Finding oneself in Fés

Finding oneself is the first dilemma faced by any new visitor to Fés, where the largest preserved medina in Morocco, with its impossibly intricate and narrow streets, is the primary attraction. More than 1000 years old, the medina lies cradled in a valley with a central river that is mostly hidden beneath a street. But at least the slopes from the river help with navigation in the meandering alleyways that otherwise provide few clues for orientation. The photo below is a view across the medina from the south. The mountain in the distance is the start of the Rif Mountains that extend to the Mediterranean and, like the mountains in southern Spain, were formed by the collision between Africa and Europe.


Fortunately, we are staying at Riad Andalib, where the proprietor (Reibal) speaks excellent English and provides his guests with clear instructions about how to survive the medina without succumbing to the many guides (real and fake) who would take advantage of a visitor’s disorientation. (A riad is a former residence that has been restored as a small hotel.) Here I am in the riad with two of Reibal’s wonderful staff—Nadia and Achrum—who have helped to make our stay in Fés so wonderful. (Nadia even speaks Spanish!)


With Reibel’s advice and map, it was possible to walk through the medina and actually find our way back to where we started—the Riad Andalib! It is difficult to take photos in the medina because the lighting is poor and people do not wished to be photographed, but with discretion, it is possible. The photo below is one of the main alleyways, all of which are shared with the donkeys and carts that are needed to deliver goods to shops and restaurants, since there is no space for cars or trucks. Also note melons being weighed with scales from a cart on the right side of the photo.


Many of the shops display artisanal products. One elderly man (photo below) was eager to demonstrate how he used his hands and feet to wield a lathe and create items from wood. Most of the wood was from cedar trees—we visited a forest in the Middle Atlas Mountains located south of Fés where these trees are found.


The artisanal product we’ve most admired is the intricate mosaic tile work, and the carved wood and plaster work, that is found decorating the interiors and exteriors of many buildings, including our riad. Here is a detail from the wall of our riad. Each of the hand-cut pieces are less than 3 cm (1 inch) in diameter.


Most decorative tiles we’ve seen before were hand painted onto square tiles. But the mosaic tiles here are made into squares that are then cut by hand into small pieces and carefully placed on a surface to be grouted into place. We observed the whole process, from softening the local gray clay, to firing the square tiles, to cutting and placing the pieces to make the mosaic. The amount of skill and patience and time required to mosaic whole walls with these tiles boggles the mind. Note the hammer the man below is using (he’d make a good geologist!); small pieces such as the one he is cutting are displayed. The artisans also make finely-painted ceramics.


The local gray clay is one geologic product; another is rocks and fossils. There are many famous collecting localities in Morocco, a fact appreciated by anyone who has spent much time observing for-sale specimens at nature shops or geologic conferences. South of Fés are many road-side stands advertising rocks and minerals for sale—notable types are trilobites and ammonites. The ammonite below (with Jay’s foot for scale) was propping open the door of one stand where we stopped (but did not buy!)


Another geologic feature is earthquakes. We must return to the so-called Lisbon earthquake, which in 1755 also caused extensive destruction in Fés. This earthquake was named for Lisbon because that was a major city at the time and the damage was so complete, due not only to the earthquake but also to the ensuing tsunami and fire. The epicenter was actually to the south of Lisbon, on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean west of the Strait of GIbraltar where the collisional plate boundary is propagating westward. The description of the earthquake, including a map of the epicenter, in the web link provides some fascinating insights into effects of the earthquake that included changes in philosophical thought and the beginnings of the field of seismology: Lisbon earthquake

The photo below is of a wall outside the medina that was mostly destroyed by the 1755 earthquake. The white Mercedes in front of the wall is, according to Moroccans, the “8th wonder of the world”. It is a “grand taxi”—it can carry up to 7 people plus all of their luggage. In contrast, the red “petit taxis”—many types of compact cars, all affectionately referred to as “tomatoes”—only carry up to 4 people and a small amount of luggage. This is an important distinction in a country where few people have their own cars. But they all do seem to be able to find their way through the maze of the medina and will even come to the aid of beleaguered tourists.



One comment on “Finding oneself in Fés

  1. fred & dog says:

    That is so interesting!

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