was managing the shop since the last 12 years with the help of her daughter and a saleswoman. Perhaps, the only change that has come about relates to the socio-economic status of its residents: most of the rich have moved to the new neighbourhoods outside the medina while retaining or selling their mansions to the hospitality industry. Remember, you cannot park your car in the medina. There is no space for automobiles. The middle and lower-middle-class and well-to-do merchants have remained for the old urban fabric still seems to provide a strong support network and a sense of collective identity, and of course, economic opportunities.

View this article on Dawn’s website.

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