Thursday, May 26, 2016


Our next destination was Morocco's holiest city and most important pilgrimage destination: Moulay Idriss. If a Moroccan comes here seven times in his/her lifetime, it makes up for never making the very expensive pilgrimage to Mecca.

What makes this city so important is that it surrounds the mausoleum of Moulay Idriss himself, the great-grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and the man who brought Islam to Morocco in 789 AD. Idriss was heir to the caliphate in Damascus, but after a civil war there that led to the Shia-Sunni divide, he fled to Morocco and established the first Arab dynasty there.  He also began building the city of Fes, which was finished by his son, Moulay Idriss II.  Idriss I was poisoned in 792 by his enemies in the East, but he left behind a pregnant wife, and when his son was old enough, he followed in his father's footsteps.

Moulay Ismail rebuilt the tomb of Moulay Idriss I in the late 17th/early 18th century, creating today's grand pilgrimage mausoleum. The eponymous town is often referred to as Moulay Idriss Zerhoun (Zerhoun being the name of the mountain upon which it is built). I'm guessing that's to distinguish it from the man himself.

You would think a city of such great importance to Moroccans would be large and noisy and glamorous, but it's a quiet, humble, compact place with a population of about 12,000. Built on the side of a hill, it almost feels like Tuscany--almost. Like most Moroccan towns, it has a large central square, but at least when we were there, it was pretty quiet:

The tomb of Moulay Idriss I is at the end of this long corridor:

Unfortunately (but completely understandably for such a holy site), "Access is not permitted fro non-Muslims": 
In fact, non-Muslims were not even permitted to stay overnight in this holy city until 2005. When the American author Edith Wharton visited here in 1919, she had to be out of the city by 3:00 PM.  

A heavy wood bar blocks the entrance, perhaps to stop tourists from inadvertently wandering in when no one is watching, or perhaps to keep out the omnipresent donkeys. People can bend and crawl under, but not donkeys.

Saturday, May 21, 2016


On our second full day in Morocco, we left Fes and went on a day-long excursion to three sites: Volubilis, Moulay Idris, and Meknes. Prior to planning this trip, I hadn't heard of any of them. 

We were in Morocco in March, and the productive farming area around Fes looked like the Emerald City of Oz:

Our guide had our driver stop for a break at Sidi Chahed dam and reservoir, which was created under the previous king's reservoir building spree in the 1990s. It is located about 20 miles from the cities of Fes and Meknes, supplies 30 million gallons of tap water to Meknes, and provides irrigation water for many surrounding farmlands.

This man appears to be cleaning up brush with a rudimentary rake. There is a shocking lack of farm machinery all over Morocco:

"Coincidentally," there were some farmers/vendors at the place where we stopped to get a view of the reservoir, and there was great pressure to taste their samples and look at their handmade goods.  We ended up buying two hand-crocheted hats. I have no idea what I'm going to do with them, but I felt the need to buy something from the vendors.

As we continued on our journey, we saw our first of what would be many stork nests balancing on some fortunate homeowner's roof vent.  Apparently it is good luck to have storks select your house for their own domicile. As they mate for life and use the same nest year after year, I'm not sure how thrilled I would be about this new, messy adornment. What do the residents do about the need for venting?

We eventually arrived at Volubilis, which I can't say without thinking of the word "volubility." The Latin word volubilis means "winding, revolving, rolling, and turning." Another meaning is "changing and mutable." The word "volubility" means "characterized by a continuous flow of words; glib; talkative; fluent."  We did feel the "continuous flow" at Volubilis, both in the narration of our knowledgeable guide and in the never-ending ruins that rolled and turned across over 100 acres of the wide valley.

However, the real reason this area is named "Volubilis" is because that is the French word for "morning glory," a ubiquitous wild vine found weaving its way through the city ruins:

Fertile farm lands that surround the stone city make it obvious why people would want to settle here:

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?

Wednesday, May 4, 2016


Handicrafts are the mainstay of the Moroccan economy, and if you want to see where they come from and how they are made, you will have to subject yourself to what every tourist hates: the high pressure tactics of salespeople. In my mind it's hard to be too critical of that in Morocco, however. Their crafts-oriented culture makes selling their handiwork the primary source of income for many Moroccans. To some extent, tourists need to recognize their skills (which should be preserved for future generations) and support their efforts by buying their beautiful work.

After the rug cooperative, we had a few more visits to places where we could "learn" about (and buy) Moroccan crafts.


The Fes medina is home to three very old leather tanneries. The tannery we visited is located in an open courtyard somewhere in the medina (Don't ask me where). Tourists aren't allowed to wander around in the tannery itself, but they can get excellent views of the action from surrounding rooftops. Of course, no one is going to miss out on an opportunity to "interact" with all the tourists who come to see the tannery, and so leather shops are set up around the perimeter, and tourists must pass through the shops if they want access to viewing spots on the roof.

Hassan took us through Merveilles de Cuir, or "The Wonders of Leather," to the Terrase de Tannerie ( Tannery Terrace) where visits are "free":
We would pay a de facto admission price later.

After climbing three flights of stairs (there are always stairs in Morocco) and emerging at a viewing area, I was handed a sprig of peppermint to combat the stench of the tannery, which I actually didn't think was that bad, but the mint was still a nice touch.

From the roof we could see a series of dye-filled clay vats lined up like the colors in a child's watercolor set. The methods used to cure and dye all kinds of leather (cow, sheep, goat, and camel) have been used for almost 1,000 years in Morocco. 

I was impressed by the tightrope walkers who strolled so casually along the tops of the tubs. Imagine what it would be like to lose your footing!