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The Footsteps of the Merenids: Fes

Fes skyline

The year is 1248: North Africa has been Islamicized for six centuries and Fes has grown under Sultan Idriss II to become a center of learning unparalleled across the Eastern hemisphere, and a place of spiritual importance third only to Mecca and Medina. Meanwhile, across the Mediterranean, Europe lies so profoundly entrenched in the religious dogma of the Dark Ages that science and mathematics are regarded as practically akin to sorcery and devil-worship. It is, for the moment, the Islamic world that holds the key to learning and the avancement of civilization: even Pope Sylvester II has traveled to Fes to study, and the Andalusian architects, mathematicians, and planners who have come to participate in the society now run by the Merenids (the last of Morocco's Berber empires) are building one of medieval Islam's most impressive cities.

But it is equally a moment of transition: Portuguese sea power is growing and European explorers are slowly gaining courage as they sail south of Cape Boujadour, hoping to expand the trade routes that for the moment pass through the Sahara. Mercantalism is winning over religious edict. Before long Spain's Ferdinand and Isabella will drive the Moors from Al Andalus in the south of Spain, and the balance of power will shift to the West. But for now, the Merenid empire, and its capital at Fes, are on the ascent.den bins of clementines, flat breads, and dates, stunning zellij tilework and calligraphy.

It is into this particular moment we plunged when we entered Fes, because as the most complete example of a medieval Islamic city, Fes remains largely unchanged since the 13th century. How fortunate for us, because as a result, Fes is astonishing. Fes is also lovely and captivating. It's easy to wax poetic about the narrow cobbled streets built to the dimensions of a donkey cart, the souks (markets) shuttered under awnings of sewn rushes, and the wooden bins of clementines, flat breads, and dates. Just as captivating are the stunning zellij tilework and calligraphy of the Medersa Bou Inania and the powerful stone archways of the city gates. Madersa

But what I really enjoyed was the sense of history and of humankind's intellectual awakening from the slumber of the Dark Ages. On that topic I highly recommend Daniel Boorstin's The Discoverers: A History of Man's Search to Know the World and Himself, which tells in captivating detail the story of humankind's gradual intellectual growth and understanding of the dimensions of our physical and natural world. Having read it gave Fes a whole new dimension, because a good deal of that narrative takes place in North Africa, while Europe smothered in dogma (Umberto Eco successfully captures the mood in Europe at that time in The Name of the Rose, a long but worthwhile read).

The water clock at Medersa Bou Inania is a compelling example. Dating back to the mid-1300s, the clock consisted of a wooden structure, 13 brass bowls, and a series of wooden windows that would open at prescribed times, causing a weight to drop into or onto the brass bowl. Europeans' concept of measuring time was centuries behind, and they thus began building clocks hundreds of years afterwards.

In Fes I found it easier to marvel at what such a technological advance must really have meant in that era because the city today is so similar to the Fes of six hundred years ago: the markets, the call to prayer, the workshops, and the people shuffling down the narrow alleyways in their thick, hooded robes. To keep that spirit for so long makes Fes a special place indeed.


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