This week’s dream
Art and history in Fez’s ancient medina
As the desert sky bloomed rose-pink, said Bob Drogin in the Los Angeles Times, my wife and I sat on a roof listening to the calls to evening prayer as they echoed from dozens of minarets. We were staying at a 600-year-old guesthouse in the Fez medina, once the cultural and religious center of much of the Muslim world, and we knew to expect the return, moments later, of a different symphony: “the tap-tap-tapping at fiery forges in the copper and brass market, the braying of donkeys as they clattered down stone steps, and the cries of hagglers in the herb and spice stalls.” Fifteen years ago, the ancient walled core of Morocco’s second-largest city was a forbidding place, crime-ridden and impoverished. But tourism has changed that. The medina today is “a place of magic.”
We had arrived earlier that day, led through one of the wall’s 14 arched gates and deep into the medina’s labyrinth of 9,600 narrow, twisting lanes. Our guesthouse, Dar Seffarine, is now one of 200 such places to stay, but it was one of the first, and it’s a work of art, starting with its soaring central courtyard. Entering our suite through towering wooden doors, we stood dumbstruck on a Berber carpet, marveling at the soaring cedar dome above us. A guide helped us navigate the medina and its palaces, museums, and tombs. At the world’s oldest university—Al Quaraouiyine, founded in 859—we learned that one famous alumnus, Pope Sylvester II, brought Arabic numerals to Europe after completing his studies. At the Chouara leather tannery, we watched artisans working as they would have centuries ago, coloring hides with dyes made from minerals, spices, and flowers.
To my untrained eyes, “the medina seemed pure chaos, an assault on the senses.” But I understood it better after chatting with our host, Alaa Said, an Iraqi-born architect. Each of the medina’s 150 mosques, he explained, is the heart of a small community centered as well on a communal oven, a bathhouse, and a fountain—and all the buildings’ decoration and windows face inward, not outward to the narrow, winding lanes. As for the profuse ornamentation that adorns every interior surface—tile mosaics, wood carvings, calligraphy—I started to see it as the collective art of the Muslim world, gathered over time from Egypt, Rome, Persia, India, and beyond.
At Dar Seffarine (darseffarine.com), doubles start at $102 a night. ■