‘Like Webster’s Dictionary, we’re Morocco bound’- was one of my all- time favourite movie lines of all time, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby joking and singing their way to Dorothy Lamour, in yet another sparkly headdress- and one of the films I loved as a kid. Maybe in my mind the very synthetic Hollywood backlot Morocco was what lit my love for this country.
Now on our fourth visit, I love it more and more. To be fair, this time we have serious educational reasons to be here for a languid 3 weeks (in my case) as Andy has plunged headlong into the immersion of a 3 week intensive Arabic course in the old medina. This time we are here only 3 weeks later in the Spring, but that 3 weeks makes such a difference. The buds on trees are bursting, almond blossom well out and the aloes have finished flowering in the Jardin Jnane Sbil. This is how they looked 2 years ago.
Founded in the eighteenth century by Sultan Moulay Abdellah, this large garden space was a private royal garden until the early twentieth century, and it was restored completely ten years ago, bringing it back to life. The city of Fes itself, as well as Jnane Sbil, was once fed with water by a system of water channels which lifted water up and down the levels of the city by water-powered wheels, called Noria, with buckets paddling the water upwards, and then dropping the water down into the channel on the next level of the system. A modern example remains in the Jnane Sbil, which I attempted to photograph but banana planting slightly knocked out the view of how it works.
The Noria were brought to Fes from Seville, in Spain, probably in or around the mid 13th-14th century by the architect and engineer, Ibn all-Hajj, among others. I stumbled across a spectacular remnant of an original Noria wheel, very close to Jnane Sbil, which has been dated to 1286-7.
According to Heidi Vogels, co-author of the film research project ‘Gardens of Fez’, there were once many great houses with gardens, especially in the Ziat area of the medina near the city walls, but the the ancient watering systems have collapsed and modern day water taxation has accelerated the decline of these once-great gardens.
One remains which can be visited. It remains only due to the hard work and restoration of the owners of the Le Jardin des Biehn, or as it is more commonly known, the Fez Cafe. You can have a no-doubt gorgeous gourmet lunch or dinner there, or a delicious cup of more humble mint or rose tea if you prefer. And then enjoy a wander…though some is private as I discovered and beat a retreat. Created in the centre of a square of ancient buildings, the garden is a tour de force and easy to enjoy for as long as your tea holds out.
Both Jnane Sbil and the Fez Cafe helped me to really to understand the use of water in the Arabic garden. Water creates stillness, movement, brings birds, creates sounds if forced though a spout or fountain, and especially, reflections of light, the sky, and the environment of the garden. Shade and light, reflection and stillness, movement and clarity, are all essential elements bringing repose and contemplation.
The sound of birdsong was multi-layered and a constant musical background. Short of being in an actual aviary, I have never heard birdsong in such a concentrated form. The trees were full to bursting with birds of all shapes and sizes. We sat and listened for minutes at a time.