A Walk in the Medina: Bab Bou Jeloud to Bab Jdid

Sunday, September 28, 2008 | Fès, Morocco (map)

An old man sells spices along Tala'a Kebira in the heart of Fes's old city.
Jacqueline and I recently bought Fez from Bab to Bab: Walks in the Medina, a renowned guidebook available for sale locally. The guide offers ten walking tours throughout Fes’ old city, one of which Jacqueline and I walked on Saturday, with some of our own modifications and on our own schedule. Our exploration began at Bab Bou Jeloud (باب بو جلود), among the most ornately decorated of the medina's dozen or so gates, which allow passage through the ancient city walls.

After walking a few hundred meters through a bustling market, we arrived at the Bou Inania madrasa, named for one of Fes's greatest sultans, Abou 'Inan, who led the Merenid dynasty during its glory days in the 14th century. The madrasa, elaborately decorated in fine zellij tiles and intricate cedar wood carvings, remains a sight to see, and a testament to the wealth and power centered in Fes in its greatest era.

Ibn Khaldun, the great Andalusian philosopher, mystic, and social scientist, taught at the school shortly after its construction. After returning from his travels, Ibn Battuta also visited, and swooned at the school's splendor: "There is nothing comparable in the inhabited world to equal its splendor, beauty, magnificence, quality of water and location. I have never seen any school of its likeness, neither in Syria, Egypt, Iraq nor in Khoracan." Next, our walk took us down a main street named Tala'a Kbira (طالعة كبيرة) which is flanked by shop after shop selling traditional Fassi pottery, leather goods, shoes, spices, metalwork, and other wares. Jacqueline and I perused the selection in many shops but did not buy much, choosing to wait until our Moroccan Arabic skills improve before we start haggling with the shopkeepers.

A few choice words of Arabic were sufficient, however, to dispatch of the young faux guides. These ever-present school age boys loiter throughout the old city, hoping to lead unsuspecting tourists on "tours" for a fee. A mild nuisance at first, the faux guides can be quite entertaining once you learn to banter with them.We continued down Tala'a Kbira, pausing to buy some honey from a world-famous local seller, make an extra copy of our house key, buy some small bags of spices from a wrinkled old Fassi man, and grab an orange juice and a breather in a local riad overlooking the 14th century Chrabliyine Mosque.

In Morocco, non-Muslims are not permitted to enter mosques (with one exception in Casablanca), so Jacqueline and I had to crane our necks around the open doorways to see inside the mausoleum to Moulay Idriss (مولاي ادريس), the 8th-century founder of Morocco's first Muslim dynasty. Shops all around the large shrine specialize in decorative white candles; many Moroccans light them inside the shrine in tribute to the revered saint. After our visit to the outside of the mausoleum, Jacqueline and I doubled back and turned onto a smaller street leading south, where Bab to Bab recommended visits to several ancient riads, almost all of which are closed to the public. We managed to enter one, the Mnebhi Palace, whose new role as a restaurant helps to maintain a small amount of its original splendor.

Further along, we were welcomed with suspicious warmth into the Mokri Palace (القصر المقري), built in the late 19th century when Fes was still Morocco's capital. The sprawling palace complex turned out to be a den of faux guides, all of whom were eager to extract a few dirhams from us in support of the palace's "maintenance", something it clearly hadn't seen much of since the sultans moved out decades ago. After ducking the faux guide's advances, we escaped the palace and turned toward our apartment, just a few minutes up the hill.

1 comment:

Tom Reid said...

Andrew,
I am enjoying reading of your travels and explorations. Economic news aside, all's well at SP. All the best

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