Prized medina in Morocco is actively preserved

By John Hart

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, Oct. 19 2013 3:00 p.m. MDT

Think, in this batter'd Caravanserai Whose Doorways are alternate Night and Day, How Sultan after Sultan with his Pomp Abode his Hour or two, and went his way. — (By Omar Khayyam (1048–1131), translated by Edward J. Fitzgerald (1809–1883).

Now displayed in mellowed quietude (photos not allowed) are ancient architectural trims, ornate chests and decorated daggers.

Those embellished daggers so intricately florid, they are quick to say, were crafted not for war but for men festoonery.

In another sector are baby cribs rising three baby stories: very high-walled cribs.

Up the medina further, the eye catches at elegant dresses. These dresses, explains the guide, are such as a bride needs, and typically she needs seven in total. Though as a practical matter she usually satisfies herself by purchasing two and renting the other five.

Visitors pass artichokes, bread, potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant and figs amid smells that change by passageway. Still as china in the shadows, cadaverous, large-eared cats look gaunt and genome-deprived.

A narrow side way leads to the famous Fez carpet co-op, an outlet for carpets made by some 1,300 women who, through the vagaries of life, must support themselves. The lamb’s wool carpets of complex Arabic patterns are magnificent, brilliantly hued, perfectly crafted (though sometimes the makers deliberately tie a single knot wrong because “Only Allah is perfect”).

Columns rise in the immaculate interior, draping carpets. Carpet stacks rise, offering incontestable variety. And salesmen arise, rolling out one carpet after another with practiced arms. Bargaining prices begin softly in the fives; expensive, explains the proprietor, Mohammed Ragui, because three professional women carpet makers work six months per carpet.

The medina leads always on to the next shop; a touch on the shoulder moves one to make way for a docile beast, a mule in this instance, carrying its own size in cloth-swathed bundles. Or it might be lashed-on propane tanks, or heaped up hides, clothing or produce. Always fully loaded, always docile, the beasts remain the preferred carrier of the medina. Less-preferred carriers are humans propelling up gentle inclines two- or four-wheeled carts, bumping over narrow ramps cut into the steps for just such wheels.

The quaint setting leads to what is presented as the world's oldest university, Madrasa al-Karaouine, founded in A.D. 859. Now ornate with many pillars and arches, the school began as a mosque with a student body of 430. Even at the early centuries, students studied such subjects as math, astronomy, language, medicine and logic.

Another place of learning is the recently restored Al-Attarine Madrasa, completed by Sultan Abou Said, a Merenid, in 1323, an exquisite monument and place of study. Named for the spices and perfumes sold nearby, the Madrasa houses 60 students in 30 rooms. In olden times, students came even from other countries and found admittance not by price but by reciting four books of the Islam holy book, the Quran. Once admitted, the students were supported by local believers. Students studied at seven colleges while their dutiful leaders climbed four stories to the roof five times a day to issue a call to prayers.

This fascinating Madrasa opens into a court where many public ceremonies have been held, illustrating its medieval roots with intricately balanced mosaics, perfectly symmetrical and perfectly enchanting that center at a fountain. The designs continue upward past delicate columns and walls with carved plaster and inlaid verses of the Quran. Carved cedar flows around upper windows and across ceilings. The eye turns in no direction unmarveled.

The worship center may be seen by visitors but not entered.

In 2010, the latest generation of tile, plaster and wood workers painstakingly completed restoring the Madrasa to its pristine original, repeating the work of their ancestral artisans in intricate detail.

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