Our British correspondent Chrysalis, a frequent visitor to Fez, sent us his musings on the spiritual essence of Fez.
Origins, and myths about origins, shape the reality we experience. The ancient Romans believed their city was founded by Romulus and Remus as the basis for a nation and an empire, and that story, true or not, shapes the Rome we visit today.
Fes, a city grown around a shrine, a place of pilgrimage, has a sacred foundation and remains true to this spirit in ways the casual tourist may not see but nevertheless shape their experience.
In the Islamic tradition, shrines of the saints – which do not commemorate the dead but celebrate the saint’s ongoing life as a facet of the divine radiance - usually stand alone. They are rarely in cities, rarely surrounded by elaborate buildings or streets. More often they are in what used to be wilderness, remote from cities and beyond the control of their rulers. To visit these shrines is to separate yourself from the daily reality of the city, to step back and away to contemplate the divine and to entrust to the saint and to God those difficulties for which you hope for a cure.
Fes, then, is a contradictory city, holding as it does the tomb of the saint Moulay Idriss at its heart.
This contradictoriness infests the medina, whose streets remain like the paths that used to approach the saint’s shrine across the hillside - they follow the contours of the land, with no attempt to shape them. The medina is a hillside covered with buildings, an opposite of the conventional ideal of the city as conceived by Muslims, Jews, Christians or Hindus.
The holiness of Fes and its primacy of spiritual values meant its rulers could never live within the old city. Their temporal rules and values would always be at odds with the imperative issuing from Moulay Idriss: Return! Everything other than God is an illusion or a distraction.
Today’s ville nouvelle, with its armies of bureaucrats and administrators who take all the important decisions about the medina, continues this 1000-year tradition of external governance, and perpetuates too the never-to-be-resolved conflict between the spiritual reality embodied at Moulay Idriss and the mercenary grandeur of luxury hotels that peer over the walls at a reality they exploit but can never inhabit.
the shrine of Moulay Idriss
The medina’s turbulent flow, so notable to visitors, up and down its main streets and through its maze of bazaars and workshops, is the most extreme example in the world of a vibrant, lively, systematic form of commerce occurring in a form of streets and buildings so ill adapted to its needs as to create almost insuperable obstacles overcome daily by heroic combinations of will and faith.
Ibn al Arabi, the great philosopher-mystic, who had one of his most important visions in Fes, cited a verse from the Koran: ”Every day He is in a business”, to which al Arabi added: ”But there is no day, and there is no business!” I know of no other place in the world where the veil of commerce and activity, like a phantasm of the Arabian Nights, so readily parts to reveal glimpses of the underlying reality.
Groups of tourists pass through the streets and markets of the Fes medina like bubbles of air in a stream of water. You can often hear and see the ‘Pop!’ as, in a frozen moment of dislocation, the bubbles are penetrated by the spiritual energy of the place.
As Jellaludin Rumi says: “This intricate, astonishing world is proof of God’s presence even as it conceals the beauty”. The empty-hearted clean-machine world of the European city is no place for such a vision. But Fes, with its screeching arrow-flights of alpine swifts jinking through the alleys, its filth and stink, its tribes of feral cats, its racket and hustle, its purposeful chaos of trade and its unending human dramas enacted daily on its streets… yes, the sacred city of Fes is a place where you can be astonished into awareness of presence.