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Sunday, November 10, 2013

Morocco -- Fez: World Heritage Site

Fez is one of the world's most spectacular city-museums and exotic medieval labyrinth—mysterious, mesmerizing and sometimes overwhelming. Passing through one of the babs (gates) into Fez el-Bali is like entering a time warp, with only the numerous satellite dishes installed on nearly every roof as a reminder you're in the 21st century, not the 8th. As you maneuver your way through crowded passages illuminated by shafts of sunlight streaming through thatched roofs of the kissaria (covered markets), the cries of "Balek!" ("Watch out!") from donkey drivers pushing overloaded mules—overlapped with the cacophony of locals bartering, coppersmiths hammering, and citywide call to prayer—blend with the strong odors of aromatic spices, fresh dung, curing leather, and smoking grills for an incredible sensorial experience you will never forget.

Designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Fez and Meknes are respectively, the Arab and Berber capitals of Morocco, ancient centers of learning. culture. and craftsmanship.  Recognized as Morocco's intellectual and spiritual center, Fez has one of the world's oldest universities as well as the largest intact medieval quarters.  It is the country's second-largest city (after Casablanca) with a population of approximately 1 million.  Meknes, with nearly 850000 inhabitants, offers a chance to experience all the sights, sounds, and smells of Fez on a slightly smaller, more manageable scale.  Both Fez and Meknes still remain two of Morocco's most authentic and fascinating cities, outstanding for their history and culture and rival Marrakesh as top tourist destinations and hosts of international events and festivals.

In between Fez and Marrakesh, the Middle Atlas is a North African Arcadia, where rivers, woodlands, and valley grasslands show off Morocco's inland beauty.  Snowy cedar forests, ski slopes, and trout streams are not images normally associated with the country, yet the Middle Atlas unfolds like an ersatz alpine fantasy less than an hour from medieval Fez.  To remind you that this is still North Africa, Barbary monkeys scurry around the roadsides, and the traditional djellaba (hooded gown) and veil appear in ski areas.

Most travelers to Morocco can get a glance of the Middle Atlas as they whiz between Fez and Marrakesh, or between Meknes and points south.  The central highland's Berber villages, secret valleys, scenic woods, dramatically barren landscapes, and hilly plains blanketed with olive groves lie in stark contrast to the exotic imperial cities.  For this reason alone, the region is rewarding to discover for its integrity and authenticity.

Fez El-Bali
Fez el-Bali is a living crafts workshop and market that has changed little in the past millennium.  With no vehicles allowed and some 1.000 very narrow debris (dead-end alleys), it beckons the walker on an endless and absorbing odyssey.  Exploring this honeycomb of 9th-century alleys and passageways with occasionally chaotic crowds, steep inclines and pitted cobblestone steps is a challenging adventure.  At night, the adventure can become quite intimidating.  Fez isn't really yours, however, until you've tackled it on your own. become hopelessly lost a few times. and survived to tell the tale.

Andalusian Mosque
This mosque was built in AD 859 by Mariam, sister of Fatima al-Fihri, who had erected the Kairaouine Mosque on the river's other side two years earlier with inherited family wealth. The gate was built by the Almohads in the 12th century. The grand carved doors on the north entrance, domed Zenet minaret, and detailed cedarwood carvings in the eaves, which bear a striking resemblance to those in the Fondouk Nejjarine, are the main things to see here, as the mosque itself is set back on a small elevation, making it hard to examine from outside.

Attarine Medersa
The Attarine Medersa (Koranic school of the Spice Sellers) was named for local spice merchants known as attar. Founded by Merinid Sultan Abou Saïd Othman in the 14th century as a students' dormitory attached to the Kairaouine Mosque next door, its graceful proportions, elegant, geometric carved-cedar ornamentation, and excellent state of preservation make it one of the best representations of Moorish architecture in Fez.

Bab Boujeloud
Built in 1913 by General Hubert Lyautey, Moroccan commander under the French protectorate, this Moorish-style gate is 1,000 years younger than the rest of the medina. It's considered the principal and most beautiful point of entry into the Fez el-Bali. The side facing towards the Fez el-Djedid is covered with blue ceramic tiles painted with flowers and calligraphy; the inside is green, the official color of Islam—or of peace, depending on interpretation.

Bou Inania Medersa
From outside Bab Boujeloud you will see this medersa's green-tile tower, generally considered the most beautiful of the Kairaouine University's 14th-century residential colleges. It was built by order of Abou Inan, the first ruler of the Merenid dynasty, which would become the most decisive ruling clan in Fez's development. The main components of the medersa's stunningly intricate decorative artwork are: the green-tile roofing; the cedar eaves and upper patio walls carved in floral and geometrical motifs; the carved-stucco mid-level walls; the ceramic-tile lower walls covered with calligraphy (Kufi script, essentially cursive Arabic) and geometric designs; and, finally, the marble floor. Showing its age, the carved cedar is still dazzling, with each square inch a masterpiece of handcrafted sculpture involving long hours of the kind of concentration required to memorize the Koran. The black belt of ceramic tile around the courtyard bears Arabic script reading "this is a place of learning" and other such exhortatory academic messages.

Cherratine Medersa
Recent restoration against humidity and other natural agressions has kept this important historical site intact. Constructed in 1670 by Moulay Rachid, this is one of Fez's two Alaouite medersas. More austere than the 14th-century medersas of the Merenids, the Cherratine is more functional, designed to hold over 200 students. It's interesting primarily as a contrast to the intricate craftsmanship and decorative intent of the Merenid structures. The entry doors beautifully engraved in bronze lead to the douiras, narrow residential blocks consisting of a honeycomb of small rooms.

Fontaine Nejjarine
This ceramic-tile, cedar-ceiling public fountain is one of the more beautiful and historic of its kind in Fez el-Bali. The first fountain down from Bab Boujeloud, Fontaine Nejjarine seems a miniature version of the Nejjarine fondouk (medieval inn), with its geometrically decorated tiles and intricately carved cedar eaves overhead.

Kairaouine Mosque
This is considered one of the most important mosques in the Western Muslim world. One look through the main doorway will give you an idea of its immensity. With about 10,760 square feet, the Kairaouine was Morocco's largest mosque until Casablanca's Hassan II Mosque came along in the early 1990s. Built in AD 857 by Fatima, the daughter of a wealthy Kairaouine refugee, the mosque became the home of the West's first university and the world's foremost center of learning at the beginning of the second millennium. Stand at the entrance door's left side for a peek through the dozen horseshoe arches into the mihrab (marked by a hanging light). An east-facing alcove or niche used for leading prayer, the mihrab is rounded and covered with an arch designed to project sound back through the building. Lean in and look up to the brightly painted and intricately carved wood ceiling. If you're lucky enough to visit during the early morning cleaning, two huge wooden doors by the entrance swing open, providing a privileged view of the vast interior. For a good view of the courtyard, also head to the rooftop of the Attarine Medersa.

Musee des Armes
Built in 1582 under the command of Saadian sultan Ahmed el-Mansoor, this former fortress perched above the city guarded and controlled the Fez el-Bali. In 1963, a huge collection of weapons originally housed in the Museum Dar el-Batha was brought to the historic site, creating the interesting display in what is now the Museum of Arms. Sabres, swords, shields, and armour from the 19th century showcase the history of how arms played a social role in tribal hierarchy. Of importance is the arsenal of sultans Moulay Ismail and Moulay Mohammed Beh Abdellah—the elaborate Berber guns encrusted in enamel, ivory, silver, and precious gems date back to the 17th century. Walk up to the crenellated rooftop in late afternoon for a beautiful panoramic view of the city.

 Musee Nejjarine des Arts et Metiers du Bois
This 14th-century fondouk, or Inn of the Carpenters, is without a doubt the medina's most modern-looking restored monument. The three-story patio displays Morocco's various native woods, 18th- and 19th-century woodworking tools, and a series of antique wooden doors and pieces of furniture. For 10 DH enjoy mint tea on the rooftop consommation terrassewith panoramic views over the medina. Don't miss the former jail cell on the ground floor, or the large scales—a reminder of the building's original functions, commerce on the patio floor and lodging on the three levels above. Check out the palatial, cedar-ceiling public bathrooms, certainly the finest of its kind in Fez.

Place Seffarine
This wide, triangular souk of the dinandiers, or coppersmiths, is a welcome open space, a comfortable break from tight crags and corners. Donkeys and their masters wait for transport work here, and a couple of trees are reminders this was once a fertile valley alongside the Fez River. Copper and brass bowls, plates, and buckets are wrought and hammered over fires around the market's edge, where the smells of soldering irons and donkey droppings permeate the air. Look towards the Kairaouine Mosque at the top of the square to see the Kairaouine University library, which once housed the world's best collection of Islamic literature. Recently restored, it is open only to Muslim scholars.

Sahrij Medersa
Built by the Merenids in the 14th century and showing its age, one of the medina's finest medersas is named for the sahrij (pool) on which its patio is centered. Rich chocolate-color cedar wall carvings have significantly faded from intense sun exposure and the zellij mosaic tiling, some of the oldest in the country, are crumbling, but the medersa remains active, providing rooms and an open bathing area for mostly Senegalese students of Koranic studies. Head up the narrow steps leading to empty rooms over the central patio—you may hear the chanting of Koranic verses or see numerous birds roosting in the ancient eaves.

Souk el-Henna
 This little henna market is one of the medina's most picturesque squares, with a massive, gnarled fig tree in the center and rows of spices, hennas, kohls, and aphrodisiacs for sale in the tiny stalls around the edges. The ceramic shops on the way into the henna souk sell a wide variety of typically blue Fassi pottery. At the square's end is a plaque dedicated to the Maristan Sidi Frej, a medical center and psychiatric and teaching hospital built by the Merenid ruler Youssef Ibn Yakoub in 1286. Used as a model for the world's first mental hospital—founded in Valencia, Spain, in 1410—the Maristan operated until 1944.

Terrasse des Tanneurs
 The medieval tanneries are at once beautiful, for their ancient dyeing vats of reds, yellows, and blues, and unforgettable, for the nauseating, putrid smell of rotting animal flesh on sheep, goat, cow, and camel skins. The terrace overlooking the dyeing vats is high enough to escape the place's full fetid power and get a spectacular view over the multicolor vats. Absorb both the process and the finished product on Chouara Lablida, just past Rue Mechatine (named for the combs made from animals' horns): numerous stores are filled with loads of leather goods, including coats, bags, and babouches (traditional slippers). One of the shopkeepers will explain what's going on in the tanneries below—how the skins are placed successively in saline solution, lime, pigeon droppings, and then any of several natural dyes: poppies for red, tumeric for yellow, saffron for orange, indigo for blue, and mint for green. Barefoot workers in shorts pick up skins from the bottoms of the dyeing vats with their feet, then work them manually. Though this may look like the world's least desirable job, the work is relatively well paid and still in demand for a strong export market.

Zaouia of Moulay Idriss II
Originally built by the Idriss dynasty in the 9th century in honor of the city's founder—just 33 at the time of his death—this zaouia (sanctuary) was restored by the Merenid dynasty in the 13th century and has became one of the medina's holiest shrines. Particularly known for his baraka (divine protection), Moulay Idriss II had an especially strong cult among women seeking fertility and pilgrims hoping for good luck. The wooden beam at the entrance, about 6 feet from the ground, was originally placed there to keep Jews, Christians, and donkeys out of the horm, the sacred area surrounding the shrine itself. Inside the horm, Moroccans have historically enjoyed official sanctuary—they cannot be arrested if sought by the law. You may be able to catch a glimpse of the saint's tomb at the far right corner through the doorway; look for the fervently faithful burning candles and incense and tomb's silk-brocade covering. Note the rough wooden doors themselves, worn smooth with hundreds of years of kissing and caressing the wood for baraka.

Fez El-Djedid
Fez el-Djedid (New Fez) lies southwest of Bab Boujeloud between Fez el-Bali and the Ville Nouvelle.  Built after 1273 by the Merenid dynasty as a govrenment seat and stronghold, it remained the administrative center of Morocco until 1912, when Rabat took over this role and diminished this area's visibility and activity.  The three distinct segments of Fez el-Djedid consist of the Royal Palace in the west, the Jewish Quarter in the south, and Muslim District in the east.

Bab es Seba
Named for the seven (seba) brothers of Moulay Abdellah who reigned during the 18th century, the Gate of Seven connects two open spaces originally designed for military parades and royal ceremonies, the Petit Méchouar and Vieux Méchouar, now known as Moulay Hassan II Square. It was from this gate that Prince Ferdinand, brother of Duarte, king of Portugal, was hanged head-down for four days in 1437 after being captured during a failed Portuguese invasion of Tangier.

Dar el-Makhzen
Fez's Royal Palace and gardens are strictly closed to the public, but they're an impressive sight even from the outside. From Place des Alaouites, take a close look at the door's giant brass knockers, made by artisans from Fez el-Bali, as well as the brass doors themselves. Inside are various palaces, 200 acres of gardens, and parade grounds, as well as a medersa founded in 1320. One of the palaces inside, Dar el-Qimma, has intricately engraved and painted ceilings. The street running along the palace's southeast side is Rue Bou Khessissat, one side of which is lined with typically ornate residential facades from the Mellah's edge. Note: Security in this area is high and should be respected. Guards watch visitors carefully and will warn that photographs of the palace are forbidden; cameras are sometimes confiscated.

With its characteristically ornate balconies and forged-iron windows, the Mellah was created in the 15th century when the Jews, forced out of the medina in one of Morocco's recurrent pogroms, were removed from their previous ghetto near Bab Guissa and set up as royal financial consultants and buffers between the Merenid rulers and the people. Fez's Jewish community suffered repressive measures until the beginning of the French protectorate in 1912. Faced with an uncertain future after Morocco gained independence in 1956, nearly all of Fez's Jews migrated to Israel, the United States, or Casablanca. Head to the terrace of Danan Synagogue on Rue Der el-Ferah Teati for a panoramic view of the district.

Museum of Moroccan Arts
Housed in Dar Batha, a late-19th-century Andalusian palace built by Moulay el Hassan, the museum of Moroccan Arts has one of Morocco's finest handicrafts collections. The display of pottery, for which Fez is particularly famous, includes rural earthenware crockery and elaborate plates painted with geometrical patterns. Other displays feature embroidery stitched with real gold, astrolabes from the 11th to the 18th century, illuminated Korans, and Berber carpets and kilims.

Moulay Abdellah Quarter
 Built by the Merenids as a government seat and a stronghold against their subjects, this area lost its purpose when Rabat became the Moroccan capital under the French protectorate in 1912. Subsequently a red-light district filled with brothels and dance halls, the quarter was closed to foreigners for years. Historic highlights include the vertically green-striped Moulay Abdellah Mosque and the Great Mosque Abu Haq, built by the Merenid sultan in 1276.

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