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.


  1. Your descriptions made this ancient city come alive for me. It must have been an experience of a lifetime.

  2. This is so descriptive, felt like I was there! Great shots and narrative. Cissy

  3. Thanks for Your comments. I loved Fes.