Monday, May 9, 2016


Not everything worth seeing in Fes is within the city walls. Hassan took us on an excursion to a few sites that are just outside the walls.

From the tannery, we had a good view of a part of the ancient medina wall, as well as some ruins on a distant hill. 

In the foreground, omnipresent satellite dishes sprinkled on the roofs like Hansel's crumbs are a bizarre anachronistic contrast to the ancient city walls and stark square buildings. The current king, Mohammed VI, has made it so that if residents can buy a satellite dish and receiver (at a cost of about $300), they have free access to thousands of television channels with no monthly fees. Unlike his father, who was a bit of a controlling tyrant and limited television to state-owned channels, Mohammad VI believes in free access to information.

To get to the best part of the ruins, we had to leave the medina and drive up a road with several horseshoe turns. We were rewarded with a panorama view of the vast, tightly packed old medina (Fes al-Bali, dating to about 800 AD), and for the first time I could believe what we'd been told--that 150,000 people live here. We could see the green pyramid-topped Tomb of Moulay Idriss II and the zig-zagging green roofs of the University of Al Quaraouiyine (founded in 859 AD). I'm not sure what caused the black smoke on the horizon--perhaps some burning trash?

 We could also see what is called "the new medina" (Fes Jedid, founded in 1276):

The geriatric medina wall has aged well (with the help of constant restoration efforts):

We weren't the only ones enjoying the view:

Our destination was the crumbling Merenid Tombs on top of the hill, mere skeletons of what must have once been fabulously sumptuous structures. Sadly, nothing is being done to protect them from further degradation caused not only by weather, but also by locals and tourists:

The Merenids (or Marinids) ruled Morocca from the 13th to 15th century, the golden age of Fes. It isn't known who was buried here, even though a few faint inscriptions are still visible on the walls. It's too bad these aren't being better preserved.

As we crested the hill and looked down the other side, we noted a large cemetery below:

Hassan answered a lot of questions we had about Muslim burial practices. We learned:
* Muslims can't be cremated and should be buried on the same day as their death if possible.
* Mourners must pay the government for a burial permit. It costs about $30.
* The body is usually wrapped in a white cloth and placed directly in the ground, although the wealthy may also buy a casket.
* The body is positioned on its right side facing Mecca.
* Women are not allowed to leave the house on the day of a loved one's funeral.
* Grave markers are basically identical. One should not be more lavish than another.
* Only men and boys attend the funeral. We saw a procession of men following an ambulance into the cemetery. It wasn't a lot of mourners, but if a body has to be buried on the day of death, there isn't much time to gather friends and family from outlying locations:
* Friday is the day of worship for Muslims, and on the Friday after burial, families (women included) can visit the cemetery if they want.
* Widows mourn for four months and ten days, during which time they wear only white robes (no color in a very colorful land, which really stands out). Hassan pointed out a couple of ghostly white-draped widows in the souk.

Our final destination on our foray outside the city gates was the Royal Palace. Visitors are not allowed inside, but the impeccably maintained grounds alone are worth a visit:

As we approached the palace, I took a few shots of these lemon trees, not realizing (or perhaps I did) that a guard was standing against the back wall. He came striding out with a stern reprimand that I could not take any pictures with him in them and made me delete my last couple of photos.

In contrast, he had no problem with us taking photos of the palace itself, which has seven brass doors, one for each day of the week:

Intricate carved cedar and tile work surround the doors:

The doors on the ends, framed in a lovely blue, make the perfect background for a photo of two geezers:

A substantial amount of text is engraved over the two niches flanking the three center doors. Hassan asked us if we noticed anything unusual about it. We studied it and admitted we did not. He reminded us that Arabic is written and read from right to left, and pointed out that the end of every line (on the left) ends with the same vertical line. It is poetry, he told us, and those are rhyming words:

Behind the seven brass doors lies a magnificent palace that is used by the king when he comes to Fes. There are several different buildings, over 200 acres of gardens, some parade grounds, and a madrasa founded in 1320.

The road that runs past the palace continues into a business district that at one time was the mellah, or Jewish quarter, of Fes. Our guide told us there was still a sizable Jewish population here in the first half of the 20th century, but that most of the Jews left after the Six-day War of 1967. After Israel won that battle fought against Egypt and other Arab nations, the Jews' status in Morocco was a little more precarious, but immigration to Israel was a little bit easier. It was a great blow to the economy when the Jews left, however, as Jewish merchants and bankers had significant financial capital and power.

A distinctive feature of the Jewish quarter is a row of windows on the second floor that open to the street, something never seen in the Muslim areas:

It had been a long but fascinating day, and we were ready to go back to the riad for some R&R. Fes is well-known for its elaborate gates that allow foot traffic (and donkeys, and bikes, and sometimes even motorcycles) into the medina.  This one is Bab Boujloud, or the "Blue Gate":
The driver dropped us off here . . .
. . . and Hassan led us through the busy souk and back to our riad.

Fes is one of those places that left a mark on my soul. I hope our travels lead us back to it someday.


  1. The burial rules are interesting. Four months and 10 days of mourning--what if I want to be said four months and 11 days?
    The blue gate is spectacular!

  2. I'm glad you took notes on the burial practices. I'm glad I didn't need to bury you after the guard gave you whats-for for taking his picture.

  3. 4 months and 10 days of mourning sounds much better than the Siciliani and Calabrese women I taught on my mission who would mourn and wear black the rest of their lives. I loved reading about your visit to Fes. شكرا جزيلا عزيزي واحد (Shukran habibti)

  4. The guard sounds melodramatic--but I remember they were pretty squirrely about photo-taking of the policemen in Barcelona, too. Fascinating day, with many contrasts.