Saturday, March 09, 2013

Antique Shopping in the Mellah of the Fez Medina

The Mellah, or Jewish quarter of the Fez Medina, is a wonderful place to explore. Not only does it have very different architecture than the Muslim areas of the city, but it is also home to the gold souq and some of the best antique furniture shops.

Tucked away in a side market near the gates of the Royal Palace, and to one side of the Mellah, is the place for hunting out the odd, the unusual and the very old. Much of the furniture is of from the colonial French era, but there are other finds to be made.

At first glance it looks like junk...

The first official mellah was established in the city of Fes in 1438. In the first half of the 14th century, the Marinids founded, alongside Fes, the town of Hims, which was initially allocated to the archers and the Christian militia. In 1438 the Jews were driven from the old part of Fes to Hims, which had been built on a site known asal-Mallah, "the saline area". 

Ultimately, the term came to designate Jewish quarters in other Moroccan cities. Initially, there was nothing derogatory about this term: some documents employ the expression "mellah of the Muslims", and the Jewish quarter contained large and beautiful dwellings which were favored residences for "the agents and ambassadors of foreign princes". 

Later on, however, popular etymology explained the word mellah as a "salted, cursed ground" or a place where the Jews "salted the heads of decapitated rebels”, highlighting the outcast connotations attached to this word.

Once inside the shops the treasures are everywhere
Map of the Mellah - the red spot is the antique area

How to get there: Take a taxi to the royal palace, or park in the carpark opposite the steps up to the palace doors. Around the carpark is a junk market that's worth browsing. There's a lot of rubbish but occasionally you spot something worthwhile.

Past the entrance to the Jewish cemetery, you'll come across massive gates on the right and inside is a yard surrounded by small shops. There's a lot of junk, and some pretty awful modern furniture. But some of the shops are wonderful Aladdin's caves full of interesting objects. You can find Moroccan artefacts such as flower water shakers, painted shelves and brass lanterns, even large doors. There are lots of European pieces of furniture, mostly from the 1930s that must have been left behind by the French, even the odd piano or roll-top bureau. You might find a marble-topped cafe table or a wrought-iron Singer sewing-machine table complete with treadle. There are plenty of chandeliers and lamps, wonderful photographs, old radio sets, glassware, jewellery, silverware and cutlery. But things don't hang around long - you have to move fast. So if you see something you want, don't put off buying it until "next time".

A point to note: If you make large purchases, the shop-owners will gladly arrange for a 'honda' (a small van) to take your precious cargo back to the medina. If you're in the process of restoration, they're also very good about looking after your goods until your house is ready for occupation.

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