We woke up a little late after sleeping like the dead in our beautiful windowless riad room. A wonderful shower and a big breakfast before heading down to meet Sallam and Hassan for our tour of Fes, the oldest big city in the world. It was founded around 789CE by Idriss the first (on the east bank of the river) and around 809CE by Idriss the second (on the West Bank)
We jumped in the van to head to the New Medina, Fes el-Jdid, which was built in the 14th century. The air was crisp as the city awakened with the honk of a horn and the shuffle of feet. We crossed the street to one of the many palaces of King Mohammad VI, part of the Alawi Dynasty. Hassan gave us the most thorough tour we could imagine. Starting at the palace doors and not ending until after 5pm.
The detail in the palace doors was a glimpse of what one would see inside the gates and it was breathtaking. The amount of hand controlled craftsmanship in every secret corner of this city shows more talent than I will amass in my whole life. Sometimes the craft is handed down generation after generation. Counting the stones made into stars could take hours and make the detail just that much more beautiful.
We walked over to the Jewish Cemetery. A hill of white. The air filled faintly with orange and incense as the tops of the graves appeared as rolling snow covered hills. Hassan shared the stories of Rabbi Yehuda Ben Attar and Lalla Suleika (Solica) as we sat under the shade of a tree. We closed our eyes and watched as the young teen Solica was persecuted for her beauty and refusal to convert to Islam while listening to the practiced voice of our knowledgeable guide. When we opened them again we saw the flicker of the orange flame. The candles piled above a frozen river of wax below the deep blue tiled tomb of the beheaded 17 year old.
We wandered into the Mellah, the old Jewish quarters, next to the palace. The majority of the Jewish population immigrated to Israel in the 40s but the streets filled back up with other craftsmen and traders. We wandered the wide pedestrian alleys, the sun sparkling against items and the air thick with the smell of honey laced pastries. Bees chasing the smell down the street. Ending at the Aben Danan Synagogue, dating from the 17th century. We entered a small nondescript door, climbed some small undecorated stairs, and came out in a phenomenally adorned building. Green and white tiles on the floor joining the blue stars on the wall. This was a common occurrence throughout the day - small wood door in a plain tan wall - leading to interiors that took you to another world. I felt like Alice going through the looking glass. A world of normalcy opened to a dream of color and detail.
Back into the van, we headed to Borj Sud to see the still-in-use military fort. Incredible fortress but the best part was seeing the full city of Fes and how it rolled between the hills. We could see the Medina walls and the old and new pushing together. Then down the hill to Touhafs Fes to see how they make the incredible ceramics that wallpaper every interior in intricate design. We met and watched artists and craftsmen but declined the free mud bath in the ceramic clay.
Next to my favorite moments - back into the Old Medina, Fes el-Bali. The ancient streets, free of cars, and filled with an overload on smells and sights. Vendors sell like by like so you know which district or section to go to. Metal works - this way please. Leather - oh over here. And everything is special. I went Midwest and found myself smiling into the faces of each person that held my eyes for longer than a second. And was met with grins and smiles back. Chatter and laughter bounced off the walls of the narrow alleys and moved quickly out of the way of a mule carrying goods. Hassan continued to pause and show us everything from how olives are made editable to how metal is created into lanterns. Seeing the camel head to show camel meat is sold in a shop, before Hassan remembered we don’t eat meat and apologized. We waved it off. Not our culture but I get it. We saw birds for sale as pets… and for their poop. Oh just wait. The doors of some of the incredibly old and monumental areas of the old city - including schools, libraries, and the mausoleum of Idriss II - yes the one who founded Fes in early 800 CE. We also toured an old Islamic school and a wood museum!
We had lunch by heading through another average door in a narrow alley- to fall through the looking glass again. And ending in another “used to be riad” turned restaurant. We tucked into a corner booth and talked Hassan into joining us for lunch. A fabulous and savory lunch of Moroccan “salad” which was a handful of different dishes. My favorite was the sweet pumpkin and the eggplant. Rick’s was a spicy tomato and onion dish. Then came the main course. Couscous for Rick and Hassan and I had a Pastilla. Veggies put into a pastry dough and fried/baked. Wow. My mouth is watering while writing this. Followed with fruits, the delectable mint tea, and cookies that we couldn’t even attempt to eat we were so full.
Next to a shop to see how they make different textiles- from wool to silk made from cacti. And finally the famous tannery. After getting some mint leaves outside the door of a leather shop, we followed Mohammad up some (many) flights of stairs to the top. Rick was thanking his lifelong inability to smell… or he would have if he could have smelled what I did. I rubbed the mint leaves between my fingers and then pressed against my top lip, trying to apply it like Vaseline when I have a cold. The smell comes from the pigeon poop collected and sold in the market. Then the leather is soaked in it during one of the dying processes- you know how soft and supple that purse is… poop. It really was amazing to see the way they work, and it’s been that way for 500 years. Finished our walk out of the Medina maze with a quick stop at a community oven where families bring their bread and more for men to bake in a giant wood oven. They sat on the ground visiting and watching the bread, smiling and nodding at us as we looked at the large oven in awe.
After being dropped off, we managed to get a pizza and some more “salad” at our hotel and call it a day to work on some catching up and prepping for an early morning tomorrow! Sleeping in an area I now know to be holding history back to the 9th century is going to make for amazing dreams!