From our bathroom in the Medina, we have a tiny porthole for ventilation and it makes itself into an amazing spyhole over Fez. The scene changes constantly with the weather, sometimes misty and hiding the hills in the distance, and sometimes bright and clear. Living in the Medina, albeit temporarily, was such a good decision.
It is one of the world’s oldest constantly inhabited towns and marketplaces- dating back to 789 when the Idrissid dynasty built the early city on the banks of the river Fez. With no motorised vehicles passing through, other than the occasional slow motorcycle, all you hear are human voices and birdsong, with the sounds of mules and donkeys moving round the streets carrying goods.
The Medina is a tangle of tiny streets, weaving their way around important mosques and other buildings, whilst leading you up the hill from the river Fez towards the 12th century area of the town housing the Royal Palace. In the midst, people jostle with carters pushing goods to be delivered to the tiny shops and you can feel transported to another time. Shops selling mobile phones sit cheek by jowl with fruit and vegetables, spices and trainers, with carpets to tempt the tourists.
In 2010, we visited Aleppo in Syria and spent some time wandering the 15th-16th century souk, like Fez, a UNESCO world heritage site. The central souk in Aleppo curved its way snake-like through the old city at the foot of the Citadel- with shopkeepers happy to carry on with their craftwork until a bus deposited a flurry of tourists, and, briefly, hopeful shouting and selling took place. It is now all destroyed by fire and bombardment.
Here, in Fez, much restoration work has taken place since we were last here 2 years ago. Some of the older and more decrepit parts of the Medina are being restored and, whilst for the moment, look rather too new and clean- this does offer hope to the craftsmen and shopowners of the Medina.
70% of shopowners are classified by the Government as craftspeople and artisans, many working with methods that would be recognisable to a 10th century tourist. Down at Seffarine, where the metalworkers work, hammering and welding fires can be heard and seen- making exquisite fretted lamps and ornaments. A moving blog article by an artisan community describes more about the life and heritage of a metalworker and the impact of cheap imports.
The Medina is about life- buying, selling, food and consumer durables, neighbourhoods and strangers. What you see is not a museum or a giant craft shop with trinkets, but a living city, one which the 10th century visitor would also have recognised. And when you look up, to the narrow strips of sky permitted by streets the width of 2 mules, heritage sits side by side with modernity. I am so glad to be here to witness it.