As you step through the principle gate of the old Medina in Fez you are carried along the main market street by the sea of people and donkeys flowing in both directions. The buildings are so close together that the sunny day outside barely pierces the gloom, enhancing the overwhelming assault on your senses. The close press of hot bodies, the sound of a thousand people talking Arabic, the overpowering smells emanating from the chicken market and butchers shops. You have to watch your step, to avoid tripping over the sellers of fruits and herbs, whose wares are arranged neatly on mats on the ground. Tiny round lemons, preserved and used in tagines; fragrant fresh mint leaves, tied in big rustling bundles and destined for a thousand cups of sweet mint tea; freshly picked sticky dates a popular way to break the fast during Ramadan; and little cone-shaped baskets of small red fruit, similar to strawberries, that I have never identified.
After passing a row of butchers, tiny white tiled holes in the wall with freshly slaughtered cows and sheep hanging from hooks on the ceiling, no part of the body going to waste, you come to a centuries old Madrassa, or religious school, which is now a museum. Stepping into the cool, encaustic tiled courtyard, you enter a peaceful world away from the bustle and smells of the market. If you are lucky you will have it to yourself and can quietly trace the never ending geometric patterns in the tiles, whilst the guide with his gold medal pinned to his chest, proof that he is an employee of the government, talks about the infinite wisdom of God that the infinite patterns represent.
Back into the confusing maze of streets, all routes eventually arrive at the ancient Mosque at the heart of the Medina, home to the world’s oldest university. As a non-Muslim, you can only peek into the green and white tiled courtyard where worshippers cleanse themselves in the central fountain. You can however read the Arabic and French reminders to worshippers about being a good Muslim: give money to charity, show hospitality to visitors, attend prayers five times a day. If you linger a little way back from the entrance near prayer time, you can watch the streams of djellaba dressed men pouring into the Mosque.
Accompanying the sound of prayers are the percussion instruments of metal tapping on metal that will draw you towards the street where cooking pots are hand made. All day long, the metal workers ding, ding, ding, producing beautiful round bottomed vessels using tools little changed since Mediaeval times. Wander further and you’ll come to a street of cotton dyers, where skeins of threads hang drying in the sunshine like a rainbow of noodles. Each narrow street holds it’s own treasures with tiny hole in the wall shops selling everything you could need from Fez’s and slippers to medicinal herbs, carpets and bolts of fabric.
As you meander through the city, you notice that each district has a bakers, where people bring their tagines to cook in the huge wood fired ovens; a Koran school, with the sounds of chanting children drifting from the open windows; and a bath house, with a pile of fragrant sandalwood shavings ready to be shovelled into the roaring fire that heats the water and creates the steam. It is a city of 100,000 souls, yet it doesn’t have a road wide enough to drive a car along. It shouldn’t work, but it does, with donkeys being used to transport all goods and rubbish.
On the outer edge of the city, the cacophony of smells, good and bad, are drowned out by the foulest smell yet. Fez is famous for it’s leather goods, and most of the leather used in the belts, slippers and bags is produced in the city. Animal skins, usually goat, are scraped of flesh and hair then submerged in pits of ammonia based chemicals to bleach and soften them. This effect used to be achieved with pigeon poo, which I doubt smelt worse than the modern version. After many hours in these stinking pits, they are then coloured in vats of brightly hued dyes, some traditional pigments, some modern chemicals. It is a relief to leave the stench of the tanneries behind and I’m very grateful that it’s not me standing thigh deep in a vat, stirring the skins.
Darkness is falling now, and you need to find your way through the confusing maze of streets back to the main gate. Before you go, stop for a strong, milky coffee and hot, sugary doughnut while you watch the swifts swooping and diving as they look for a roost for the night. Fez is magical place, little changed for 700 years and an insight into a world almost disappeared. If you only ever visit one foreign city, make it Fez.
This post was inspired by Josie at Sleep is for the Weak’s writing workshop. Take a look to read other posts, or find out how you can take part next week.