The ‘Athens of Africa’, exploring Fez’s medieval medina

The phrase ‘follow your nose’ is quite literal when it comes to finding the 11th century Chouara tannery. Workers in this extraordinary district of Fez’s medieval medina have been producing quality leather goods for almost a thousand years. Today they’re still using much the same process as their forebears … and it smells like it. Visitors to the tanneries are given sprigs of mint to prevent the tangy stench from offending olfactory sensitivities. It doesn’t really help.

From the terraces of surrounding shops, you can watch as barefoot workers use knives to remove hair from the skins before dying them in pits of brightly colored pigments. The luminous reds and yellows provide some distraction from the smell, but there’s no escaping the fact that the vats in which the animal hides are treated contain a mixture of cow urine and quicklime. If that’s not nausea-inducing enough, afterwards they are softened in an acidic liquid made with pigeon excrement.

Chouara Tannery, Medina, Fez, Morocco
Chouara Tannery, Medina, Fez, Morocco
Medina, Fez, Morocco
Medina, Fez, Morocco
Medina, Fez, Morocco
Medina, Fez, Morocco

Which just goes to show, the Universe’s mysteries are sometimes best left unexplored. The same cannot be said of Fez’s extraordinary medina. Founded in 789 AD, Fez is the oldest of Morocco’s four imperial cities, and has been the capital city at various points in its history. You can feel that history in the maze of over 9,000 tightly packed streets, which are home to al-Qarawiyyin, the world’s second oldest university, as well as over 300 mosques.

Navigating these streets alone can be bewildering. At night the owners of our riad sent a child with us just so we wouldn’t get lost finding our way to restaurants. Even during the day it’s hard to find your way around. Prepare to spend much of your time lost, or do as we did one day, hire a local guide for a walk through the medina’s markets. The sights, sounds and smells of the medina are a little overwhelming, but in this amazing city it was an experience I’ll never forget.

The entire medina is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, deservedly so, and thanks to the narrow alleyways it’s also considered to be the largest car free urban area in the world. That doesn’t mean it’s hazard free. Large and powerful mules ply the streets carrying people and cargo. They are best avoided, but in the narrow lanes that’s not always easy. To escape the stupefying streets, find a cafe with a rooftop where you can sip mint tea while marvelling at spectacular views over the undulating cityscape.

We stayed at the lovely Dar Seffarine, a 600 year-old riad found along Sbaa Louyate, the ‘street of the seven turns’. Completely restored by an Iraqi/Norwegian couple, one of whom is an architect, this ancient palace is tranquility itself, and the views from the rooftop are magnificent. We took breakfast on the roof as well as sipping a cold beer as the sun sank. Up above the streets and houses the sounds of the medina reverberate intriguingly.

Medina, Fez, Morocco
Medina, Fez, Morocco
Medina, Fez, Morocco
Rooftops, Medina, Fez, Morocco
View from Dar Seffarine, Medina, Fez, Morocco
Dar Seffarine, Medina, Fez, Morocco

We only had two days in Fez before taking the train to Marrakesh, spending most of our time in the medina. We did venture to the fascinating Mellah, a district next to the Royal Palace. Following their expulsion, along with Muslims, from Spain in the 15th century, Sephardic Jews settled in Morocco. The Jewish community in Morocco once numbered over a quarter of a million and Mellah was the main district in Fez. Today, Moroccan Jews number around 2,000.

Apart from some traditional hanging balconies imported with the refugees from Spain, the main reminder of the once thriving community is, ironically, the Jewish cemetery, with around 13,000 graves. It’s a poignant place and a reminder of the complex shared history between North Africa and Europe.

7 thoughts on “The ‘Athens of Africa’, exploring Fez’s medieval medina

  1. We must have spent an hour in the Fes tannery — so fascinated by the workings, the color, the vats, etc. And it didn’t bother my nose as much as I had heard it would. We loved the Fes medina, and you’ve captured the markets and people beautifully. Love the picture of the children playing ball in the open area. I’d return to Morocco in a heartbeat, and I’m always drawn to beautiful posts like yours so I can get a color fix and a glimpse at another culture halfway round the world!

    1. Fez was our favourite place on our trip, loved the old city. I’m planning another trip to Morocco once travel restrictions allow. A colleague came back from there just before the crisis closed down all flights and her photos were wonderful. Did you go into the mountains? WOuld love to visit some of the fortified villages.

      1. We spent a week in Marrakech then on to Ourzazate, Fed, the Sahara, and Tangier. I coul travel another month in Morocco and never get tired. What a colorful, fascinating country!!! Stay safe out there. And keep planning. Hopefully, we’ll travel again soon.

  2. The smell, of course, is why tannery quarters are usually to be found on what used to be the edge of many towns, if not actively outside where the town was originally. At least they’re not carrying on the medieval practice of collecting human urine for the process!

    1. The smell is pretty pungent. The funny thing is, most of the places you can view the tannery from are selling leather goods – it’s hardly the best advertisement for their products.

      1. It’s very traditional though!

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