DAYS 9 & 10 – MEKNES, VOLUBOLIS, AND FES

We drove from Rabat to Fes today. On the drive, we learned a ton of Moroccan history. I won’t get into all the details (you can probably find enough online), but one thing I wanted to comment on was my previous references to the Arabic people in Morocco. I learned that the people in Morocco are Berber, rather than Arabic. While both are Muslim, they are different ethnic groups. I found it interesting and I wanted to correct my previous reference to the people as it was incorrect.

On our drive to Fes, we made a few stops. Our first was in Meknes. Here we visited another Royal Palace (again, only the outside as we aren’t allowed inside). We also visited the Royal stables from the 17th century. We learned that the stables housed 12,000 horses and 24,000 slaves. Yes, that’s correct. Each horse had two slaves to tend to their care. Quite astonishing! The stables were made of adobe and were still standing in almost perfect condition. They even survived a relatively recent earthquake. Amazing – the technology and architectural skills that existed even hundreds of years ago!

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We also visited the Bab Mansour, which our guide told us is known as the “most beautiful gate in Morocco.” We saw quite a few “gates” on our trip, and they were all very intricate and full of detail, created by hand, so it’s hard for me to say which I thought was the most beautiful.

After Meknes, we continued our journey with another stop in Volubolis. This was, so far, probably my most favorite stop. And ironically, probably the most inaccessible. But that’s how it tends to be for me; I always like the most difficult things for me to see the most.

Volubolis is an ancient city, from the Roman Empire (1 AD), that is mostly underground, buried in roughly 2,000 inches of soil. There was a very small part of it that had been restored and exposed from the underground. It was amazing how much of it had survived over 2,000 years of erosion and exposure to the world but still looked to be in perfect condition. We saw the bathhouses, the kitchens, the bedrooms, and what I thought to be the most interesting part, the “criminal judging area.”

As you can imagine, given the timeframe of when Volubolis was built, it was far from accessible. There were uphill climbs with ancient rocks protruding from the land. And marble and stone steps that were only half standing. Usually my brother, Matt, takes charge of helping me in these situations, either by pushing me through the rough terrain or opting for a piggyback ride. But, unfortunately, he wasn’t able to join us on this trip. My sister, Julie, stepped in and took over. I was, and still am, impressed with her strength and ability to get me through the hour-long tour on her back. A few times, when she was tired of carrying me, she would pull and push me through the rocky paths in my wheelchair. At one point, I could have swore that a wheel was going to break in half with the amount of force she was using to get me through.

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One of the most eery feelings I had was when she was carrying me on my back from one of the kitchens to our next stop. She found a flat rock about waist level to sit me on. It was actually a square rock formation, about the size of a kitchen table, at the bottom of a large flight of stairs that lead up to very large pillars. As she sat me down on the rock formation, the rest of the tour gathered near our guide at the bottom of the stairs. He proceeded to tell us that the flat rock I was standing on was where criminals would go. They would face the large flight of stairs that led up to the very fancy pillars where the judges would sit and determine their fate. The guilty criminals would then be transported to Rome, where they would face a lion (who hadn’t been fed in several days) in the Coliseum until they were killed. People would pay a lot of money to see this “show.” It was one of the first times all of my travels came full circle and I started to understand how history, such as the Roman Empire, has had such an effect on so many parts of the world.

As I sat on the rock where hundreds, maybe thousands, of people had once stood facing their destiny, I tried to imagine what it must have felt like, knowing that destiny may well be death by a lion in the Coliseum. It was a strange feeling, knowing that this was the last place many people stood as a free person, staring up a flight of stairs waiting on a handful of people to tell them “what was next.”

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We arrived in Fes later that night. We spent the next morning exploring the Fes Medina. There are not enough words to explain this experience. The Medina is a small city from the 9th century inside of Fes. It is surrounded by a wall and has labyrinth streets that wind all over, not going perpendicular or parallel or making any sort of sense. The reason for the wall and chaotic streets is simple. It’s a defense mechanism. And after my visit, I understand why. Two minutes of walking through the old streets, and there is no way I could find my way out.

The streets were old, with the sidewalks made of dirt and cobblestone. They went up and down, and were very steep at times. There were people and animals everywhere. Chickens, donkeys, horses, cats. All just roaming the streets, each with their own agenda. The streets were narrow and the sunlight was limited, so it had a crisp and cold feeling to it. There was very little airflow in the Medina, and the smells from the animals and ancient sewage systems filled the air.

We made a few stops – at a leather store, a carpet store, and a Quran school. I found the Quran school to be the most fascinating, learning about the amount of time students would spend learning and memorizing the Quran, some up to 28 years. We also stopped by a preschool, where the children were giddy with excitement to have their pictures taken with us. And they were simple adorable, just plain lovable!

The Medina was massive, taking up our entire morning. It was exhausting, taking up a lot of energy. There was so much to take in from the experience – the smells, the views, the people, the lifestyle. The entire experience. We needed a break from the stimulus, some quiet time to absorb the amazing culture of the Fes Medina. We took the afternoon to ourselves to rest and enjoy dinner in the more modern part of Fes. This would be our last night in Fes before we left to experience even more of Morocco.

Please feel free to read Tony’s perspective of our trip at http://www.whereistony.com.

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