Old World Fes

The medieval city of Fes is like entering a living museum filled with dazzling Arabian architecture.

The second largest city in Morocco, Fes is an inland city located nearly 200 miles (300 km) north and east of Casablanca. This 3000 year old city, founded in the 9th century BCE, has historically been one of Morocco’s main centers of trade and craftsmanship. 

The craft industries continue but today they rely much more heavily on tourism. There are dozens of types of crafts, including these eye-catching hanging wool skeins we walked beneath. The wool is dyed in vats along the narrow alleys of the souk. They are dried, loosely wound and hung on the walls and up overhead. Many of the tiny shops in the souks are not only sales outlets, but also where crafts and products are actually made.

Dyed wool hung up to dry

We learned that the famous “fez” hat was so named because the dye used to color the red hat was extracted from crimson berries, sourced from Fes. 

Medina of Fes

A medina is defined as the historic part of a Moroccan (and North African) town or city, usually dating from the middle ages. Medinas are typically car-free and walled-in with narrow streets, fountains, palaces, schools, homes, markets and mosques within. Entrance is through an old city gate, called Bab. A souk would be called a market elsewhere and in Fes there are numerous specialized souks within the medina.

The medina of Fez has been a UNESCO Heritage Site for well over 40 years and it was the first site in Morocco to be granted UNESCO status. The city has combined two old medina quarters; the walled districts of Fes el-Bali and Fes Jdid, which together make up one of the world’s largest urban pedestrian zones.

The medina of Fes is mostly yellow and beige, whereas the medina in Marrakech is orange-red and Chefchaouen’s is blue. Morocco seems to often use color as an identifier. Another example we found was that each city has a single taxi color and the collage below shows the various taxis we found in the cities we visited or drove through.  (yellow in Midelt, red in Casablanca and Fes, pink in M’Gouna, royal blue in Rabat, light blue in Meknes, beige in Marrakech, etc.)

Taxis of Morocco

We spent a day exploring Fes’s acclaimed medina. It was an aromatic, confusing, noisy, stimulating, astounding and completely fascinating tour of Fes al bali. The narrow alleys, tall buildings and covered walkways however meant there was very little natural light and it can be challenging to not lose your way. Thank goodness for our patient and knowledgeable guide.

The extremely narrow alleys which have to be shared with pedestrians, donkeys, carts and shops with wares spilling out into the walkways. We were coached that whenever we heard the term “balak”, we must quickly move out of the way because either an overloaded donkey or a vendor pushing a heavy cart would not be stopping. We did indeed hear “balak” shouted often and would immediately flatten ourselves against a niche in the wall or step into a narrow doorway. The medina experience was nothing like a relaxing stroll through a western shopping mall.

Donkeys in the souks

Midday we had reservations for lunch at a restaurant tucked deep into the medina and it turned out to be our most delicious meal to date. The meal began by sharing 9 delightful small plate appetizers, along with crunchy bagel-shaped bread and sweet tea. Next came family style dishes of tender lamb and prune tajine; vegetarian couscous; kefta mkaouara (moroccan meatballs) in a zesty tomato sauce, topped with perfectly poached eggs and lastly chicken bastilla (or pastille), an exceptional chicken pie that is baked in a light and crispy filo-like pastry. The slightly spicy, saffron chicken enwrapped in the pastry is topped with toasted almonds sweetened with orange flower water and garnished with a sprinkling of powdered sugar and cinnamon. A lovely savory dish with sweet notes.

Lamb tajine, chicken bastilla and kefta mkaouara

Chouara Tannery

A popular destination within Fes el-Bali is the 11th century Chouara Tannery, one of the oldest tanneries in the world. Chouara has operated continually since its inception and the tanning methods used have remained virtually unchanged. The entire process uses no machinery; everything is done manually, as it was during medieval times. 

We were handed a couple of fresh sprigs of mint to hold to our nose if the smells of the tanning process were too strong. Luckily for us, the day was cooler and the aromas were relatively mild; the mint, however, smelled wonderful and worked well.

The numerous stone vats at Chouara Tannery are continuously filled with different colored dyes and various whitish liquids. The process begins by first softening the tough cow, sheep, goat and camel hides by soaking them in various white liquids. The white liquids are reportedly made from mixtures of cow urine, pigeon feces, quicklime, salt and water. 

Chouara Tannery

The softening process generally takes 2-3 days before the hides are ready to absorb color. The hides are next soaked in the vats of naturally colored dyes, i.e. poppy for red, indigo for blue and henna for orange. Once the hides have absorbed the color, as in days of old, they are set out to dry in the warm Moroccan sun.

Some of the leather is sold to local craftsmen, who then produce Morocco’s famed leather bags, coats, shoes, and slippers.  And some of the leather is exported around the world. Today, the tanning industry in Fes is considered one of its main tourist attractions. 

Leather babouche (slippers) and leather poufs

Nejjarine Museum of Wooden Arts & Crafts

The Nejjarine Museum of Wooden Arts & Crafts opened in 1996 but the building that houses the museum, the ‘Funduq al-Najjarin’ was built in the 13th century. ‘Funduq al-Najjarin’ translates as ‘Inn of the carpenters.’ Funduqs or foundouks were originally used as trading centers, caravanserai (inn) and merchant warehouses by merchants, traders and visitors to the city of Fez. Each trade or craft had their own souq or market area, as it still is to this day.

The interior central courtyard, called a sahn, is surrounded by a three-story beautifully carved cedar-wood gallery with entrances to the guest rooms on the upper floors. 

Courtyard of Nejjarine Museum

The former guest rooms now have displays of traditional artifacts, craftsmen’s tools, prayer beads, locks, trunks and musical instruments. This 1938 “khatma” wooden board was a traditional ‘certificate’ that every child who had learned the first 60 chapters of the Quran would have received.

Wooden khatma from 1938

Al-Attarine Madrasa  (school)

Near the University of al-Qarawiyyin, which has been named the most important intellectual center of Morocco, we visited the historic site of Al-Attarine Madrasa or Medersa al-Attarine, an Islamic school that translates to ‘School of the Perfumers’. The school was named after the spice and perfume market located nearby.

The school was built in 1323-25 and was used to educate future scholars on Islamic law. The madrasa also provided basic food and small shared rooms for 50-60 out-of-town students. The students would take classes at both Al-Attarine and the University of al-Qarawiyyin. We were told students would typically live at the school for up to 10-12 years.

Traditional Islam prohibits the use of drawing, carving or painting humans or animals in religious art; instead, they use calligraphy and repeating patterns and designs for decoration. The elaborate arabesques (floral and plant patterns), designs, both wood and stucco carvings, sgraffito-style tiles and calligraphy create an elegant, sophisticated and restful interior decoration that must have aided in one’s studies. 

Al-Attarine Madrasa wall decor

Naji Art Pottery

One of the earliest crafts in the world, pottery continues to evolve with decorating trends. Moroccan pottery is incredibly attractive, detailed and distinct. 

Our tour through Naji Art Pottery, the largest handmade pottery factory and shop in Morocco was enlightening. We were able to see the manual process from crushed stone to finished ceramic pieces as well as watch the hand-cutting of the pieces for zellige tilework. The header photo at the top of this blog is an inviting and magnificently tiled salon at Naji Art Pottery.

The final destination of our pottery tour led us to – surprise – a large gift shop filled with beautiful hand made and hand painted ceramic bowls, plates, tajines, teapots, vases, serving dishes as well as elaborately designed outdoor tables and fountains. 

Art Naji staff will work with you to make customs pieces and custom colors. The next photo shows one of their shipping rooms filled with orders customers have chosen to ship to their homes worldwide.

Art Naji shipping room

In preparation for our upcoming trip into the Sahara Desert we had one last stop to make in the medina where we each made one important purchase. Known by many names, the long head and face scarf we each bought, we were told, was called a chèche (pronounced like shesh). Also called a turban or tuareg, it is used in the desert as protection from the sun and sandstorms. The shop was large and the inventory seemingly endless. Sometimes too many choices make choosing just one, a challenge. It was a gorgeous shop.

A chèche / scarf shop

Nomads of the Desert

When discovering a new culture there are always terms we need to define so we understand the context of the common words we hear.

For example, in Morocco, a nomad is someone who packs up and moves his tents to wherever there is food and water for his animals, (like the family we met) In the Middle East – the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt, Isreal, Iraq, Syria and Jordan – nomads are referred to as bedouins.

During the Roman Empire, the Romans had a large province in North Africa – it encompassed both modern day Morocco and Algeria – that they called Mauretania. (different name and location than today’s Mauritania). Europeans began to use the term Maur or Moor to identify all who came from North Africa.

In the 8th century the Arabs arrived in North Africa and soon converted the indigenous Berbers and Tuaregs to Islam. The Arabs became their leaders and sultans or kings.

Berbers and Tuaregs have many similarities but they are different peoples. The Tuaregs typically inhabit a vast area in the Sahara, stretching from far southwestern Libya to southern Algeria, Niger and Mali. While the Berbers live in communities across Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Mali, Niger, and Mauritania.

The Berber and Tuareg nomads of the Sahara live as their ancestors have done for hundreds of years. They move from region to region searching for good pastures and fresh water to feed and water their herds. Drought and urban development however are putting pressure on them and their way of life is steadily disappearing so, we were fortunate to have the opportunity to visit one nomad family. For security reasons nomads usually travel together. The rest of the group our family traveled with had just departed for the desert and this family would be catching up with them in a few days when their two young sons finished attending classes at a nearby school.

Moroccan Nomad camp

The Berber nomad camp we visited had several tents and we saw donkeys, goats, sheep, turkeys, chickens and dogs. We were invited to tea and were seated on the floor on thick colorful rugs inside a large goat-hair tent (shoes removed).  The nomads seemed to have so little so it was humbling to be invited to share a nourishing meal with them. They generously served hot sweet mint tea along with ‘msemen’, a thin freshly made pancake-like bread and soft scrambled eggs. The family was not willing to accept anything from us but we eventually were able to leave them with a small bag of fresh fruit.

Barbary macaque

On our way through the Atlas Mountains we had the opportunity to briefly stop and watch a troop of  Barbary macaques in their own protected habitat. Although wild, they patiently sat nearby so we could capture some photos. The Barbary macaque is native to the Atlas Mountains of Algeria, Libya, Tunisia and Morocco and the same species was introduced into Gibraltar. One unique trait the Barbary macaques have is that all ages of both the females and the males rear the young.  

Barbary macaque

Ait Toughach, Midelt

It was a long drive south to Midelt, our next destination. We drove through the scenic beauty of the High Atlas Mountains, North Africa’s highest mountain range. The Atlas Mountains run across Morocco for about 620 miles (1000 km) separating the Atlantic and Mediterranean coastlines from the Sahara Desert to the south. Toubkal at 13,671 feet (4,167 m) is the highest peak in the Atlas Mountains.

The snow-capped Atlas Mountains 

We passed through cedar and pine forests, fertile valleys and miles of seemingly barren, rocky landscapes. Our hotel for this night was in a very peaceful, tiny village called Aït Toughach, in Midelt.

When we arrived at our hotel and after such a long drive, we were all craving a little exercise.  A local guide took us on a pleasant hike through the village, hills and plantations surrounding the hotel. We walked to a small natural lake where the guide explained that earlier in the season the lake had supported dozens of ducks. However each time he returned to the lake, the duck population had dwindled. A fennec or desert fox or two, he explained, were the culprits and on our visit, one last duck swam over to feast on the bread the guide brought. We did not learn the name of the lake, but we nicknamed it “one-duck pond”. 

“one-duck pond”

Be sure to click on the photo links below to see more of our adventures to Taourirt Kasbah and Cinema Studio Atlas, called Hollywood of the Atlas Mountains and where many familiar movies have been filmed. We also have included photos of our visit to an argan oil cooperative and much more.

We end this blog with a favorite nomad saying we heard that referred to the nomadic way of life.  “You have clocks, we have time.”

Salaam Alaikum! 

Bssaha from these Fassi,

Ted + Julia

View our Fes, Morocco photo album here

View our Nejjarine Museum of Wooden Arts & Crafts photo album here

View our Naji Art Pottery photo album here

View our Chouara Tanneries photo album here

View our Medrassa Attarine photo album here

View our Nomad Camp photo album here

View our Ait Toughach photo album here
— walk to one-duck lake
— Ksar Timnay Hotel

View the Rest of Morocco photo album here
— Ifrane, Morocco (lion statue)
— Cedar nature reserve (monkeys)
— Oilibiya, Morocco (picnic)
— Taourirt Kasbah (across from Cinema Museum)
— Cafe Habous (lunch)
— Cinema Studio Atlas + Óscar Hotel (tour)
— Erfoud, Morocco (lunch)
— Argan oil shop (stop)

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