Thursday, December 13, 2012

Morocco at Last, or no fez from Fes

My internet access in Morocco was limited to evenings in the hotel, and after long days I didn’t post much, other than pictures.  After the day in Fes, however, the joy of the day was so great that I managed to convey it in the post below to a group of friends:

Today was a classic. The medina in Fes was so full of everything.. Smells, sounds, meat markets, people carrying live sheep for the feast of Aid al-kabir*, donkey carts, music, spices. I wish you could smell, hear see it. It was exactly what I expected from Morocco. I bought a beautiful rug for my hall and some ceramics. No fez from Fes. Tomorrow we go to Erfoud through the Atlas Mountains. The day after that, we will take the camels into the desert. The sun is setting over Fes tonight, the lights of the medina are glowing below me. Around me are the voices of Morocco - Arabic, Berber and French, and now the call to prayer.

*Note: French spelling

Fes is the oldest of the four imperial cities of Morocco.  The medina, Fes el-Bali, is the oldest and largest in Morocco and essentially has not changed in 1,000 years.  It remains the home to over 150,000 people who live in a maze of narrow twisting alleys that occasionally open onto wide squares. 

Our hotel in Fes was above the medina by the ruins of the wall from the 8th century.  The evening we arrived the lights
were twinkling below us, and the call to pray echoed from the many minarets below.  I drank a gin and tonic, as I watched the city below, and wondered what I would see in the morning.

It was a large glowing old medina that filled the panorama.  The ruins of the old walls were around my hotel and on the ridge across the valley.  There is a middle city, that in other cities would be the medina, that dates from after 1400 and is outside the old walls, but the old medina and it’s souks were so perfect, so much what we all wanted from Morocco, that we never left them to tour the rest of the city.  I will skip our trip to the Merinid Tombs and their panoramic view of the city from the other side of the Valley, and the view of the beautiful gate built in 1968 and the Jewish quarter built when the infidels (Jews and Arabs) were expelled from Spain during the Inquisition and our visits to some key craft shops because I want to talk about Fes el-Bali.
Fes is the perfect tagine of the history of Morocco.  Couscous and tagine cooking are from the Berbers, who are a mishmash of people who migrated to Morocco and remain a robust and independent people.  The ceramic tagine was drawn from the Roman practice of ceramic cooking but the nomadic Berbers, or rather Imazirn, made wonderful slow cooked one pot meals in them.  The Arabs brought the spices that bring such flavor to the food, and the French developed the wines that we would take with us to the desert.  In Fes, I found an energy, a vibrancy and a complexity that somehow is that combination of cultures that makes Morocco so unique, a 2000 year amalgam of people from all around them.

Let’s walk the Medina, see the structures that are a UNESCO World Heritage site, and try to imagine the sounds and the smells that go with what you can see in the pictures.  If you only go one place in Morocco, make it the medina of Fes the week of the Eid al-Adha, the festival of the sacrifice.
We arrived in Morocco on October 20th and from the first, in Casablanca, Rabat, and Meknes, we saw live rams, goats and sheep being kept in garages and being moved around by truck, cart and even carried.  I asked our guide Momo why people in such urban areas would keep live sheep when they could get meat from the butcher.  That is when we learned that October 26th, a night we would be in the desert, was the feast of Eid al-Adha.  It is the second most important holiday in the Muslim faith, the feast of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son.  It is tied in to completion of the Haj and Ramadan, and celebrates one of the unifying events of what Muslims consider the Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Muslim.  For the Muslims it is a combination of Thanksgiving, Easter, Passover, Hanukkah and Christmas rolled into one.  Families gather together and prepare a great feast, and the key part of that feast is the ceremonial sacrifice of an animal.  After the animal is sacrifice, it is prepared and eaten by the family and shared with friends and with the less fortunate.
The souk was like Kroger’s before thanksgiving, bustling with people traveling with a purpose.  No motorized vehicles are allowed in the souk, but donkeys were a danger in the narrow passages.  We soon learned that when we heard our Berber guide shout “yala yala yala”, it meant get against the wall before you get trampled.  Carts were pushed with the same sense of urgency.  I will take you there with my pictures.
These are some of the animals being carted around:

And here is the knife sharpener doing a brisk business so the sacrifice will be humane:

Of course non-Festival food and goods are available:

And almost anything else:

Sometimes the streets were narrow, other times they widened.  Always around us were the sounds, the smells, the glow of a medina that has remained as vibrant as it was 1,000 years ago.  It is still a place where people live, work, shop, learn and worship.

I will show you more of Fes in a latter blog.  For now I leave you with an image of the unique beauty of the medina in Fes.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Et tu Berber

Volubilis is a well preserved Roman ruin dating from 100 AD.   The Romans seemed remarkably active that year in Northern  Africa. They were in a two year siege of the Zealots in Masada, and were conquering Petra and building there at the same time.  Volubilis was a prosperous city with a temple, basilica and of course, baths.
The ruins remained of many rich homes with still vivid mosaics, further evidence of the prosperity of the Roman citizens.
Sight of the right facing swastika was startling.  Use of the swastika (the word is derived from Sanskrit) dates back over 10,000 years and is found in almost every culture.  The image is believed to have evolved from the appearance of a basket weave, and it is a symbol of good, or peace, or at least it was.  It was not until 1920, when the Nazi party adopted a left facing version of the swastika as their symbol, that it became a dreaded symbol of evil.

The settlement was large and housed merchants who served the people of the city and the Roman Legions housed there.  The shop signs were pictograms carved in stone so that illiterate customers could easily recognize the wares sold there.  Most of the signs were found in front of small shops on the main thoroughfare.
Looking at the signs above, you can see the first three, going clockwise from the upper right are for fowl, beef, and wine.  The fourth sign was located at a large venue that was well away from the main road.  Clearly the military leaders of Volubilis understood, as did Joe Hooker of American Civil War fame, what it took to entertain soldiers who are far from home.

The Romans held Volubilis until the 3rd century when they had trouble with the locals.  Their problem groups were members of what is today called the Imazirn, an independent group that is an amalgam of peoples of North Africa who have lived in the region for thousands of years.  

The Romans called them barbarians and the coast of Morocco became known as the Barbary Coast.  Sultan Moulay Ismail used pirates from the coast to capture European slaves to build Meknes.  The English changed the name to Berber.  Although it was originally an insult, Berbers today are proud of their heritage and the fact that neither the Romans, and in modern times the French were ever truly successful in dominating them. 

The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 caused significant damage to the Roman structures, which until that time were largely intact.  Further damage was caused when the site was looted to provide material for the construction of Sultan Moulay Ismail’s fortress city of Meknes.  Below is a picture of one of the Volubilis columns that is part of the Bab el Mansour.
The sun was sinking lower as we started to leave Volubilis.  As it shown through the Triumphant Arch, an older couple stood and discussed the ruins.  The woman had trouble walking, and her spouse took her arm as the sun shone around them.  There is a draw to places like this that appeals to so many different people.  I wondered what they discussed as they continued their journey.  They made a pretty picture.
We left Volubilis and headed toward Fes, traveling through large farms that looked too big to be family operations.  The terrain began to change as the hills became more pronounced and the countryside drier.  The sun painted the hills with a rosy glow. 

It was a good day.  Tonight we will see Fes.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

500 wives and 12,000 horses

There was no good estimate of the number of children the Sultan Moulay Ismail had, but it is clear that he owned a lot of property.  He made Meknes his capital and built a fortress city in the 17th Century that remains impressive today. 

Our drive from Rabat to Meknes took us away from the coast through beautiful farmland.  The road was well developed and maintained, and the farms were small family operations.  As we passed through them, everywhere, we saw men working, a site that would not be as common later in the trip.

It was a brilliant day that made the green grasses glow and the pink houses seemed warm and welcoming.  Meknes was also a glowing city that day.  The gate of El Mansour, Bab el Mansour, is a beautiful and intricate, but no longer an entrance.

We went to the entrance of Sultan Moulay’s city and toured the vast compound he had built.  It was of a magnitude that astonished, but then he was a man of great appetites.  It took a lot of stores to support a family the size of his, and 12,000 horses take up a lot of room, then of course you have to keep your prisoners somewhere.  The granary was cool and dry, but the stables were what drew me.  Their size and symmetry was beautiful, almost joyous in the bright afternoon sun. Of course, the prison where the European slaves (who built the complex) was not as cheerful.

We went next to the mausoleum of Moulay Ismail.  Although he was a brutal leader who enslaved many and killed thousands of his own subjects, he is revered and his mausoleum is a shrine.  The tile work was beautiful and it is a serene place.  We took off our shoes to enter the mosque joined a collection of tourists and people seeking baraka (blessings) by touching spots designated as holy.  The tile work glowed when it was caught in the sunlight.

Heading to lunch we saw a man flogging wool to prepare it for spinning.  Then we had a nice tagine of chicken for lunch.

It has been a busy day, but not over yet.  On to Volubilis.  Hope you are enjoying the trip.

Link to Shutterfly album on Meknes:

Monday, November 12, 2012

A Morocco state of mind

Casablanca to Marrakesh, a trek complete with camels and camping in the desert and hikes in the Atlas Mountains.  The image is there in your mind as the plane lands.  The song keeps playing on my head:  “Da dai de dai de dai..”.  The reality of Casablanca as an urban industrialized city clears that mirage, but the romance of the place is still indelibly imprinted in my heart.  Not being fools, the Casablancans built the elaborate Hassan II Mosque to draw tourists.  It is the only reason (other than the romance of it) to start a trek there.  As one of the newest, most expensive mosques in the world, smaller only that the mosques in Mecca and Medina, it is worth a few pictures:

The finest materials were used, local stone, mosaics from Fes, and cedar wood from the Atlas.  It used the best concepts from older mosques throughout Morocco and craft techniques preserved through the centuries.  Built in 1992, it has succeeded in its mission to give tourist and Moroccans a reason to stop in Casablanca.  Enough said, let’s go look for the old, beautiful, romantic Morocco of my imagination.  On to Rabat.

Driving to Rabat gave us our first glimpse of the countryside.  We stopped just outside The medina (old walled city) for lunch overlooking the Atlantic, near where the Phoenicians and Carthaginians first settled in 300 BC.  Then we walked along the beach to the old fortress walls.  From the entrance we had a view of the city, including the Hassan II Tower, an incomplete mosque abandoned in 1199 when the sultan died.  Near it is the Mausoleum of Mohammed V, a modern king. Below are pictures of the walk to and through the medina finally arriving at our hotel for the night:

After a night in Rabat, we visited the unfinished Hassan II Tower and the Mausoleum of Mohammed V, then headed out of town.

So far, Morocco has been a beautiful country with a long history and exotic sites, but it has not yet hit the mark of my expectations.  It is early in our trip, however, with much ahead.  We are heading out of town to our next destination, in sha'Allah (Arabic for God willing, and always said about plans for the future). 

For some reason, we keep seeing people, both here and in Casablanca, with live sheep.

[Note:  My blog is in the form of a travel log, taking you through my Morocco trek.  Bear with me as I discover my impressions of what was for me a journey of many dimensions.  In a later post, I will include a link to a web site with many pictures from this trip.}

Here is a shutterfly link to more Pictures from Casablanca:

And to pictures from Rabat:
If you want more pictures, click on the link

Saturday, October 20, 2012

You must remember this...

It was a movie.  It was filmed in Hollywood.  They never got close to the real place.  And yet as I walk on the Boulevard des Almohades I can't get the tune out of my mind.  The name means romance, adventure, sacrifice, star crossed lovers.

I am here, in Casablanca.

Via Madrid, part 2

Madrid is a fun place to walk. Early in the morning ( before 11) it is clean and empty. As it wakes up the action begins. Street performers are everywhere in the old city. They have imagination that sometimes makes up for a lack of talent.

During the day I encountered mime statues, talking heads, street clowns, giant bubble blowers, and friendly fellow travelers.

As darkness fell, the music began. It was a joyous way to hear the city at night. A Spanish group playing Hava Nagila of all things, a jazz/blues group sounding like they were on Jackson square.

All around were the people. There was a small group of demonstrators, a preacher shouting fire and brimstone.
One stretch a block from the police had hookers at every tree. In the whole city, they were almost the only thing that made me sad.

This city only begins to wake at a time when I usually head to bed. I look forward to my next Via here.

Via Madrid

It's not my final destination, I'm just passing through. Funny how that changes your perspective on a place. Maybe it's also because I will have another shot at this city on my way back. This visit seemed like a collage, a collection of images.

I am staying near the heart of the old town, in easy walking distance of most everything. I took one of those hop and ride tour buses and saw an overview of the key vistas. It had earphones with narration for the things we passed.

Madrid is a city of beautiful buildings and that is no accident. The voice in my ear told me the history of each. Not just why it was built, but who designed lit. The designer was often described as a sculpture or artist. Sometimes the building that used to be there before it burned was also lovingly described.

I began to see that in Madrid, they see their city as a canvas, and the attention to every detail shows. You have to look up to truly appreciate the carvings and frescoes. A sunny day would have made the warm colors glow. I have not yet been to the great museums here (on my return in a few weeks), but I found myself appreciating the art that is Madrid.

During my travels, I will be blogging on my iPad.  My pictures will show up at the bottom, and I won't be able to embed them in text... So, I will publish my blogs in parts when I think I need to.

Madrid is a good via.