The history of a city in its doors

Travelling through Morocco you soon sense that the architecture is a cosmopolitan cultural blend reflecting the country’s long and rich history of rulers and invaders – both Arabic and European – and that the doors in particular are very much a gateway to another world.  In Essaouira, once you are able to take your eyes of the array of blues, there’s some incredible history to discover.  And not all of it is blue.

For centuries Moroccans of Jewish and Muslim decent lived peacefully side by side in cities such as Essaouira, Fes and Marrakech, which is evident in the hallmarks on their doors.  These range from unique patterns and symbols to Jewish stars, some of which are even dated and evoke centuries of history.img_9908conv img_9907conv img_9906conv

But many of these Jewish familes fled the mellahs – the Jewish district in Arab cities – for Israel following the Six Day War.  Some have never returned and many houses like the one in Essaouira pictured below are locked up and have been left to deteriorate.  (Note the Star of David in the plasterwork above the arch, alongside the fading mosaics).

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Other more modern doors bear Moorish style motifs, delicate mosaics and ornate and interesting door knockers.

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Whether they are made of wood or weather-beaten steel, they all add to the charm of Essaouira.

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Then if you can drag yourself away from the doors for a few minutes you will find yourself in the middle of a typical street scene that could be anywhere in Morocco – the inescapable washing and arches and cats and faded reminders of a byegone era.

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“Balak, balak” in Fes

Said to be the spiritual heart of Morocco, Fes is one of the world’s best preserved and captivating medieval cities.

Our walk started at the Gates of the Royal Palace located by the Jewish quarter.  Built in the 17th century, this palace is still used by the king of Morocco when he’s in town, but it’s closed to the public, so visitors have to be content with the outside.  There is plenty of detail to photograph, from the ornate metal doors, arches and delicate mosaic work.

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Equally intriguing was the Bab Sammarine, a gateway into Fez el-Jdid (New Fez), dating back to the 13th century.

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And then on to the souks in Fes’s ancient Medina…..

In short they are exhausting. A winding labyrinth of damp and dark alleys that never seems to end,

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with laden mules and donkeys passing by where you can barely swing a scrawny cat, their owners yelling balak, balak” – move out of the way or “watch out”.  The first two balak’s are a caution – on the third “balak” you are practically bowled over as the stream of traffic through the narrow alleyways forges ahead.

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Inside the souk, the harassment and banter alone leaves you feeling like you’ve done a triathalon. The camel’s head dangling from the eaves in a butcher’s shop took my breath (and appetite) away and, and so did the strench of the leather tanneries where pigeon poop is used to fix the dye. And then a co-traveller ordered pigeon pie for lunch, can you believe?  (I didn’t photograph the camel’s head by the way – I hurried past as fast as the oncoming stream of jellaba-clad merchants with carts of oranges or heavily laden donkeys would allow).

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Founded in the 9th century and home to the oldest university in the world, about 1.1 million people live in Fes, where the ancient Medina has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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Hassan II Mosque

I will say from the outset that Grande Mosquée Hassan II  is a spectacular landmark, standing boldly on a headland so worshippers can pray over the sea.the-streets-of-casa-39-of-40-2The ornate embellishments, mosaic work and the sheer magnitude of everything takes your breath away and nearly all the materials come from Morocco:  The marble from Agadir, the cedar wood from the forests of the Middle Atlas Mountains and the granite from Tafraoute.the-streets-of-casa-35-of-40-2the-streets-of-casa-34-of-40the-streets-of-casa-37-of-40the-streets-of-casa-33-of-40The problem I had with this massive work of art was feeling a little bit ripped off as a visitor.  Like the entry fee of 120 Dirhams (about $30) for a tour of inside and being charged to use the loo and then being shown to a squat toilet with nowhere to put my camera bag as the floor was wet.

I also couldn’t help noticing the opulence of the entire complex  – the mosque is said to have cost about $800 million – and its shimmering newness, in stark contrast to the simplicity of the surrounding neighbourhood.the-streets-of-casa-30-of-40That aside, if you are visiting Casablanca, you can’t not visit the largest mosque in Morocco, which also happens to be the 13th largest mosque in the world.