The Fès Medina

A version of this article was published in Le Monde d’Hermès in Spring 2009


It had been a left, then a right, then left again.  At least, I think it was; but it could have been two rights and one left.  The perfumed scent of the souk el-attarine had given way to a cluster of stalls selling lustrous threads in every conceivable hue.  I will just stop to look at these threads, I’d thought, and then return as I’d come.  But this was the first crucial diversion from my path and I quickly became lured on by color: in the distance, slippers and shoes in infinite variety; a little further on, shimmering textiles pinned to a wall; further still, knit caps in a dizzying array of patterns stacked on shelves; just beyond, sloping piles of spices as vibrant as any painter’s pigments.  I have come too far, now, to retrace my steps and find my way back.

I am lost in the Fès medina, lost as many others before me have been lost.  The alleys shifted course so subtly that I believed I was still walking north when I have long since been headed west.  Or perhaps it is east?  I look above me hoping to navigate by the placement of the sun in the sky but the latticework redirects the brilliant sunshine which falls to the paving stones in a scattering of greens and yellows.  I set out down an alley – quieter than the others, more residential than mercantile – and trust that in the labyrinth of a medina every route must contain within it a solution, every path joins others to exit, eventually, at one of the monumental gates in the medieval walls.  A river must reach the sea, I reason.  But the alley narrows, the light grows more dim, and then there is only a wall and a misshapen door.  For me, it is a dead end.  I now understand I was wrong: the river can dry up as well.

Back in the tumult of the markets, the unlost swirl past me; for them, the repeating alleys, the mosques and medersas, the dark corners, high walls and shuttered windows reveal a familiar pattern that guides them home.  But I can discern no pattern, so I surrender to the pleasure of walking with no need to arrive anywhere in particular.  My nose leads on: to the faint sweet smell of distilled rose water, the earthy fertility of the produce markets, the animal pungency of the famous tanneries where dyers stand waist-deep in open-air inkpots working the leather with their feet to imbue it with color.  There are sounds, too, sounds everywhere: the call of ‘andak, andak’ as traders attempt to squeeze their donkeys laden with goods through winding passages, the bark of shopkeepers enticing customers with unimagined splendors or unprofitable prices, and from the radio or television in each small shop the swell of an Arabic orchestra, the mournful lingering notes of a singer, or the surging rhythm of a football match.

In the glowing light at the end of a pitch-black arcaded alley I catch a flash of turquoise and fuchsia and a way out suggests itself.  I give chase, following at a respectful distance behind a mother and daughter walking purposefully; I will let their destination become my own.  The mother, in turquoise, does not glance around; there is no sight so arresting that it stops her.  She has seen it all before, I imagine, and is focused on arrival.  The little girl trails behind, playful, easily distracted.  She has seen it all before, too, but still there are new delights to be found, new pleasures to take in.  She is alert, as I am.  As we climb the wide, irregular stone steps that lead up the hillside, she looks back to take in the medina spread below her and to reconsider where she has just come from.  I stop, my gaze following hers: suddenly, the medina is no longer a collection of little parts glimpsed down narrow, constraining alleys but becomes a wide, sweeping whole that sprawls across the hillside opposite.  I gasp, despite myself.  The sight takes the breath out of me and I feel, now, the long climb we’ve made.

The girl hurries to catch up with her mother and I follow behind.  Near the top of the hill, the medina becomes more staged and less bewildering.  I know where I am now: the gate of Bab Boujeloud lies just ahead.  It would be easy enough to exit, to follow the mother and daughter to the car park in front of the gate and take a taxi to any address I want.  But they head one way and I let them go.  It is better, I think, to turn back in and become lost again.


Click here to see all of Sean’s blog posts about architecture, Morocco, North Africa or the Middle East.


Sean also shot the photographs for this article. Click images below to view the tear sheets or here to see more of Sean’s photographs of Morocco.