Lost in Fes
Kamis, 7 Februari 2008
By Uzair Fauzan
For strangers, getting lost in a foreign country is a nightmare. It creates a feeling of being insecured, a worry of not being able to go to the destination place or go back to the place where we come from, and probably a worry of being a will-be victim of crime by local people. But, certainly, it is not the feeling that we found in Fes, Morocco. Instead of being a nightmare, getting lost in Medina, the center of Fes’ old city, could be very enjoyable. As written by one of travellers’ bibles, Lonely Planet, this is exactly what an adventurer should be looking for in Fes.
Fes is located about 154.6 miles (248.8 km) from Casablanca, the largest industrial city, and about 242.2 miles (389 km) from Marrakech, the most visited imperial city in Morocco. Along with Marrakech and Meknes, Fes is one of three imperial cities, meaning cities which had been a capital of Moroccon kingdom in the past. It was the first capital in the history of Moroccon kingdom.
The city was first founded in 788 by Idris ibn Abdalla or Moulay Idris I, as common people in Morocco used to call him, who was forced to flee Abbasid assasins after Umayyad dynasty was toppled down in Baghdad. By the time Idris I died in 792 because of the poisoning instructed by Abbasid dynasty, Fes was little more than a village on the east bank of Fes river. It was in the early ninth century that Idris II started to develop the other side of the river into a well-known city in Islamic world, especially after allowing in refugees from Andalucian Cordoba and from Kairouan in Tunisia, the two most important cities of western Islam during the time.
With the coming of these refugees, the city not only began to develop its central role in commerce and education but also grabbed its definite Arab character. It is likely at this Idris II’s period that the construction of walls were first carried out to protect the city from the attacks of enemies in the time when struggle for power between dynasties in Iberian and Arab Peninsula was a bit normal situation. And up to now, twelve hundred years after it was founded, these walls still strongly stand as if they are still loyal to support the glory of old Fes (Fes el-Bali) in medieval era.
It was exactly the sense of living in medieval era that strike us when we first arrived in this city on the night of 6 January 2008. Right after we stepped down at Bab al-Jeloud from a taxi we hired from Fes station by 50 dirham, surrounding sights made us felt as if we had been in several hundred years back. Huge gates with old wooden doors and iron handles, people walking in a long black robe as Dumbledore and other Hogwart society used to wear, and the haziness of lamp in the middle of the night provided a clear background of that feeling. Later that night, when we were about to find some foods, we found that within the walls there are so many small alleys and passageways which could make you crazy. On the way to Fes from Tangier, we picked up Lonely Planet which warned us about the possibility of getting lost in old-Fes if we twalk through those passageways. It was in the next morning that we decided to take that risk.
The daylight reveals the beauty and the old character of the city more than any book, not even Lonely Planet, can tell. In the morning, when market activities are about to start, different modes of transportation are struggling to pass through the narrow roads within the walls. With not more than 3 meter width, it is probably more appropriate if this stone made road is called as pathways. On this road, trucks, carts, and donkeys are coming alternately. On each side of this pathways, shops and kiosks are present as far as you can go through them. Along these pathways, you will find so many confusing alleys and pathways which lead you to different directions. Let alone going through these small alleys, going through main pathways within the walls is enough to make you lost in this old city. It is this risk of getting lost that sometime lead foreign visitors to take service from local guides, which costs about 100 dirham for four-hour-guide. But, we decided to take that risk which later turned out to be very worthwhile.
By exploring Fes Medina ourselves, we could unexpectedly find the real typical sites of Moroccon life. On that early day, we found hammam, a public bath where common people could get hot water. This public facility is important for Moroccon people because local people usually have no hot water at home. Even small hotels nearby do not necessarily provide hot water for their guests, even if there are tools of making hot water, they often do not work. Just like what our hotel had that day. For typical Moroccon cities, there is at least one hammam for each town and it opens for women and men at different times. Hammam that we found open between 6 AM to 12.30 for men, and starting from 12.30 to 20.30 for women and open again for men afterwards until midnight.
I myself was quite surprised when I entered this public bath. The guard asked me to strip off all my clothes, only underwear left on my body (I was actually making myself shamed because I didn’t have the best underwear at that time ). And I saw all the men did the same thing too, some of them were even totally naked. Once I stepped into the inner part of the public bath building, the floor was directly felt much warmer. I don’t know how they made this inner part of the building warm, but the point is, soon I could understand that this place is very important for local people, especially in winter season like now. In the past, this place was also an important machine in generating revenues for the Kingdom. By paying 10 dirham you could spend hours for hot water bathing or even only chatting for hours with friends or neighbors in this warm rooms, and with extra 50 dirham you could get a massage and body scrubbing. That day the massage was not so good, but it was enough to loose my back’s muscle after backpacking for two days from South Spain.
We could also find some marks representing the urban character of this hundreds year old city. Two of those marks which were not told much, even by guide books such as Lonely Planet, are fondouks, a local name (Arabic) for inns or small hotels, and water taps. Almost in every crosspoint pathway, we would find planks telling you direction to certain fondouks. In the past, these fondouks were the place where traders were usually staying. The presence of numerous fondouks still gives an impression about the burgeoning commercial activities that this city still wants to play. Meanwhile, water taps are present in many strategic places. Designed with its Moroccon distinct tiles, this water tap provides fresh water for local dealers insouqs (markets) or even for travellers. I imagined that there must have been a lot of people using this tap before they knew the concept of bottled water.
Other landmarks showing the glory of Fes had in the past could be found easier if we have a guide book in hands. A place which is usually visited first by foreign visitors is Abou Inania Medrasa, generally believed as the finest lodging house for students of Koranic school in Morocco built by Merinid Sultan Abou Inan in 1355. Since in the entrance gate, we have an impression that the builder was not letting a single centimeter space left undecorated. In the center of the building there is a courtyard with a fountain right in the middle. Its ceiling is fully decorated with geometric carving, the walls are intricately decorated with caligraphs taken from Koran and flower motives. The architect of this building did not even left the inner part of arches and pillars unnoticed. The inner part of arches are decorated with mocarabes, a stalactite design like spider webs which believed to represent the condition of Hira cave where Prophet Mohammad first received God’s message from Gabriel.
The second obligatory tourist destination site in Fes el-Bali is Qarawiyin Mosque (or usually written as Karaouine), located near Suq al-‘Attarin (Spice Market). Founded as a private oratory in 857 by Fatima al-Fihri, the daughter of a wealthy Qayrawani immigrant, in the tenth century the mosque became a major intellectual center in the medieval Mediterranean. It is in this mosque that the oldest continuously operating higher learning in the world, University of Al-Qarawiyyin, is located. It is much older than any Western universities, including Cambridge and Oxford. Its prestigious academic reputation may have transcended religious divisions, that, as a popular tradition suggests, Gerbert of Auvergne (930-1003), who would become Pope Sylvester II and who is credited with introducing the use of zero and Arabic numerals to Europe, was once a student at al-Qarawiyyin. Originally the mosque was about 30 meter long, but after centuries, successive dynasties expanded it until it becomes the largest in North Africa, with a capacity of more than 20,000 worshippers. It is a tradition that other mosques in Fes will only call for prayer if they already heard it from Al-Karaouine.
Apart from these places cited above, we could also go to tanneries, a center for leathercrafts, which used to be the oldest and the largest in Morocco, or visit different souqs (markets) with their different specialities. If you think that Fes el-Bali is not enough, you can go to Fes el-Jadid (New Fes) where you can find Mellah, Jews cemetery and former Jews settlement. And if you taste a bit more of local modern life, you can also go to Ville Nouvelle, the newest French created part of Fes designed for the center for governmental affairs.
For our last visit, spending time in Fes el-Bali was more than enough to make us lost. It was not only in negative sense, that we were really disoriented in spatial and geographical terms, because of the confusing alleys and pathways, which was easily dissolved by asking local dealers while we made small transactions with them. It was also in positive terms that, by visiting Fes, we feel we are lost in our own age. We were being amazed at all kinds of aspects in this surviving medieval city which is already declared as UNESCO World Heritage Site. It turned out that being lost could be also enjoyable.
The Hague, 21 January 2008