Arms outstretched, my palms lay flat against 1200-year-old mud brick walls, defining the width of cobblestone laneways through Fes’s ancient Medina – but here comes a donkey caravan, laden with plastic water drums and bolts of cloth, and it is my obligation to scuttle into a doorway and allow them clear passage.
This is the only means of transporting heavy goods through the labyrinthine 9000 alleys of the ancient, walled city of Fes teeming with 156,000 inhabitants. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is the largest car-free urban area in the world, making it a rare place, where the truly ancient is preserved and instilled into the fabric of modern daily life.
Lavish restaurants presenting luxurious lamb and date tagines are flanked by street vendors selling wedges of hot pastille: the popular baked pigeon pie. In the heaving markets, exotic carpets are sold beside a craggy old carpenter who is shaping wooden jewellery from a diminutive foot-powered lathe.
An unusual mix of devout tradition also exists beside cosmopolitan chic in Fes. Contemporary apartments set an elegant urban tone in the Ville Nouvelle District, in striking contrast to the adjacent Medina’s ancient charm, exemplified in the University of Al-Karaouine, founded in 859AD, the oldest continuously functioning university in the world. As visitors invariably lose their way within the maze of narrow alleyways, they mix among a community that devoutly responds to the muezzins’ calls to prayer five times a day, echoing from the green-tiled minarets of 365 mosques within the walled city and melding with a chorus of braying donkey traffic.
Modern forms of transportation in Morocco are no less intimidating. To venture beyond the expansive Djemaa el Fna square in Marrakech, away from heaving crowds and into the vast expanse of wild Morocco, we commissioned Youssou, a grinning young 4WD driver, to take us over the nearby Atlas Mountains.
It resulted in a daunting five hours of negotiating the mad and narrow Tizi N’tichka Pass. This is the solitary road that crosses the snow-capped Atlas peaks, winding through 99 tight switchbacks over a 1900m summit. Frequent accidents slow the traffic: six trucks were involved in crashes the day we travelled, including a dodgy old oil tanker flipped on its side, surrounded by local Berber villagers shoveling sand over spilled oil so that impatient banked-up traffic could pass.
Clinging to the roadway crash barriers on hairpin bends are daredevil villagers selling a multitude of fossils, including trilobites – a reminder that 600 million years ago this landscape was below the sea. However, never assume that blackened artifacts are genuine antiques; although attractive, most are fake.
From this high pass, the road winds its way down through an arid red and grey landscape to the Ziz River – a startling thin line of plush greenery piercing the deep valley floor in an otherwise barren countryside.
The rewards for having endured such a trek are great. Kashbah Telouet is an abandoned palace off the main highway that attracts only a smattering of visitors, yet boasts incredible Arabic architecture to rival the famed al Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain. This was part of the old caravan route from the Sahara over the Atlas Mountains to Marrakech – home to the corrupt pasha T’hami El Glaoui, who ruled over southern Morocco on behalf of the French in the early 1900s. He resided here in splendor, with 1000 people in the compound that overlooks a mud-brick Berber village. Now, storks build their nests high on the weathered remains of the old castle’s tallest towers. While the mud walls of this abandoned palace are fast eroding due to harsh winter weather, the lavish interior mosaic tiles, ironwork and ornate plasterwork remain intact.
While this monument is crumbling, the mighty Kashbah Ait Benhaddou remains as imposing as the brilliant orange mountains that surround it. This remote mud-brick mountainside palace and its walled city has been used as a location for blockbuster movies, including Gladiator and Lawrence of Arabia.
If the cinematic process interests you more than the actual site, The Atlas Corporation film studios in the nearby township of Ouarzazate offers a $5 tour, showing off sets from Gladiator and Cleopatra, and, paradoxically, a tatty F16 plane from The Jewel of the Nile. My preference was to instead sit atop the great pile of ancient dirt and just watch the sun sink, transforming the desert colours from dazzling ochre muds into the darkest, most foreboding purple shadows.
All photos by David Sly – All Rights Reserved