Letter from Morocco: the mosque and a sock merchant in Fes

Fes is one of the great survivors. A medieval Muslim city, barely changed in a thousand years, it offers a vision of a world when the clash of civilisations involved Barbary pirates and white slave traders. Still enclosed within high walls, still threaded by a labyrinth of narrow alleys where mules jostle with robed figures, this ancient city rests on twin pillars — commerce and religion. And one man has managed to combine the two.

Lined with shops and stalls, the main street of Talaa Kabira is a river of people.

Mysterious figures in robes with pointed hoods gather at the tobacco stalls like extras from Lord of the Rings. Veiled women press into tiny underwear shops, checking out the frilly knickers. Families of pale Berbers from the Atlas, blue tattoos wrinkling on their cheeks, crowd round jewelers’ counters to finger the gold chains. Men in loin cloths hurry towards the tanneries. Dark Africans from the other side of the Sahara cast knowledgeable eyes over piles of dried fruit — figs, raisins and dates.

At a turn in the lane, where two oncoming mules have caused a traffic jam, the butchers’ stalls give way with unseemly abruptness to the stone-cutters, perched outside their workshops on low stools, chipping epitaphs into slabs of funerary marble. Beyond, a feverish baker is sliding rounds of dough into a fiery oven on a long-handled wooden paddle while across the lane a loquacious fellow dispenses fresh orange juice, sweet cakes and marital advice to his customers.The goods are almost as compelling and as various as the people — head scarves, turtle shells, sheet metal, slippers, sweets, camel saddles, brass pots, carved doors, ceramics, perfume, brocade, knives, carpets, gold, frankincense and myrrh. The crowds of shoppers part only for the muleteers and their laden mules, bearing fresh supplies to a merchant somewhere deep in the bazaar.

Aromas waft through these lanes defining invisible boundaries — fresh coffee, cloves, olive oil, rose water, mint, the scent of cedar shavings, the stench of tanning leather, the tang of onions frying, the sweet aroma of pastries baking, the acrid smoke of burning charcoal. Sounds waft too — the rhythmic clang of coppersmiths, the klaxon shouts of porters, the mantric cry of beggars, the bells of water vendors, the muezzins calling the faithful to prayer, never quite in unison, from every minaret in the city as the sun slides off the rooftops.

The call to prayer is the one moment when commerce falters. On Friday, the Muslim Sabbath, the entire city closes up shop at midday to attend prayers. Suddenly the rivers of people shrink. Merchants pull down their shutters and the stall-holders pack up their tables as people begin to make their way towards the great Karaouiyne Mosque to which all lanes in Fes eventually lead. The Karaouiyne is one of the great mosques of Islam, said to have been founded in 857, long before most of Europe’s cathedrals.

In these regions it is customary that beauty be veiled. The Karaouiyne shows almost nothing to the outside world. You could pass it a dozen times without knowing it was there. In spite of its vast size — there is room inside for 20,000 worshippers — its exterior walls are blank and anonymous. On Fridays, when the sixteen gateways stand open for the faithful, you can see the illusive interior — the vast pillared courtyard, the great stretch of sun, the worshippers assembling for prayers.

Everyone leaves their shoes outside the gates, padding across the courtyard in their socks to wash their feet at the ablution fountains before taking a place at the end of one of the long rows of kneeling figures. Suddenly everyone stands, then bows, as the name of Allah reverberates down the aisles.

While the city prays one man is preparing for the commercial opportunity the prayers present. Opposite the main gateway he is setting up his makeshift stall. From his swollen bags he unpacks socks of every description and color and lays them carefully in long rows.

When the prayers end the crowds of worshippers emerge, their sins and the shortcomings of their old socks still fresh in their minds. In twenty minutes the sock merchant has sold out.

Travel Brief

Where to stay: Among the prime pleasures of Fes are its secluded riads, traditional courtyard houses. Many have been turned into small hotels. Riad Fes (212 35 947 610) with its three courtyards is one of the most luxurious; rooms from $205. Riad Laaroussa (212 74 187 639) is a spacious and gorgeous property; rooms from $200. Riad no 9 (212 35 634 045) is small but perfectly formed with just three suites, from $135; groups or families can hire the whole house for $600 a night. Dar Seffarine is a slightly cheaper option from $95 a night.

Where to eat: The restaurant in Riad Fes (212 35 741 012) is one of the best in the city. Non-guests will need to book; dinner from about $40. There is also a stylish courtyard bar. A good lunch restaurant, inevitably a tangine, is Restaurant Nejjarine (212 61 259 052); fixed price menu from $15. The Cafe Clock (212 35 637 855) has fab food and free wifi. The Moroccan restaurant in the Palais Jamai, Fes’s grand colonial hotel, offers a palatial room with palatial food and palatial belly dancers, from about $50.

Stanley Stewart has written three award-winning travel books – Old Serpent Nile, Frontiers of Heaven, and In the Empire of Genghis Khan. He is also the recipient of numerous awards for his magazine and newspaper articles. He was born in Ireland, grew up in Canada, and now divides his time between Rome and Dorset.

[Photos: Flickr | jfgornet; Steve & Jemma Copley; eliahoo; Martin Dougiamas]