Medina Menagerie: Old City of Fez, Morocco

LEADmoroccoI barely escape being run over by ducking into the nearest doorway, as donkeys carrying heavy loads crowd into the long, narrow corridor. With shouts of “Balak! Balak!” (look out!) announcing the animals’ arrival, vendors, residents, tourists and children step out of the way as livestock spill into the dark passages within this mysterious labyrinth. As soon as the donkeys pass, the swarm of humanity closes in again, everyone carrying on with their daily lives.

The world within the ancient walls of Fez, Morocco, offers myriad sights and sounds for those who enter. No description can serve justice to the deluge of shouts of bartering and swirls of vibrant colors here, an almost unconceivable panorama that has barely changed in the past thousand years. Fez, founded in the 9th century and home to the oldest university in the world, is one of the best-preserved medieval cities of the Arab-Islamic world, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

While still learning to manipulate the uneven cobblestones underfoot, I slowly regain my composure and begin to explore the souk’s passages with trinkets of all shapes and sizes. Fresh fish and meats, leather goods, vegetables and fruits, earth-toned spices, caged pigeons, and copper pots and pans are all intermingled within this city of goods.

The Hand of Fatima, a sacred design that offers safety and a watchful eye over people, is artfully crafted into silver key chains, earrings and pendants. Perhaps it’s a good idea to buy something to better ensure my imminent safety.

An elderly man sits in the corner of one copper kitchenware shop, sharing his craftsman techniques with a young boy. Perhaps it’s his grandson being trained to carry on the family business into the next generation. How many generations have come before him?

A local resident fetches water at one of Medina’s beautifully tiled watering holes.
A local resident fetches water at one of Medina’s beautifully tiled watering holes.

Beggars kneel with outstretched hands while sharply dressed businessmen in hooded burnooses respectfully walk around them to congregate at community water wells. Women walk, eyes lowered to the ground, beautifully adorned in their colorful djellabas, shopping for the daily produce. Cats, obviously unintimidated by this cacophony, stare up at the fish counters, hoping for a scrap or two for a midday meal.

Cumin, ginger, fava beans and paprika are colorfully displayed in small stands lining bustling passages, alongside olives, nuts, mint and saffron. While skilled artisans form copper cooking pots over open fires, the mouth-watering aroma of freshly baked herb bread wafts in the air. I suddenly realize that I’m famished.

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