FEZ: jewel in the imperial crown of Morocco

To visit Morocco without seeing the historic capital of Fez is like eating a birthday cake without the icing. Fez is a gem. Some people might even say it is the jewel in the crown of the Kingdom of Morocco.

Tightly packed buildings in the old medina with the zaouia  or shrine of Idriss II or Moulay Idriss II who ruled Morocco from 807 to 828 CE

The city was founded in the ninth century, roughly at the time when Scherazade was spinning tales of the ‘thousand and one nights’ to the Caliph Harun al-Rashid in Baghdad. But it is Fez, not the Iraqi capital, which remains a colourful example of this exotic period in the development of civilisation.

Houses, some more than 400 years old, overlook narrow, meandering lanes in the old medina known as Fez el-Bali

Fez reached its apogee during Merinid rule in the 13th century when it was one of the most advanced centres of learning and urban infrastructure in the ancient world. Its university, incorporated within the Karaouine Mosque (founded in 859) was attended by Pope Sylvester II, a student of Arabic numerals.

The town had hospitals, schools, funduqs (hotels) for travellers and 93 hammams (bath-houses) while local trades and crafts were organised into 150 different unions. Each with its own patron saint.

Cutting leather for handsewn babouche, the classic soft leather slipper worn by both men and women in Morocco

Originally measured against the width of a loaded mule, the streets in its old medina known as Fez el-Bali, are too narrow for motorised traffic. Hence you can wander at will, in perfect safety, among its sprawling souqs or covered bazaars.

Each trade or product still occupies the same quarter allocated to it centuries ago by the mutasib, prefect of Fez.

A boy making chechias, the traditional hat or fez. Aged sixteen, he is already a master of this ancient trade.

There are wax chandlers, knife-grinders, scribes, cabinet-makers, embroiderers, coppersmiths, leather-makers and perfume blenders. Foods are also segregated: fruits here, vegetables there, spices in the attarine or spice market.

A perfume blender, or “nose” in his tiny shop in the depths of Fez el-Bali

Friendly traders invite you to try a bit of this, or a sniff of that. To dip your finger in a tub of honey, to taste a slice of cheese, to try a lump of nougat, to suck a tangerine. Or to sit on a tiny stool and enjoy a mint tea as you bargain the price of a hand-woven carpet.

Souq Sabbighin, the dyers market is little changed in a thousand years

In 1981 Fez el-Bali was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. not only for its splendid architectural heritage and urban planning, but because the entire medina remains a living, breathing museum.

The smell of the medieval tanneries in Fez el-Bali will never leave your nose…


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MUSCAT RAMBLE: a cat named Aziz

On a visit to Muscat, a tourist seeing the cat outside the incense shop, called him Frank. After frankincense. But the cat took no notice. Having sat on the steps of the shop for eleven years Aziz —for this was his real name —was indifferent.

Another joker —Aziz thought he might have been British — suggested a good name for him was ‘Muscat’. Mus-Cat. Geddit?

Aziz thought this a bit pathetic since Muscat, the capital of Oman, was located in the next bay around the coast. He lived in Muttrah the port area, fish market and bazaar. So the man had just made a fool of himself.

Aziz bin Sultan al-Hamra, to use his full name, was a part-tortoiseshell cat of origins obscure. His very pointed ears lent credence to a suggestion of royal descent. Had his ancestors pattered delicately around the Queen of Sheba’s palace?

The ‘bin’ means son of —Sultan — a right roue of a cat whose base was the fish market. Sultan had lived to a great age, fed each day on sardines from the Arabian Sea.

No one knew Aziz’s mother, a mystery cat who had birthed three kittens behind Muttrah mosque. There were very few cats in Oman. Perhaps she had been a feral cat whom Sultan had met on one of his nightly strolls.

A Danish embassy wife had seen the kittens and taken them home. But only Aziz had survived. And when the Danes were posted to Moscow, their driver took the kitten to his brother who owned the incense shop in the souq.

And there Aziz remained. From an early age he took to sitting on the step watching passers-by. He never did anything beyond watch. It wasn’t necessary as there was plenty to see. And as the only cat in the bazaar he was treated like royalty.

Old Mohammed who sold canes, ropes and other rustica brought him tidbits from the fishing boats. Fatima who lived in one of the tall, white waterfront houses put milk in a lid as she passed on her way to the shops.

The man who owned the incense shop did nothing, but Aziz felt this was fair since he allowed him to sit on the step. Rents were expensive in the souq: if he had to pay for a space on the step  — perish the idea, thought Aziz.

And why the incense shop? He could have sat outside the jewellers, the money-changers or the shops selling shimmering textiles and beads.

But no. He liked the fragrance of burning resin, sandalwood and aloe and especially the silvery beads of frankincense from trees in Dhofar, the southern province of Oman.

He liked to sit on the step and inhale, imaging himself in the Queen of Sheba’s household. With servants to brush his coat and trim his claws.

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In 326 BCE, a Greek officer, passing the arid Makran coast of Baluchistan during the retreat of Alexander the Great, noted the area was inhabited by peoples he called Ichthyophagi – Fish-Eaters.

Scene on the arid Makran Coast of Baluchistan in western Pakistan

Subsequent centuries of fishing has so depleted fish stocks that by 2050, when the world population is expected to reach 7.5 billion, many wild species will have disappeared. And the word ichthyophagi will be obsolete.

While warming seas and ocean acidification also threaten seafood; the FAO estimates 75 percent of fish stocks are being lost to overfishing.

Overfishing by coastal nations and illegal trawling by foreign boats has so reduced some breeds in the Northern Hemisphere that many are unlikely to recover.

Fishing off West Africa often sees empty nets due to  pillaging by illegal  boats

The European eel, cod, skate and halibut are on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature most endangered fish list.

Harvested for caviar, the giant beluga sturgeon in the Caspian Sea is threatened.

The orange roughy, sold as “Deep Sea Perch” in Sydney fish markets takes 20-30 years to sexually mature making it imminently vulnerable. The slaughter of  sharks, estimated at 75 million a year, is catastrophic.

Sharks are slaughtered in thousands due to the unabated demand for sharkfin soup

Counting the world’s largest sardine fleet, Morocco reports a drop in once prolific shoals in the nutrient rich Canary Current. Spanish and Portuguese boats, using small mesh size nets, trap and waste the tiniest fish and crustaceans.

Lobster colonies off Somalia have been wiped out by South Korean vessels dragging the ocean floor depriving fishermen of a livelihood, a reason behind the rise of piracy.

Fishermen untangle a sardine haul from the Gulf of Oman

Chinese boats pulling a huge net between them are annihilating fish off West Africa. Satellite tracking records some 70 “pair vessels” working off Sierra Leone at any one time.

The 1982 Law of the Sea allows an Economic Exclusion Zone of 200 miles, but a lack of resources sees most African nations unable to protect fish within. The fragile ngalawas of Indian Ocean fishermen can only venture so far with a result that many off-shore islands are fished out.

Fragile ngalawas used by Indian Ocean fishermen cannot venture far from the coast

Overfishing is especially critical in the Southern Ocean where the Patagonian tooth fish and the southern blue fin tuna are ruthlessly hunted by vessels plundering the high seas. Flying flags of convenience, they remain out months, off-loading their catch onto a giant refrigerated mother ship of which some 400 operate across the world.

The majestic Southern Blue Fin Tuna is ruthlessly hunted by illegal boats

Tracking shoals via sonar technology, Taiwanese trawlers bait thousands of hooks on “long lines” extending 100 kilometres in an evil operation driven by commercial greed.

With the unreported catch estimated at 14 million tonnes a year costing genuine markets some $25 billion, a global treaty is required to rein in illegal fishing.

Illegally caught tuna being loaded onto a refrigerated cargo ship or “reefer”

Cost is the main obstacle to multi-national naval patrols of vast areas of ocean. Penalising nations who break regulations is difficult to impose while educating Asian countries against fishermen using cyanide is limited by local illiteracy.

Small but positive steps towards sustainable areas of ocean management is the creation of marine reserves but while Australia has gazeteered some extensive zones, allowing recreational fishing defeats the aim of providing fish a sanctuary to breed.

Investment in aquaculture may feed future hungry mouths but it is no solution for wild fish who are powerless to prevent their own extinction by human exploitation.





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