Morocco 2017: A Tile Factory, a Library and a Souk in Fez – The Director’s Cut

My original travel journals were split across August Phoenix Hats and a few other websites. February 2021 marked the 12th anniversary of the beginning of my travels. To keep myself sane during the pandemic lockdown, I started reissuing my journals as Director’s Cuts, with the complete text and additional photos.  

My travels have taken me through Italy, Turkey and Spain. In 2017 I hit the top of my bucket list with a belated birthday gift to myself – a guided trip to Morocco. Today we learn how tiles are made, and visit one of the world’s oldest working libraries.

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 (founded by a woman), and the world’s 3rd largest mosque behind Mecca and Medina.  A US flag marks the veterinary hospital (also founded by a woman).

Fez has been predominately Muslim since 789; yet 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, dating to the 7th-8th centuries.  I remarked on the square openings at the end of some of the sarcophagi, and learn that it is where a candle is lit for the dead. There’s a sad section (shown at lower right) where 500 children are buried in unmarked graves, most of them dating from the 1930s-40s, which I believe coincides with malaria and cholera epidemics that crossed North Africa during that time.

Our next stop is the Royal Palace, with its huge, nearly empty courtyard and scant police presence (His Majesty is currently in Casablanca). 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 them with lemon juice, they know the King will be in residence within the week. The knockers on the main doors are well above my head, and about the size of dinner plates.  I note the patina’d brass gutter along the top of the door, just under one of the mosaic archways.

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 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.

Our next stop is 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. Ahmed, the manager, gives us a guided tour.

We watch a potter with an electric kickwheel as he pulls small goblets off of a mountain of wet clay at the rate of one every 45 seconds. He then whips 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 pair of artisans as they paint bowls with a design executed freehand between equally spaced vertical pencil lines on the outside of the pieces. The flourishes between the geometric shapes are as even as they could possibly be.  I bet they’ve done that design a million times… 

This is the biggest kiln I’ve ever seen. I learned that a master firer is called a maestro, and that they used to use olive pits to fuel their fire, but now they run on gas.

Past the glaze room and the kiln is the room where the mosaic tile cutters work. Ahmed explain that Roman mosaic work has 4 shapes, compared to Zellige – Moroccan mosaic – which is made up of 700 shapes.  I remember from the madrassa museum in Casablanca that 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. We watch as a pair of tile cutters cut precise shapes (called ‘froma’) at an alarming speed, using a chisel 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 each other, with the mortar (called ‘hamri’) filling in the backside to produce the panel, without interrupting the surface design.

While my travel companions are making their purchases in the gift shop, I’m in the back courtyard, photographing what looks like a tile sampler that surrounds a fountain. 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 finish, Wafi forwards a compliment from the gentlemen on my djellaba. He has explained to the gentlemen that I arrived in Morocco without a suitcase, and relays that one of the gentlemen wants to know if they can buy the djellaba from me for their wife if I ever find my luggage…

We pile back into the car and at last, we are 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 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. It remains the oldest working library in the world.

There is beautiful wooden fretwork that separates the reading room from the book stacks, and I notice that the design mirrors the fretwork on the outside of the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca. I was a little irritated that I could not get to the book stacks, so I reached through the wooden fretwork to snap a shot, fearful of dropping my camera out of reach.

The next structure we enter is a beautifully restored caravansary (traveler’s rest) that now houses a women’s weaving cooperative.

At the top of the building we find a woman at her carpet loom.  The back of the loom faces the room, so I walk around to get a glimpse of the rug, and the weaver invites me to sit with her on her workbench. She shows me how make what I recognize as a Ghordes knot, and then hands pieces of wool to me so I can try.  (Photos courtesy of Mark Charteris)

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 hacks off the row in a matter of seconds. What an experience!

The alley leading to the Tannery Quarter in the souk is retrofitted with crossbeams that Wafi says “prevent the walls from toppling like dominos during an earthquake.” The next flight of stairs takes us up to 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 nibble on 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.

We stop for lunch at Restaurant Asmire, where, after we place our lunch order, we sorta wish we hadn’t, because our table is promptly covered with so many meze dishes it was like eating lunch twice! Our waiter is dressed traditionally, 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 sprinkles our hands with rose water from the silver decanter shown below.

After lunch, 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, a process I excuse myself from. I find a traditional fez here for my brother, and try on one of the conical hats that our waiter was wearing at lunch.  I buy the fez, but leave the conical hat behind.  I find it in the car – a gift from sneaky Mark and Catherine, whose generosity seems to be endless.  I wear it to breakfast the following day.

I believe this woman was making the pancakes that I would enjoy for breakfasts in Morocco. She started by taking a piece of dough about the size of an egg, and work it out on an oiled board until it was paper thin. The dark thing to her left is an egg-shapped iron, which she laid the dough over to cook. The finished pancakes were tossed into the aluminum basin at lower left. I had to pay a coin to take these photos, but I think she was worth it : )

We barely scratch the surface of the souk in Fez el Bali, and do not venture very far into the medina.  There are also two other medinas 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. 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.

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.  I ride along with Doug as he rushes to the cleaners just before they close. I pack for our departure the next day.

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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