October 3 – Fez

Describing the day seems impossible, either in pictures or words as we were bombarded with new sites, smells, sounds and tastes throughout the day.  We hired an English speaking guide for the day to help guide us through the city and help us understand the history of Fez.

The city consists of 3 main parts:

  1. Fez al Bali, the old walled city that covers 840 acres, has 40,000 streets and 9,000 dead ends,
  2. Fez-Jdid, new Fez founded in the 14th century and home of the Mellah (Jewish quarter) and royal palace,
  3. Ville Nouvelle, the French created, newest section of Fez that houses the business center of Fez.

We began our tour in “new” Fez were we saw the outside of the 260 acre royal palace, still inhabited by the royal family today.  It is said to resemble the Alhambra palaces in Spain, but we, like most of the people of Fez, will never know for sure, as only the royals, foreign dignitaries and the people who work at the Palaces ever see them.  From there we walked by the “street of the Moors” and through the Mellah, distinguished by their outward facing balconies which are unheard of in the Islamic quarters.  The Mellah (old walled Jewish quarter) is home to the Danan Synagogue, built in the 17th century.  The Synagogue is the lone survivor of several in the walled city and includes a micvah and Torah from the 17th century.  After years of standing idle, it was restored in 1999 as a tourist site.

Danan Synagogue

Danan Synagogue

From the “new” Fez, we stopped at one of the 2 fortresses to see the view of the Fez al Bali before visiting a pottery and mosaic cooperative.  The cooperative is both a school and factory, founded to preserve the tradition of the old artisan traditions that are in rapid decline.  The factory (or school) was particularly proud of its history of hiring thugs and petty criminals and getting them off the street by giving them honest work.  It was amazing to see the people sitting around chiseling the pieces of tile by hand to fit them into the mosaic tables and fountains they were creating.

Pottery Factor with workers hand chiseling tile pieces

Pottery Factor with workers hand chiseling tile pieces

After visiting the artisans, we headed back into the ancient walled city to walk the maze of 40,000 streets with our guide.  (We’re staying in the old city, but had been very careful to about venturing in and had thus, only skirted the edges.)

What an onslaught of sites and smells.  We passed apothecaries that rivaled the best that J.K. Rowling created, with dead bats, rats and other assorted dead animals, innards, feathers and tails scattered about.  We walked a maze of shops including thread shops, with row upon row of brightly colored thread for embroidery.  We saw places to buy material, pottery, rugs, cloths, socks, scarves, shoes, backpacks and candy.  We passed numerous public ovens were people bring the bread they’ve made at home to be baked.  We visited 2 mosques, one that is no longer used, so we could venture inside and one we viewed as people headed in for their midday prayer, announced throughout the Medina on loud speakers.

View into a Mosque

View into a Mosque

We ventured into the food market to buy lunch and couldn’t believe our eyes.

butcher shop diplaying fresh camel meat

butcher shop displaying fresh camel meat

Along side the vegetable and fruit stands stood butchers displaying camel and sheep heads dripping with blood to show the freshness of their meat, bakeries, candy makers, people selling fresh goat cheese and others selling both live and dead chickens and pigeons.  There was a berry that translates to “I don’t know” and people cooking chickpeas to load into a piece of bread.  Overwhelmed, we quickly purchased bread, cheese and olives and headed into the refuge of a carpet dealer housed in a huge Riad (old palace).  The price for having our “picnic” in the Riad was agreeing to not only learn about the carpet making tradition in Fez, but get the hard sell when we exited without purchasing “an heirloom for our dear children.”  We did, however, get to visit some of the women sitting five across on a bench, weaving a carpet.

Sitting with women as the weave a rug (Molly's 2nd from the last)

Sitting with women as the weave a rug (Molly's 2nd from the last)

From there we walked the maze of streets, together with many other people and animals, to the Tannery where we were each given a bunch of mint to breath through as we toured.  We saw how the leather is first soaked in huge vats of limestone mixed with pigeon poop to dissolve all the fat and hair off the hides.  After the hides soak in this lovely concoction, they are washed off in a huge wheel and put into various vats of dye, where workers jump in and turn the hides with their feet and legs to ensure consistent color.  (We were told they were paid well for this heavy and laborious work, but had a short career as they develop rheumatism from working in the cold water all day, every day.)



After this informative tour (I may stop buying leather products after seeing this process, as the vegetarian and humanitarian in me was screaming loudly throughout!) we hit the maze once again to visit an apothecary and weaving cooperative.  Seeing the intricate designs, relative good working conditions and the beautiful scarves was a welcome relief after the tannery and we all felt good purchasing a scarf that we’ll need for our upcoming camel trek.

Sharing the road

Sharing the road

Our purchases in hand, we made our way back through the maze of streets to our car so our guide could drive us back to our quiet and beautiful Riad, located on the other side of the medina, to process the events of the day.  (FYI, our guide only had one small accident in the car, in which he hit a moped, as we drove around the city, a small miracle by our reckoning.)

After a short rest, we ventured out to a dinner of vegetable cous cous and Tagine (vegetarian options are limited, to say the least) we all agreed that Fez is a wonderful, confusing, crazy place in which the ancient and the new co-exist.  We’re, at once, happy to be here and experience it, and happy to not live here, tackling the craziness for years on end.


4 responses to “October 3 – Fez

  1. What a blessing to be a visitor and not a resident. Imagine the billions of people around the world who are living their lives in this kind of “craziness” and much worse on a daily basis.

    No wonder when most of us return to the United States after a time abroad, we feel like kissing the ground and the customs agents after we’ve safely landed. (I’ve had that experience on more than one occasion.) There may be many things to complain about in the U.S., and the majority of us are definitely privileged by comparison.

    What an incredible experience this is for all of you. Many thanks for your wonderful descriptions and sharing this journey with the rest of us.

    Love and Blessings,


  2. Is there still a Jewish community in Fez? I always think there is something a little sad about a sacred building whether synagogue, church or mosque being turned into a museum or tourist attraction. Thanks for the email Lisa, I’ll give you an answer soon. Saw Deirdre today. xoxo Harold

    • There is, in fact, a small Jewish community in Fes, consisting of about 250 families. The total population is either around 1 million or around 2.5 million, depending on whom you ask. The synagogue is no longer in use as a synagogue; we did not pass by the active synagogue in our short tour of Fes. I share your sense of sadness (and sometimes a little outrage) when sacred buildings are converted into tourist attractions. We have noticed a lot more of that in Europe than we have in years past–many churches in Italy, Spain and Portugal now charge admission.
      As for the synagogue in Fes, I was struck by the level of respect the Arabs demonstrated in showing us the building. They carefully and faithfully described the customs of the Jews who used the building in its day. There is a very old Torah in the arc, written on deerskin, which they pointed out in a respectful way.
      I am not sure what I was expecting. I believe Americans are bombarded by news of conflict in the Middle East; I was not sure whether to expect to see the kind of anger and hatred portrayed in the media in Morocco. But we have not personally encountered any of that type of animosity in our personal travels through Morocco at this point.
      Thanks so much for your comments! We miss you!

  3. Thanks to Molly for her nice reply to ACL. It sounds like quite a potholed, dusty departure from travels in Europe, and quite the adventure. Yes, the H1N1 flu is all over town (mostly mild, thankfully). However, I have managed to develop an acute case of Gout due to my own dietary indiscretions of mussels, steak, sardines (too many days in a row). Alas, I should perhaps consider a vegetarian diet to avoid such woes. I told ACL that gout was the “disease of kings” and she replied: “No, you mean the disease of big fat kings who eat too much.” I believe I have been put in my place. We miss you guys and have been mighty impressed with your travels and your words and images.

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