We’re off to see the Souk!
Wafi, our local guide for today, meets is in front of the Hotel Volubilis, and gives us a little history of Fez el Bali, the original medina-city.
- Fez is the second oldest city in the world after Jerusalem. It lays claim to the first psychiatric hospital in the world, as well as the first surgical hospital, the oldest university and library (coincidentally, founded by a woman) and the world’s 3rd largest mosque.
Our visit today includes the Fez el Bali medina, although we didn’t leave the souk. To learn more about its history, click here.
Fez has been predominately Muslim since 789. And yet, almost every city in Morocco has a Jewish quarter. Our first stop is the Jewish Cemetery, one of the oldest in Morocco, dating to the 7th-8th centuries. There’s a sad section here where 500 children are buried in unmarked graves, most from 1930s-40s, which I believe coincides with malaria and cholera epidemics that crossed North Africa at that time.
The Royal Palace is huge, with a nearly empty courtyard and scant police presence (His Majesty is currently in Casablanca). The general populace is not allowed beyond the grand brass doors, but there’s plenty to look at from this side of the gate. The knockers on the main doors are well above my head, and about the size of dinner plates
Wafi takes us to 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 the US. Services are held here during the summer when enclosed buildings are too hot.
Next stop, the Art D’Argile Tile Factory which produces mostly restaurant ware. We watch a potter pull small goblets off his electric kickwheel, one about every 45 seconds. He then whipped out a small tagine with a perfectly fitting lid, without the aid of a template or measure beyond his hands and eyes.
Another pair of craftspeople paint pot nearly freehand. I bet they’ve done those designs a million times…
Ahmed, the manager, takes us into the mosaic section where tile cutters are using hammer chisels to make Zellige – Moroccan mosaic tiles. We watch a pair of tile cutters, using a hammer chisel at an alarming speed. The chiseled backs allow the pieces to butt up against each other, and not be interrupted by mortar.
While my travel companions are making their purchases in the gift shop, I’m in the back courtyard, photographing tile. Two older gentlemen are watching me as they sip their tea, and Wafi is instructed to convey their compliments on my djellaba, and if they can buy it for their wife if I find my luggage …
At last, we’re off to see the souk – a snake-like labyrinth of alleyways, twisting through open courtyards and then back into covered alleys.
The souk, in addition to being the shopping area of the medina, also houses several historic sites. I’ve been waiting all trip to see the Qarawiyyin Library, established originally as a mosque by Fatima Al-Fihre in 859, it houses 4,000 rare books and manuscripts. It remains the oldest working library in the world.
We next enter a beautifully restored caravansary that now houses a women’s weaving cooperative.
On the top floor we find a loom, and when I peer around the side, the weaver invites me to sit down beside her. She shows me how make a knot, 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 barber’s shears to trim the pile, but I’m too afraid of ruining her work, so she snips the row in a matter of seconds. What an experience!
The next flight of stairs takes us up to the top of a leather goods shop, overlooking the Choura Tannery, one of the three largest in this souk. Although we were warned of the stench, and handed sprigs of fresh mint to hold under our noses, I don’t find the aroma that overpowering, and ultimately I ate my mint.
We stop for lunch at Restaurant Asmire, where, after we place our lunch order, we sorta wish we hadn’t, because our table was covered with so many meze dishes it was like eating lunch twice! Our waiter is dressed trad, including a wonderful pouch that he graciously posed for so I could snap a shot while he was pouring our tea. At the end of the meal, he sprinkled our hands with rose water from the silver decanter shown below.
Back in the souk, we wander into another leather shop where I buy a pair of turquoise slippers with upturned toes (yay new shoes!).
I join Doug and Mohamed for dinner at a nearby BBQ house and run errands with Doug as he rushes to the cleaners just before they close. I pack for our departure the next day to Merzouga, and dream of the Red Dunes…
- For my full text journal which includes additional historic notes, travel tips, and additional photos of the souk and caravansary, please visit August Phoenix Hats.