I gave the man some ice cubes from inside the rolled-up scarf I was wearing around my neck to keep me cool. It was a simple gesture but you would think I had handed him a couple of gold ingots. He was sweltering in the heat of Morocco's merciless midday sun as he chipped away at a ceramic tile, fashioning tiny pieces of mosaic for one of the exquisite creations on sale at the Art Naji pottery and mosaic workshop in Fes.
Rivulets of cold water streamed down his spine as he held the ice to the back of his neck. He smiled at me and then continued his delicate task, shaping a piece of shiny blue ceramic with his razor-sharp chisel. He handed me a tiny heart with such a look of gratitude on his face, it brought tears to my eyes.
It was the fast of the holy month of Ramadan so none of the craftsmen at the Art Naji had had anything to eat or drink since sunrise, despite the 40-degree heat in the shade of their canvas roof. In accordance with their Muslim faith, no sustenance would pass their lips until after sunset.
As I sank into the air-conditioned oasis of our van, I decided my own sacrificial act for Ramadan would be not to complain about the heat. We had the luxury of a chilly bin stocked with ice and bottles of chilled water, thanks to our driver Ibrahim, not to mention being plied with delicious Moroccan cuisine at regular intervals, while our guide Nabil and Ibrahim quietly went without.
I made myself another ice cube necklace and thought about how encounters of the human kind, no matter how small, add a special dimension to travel.
The time I spent watching the craftsmen was also something of an epiphany for me. We had seen a multitude of magnificent mosaics in mosques, mausoleums and museums on our Ancient Kingdoms tour of Morocco with The Innovative Travel Company, and while I knew they were all handmade, I had not fully appreciated the intricate work each tiny piece represented. Once I understood the effort involved in shaping each fragment, I could no longer just admire the structures from a distance - I had to touch and examine the mosaics close up.
The workmanship involved in the construction of the buildings we visited was mind-boggling. It’s fair to say I became somewhat obsessed.
Morocco’s marvellous mosaics
The Mohammed V Mausoleum in Rabat, completed in 1971, is considered one of the world’s most beautiful tombs. The resting place of the first king of independent Morocco who died in 1961, and his two sons King Hassan II and Prince Moulay Abdallah, the mausoleum is richly decorated with elaborate zellij mosaics that rise from the marble floor to a ceiling of gold leaf and hand-carved cedar wood. The three tombs on the ground floor are carved from white onyx. The elaborately-dressed royal guards at the gates and doors looked at me quizzically as my fingers traced the intricate mosaic patterns. They were far from stony-faced like many of their profession and didn’t object to my odd behaviour or being posed with for photographs.
Considered a masterpiece of modern Alaouite dynasty architecture with its white silhouette and green tiled roof, the mausoleum stands opposite the Hassan Tower, the minaret of the Hassan Mosque on which construction began in 1195 under sultan Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur.
Intended to be one of the tallest towers in the 12th century world at 80m, it now stands at 44m after being abandoned on the death of the sultan in 1199.
The mosque, designed to hold 20,000 worshippers, was flattened by an earthquake in 1755 but as I wandered among the remains of the 400 pillars that once supported the structure, I was still staggered by the immense scale of the building.
The Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, the second largest in the world after the Great Mosque of Mecca, boasts the world’s tallest minaret at 210 metres. Rising from a promontory overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, the building is breath-taking.
Opened in 1993, 6000 traditional Moroccan artisans worked for five years to create the beautiful mosaics, stone and marble floors and columns, sculpted plaster mouldings, and carved and painted wooden ceilings. Nabil said every Moroccan donated money for the construction of the mosque which cost an estimated $800 million.
The Museum of Marrakech housed in the Dar Menebhi Palace, was built at the end of the 19th century and converted into a museum in 1997. Nabil said it was an excellent example of classical Andalusian architecture with its complex tile work, mosaics, carvings, fountains, floor-set basins and huge chandelier made of metal plates in the central courtyard.
A clever young calligraphy artist by the name of Said Zizi was working away industriously in a corner of the courtyard. He wrote my name in beautiful Arabic script for a modest few dirhams. Along with my mosaic heart, it’s one of my most treasured mementos of Morocco.
The royal Palace of Fes is one of the most beautiful in the Arab world with its seven ornate doors of different sizes, richly adorned in bronze and exquisite zellij mosaics flanked with white marble columns.
Nearby, we entered the Medina of Fes el Bali through the grand central arch of the magnificent Bab Boujloud gates decorated in blue ceramics - the colour associated with Fes - as one enters the medina, and green ceramics - the colour of Islam - as one departs.The medina is the oldest in Morocco and the largest vehicle-free market place in the world. Exotic, colourful, fascinating and quintessentially Fes, it’s a labyrinth of alleyways lined with souks that sell everything from food to home-wares. There are great bargains to be found in brightly-coloured handbags, shoes, scarves, fabrics, ceramics and carpets once you understand the protocols of the haggling process which end up with prices about a half to a third of the original figure. The salesmen are invariably good-natured and we never felt pressured.
The 14th century Madrasa Bou Inania in Fes with its characteristic green minaret is one of the few religious places in Morocco open to non-Muslim visitors. Nabil explained the five traditional architectural features of the interior which represent God, a circle with no beginning, no end – Carrara marble on the floor, zellij mosaics on the walls with cursive Arabic script above depicting chapters from the Koran, then carved plasterwork with cedar from the Atlas Mountains on the ceiling . . . returning again to the marble on the floor. It was cool, quiet and contemplative there, away from the heat and hubbub of the medina.
Other structures with no less impressive mosaic work are the striking 16m-high Bab Mansour gates of Meknes built during the reign of Sultan Moulay Ismail (1672-1727) but not finished until five years after his death; the 16th century Saadian Dynasty Tombs in Marrakech forgotten about for hundreds of years and only rediscovered in 1917; and the Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakech with its unusual 77m-high square minaret topped with four golden orbs. There are normally three spheres on a minaret but the sultan of the time added a fourth in penance for breaking the fast of Ramadan.
The palatial riad we stayed at in Fes was a symphony of mosaics so I was able to live for a time among the objects of my fascination. Deep in the heart of the city’s ancient medina, the Riad Fes is a showpiece of magnificent Andalusian architecture, ornately-carved marble and mosaic pillars, and stairways and passageways softly lit with Moroccan lanterns.
Comprised of five former grand Fes residences connected by beautiful courtyards with pools, it’s a hidden treasure once frequented by Fassi nobility. The central courtyard, one of four, features fountains, stained glass windows and an enormous Fassi chandelier suspended high in the atrium.
Waking up in a suite of rooms that resembled a small museum, abluting in an exquisite marble bathroom with a mosaic wall created with pieces no bigger than my fingernail and dining on delectable Moroccan cuisine beside an emerald-tiled swimming pool, I paid humble homage to my friend, the hot artisan.
Luxury Links: www.riadfes.com, www.innovativetravel.co.nz, www.emirates.com
Justine Tyerman 1/4/16