Yesterday’s scooter guide hands us off to his other friend, Ahmed, this morning. Ahmed speaks better English, and works as a special Medina guide. After driving to an entrance near the ancient walls, Ahmed takes us on a medieval walk through Morocco’s largest Medina. Home to about 200,000 Fassis, an estimated 90,000 of them are artisans. Donkeys clop along the cobblestone roads carrying raw animal skins through this labyrinth, as if suspended in the 9th century. Morocco’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site certainly shows some signs of modernization, by the look of satellite dishes bolted onto the roofs of the stone dwellings, but this is also the World’s largest car-free, urban center. Fes does not look polluted this morning.
Walking along the rain-slicked, limestone passages, we quickly realize the value of a guide. There exists no known accurate maps of this massive medina, and I’ll bet that even some residents get lost on occasion. We see markets offering everything from fresh produce, hand-woven rugs, hand-carved doors, and jewelry, to herbal pharmacies and hardware stores. Anything you want to purchase could be among the seemingly infinite alleyways and carved crevices, where you can watch your bread being made, or your sheep slaughtered if you so desire.
Ahmed explains how Fes is divided into three main sections – the “New” (700 years old); the Jewish Quarter; and the 9th Century Medina. In the Medina we pass Africa’s largest Mosque which is also possibly the World’s first University, “Kairaouine Mosque & University.” Mare takes photos from the outside, as non-Muslims are not permitted to enter. The Mosque can accommodate 20,000 people for prayer.
I ask him, “Why are the sidewalk cafes and streets filled with only men. Where are the women?
“They are home,” he explains. “It’s cultural that the men go out, and women stay home. But, the women visit with each other.” He continues, “Another cultural issue is that the whole family lives together. Only one of them may work, and the rest, maybe nine siblings, do nothing. They need to go somewhere.”
For Mare and I, a visit to the Tannery provides the most fascinating glimpse back into time. As unrealistic as a Mad Max movie, we can hardly believe what we see. Men straddle slippery, clay vats full of an acidic mixture of lime, salt, pigeon feces, animal urine, ash and water. This mixture removes the meat and fur from the skins of goats, camels, cows and sheep. Dipping large hooks deep into the brown mix, workers pull out wet skins and slap them over the side of the vats. After the skins are washed in a massive, wooden, turning spool, they drop them into vats of different dyes. All dyes are made from natural ingredients, such as saffron, indigo, and poppy.
Workers appear to wear no protective gear other than rubber gloves, and health problems are common. The Co-op provides medical care from local pharmacies, but when a worker gets injured, a member of his family must fill-in for him until he can return. During our visit, in the winter, the smell of rotting flesh is bearable, but tourists in the summer months must place mint leaves under their noses in order to fend off the strong stench.
This fascinating process produces some of the best leather in the world. The only difference between modern, and 9th century practices, comes with electricity moving massive wooden washers, and ceramic tile lining the tubs. Camel and goat produce the strongest leather, cow, and then sheep follow. We see piles of animal carcasses along the passageways.
Finally, Ahmed drops us at Restaurant Touria for lunch. We feast on a three-course meal beginning with mezze – fresh bread and cooked vegetable salads in five different clay pots, including bean soup, with spices and chilies. This is followed by chunks of ground meat in a spicy tomato sauce, with a sizzling egg on top. Fresh fruit, almond cookies and mint tea complete the meal. We only consume one beer, as each beer cost $8 (US) each.
We return to the hotel totally amazed and satisfied. Tomorrow we will take a day off to catch-up on the blog, and plot our course across the Middle and High Atlas Mountains, into the Sahara.