Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Travel writing about Morocco - part seven.

The View from Fez sighed a sigh of relief today - we finally discovered a really fine travel article on Morocco. More than that, it was a travel article on Fez. Not only was it well researched, but it was beautifully written.

So we take our collective hat off to the New York Times and Philip D. Schuyler for a great piece of travel writing. Philip Schuyler is Assistant Professor of Music at Columbia University.

His article is a long one and well worth taking the time to read, especially if you are planning to visit the Fez Medina. Here is an excerpt.

Few places are as well-suited for a walking tour as the Medina, the old quarter of Fez. In fact, there is really no other way to visit the old city, since most of the streets are too steep or narrow to permit even a scooter to maneuver in comfort. Houses seem to have sprung up wherever there was space, leaving only small gaps between the buildings for traffic to slip through. Often the upper stories have been cantilevered out over the street, turning the passage into a tunnel. It is said that in some neighborhoods the maze of alleyways was deliberately designed to confound an invading enemy; whatever the case, the result has been an urban landscape of unparalleled beauty and complexity.

When Moulay Idris II founded Fez in A.D. 809, he chose his spot wisely. Blessed with abundant water and protected by the surrounding hills, the site lay at the intersection of two old and still active trade routes. Over time, settlers from Andalusia in Spain and Qairwan in Tunisia, gave Fez a reputation for erudition and craftsmanship. The city reached its peak under the Marinids, a Berber dynasty that, though often at war with Christian rulers in Andalusia, made Fez its capital in 1248, and the capital of Morocco in 1269; the city remained for centuries the political, religious, commercial and intellectual center of Morocco.

Today Fez is a sprawling agglomeration of diverse neighborhoods, from Fez Jdid (New Fez, founded in 1276) to French-style suburbs, but the Medina, separate and largely intact, remains the soul of the city.

More than 150,000 people still live and work in the Medina. Parking lots on the periphery and television antennas on the rooftops demonstrate that Fez has entered the 20th century. Nevertheless, many traditional crafts - indeed, whole segments of the economy - continue to operate much as they have for the last 500 years or more. The layout of many neighborhoods corresponds closely to descriptions of the city under the Marinids. As a result, the city can seem to be by turns a living museum, a larger-than-life sculpture or a vast puzzle.

No one, it seems, wants travelers to solve this puzzle for themselves. Guidebooks and travel articles caution that tourists are certain to get lost in the winding streets. Licensed guides, with their government-issued badges, repeat this warning to potential clients at the doors of five-star hotels. Young men and boys wait by the gates of the Medina, volunteering their assistance in half a dozen languages. The most enterprising have taken to cruising the outskirts of the city on motorbikes, trying to snare cars full of tourists as they pull into town.

The trouble with guides (both in print and in the flesh) is that they tend to focus attention on isolated destinations. To be sure, there are many impressive sights in Morocco, but in most cases it is impossible to view them as you would the Eiffel Tower or the Taj Mahal. Consider the Qarawiyin mosque. Since its founding in A.D. 859, the Qarawiyin has been the spiritual center of Fez. For centuries it was also the seat of the most important university in the western Islamic world. Successive dynasties expanded the mosque until it became the largest in North Africa, with a capacity of more than 20,000 worshipers. Compared with the great mosques of Isfahan or Istanbul, the design is austere. The columns and arches are plain white; the floors are covered in reed mats, not lush carpets. Yet, the seemingly endless forest of arches creates a sense of infinite majesty and intimate privacy. And the very simplicity of the design sets off to good advantage the finely decorated niche, pulpit and outer courtyard, with its superb examples of tile, plasterwork, woodcarving and painting.

Unfortunately, the Qarawiyin is largely hidden from sight. You cannot go inside: in Morocco, non-Muslims may not enter active mosques. Nor can you step back to take a look at the whole building: the mosque is hemmed in by streets only 6 to 10 feet wide. At best, you can stand at the main door, jostled by passing donkeys, for an impressive but unsatisfying view of the courtyard. When they are open, the other doors scattered around the perimeter afford no more than tantalizing glimpses of a tiled staircase or a row of arches. It used to be possible to look down over the Qarawiyin from the roof of the Attarine medersa, a former dormitory attached to the mosque. For the past few years, however, the upper floors have been closed for renovation. (The medersa, if anything an even finer sampler of Marinid decorative art, is still well worth a visit.)

If the Qarawiyin turns out to be a bit of a letdown, direct your attention instead to the shops and streets that crowd so tenaciously around it. Along with the tomb of Moulay Idris II, the Qarawiyin forms a sacred precinct. Within this precinct are candle makers, incense sellers and dealers in silk and silver, the most elegant merchants of the Medina. The passage around the mosque takes you through neighborhoods full of booksellers, leather workers, brass workers, blacksmiths, tinsmiths, and so on. In circumnavigating the Qarawiyin - a 20-minute journey - you can finally grasp, if only by inference, the immensity of the mosque.

More important, you begin to understand the social and economic complexity of the city and to sense the qualities - piety, pragmatism, craftsmanship and intellect - that combine to form its character.

The full travel article can be found here: Finding your way in Fez

Earlier Travel Writing stories:

Travel Writing Six
Travel Writing Five
Travel Writing Four
Travel Writing Three
Travel Writing Two
Travel Writing One


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