is a Medina?
The Medina is the oldest section and the historic heart of any
Moroccan city. The Medina was the center of Moroccan urban life
until the colonial period, when in all urban centers a Ville
Nouvelle or "new city" was constructed with wide
boulevards at a remove from the historic center. The Medina Qdima,
literally the "old city," came to be called simply "the
The Medina is the legendary seat of fable
and the most fascinating part of any Moroccan urban center. A tangled
web of winding alleys and street markets, the public spaces of the
Medina offer a remarkable procession of sights and scents, where
within a block one can find velvet slippers embroidered in gold,
carpet shops, wood-carvers standing in sawdust of cedar, open markets
selling bright vegetables, and magic shops with green lizards and
charged talismans. Labyrinthine alleys pass through stages of light
and shade, through narrow tunnels where one must stoop to pass.
Occasionally, a heavy studded door opens
and reveals a suggestion of the secret life of Fez that remains
invisible to the tourist: the traditional Moroccan house, center
of family and a tranquil private oasis within the labyrinth of the
souks, unglimpsed by passers-by because all windows open inward.
When the massive studded door is opened, you pass from the dim alleyways
into the dark vestibule of the traditional house, where a mosaic
hallway leads inward. It is a shock to step from the dark vestibule
into the brilliantly-lit central courtyard which rises three to
five stories toward the light. Five times a day the call to prayer
sounds through the open courtyard, reminding that one is at the
heart of the Medina.
Riyad: The Traditional Design of a Moroccan House
The Riyad is the traditional shape of a Moroccan house, with grand
salons giving onto a central tiled courtyard. The traditional Riyad
often has a garden at the center. The house typically has no windows
onto the street outside. Instead, all windows open inward to the
open-air central courtyard that is the heart of the house.
Massriya in the Life of the Moroccan House
A Massriya is a separate suite located at the top of the most
opulent Moroccan houses. With a separate entrance, the Massriya
was often reserved for the eldest son of a major Fassi family. In
keeping with the stature of the individuals allotted a private suite
at the top of the house, Massriyas are often the most highly-ornamented
rooms in the house.
While most traditional houses have full mosaic floors and carved
plaster over doors and around ceilings, the mosaic in the Massriya
often extends up the walls, and carved plaster in beehive patterns
extends down the walls and is accentuated with stained glass.
Hammam in the Life of the Medina
Architecture of the Hammam
The traditional structure of the hammam is a series of rooms leading
inward toward heat. Upon entering from the street, the bather comes
to a large dressing room with wooden benches on which bathers remove
their clothes and place them in bags to be deposited with the guardian.
The hammam then leads inward through large and small tiled rooms
- sometimes with vaulted ceilings, growing steadily hotter as they
near the center room with the single water source. In this center
room, water flows into two separate cisterns, one cold, and one
extremely hot. The water is often heated by ovens stoked with wood
chips and frequently also serves as the community bread oven. Bathers
draw their own water in buckets and sit on the tiled floors along
the walls, their buckets and toiletries defining their personal
space in a semicircle in front of them. From this vantage point,
both private and communal, one watches the spectacle of other families,
talks with one's neighbor, or relaxes and scrubs contemplatively.
Depending on the time of day or week, the hammam can be a quiet
sanctuary or a cacophonous gallery of children's voices.
The Women's Hammam
For many women visitors to Morocco, the women's hamman will be
the only experience of a women's public space. Here, the visitor
is privileged to be among many generations of Moroccan women tending
to their children and each other in the traditional ritual of bathing.
Side by side, grandmothers wash and henna their long hair as mothers
scrub their young children. Young girls scrub each other's backs
and legs and wash with rich sabon bildi, the traditional salve-like
soap only available in the Medina. Young boys run on bare feet with
tiny buckets, doing their part in carrying the water for their mothers.
In the steamy air, every stage of a woman's life is present, from
adolescent girls in the flower of their bodies, to the oldest women
honored and bathed by their granddaughters.
The Men's Hammam
The energy in the men's hammam is higher and the spirit can be
slightly competitive, but the same intergenerational span of the
family is present. Fathers bathe their young sons with hot water
and a thorough scrubbing which elicits wide eyes and pursed lips,
and in the youngest boys sometimes a heartfelt wail. Groups of young
men joke with each other, flex their muscles, and stretch each other
in slow and elaborate routines. Young boys are allowed to attend
the women's hammam with their mothers until the age that they start
to look around with too much interest. Once this time comes, they
are banned forever from this inner sanctum of women, which they
often remember nostalgically throughout their adult lives.
unwritten rules of the hammam
A private visit to the community hammam in the company
of our Moroccan team and friends is offered to all Fes Medina guests.
This is a rare opportunity to experience a side of Morocco that
tourists rarely dare to discover alone.