Within the maze of alleys and walls of Fez, Morocco there are many traditional artisans creating handmade products. The old medina (walled city) in Fez was founded in the 9th century and many of these skilled artists rely on methods used continuously since that time.
I hired a local Fez resident for a day to tour the old city and several artists cooperatives to learn about the culture and history of Fez. It was an interesting walking tour, primarily. But for the first stop we took a taxi to a ceramics cooperative.
The workers here produced a variety of pots for daily use and for tourist souvenirs. They also produced colorful tile for mosaics.
The work is labor intensive. The tile begins with mixing clay and water in large basins behind the main buildings. The mixing is done by one person tromping in the mixture to blend it to the right consistency. Then the mixture is formed into thin bricks that will be cut into the various shapes.
These tile bricks are dried outside by the sun and then stockpiled for winter tile production, since they are harder to dry during winter weather.
Cutting is done by hand with very sharp hammer tools. The finished tiles are precisely formed into surprising shapes such as stars and curved crescents. Each worker is assigned one shape and during each day produces a pile of tiles at their station.
The tile is still used in decorative work on many kinds of new construction from simple stairs to panels at mosques.
The pots are hand-spun and painted. They range from large water jugs and vases to small colorful pencil holders for tourists.
At the end of the tour I was taken to the store and only then realized that each cultural tour would also include an opportunity to purchase items to support the artists, and the tour guide who gets a commission, and the hotel who gets a commission for arranging the guide ….
I bought some souvenir pots, but I started to worry because the day was just beginning and we were also going to learn about the “cultural traditions” at a rug cooperative and a leather works cooperative, with opportunities to support the artists there also. I hadn’t brought enough dirhams to buy something at each place and didn’t have room for them in my luggage anyway.
Fortunately my guide told me that since the medina was a UNESCO World Heritage site the artisans were supported with funding to help them continue to carry out the traditional arts. So I felt a little less pressure to buy a rug at the next stop, but only a little less pressure.
The walking tour through the old city was great and my guide was worth every dirham.