John L. Hart
FEZ, Morocco — The medina is not a tunnel, though it often blots the sky and cools the scorch of the day It's not a sidewalk, though its cobbled surface courses with humanity and occasional creatures. And it's not a store, though its sides are lined with merchants marketing anything from silver trays to kill-on-demand live chickens. It is not strictly a workplace, though artisans toil incessantly in its catacombs. No, nor is it strictly a residential district, though its occasional battered doors open to the tiled beauty of family dwellings that are centuries old.
The medina ambles as it ascends and descends and meanders in straight, short zigs and zags. In antiquity, these jumbled alleys protected against conquest, yet many people conquered and ruled here.
The medina is proof that appearances can lie. This is a centuries-old walled fortress that encloses homes, palaces, mosques, parochial schools (madrasas) and animal hospitals (fondouks). Buildings — some exquisite — of all sizes and shapes are separated by rude passageways from 2 to 16 feet wide — a total of 9,600 footpaths that, laid end-to-end, would stretch 60 miles. These passages double as markets for the 167,000 residents and visitors. Most residents are artisans, kin of medieval artificers by ancestry and by skill.
Founded in A.D. 808 as a pair of villages on opposite sides of a river and ravine, the twin medinas thrived and survived various rulers, melding after a few centuries of bickering, and reaching its creative peak under a people called the Marinids in the 13th and 14th centuries. Today, the medina is itself a greater jewel than any it contains, the largest remaining, the most untouched medieval Islam cultural city in Arabia, a UNESCO National Heritage site. Indeed, most of its ninth-century contemporaries throughout the world are now merely excavated foundations. Visitors at this ancient city, however, do not have to imagine the ghosts of eons past engaging in commerce of yore, but can bargain poorly with lively fez-topped merchants in a lively, medieval setting.
Morocco, a longtime ally of the United States, with its population of mostly peaceful Sunni Muslims, actively preserves the medina. Its bricked walls are repaired as they deteriorate, and the city of Fez struggles to manage its most difficult challenge: overpopulation. Beyond its walls stands the new sector of the city with its million inhabitants and modern buildings lining open, palm-lined, extra-wide streets lavished with fountains and monuments. A Jewish quarter thrives busily on one side.
Within the walled city, local artisanship and agriculture flourished a millennium ago and continues despite multiple overthrows. Today, artisans’ goods intersperse seamlessly with farmers’ produce along the narrow ways.
Entering the medina through large gates leads one immediately to bargaining, the livelihood of the medina. At a dime-sized parking area, boys watching cars greedily close their hands over more small coins than last time as guides mutter imprecations to themselves of what this world is coming to.
Here, access into this historic setting is merely a 6-foot-wide gap between walls that becomes a walkway of shawled and burqa-wearing women and men in ankle-length robes. The way soon widens to a 10-foot-wide super-alley. Interestingly, tourists seem as natural along its passages as the mules and robed locals. Turn right, up a bricked incline, and the way zags past piles of prickly pears, heaped limes, boxed apples, dangling bananas, inevitable oranges, heaped peaches, masses of grapes, prunes in trays — these among thousands of shops.
After some walking, a door opens to a museum, a restored 1711 caravanserai — a medieval caravan hostel where it is easy to envision the arrival of tired camels laden heavily perhaps with spices or gold or silks, and drivers bargaining for provender on the giant scales that hang over the ground floor. Titled owners climbed to spend a night in its upper, sleeping floors. Some lines from the ancient Rubaiyat come to mind:
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