Editor’s note: Morocco has been at or near the top of my travel wish list for years. In 2020, I was supposed to visit from Spain, but had to cut my trip short due to the emergence of Covid on the world scene. It is lovely to visit vicariously through Sam, and his experience in Fez only makes me want to visit more! For more of Sam Spector’s incredible stories, click here to visit his index page.
This past week, as I watched the ball drop on television from Times Square, I thought of some of the places where I have celebrated ringing in the New Year. There have been a couple times in Israel, and once in Thailand, too, but my favorite New Year’s travel memory happened in one of the most beautiful cities in the Arab world, Fez, Morocco. As a rabbi, the city of Fez had always been on my bucket list. This city has a long Jewish history with the first Jews arriving there in 808 CE. Over time, Fez grew to have one of the largest Jewish communities in the Arab world. One of the famous residents of Fez was the greatest Jewish scholar, Maimonides, who sought refuge there after leaving his native Spain following the invasion of the extremist Almohad Caliph in 1148. Maimonides resided in Fez for about ten years and there wrote his famous commentary on the Mishna before relocating to the Land of Israel and eventually settling in Cairo. Today, an inscription on a house notes where this brilliant rabbi, physician, and philosopher resided.
I am sure that I will write many more articles about my backpacking trip across Morocco, but in short, how I arrived in Fez (often spelled Fes), was by flying into Casablanca, taking a train to Marrakech, then the most nausea inducing overnight bus across the Atlas Mountains to the city of Merzouga in the Sahara Desert, before finally taking the second-most nausea inducing overnight bus to Fez. With 1.1 million inhabitants, Fez is the second largest city in Morocco after Casablanca. Fez is an ancient walled city, drawing many comparisons to Jerusalem, and the entire walled area has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has garnered nicknames such as “The Mecca of the West” and “The Athens of Africa”, and alongside Marrakesh, Meknes, and Rabat is one of Morocco’s four imperial cities, having served as an imperial capital eight times for seven empires over hundreds of years. The first time that Fez served as a capital was under its founder, Emperor Idris I in the beginning of the 9th century.
The medina (meaning essentially the old city) of Fez is known for being a complete maze and nearly impossible to find your way around in it because of all the narrow, zigzagging alleyways that lead from one area to the next. When I tell people that I went to Fez without a guide, they are astonished that I ever found my way out, and frankly, so am I. With the streets being so narrow and going every which way possible like a labyrinth, driving a car into the medina is not an option, making the medina of Fez the world’s largest car-free urban zone, where donkeys and carts are used instead. As a result, it is also considered to be the best-preserved old city in the entire Arab world. To get a full picture of the size, density, and dizziness of the Medina of Fez, you will want to spend your first evening hiking up the hill above the city (or taking a taxi) to the Merenid Tombs, a 13th century necropolis for royalty that is today a ruin. From atop the hill and the tombs, you will be presented with an incredible bird’s eye view of the medina. Another way to get the real feel of ancient Fez is to be sure to stay in a riad, a traditional Moroccan home with an interior garden or courtyard and intricate designs. Today, many of these old Moroccan mansions have been turned into hostels, guesthouses, and hotels, providing a memorable and beautiful cultural experience. At the riad hostel where I stayed, I was able to take full advantage of the many experiences that were offered to guests.
Like many places throughout the Muslim world, Morocco is known for their hammam bath experiences. You go into a very hot steam room essentially naked or in your underwear, while (in my case) a strong Moroccan guy also wearing practically nothing gives you the most intense massage and exfoliation of your life while dumping hot and cold water on you. While this experience might push westerners a bit out of their comfort zone, it is well worth it not only for the unique experience, but also for how incredible you will feel afterwards. The riad also offered daytrips to the nearby imperial city of Meknes and the beautifully preserved Roman city of Volubilis, perhaps the best Roman site in Africa, but I opted to tour the Atlas Mountains resort city of Ifrane. Ifrane is a gorgeous daytrip, and it almost feels as though you are in Switzerland instead of Morocco, if not for the hordes of Berber monkeys looking to take snacks away from tourists. Finally, the riad also organized for all its guests the most fun New Years party at a local bar.
Speaking of bars, the most popular drink of choice in Morocco is what locals call “Moroccan Whiskey,” though once you take a sip, you will be able to tell that it is just mint tea, and it is served in pretty much every shop and with every meal. Drink your Moroccan Whiskey alongside a dish of tagine or couscous right outside of the beautiful Bab Boujloud, the most ornate of Fez’s many gates to its medina, which is bright blue on one side and green on the other. Just inside the gate is a flea market which was meaningful and difficult for me to experience. While a century ago, more than a quarter million Jews lived in Morocco, with perhaps more living in Fez than anywhere else, today the Jewish population of Morocco numbers under 3,000, with most living in Casablanca. Most of the Jews went to Israel, with Moroccans now making up the largest ethnic group among Israeli Jews in the Jewish State. In the mid-15th century the Jews of Fez were restricted to an area called the mellah, meaning salt in Hebrew and Arabic, because of the salt warehouses that were there. Eventually mellahs became part of many cities in Morocco, and served to be the equivalent of Europe’s ghettos. Within the mellah you can see a few synagogues; I recommend the 17th century Ibn Danan synagogue, and the sprawling Jewish cemetery, which has graves of important rabbis that local Jews called “saints” and where candles were lit at their tombs, as well as a section for hundreds of children who died during a cholera epidemic, and also the ornate tomb of a beautiful young woman who was executed for refusing to convert to Islam when the local sultan demanded she do so in order that they be married. This history is what makes the flea markets so difficult to visit, because within them you can find the rich Jewish heritage on display for purchase from when the Jewish community hastily left Morocco leaving many of their valuables behind. There, I purchased an old copper Chanukiah, which on one hand did not feel good having to pay money for something that had been looted, while on the other hand, I would hope that the original owners would take solace in knowing that their precious artifact found its way back to a Jewish home.
Fez has no shortage of places to see as well. Some are strictly for Muslims, like Moulay Idris II shrine, containing the tombs of the first sultans of Fez, and the University of al-Qarawiyyin, which has the designation of being the world’s oldest university, founded in 859 CE and still operating today. However, these places are worth visiting and seeing still from the outside, especially the library of the university. A couple places that you can go inside for beautiful examples of Islamic art and architecture are the Bou Inania Madersa, a 14th century religious college, and the Karaouiyine Mosque. While in the medina, make sure to visit the Berber pharmacy with its large assortment of jars of various roots and other natural remedies that locals swear by, and also the tanneries, where local men dye leather in vats of colors and pigeon droppings. From a balcony above, the tanneries will be one of the most impressive, beautiful, and fascinating sites in your global travels; at the same time, it will also be one of the most foul-smelling experiences of your life, so many will bring with them a mint leaf to hold under their nose while taking in the view. This spot is the best place anywhere on earth to buy leather souvenirs for yourself or others. Aside from the smell of the tanneries not being for the faint of heart, animal lovers beware that as you journey throughout the medina, you will commonly see animals in cages awaiting slaughter, and also full animal bodies being skinned, alongside severed heads of goats, sheep, and cows. The disturbing nature of the markets is only outweighed by the fascination and cultural experience of them. Ultimately, that is what Fez is all about.
There is no city on earth that I have visited that is more dizzying, overwhelming, and confusing than Fez; yet, that is the beauty behind it. The best thing you can do in Fez is allow yourself to get lost; it is inevitably what will happen anyways. Behind each corner is something new and fascinating, and though you may need a vacation from the craziness of Fez itself, for lovers of culture and history, and for those looking for that “we’re not in Kansas anymore” moment, Fez is a place that you must visit.
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