History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

03 February 2007

The Medina

The medina is the old city. The one behind the gates. There are several gates, but all of them can be closed and barred, and would have been once upon a time. Incidentally, I learned something about them that I thought was pretty cool, the biblical saying It is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven comes from a curious practice at these very gates. The two smaller doors into the medina are the “eye” and anything that had to be removed from a laden camel so it could get through the “eye” was taken as a tax. So what that proverb really means is you can’t take it all with you, and you need to share.

Once inside there is a twisting, turning maze of streets and shops and homes. I’ve already shown you the amazing things that lurk behind the anonymous walls, but I didn’t show you the tiny streets, the donkeys and mules everywhere (no cars allowed in the medina), and the press of humanity. The medina here in Fes dates backs to the 8th century, with bits being added and rebuilt over the intervening centuries (the riad I stayed in is relatively new, dating to only 1915).

In the heart of the medina is the tannery. I’ve never really smelled anything like it. Imagine a sewer back-up on a hot day, and then imagine that it’s been like that for hundreds of years in the same spot . . . yeah. The tannery has been in constant use since something like the 12th century, and all the work to tan the hides is still done the same way today. Urine and pigeon dung are used to tan the leather. Vats of natural dye stuff sit in the same vat they always have, ready for use. Everything is simply topped off as needed (and a good rain, or snow as they had they day before I arrived!) can make the place overflow into the streets.

There are also old caravansaries, hotels with rooms for the traders, stables for the beasts, and a large square for trading. Many of the finer riads have become either hotels, restaurants, or shops. We bought pottery, the kind Fes is justifiably famous for, from one such that the shopkeeper told us has been in his family for more than 300 years (they still live in the rooms above the shop, just the main rooms have been turned in to a place of business).

If you’re interested in the history of Morocco, I’d say Fes is not to be missed.


Anonymous Judy T said...

The meeting of the past and present in such a way always amazes me. When I lived in London one summer, it was in a "new" house, as it was only 100 years old. When I saw the Tower of London, it was difficult to wrap my mind around how it took as many years to build as the US had been a country. To see a city that's 2000 years old... wow.

6:37 PM  
Anonymous Monica said...

Wow, Tonda, your pictures and descriptions are amazing. That smell sounds . . . yuck. It looks so crowded. How is the cleanliness factor?

11:07 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

The streets are not clean, hence shoes are left at the door in private homes. Between the dirt, the runoff from the tannery, and the donkey poo I think the shoes I wore might be trash when I'm done with this little adventure (but it's totally worth it).

The riads, however, have been spotless (much better than the 4-star Sheraton we stayed at in Casablanca), and the salads are safe to eat (unlike the ones in sub-Saharan Africa).

I'm just settleing into Marrakesh right now. It's totally different from anywhere else I've been on this trip. Snake charmers in the square. HUGE crowds at night in the medina. And everywhere I go I get asked to come back when they close and have a coffee (it happened three times last night!).

11:50 PM  
Blogger Anna Campbell said...

Kalen, glad to hear you're setting the local hearts afire! Loved your post. It was so evocative - although perhaps in the case of the tannery, TOO evocative. I remember it was a Dorothy Dunnett book where I first realised how they tan leather. Ugh! Send us more if you get a chance. I'm really enjoying the chance to visit exotic climes under your guidance!

11:11 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

These posts are wonderful, Kalen. Thanks so much.

12:24 PM  
Blogger Jami Alden said...

Morrocco looks and sounds amazing, Kalen, but I confess, the description of the smell doesn't exactly have me booking the next ticket to Fes!

1:22 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

All of Fes does NOT smell like the tannery, just the immediate area right around it. I promise. *grin*

1:53 AM  
Blogger Kristina Cook said...

I LOVE these posts from Morocco, Kalen! We're vacationing in the south of Spain this summer and planning a measly little daytrip across the Straits of Gibraltar to Tangier. These picures are whetting my appetite--and making me very, very sad that we won't see more of Morocco than just Tangier.

7:58 PM  
Blogger Anna Campbell said...

Oh, Kristina, you're so lucky. The south of Spain is gorgeous. Don't miss the Alhambra and the mosque at Cordoba which is one of the most beautiful buildings I've ever seen. I didn't get to North Africa when I was there although I would have loved to. I hope you'll share your travel experiences with us too.

10:57 PM  

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