The Jews Of Fez

We finally arrived in Fez in the early evening. There are no motorized vehicles in Fez’s enormous old city, aka Medina, so our luggage was taken in a push-cart to our hotel, aka Riad.

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In Morocco, a Riad is usually a centuries-old large home converted to an intimate hotel. Like all such old homes, it is inauspicious from the outside (the Muslim tradition is to not be publicly ostentatious), but pretty jaw-droppingly magnificent on the inside, featuring a large interior courtyard beneath a roof that would be four or five stories high on the scale of one of our houses, but was only three stories due to the riad’s high ceilings. Surrounding the courtyard are interior balconies. Very beautiful, with a lot of ornate touches.

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After being served mint tea, we went up the stairs to our lovely room featuring a carved wooden ceiling. Then it was rest time.

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We had a delicious private dinner in the riad courtyard, then to bed to rest up for the next day’s Fez immersion.

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Moroccan cuisine always includes small delicious “tapas” plates which Sarah loves. They have flavors we have never experienced before.

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Dan always finds the way to take a photo while making himself uncomfortable.

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We climbed to the roof for another super diabetes-inducing mint tea while we enjoyed the view of the Medina. There are not many illuminated buildings at night so it was hard to see what was out there!

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For our Fez touring day, we were to be guided by the great Momo (full name, Mohammed). Momo had guided Hillary Clinton when she was first lady, Robin Williams, Sigourney Weaver and Yoyo Ma, among many others, so, in his flowing yellow robe, he was something of a tour guide luminary.

We first had a driving tour outside the Medina. We stopped at the elaborate gate to the king’s Fes’ Royal Palace (the Dar el-Makhzen). Unfortunately, is not open to the public, but the outside is still worth a visit. The 7 golden gates that mark the entrance to the palace can only leave you imagining how incredible it must be inside.

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Then we went to the fort at the top of a hill for a view of the entire Medina, which includes the green-roofed University of  Al Qarawiyyin, founded in 859.

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On to a ceramics factory, where we saw the work being done by traditional methods, including potter’s wheels powered by the potters’ feet.

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Dan now making sure the talented painter learns what it means to have his personal space invaded by a tourist. But at least he got a great photo!

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Then they showed us the Zellige section (Mosaic),  it is made from individually chiseled geometric tiles set into a plaster base. This form of Islamic art is one of the main characteristics of Berber and Moroccan architecture.

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It consists of geometrically patterned mosaics, used to ornament walls, ceilings, fountains, floors, pools and tables.

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Then, like a “Tourist Trap 101”, our guide proceeded to eagerly take us to the ceramics shop! Of course they claim everything is fixed price, government store so it is “cheaper” and all those textbook bullshit lines that you get to learn once you travel to a third world country. The Wolf parents bought $90 worth of stuff without the approval of Eitan, who felt we should have bargained much more aggressively. I guess bargaining and negotiating is not being taught in American schools. But don’t worry, the Wolf family learned fast and by the end of the trip we were getting kicked out of stores for bargaining too much.

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The city of Fes, founded in 789 by Berbers on the banks of the river Fes, was made into a capital by King Idris I (789-793) and developed by his son Idris II (804-828), attracting many Arabs from Andalusia and Kerouan, among them many Jews. The Jews established a Jewish quarter (Fundunk al Yahudi or Melah) and contributed to turning Fes into a leading business center in Morocco.

Next stop: the Jewish cemetery!

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The cemetery features rounded-top monuments that appeared as if they could hold the whole body, but in fact the body was below ground. Most of the monuments include recessed spots for yahrzeit candles.

 

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Those in dedicated enclosures are tombs of rabbis.

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Beautiful Hebrew engraved text.

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We walked to the synagogue, which is deep into the Jewish quarter that we will visit after.

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It is extremely difficult to navigate the city, but a few sights will have good signs that will help you reach them. Luckily for us, we had one of the best guides in Morocco.

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The synagogue dating from the 17th century was built by Mimoun Ben Sidan, a wealthy merchant from the town of Ait Ishaq.

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They even had a very old Torah.

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Then through the old Jewish quarter, which began losing its Jews after the establishment of Israel. The Jews left more because of the urging of Israel than any discrimination by Morocco, where they have historically been treated well. Indeed, King Mohammed V bravely protected Morocco’s 250,000 Jews during World War II by defying the anti-Jewish laws of Vichy France, which applied in Morocco since it was at the time a French colony.

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Many of the Jews who left Morocco did not sell their property, figuring they wanted some insurance if things didn’t work out in Israel. As a result, many of the buildings in the Jewish quarter are painted blue. This is something done by the government to indicate that the buildings are still owned by Jews and they must not be disturbed.

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Momo showed us what is left of a Mezuzah hole on the door. A reminder of when the Jews lived here.

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Finally, we ventured into the main Medina, which truly put all other “old towns” we’ve ever visited to shame. First of all, there’s the fact there are no motor vehicles, which completely transforms the atmosphere, as one must watch out for donkeys rather than scooters. Secondly, while tourism is certainly a factor (though in the summer low season, other tourists were barely noticeable), this is not an Arabian Disneyland … we felt like visitors as opposed to feeling like the reason for the place’s existence. Third, this is a real, organic, fully functioning community, but in an ancient manner, with outdoor markets and craftspeople everywhere. Really extraordinary.

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We visited many different sites, some planned and others like this wool recycle center were completely found by accident.

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Donkeys here are trained to move merchandise without the help of a human. So it is not an unusual sight to see them just casually walking to their destination undisturbed.

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We saw “hotels’ that housed donkeys on the ground level and people on the second level. These completely looked like housing out of the Bible. If I remember correctly the price per night was less than $1.

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We stopped for a fantastic lunch that began with us being spoon-fed samples of the food in the kitchen. Food was great!

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To Be Continued…….

Bonus Pic Of The Day: When you travel through Morocco you will notice that the walls themselves are marked with numerous holes around the cities. There are many conflicting stories of the origins of these holes from canon holes to bird nests. But the truth is that the holes in the Marrakech ramparts are a cause of the crumbling ancient walls, although as an indirect consequence of this disrepair. The holes are actually used to place scaffolding for restoration. Of course the ramparts have been extensively restored since their conception; indeed the reconstruction is a continual process as the cement walls, made of the red earth of the Haouz plains, gradually crumble.

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