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John L. Hart
Detail of a column at a restaurant in the medina.

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:

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.

Back in the narrow concourse, the way leads up stairs and through a narrow opening into a rainbow of leather goods and an odor they are quick to stifle with a sprig of mint held gratefully close to one’s nose. This is the medina’s famous medieval leather works, started in the 13th century and certainly aromatically original. Brightly dyed purses, belts, bags and shoes thatch its walls.

A far room is a veranda overlooking the famed leather making process. Visitors look down to behold a tableau of vats, each lined with tile and placed and anchored like a precision mosaic, covering the ground below. The hundred-plus vats, about five feet across, hold a concoction of tannic acid, pigeon droppings and lime. In the preliminary phase, camel, goat or sheep hides are soaked in lime to separate hair from the leather, visitors are told. Men stand in the vats to soak and work and scrape the hides.

Where do they find that number of pigeons? The concoction colors their skin. One young man with unstained curly black hair pours water over himself but seems dissatisfied. This is, they say, the world’s third hardest job, behind mining and something else that doesn’t matter to the men with hairless legs, tanning their own hides in the precisely placed vats below.

Tough-skinned salesmen, perhaps trained in tannic acid, haggle over prices. It is whispered elsewhere that some guides who bring tourists profit (more specifically, receive a kickback) from what tourists buy. Who knows? Visitors notice that the smell of tanning skins accompanies each item, no matter how beautiful. Never mind. A few days in the sun will reduce that smell.

Outside, a vat worker sharpens a bayonet-length knife and with it deftly scrapes a hide of its hair. Nearby, another man lifts soggy, dripping hides from a vat and heaps them on the side to drain. The hides are ubiquitous: drying hides carpet knolls around the city, curing hides heap up small mountains on the backs of mules. Leather products dot the walls of the medina. There are so many ex-camels, ex-goats and ex-sheep.

Visitors file down narrow stairs to leave the leather works and are at once re-enveloped in piquant relief by the Medina’s normal pungent atmosphere.

Because Muslims are covered from head to foot, cloth is prized in the medina. Inevitably, another back-way workshop finds silk-weavers looming, with brilliant cloth hanging above them in vivid bolts. Their small hand looms could be from Latin America or Africa, but they work a much finer thread, a silk taken from a cactus. A young man with his back to visitors whirls fibers into thread. A woman next to him handles huge rolls of thread. On the other side, a man guides a shuttle in the hand-operated device with a familiarity engendered over a lifetime.

The way next opens to a plaza with copper artisans seated on its various steps. Tapping on curved copper or brass, they do not look up at the camera. Their varied notes of hammer-on-copper add scale and harmony to the beat of this artisan symphony. A fountain’s rush of water and beating footsteps blend into the audible texture. As though choreographed, a modestly dressed, head-covered young mother rhythmically packs on her back a precocious toddler in a baseball cap.

Here the careful hammer shapes trays, plates, pitchers, teapots, vases, elegant ewers with necks like swans, samovars, couscous steamers and a dozen other items.

Dinner in the medina is an event not to be forgotten. With the Ramadan (religious daytime fasting) underway, guides graciously vanish before the table. This July night, visitors are alone in the magnificent courtyard of the once-residence-now-restaurant where sultans strode. A rich blue-tiled reflecting pool centers the courtyard, flanked by a single table against a pillowed silk couch. There are no chatty waiters here — drinks and food seem to silently glide to the table.

As olive trees pervade this hilly country, olives materialize on the table in all their glory: pickled and picante, dark and green, stuffed, clothed and plain. Breads, seven salads of Medina vegetables, including couscous, follow. The entree is a magnificent quarter chicken landscaped in a topography of rice hillocks. Dessert is a flaky half-pastry, half-pie that disappears before it can be categorized. Pricey? A bit, but not all restaurants are this exclusive.

1 comment on this story

The medina is not a tourist destination for the faint of foot or scanty of budget. It bears serious study before traveling during the preferred time in April-May or September-October. Fez itself offers many other entertainments, including camel trips. But a visit here etches itself quickly into memory and is of the stuff that digs itself into dreams.

If you bargain, start low. Remember that you are on their turf, and they started in A.D. 808.

After all, the medina is a voyage into Arabia’s past.

John Hart is a retired writer for the Church News.