Spectacular and chaotic, different and chaotic, authentic… and chaotic. There are multiple adjectives to define the Medina Fes el-Bali, but the second one is usually repeated. This place has remained practically unchanged for centuries.
The Fez medina’s chaos has to do with experiencing a space of such complexity and so far from our conception of the urban that we do not know how to assimilate it. A design so fascinating and unmanageable that every visit to it is necessary, but never sufficient.
What follows is nothing more than a humble attempt to scratch the surface of one of the most intriguing microcosms in the world.
What is a medina
What is a medina? Among other things, a complex Muslim urban system with a wall to protect it
Despite the fact that literally medina (in Arabic مدينة or madīna) means city, the word has ended up defining the old quarter of Islamic cities, formed by a wall that protects it and an organic and complex development. Even if it also had defensive foundations (whoever tried to attack would find it difficult to orientate himself), its deepest reason was to put the individuality of the Muslim before greater orders.
Because in Islam each person, each family and, therefore, each house, is a value that must be protected at all costs, and it was not conceivable to mimic it in a sensibly homogeneous and perfectly aligned street.
However, to reduce it to a structure of only two elements and with hardly any planning would be incorrect, because if there are five pillars of Islam, five are also the foundations on which they support the Islamic territory, and so every neighbourhood should have a mosque, a madrasa, an oven, a fountain and a hammam, so that religion, education, food, water and cleanliness are guaranteed.
The Medina Fes el-Bali
Describing the medina of Fez means talking about the history of the oldest capital of the country: founded more than 1200 years ago on the right bank of the river that now crosses it, it would soon extend to the other bank. It underwent multiple changes of government, so that its development, reaching more than 300 neighborhoods and 9000 alleys, was accompanied by numerous transformations, with special emphasis on the reconstruction of the walls.
And although this is the original one, known as Fez el-Bali, 500 years later another one was built right next to it, called Fez el-Jdid, in which all the political power was concentrated, moving later to all the Jewish community of the original medina and that grew exponentially as a result of the fall of the kingdom of Al-Andalus.
The latter is significantly different from the former, with a clearer layout, with the imposing presence of the Royal Palace – despite its bronze doors protecting it from the curious – but, above all, with a Jewish street full of balconies, an unthinkable sight in the original Muslim culture.
It is Fez el-Bali that holds the most outstanding buildings, such as the Mausoleum of Mulay Idris, founder of the city, or the Al Karaouine Mosque, both of which are impenetrable to non-Muslims. Or the madrasas, the most relevant for their unique beauty and elegance are those of Bou Inania and Attarine.
Even so, to consider the Fes medina as a sum of significant places would be to remain at the gates of a place that, above all, represents a philosophy of life that admits few concessions to modernity and none to looks.
Because although its uniqueness and its designation as a world heritage site has managed to attract many curious people, for every dirham-hungry seeker, three workers are raffled off who, to the cry of “Balak”, will ask us to step aside while they transport skins, fruit or dented butane bottles on a donkey.
This is a space designed by and for its inhabitants and, in a second and discreet position, by travellers who know how to understand it.
An intense experience
Once you pass through Bab Bou Jeloud, the main entrance, you realize that this place is not, in a strict academic term, “beautiful”, and anyone waiting for a story from the Arabian Nights will be in for a nasty surprise.
The medina does not have a careful aesthetic because it simply cannot afford it and does not need it. It follows its course, in a perpetual circular movement detached from the external reality, without any consideration rather with a pride of exposing itself in all its crudeness.
The sound of the rhythmic hammering and the metallic hissing of polishers in Seffarine Square, seeking to straighten out and give lustre to the kitchen instruments of the Phasids and maintaining that attitude – unfortunately almost extinct – according to which it is better to fix than to buy again.
Or the visual and indiscriminate spectacle of the souk, where the colourfulness of the fruits, sweets and pickles compete with the presence of chickens or rabbits, waiting to be slaughtered in the back room of the restaurant as soon as there’s a customer.
Or the intense smell emanating from the Chouara Tannery, still several storeys high from one of the terraces that surround it, and which comes mainly from the mixture of lime, excrement, ash and urine with which the hides are cleaned in the tanks into which the tanners are introduced.
The somewhat creaking aesthetics of the wedding thrones in Plaza Nejjarine, the meticulous and repetitive carving in copper or weaving with looms,… all contribute to the sometimes uncomfortable but always authentic atmosphere of the medina, and which usually causes visitors to become exhausted after a few hours of wandering through a complex space in permanent darkness.
However, the most overwhelming experience occurs when the call to prayer begins and the songs of the muezzins follow one after the other in the form of a polyphonic melody that winds through the streets impacts the hearts of listeners, whether religious or not.
That’s when the mosques get all the attention, the faithful come and, with a bit of luck, leave the door ajar. Immediately the lay people lean out, in an attitude that is perhaps not very respectful but is understandably curious, and they observe the obvious: that they, like us, are only looking for a direction in their life.
Everything described is nothing more than the shell of a place that asks not to be judged, not to be valued, not even to be understood, but simply to be felt. And that is why those who enter the Fez medina must always choose between two simple options: either to get lost or to let themselves be lost in it.