A benefit of traveling to new places is learning how small and connected the world is. For instance, I always thought the fez hat (red round felt or cloth hat with a black tassel on top) was Ottoman. Actually, it came to fashion in the 17th century in the town of Fes and then spread in popularity throughout Northern Africa. Eventually the Ottomans adopted it as a fashion, and then the Sultan started requiring the Janissaries and other government officials to wear it in an attempt at modernization, which is how it became symbolic of the Empire. When Ataturk started the Turkish Republic, he banned the fez in favor of Western European hats in another effort at modernization.
In another historical link, in Turkish the entire country of Morocco is called Fas. The Ottomans only got as far as Fes and the name stuck, even after the current country of Morocco underwent one political upheaval after another before finally becoming the independent monarchy that it is today.
Fes has been a seat of power in Northern Africa for centuries. The oldest university in Africa, as well as the Islamic education system of madrasahs, was founded there in the ninth century by a woman (!). The current king’s wife, a thoroughly modern woman, and the first one to maintain a public lifestyle after a royal marriage, is from Fes.
We spent an entire day walking through the medina (old city) of Fes. It’s huge and full of thousands of winding zig-zagged corridors, half of which lead to dead ends. We had a guide – otherwise I’m certain we would still be lost.
I really loved that Fes’s souq was still operational, and not just a tourist shopping destination. In addition to the various factories that we saw, local people were everywhere going about their daily activities. I wish I could share the sounds and smells with you – the pictures don’t share the whole experience. Each area of the medina is dedicated to a particular activity, like the tannery, food sellers, wool dyers, carpentry, or whatever.
My favorite spot was the metal worker’s square, where the taps of hammers on metal created a symphony of hustle and bustle when I stood in the middle. Before climbing to the top balcony of a leather shop to get a bird’s eye view of the tannery, one of the merchants handed each of us a bundle of mint to counter the ammonia stench. To produce the leather, lime, natural dyes, and pigeon poop (for ammonia) are used.
If you look at this tannery picture, you can see the varieties of dyes used, as well as the animal skins drying in the sun.
As I’ve learned from the carpet dealers, the longer you spend in a shop, the more likely you are to buy. I didn’t think I was in the market for leather products, but ended up with a pair of turquoise ballerina flats and a big pouf made with camel skin.
Since the souq was so busy, I tried to take lots of “street shots” to give you a idea of the fashion and activities that we saw.