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Posts Tagged Morocco
Our train pulled us deeper into the Atlas mountain range and seemingly back in time. The City of Fes is the third largest city in Morocco but that doesn’t quite give an accurate picture. Dating back to 790 AD, Fes has the largest car free urban area in the world. The ancient medina lays over a valley, up a hill and spills into the next valley. A million people live in Fes and while the homes may be hundreds of years old, as we look out across the city, it is punctuated with satellite dishes and low power florescent bulbs. We head into one of the seven gates that used to protect the city but now strangle the flow of people and supplies.
It is so easy to think of North Africa as a primitive and backwards place, stuck in the past but their past and those of the Muslims are rich with advances and educational leaps that pulled Europe out of the Dark Ages. One example here in Fes is the University of Al-Karaouine, founded in 859 AD is the oldest continuously functioning university in the world. Having taught mathematics, science and cartography literature during all that time, it as one of the most important reservoirs of knowledge anywhere on earth for hundreds of years. Next to the University, is the oldest and largest Mosque in Africa. Being of the wrong religion we were unable to enter the building but I was able to take a snap or two. While Europe spent 500 years living in squallier and cooking food with cow dung, this University taught advanced algebra, geometry and physics.
As we wandered around the city, listening to the haunting wail of the Muslim’s call to prayer, we begin to smell something so horrendous that we can only be in the world famous leather district of Fes. Here they have continuously been making leather items the old fashion way, with sweat, natural dyes and bird poop. The large vats have dyes, lime and other caustic concoctions somehow make amazingly wonderful leather goods. For the price of a dinner back home, Tamara bought an beautiful hand made leather jacket that feels as soft as cotton.
Another highlight of Fes is the ceramic district, where they make anything and everything from handmade, fired and painted ceramics. We watched men breakup the clay, others form the clay into tiles and some painting. The kilns looked very old and it seems like a neat thing to know how to do….turn mud into plates, fountains and tiles.
The more I learn about the city of Fes and see how people live, I wonder about the value the “skills” I am learning like Word Documents, online banking and navigating a Starbucks. I also wonder think of how little we miss the skills we have almost completely lost like making clothes, glass and the ability to do advanced math/geometry without a device. I have a foreboding resignation that at some point, I will regret or hold as of no value my ethereal skills that I live by.
There are few things that I enjoy as much as traveling by train through a strange land. Riding a train is like listening to a story; A young Woman struggles with her water jar, a child in the back of a moving truck with is dog, men resting in the shade from digging a irrigation canal, a group of people working in a field, the rich grassland outside of a small village….all these stories are played out in my mind as the train moves deeper into Morocco.
The $12 train ride ends with us in Meknes a city built by Berbers (the indigenous people of North Africa) in the 8th Century. The low earth colored city is build around and in, the ancient walled city. Walking into one of the nine grand gates of the city we are immediately lost in a maze of pathways and thousand year old paved roads. This is a living museum, with homes 1000 years old, bakeries that veiled covered mothers wait in line at. Dead-end after dead-end eventually requires us to ask (in gestures) for help from two young girls. They try to speak to us in Arabic and French but eventually just motioned us to follow them. They lead us on a confusing path through tunnels dug into the defensive walls and narrow walkways that leads us to the center of the city. We had hoped to escape the city (being overwhelmed by being so lost) but we try to explore the intimidating giant courtyard.
The center of the city is filled with stalls selling radio batteries, olives, camel feet, long robes, Barbie dolls and juices. The food market alternates from beautiful displays of fruit, to motorized contraptions that automatically de-feathers chickens, to heavenly fragrances of flowers, to powerful smells of old goats heads for sale. Feeling our senses assaulted and the shadows deepening, we retreat to our hotel for the night.
Twenty miles outside the city of Meknes is an important but rarely visited ancient city (300 BC) of Volubilis. It sits at the foothills of the Atlas Mountain range and was a critical part in the Roman expansion into Africa. Long ago I saw photos of Meknes from a fellow adventurer and have always wanted to visit. For $35 we hired a 1983 Mercedes tank and a driver for half the day to drive us out to the ruins.
Like most important Roman cities, Volubilis had fountains of fresh water, paved roads, sewer systems, drainage grates (carved from stone), schools, heated public bath houses and a thriving market.
The rich lived in large multi-story homes with hydraulic powered fountains and amazing mosaics, complete with grand reception solarium. One of the neat things about Volubilis, is that most the mosaics are still intact…still there…baking in the sun. Much of the stone has been slowly taken over the years by Berber tribes to build their homes but the city is still visible to the mind.
We really enjoy ruins and both talked about imaging the inhabitants going about their lives in such a wonderful “modern” city. Below are a few more snaps.
Crossing the Straits of Gibraltar only took 40 minutes on the fast ferry. The infamous Rock of Gibraltar watched us leave Spain, wondering why we didn’t come visit him. It would count as another country for us and has some great history but we decided to bypass it because of the hassle and dangers. We saw and talked to fellow travelers that had been attacked, had things stolen and bitten by packs of roving wild monkeys. One couple in Spain had deep swollen bites on their arms and backs!
Leaving Europe behind the ferry pulled up to the shores of Africa. I could feel the pulse of history as we walked out of the Mediterranean sea and into a sea of touts/guides, yelling “Hotel” and “Taxi” in 7 languages. We walk behind a large group of Spanish day tourists and as soon as they are engaged by the Guides, Tamara and I break right, slipping past the bustle. We head away from the modern part of the City and up into the old city.
Our goal is the Hotel Continental, a magnet to adventurers and literati of the past. Hemmingway, Kerouac, William Burroughs, Degas, Churchill, Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles were just a few of its guests throughout its 130+ year service. During the passing decades, the splendor has faded with the advent of electricity, air conditioning and telephones. Our $40 room is has 15 foot ceilings and a view of the Mediterranean from a tiny deck. Dusty paintings hang above worn grand furniture and brass antiques.
The sweltering heat attempts to hold us hostage in the hotel but we escape up into the coolness of the maze-like Medina (old city) just behind the hotel. We explore the narrow walkways wind back and forth until we get to the famous Kasbah, which is just the older part of the old part of an ancient city. Most of the shops are closed because of the annual Muslim observance of Ramadan. During this month long celebration, they are not allowed to eat or drink (unless ill or pregnant) during the daylight hours. Tomorrow is the end of Ramadan and you can see it in the urgent but happy eyes of the locals. Some of the locals wear jeans but others wear traditional robes and beards. We pass many playing children walking with their mothers dressed up like Mummies. Some of the women wear long dresses that cover everything but their gloved hands and small slits for eyes. They drift slowly and unhurriedly down the paths, sneaking looks at Tamara. With as many tourists that dress in shorts, tank tops and less, Tamara with her modest clothes is met with smiles and polite greetings from many of the Muslim women.
The next day we hire a guide to help us explore some of the deeper aspects of the Kasbah. We ask him endless questions and he explains about the people that live in what used to be known as the end of the civilized world.
Our Guide is dressed in cream linen robes and pointy banana colored shoes. He says that Ramadan has ended and the entire country will be celebrating. Happy families dressed up walk along with us visiting other homes. Their colorful dress and large smiles urge us to take photos but we resist so as to not upset them. We are lead past tiny shared homes, ancient tombs, forgotten cannons and communal bakeries where they bake the neighborhood’s dough in wood fired ovens hundreds of years old.
Five times a day the melodic wailing of the prayer sounds, calling Muslims to pray. The guide says that most of the faithful don’t understand the religion but worship out of habit and peer pressure. What he explained really seemed to parallel to the fading Christian religions of the western world.
Our second day we move from the wonderfully musty hotel to a Riad (Middle East for a Bed and Breakfast) named La Tangerina. The rooms are small and simple but extremely nice. Afternoon tea is served on the roof top terrace overlooking the Mediterranean. It was a nice break from the hustle and bustle, giving Tamara time to knit and me time to write up our experiences.
Later that night we had an authentic 3 course Moroccan dinner on the terrace, complete with steamed beef and onions, vegetables cooked in strange spices and an interesting fruit salad. Afterward, we walked around the deserted Kasbah alleyways (the locals were celebrating the Ramadan feast) until we freaked ourselves out and rushed back to the safety of the Riad. What a great day!
Quick fact; Tangerine means – From Tangiers.