THE FIRST VISION
Many-walled Fez rose up before us out of the plain toward the end of the day.
The walls and towers we saw were those of the upper town, Fez Eldjid (the New), which lies on the edge of the plateau and hides from view Old Fez tumbling down below it into the ravine of the Oued Fez. Thus approached, the city presents to view only a long line of ramparts and fortresses, merging into the wide, tawny plain and framed in barren mountains. Not a house is visible outside the walls, except, at a respectful distance, the few unobtrusive buildings of the European colony, and not a village breaks the desolation of the landscape.
As we drew nearer, the walls towered close over us, and skirting them we came to a bare space outside a great horseshoe gate, and found ourselves suddenly in the foreground of a picture by Carpaccio or Bellini. Where else had one seen just those rows of white-turbaned majestic figures, squatting in the dust under lofty walls, all the pale faces ringed in curling beards turned to the story-teller in the centre of the group? Transform the story-teller into a rapt young Venetian, and you have the audience and the foreground of Carpaccio's "Preaching of St. Stephen," even to the camels craning inquisitive necks above the turbans. Every step of the way in North Africa corroborates the close observation of the early travellers, whether painters or narrators, and shows the unchanged character of the Oriental life that the Venetians pictured, and Leo Africanus and Windus and Charles Cochelet described.
There was time, before sunset, to go up to the hill from which the ruined tombs of the Merinid Sultans look down over the city they made glorious. After the savage massacre of foreign residents in 1912 the French encircled the heights commanding Fez with one of their admirably engineered military roads, and in a few minutes our motor had climbed to the point from which the great dynasty of artist-Sultans dreamed of looking down forever on their capital.
Nothing endures in Islam, except what human inertia has left standing and its own solidity has preserved from the elements. Or rather, nothing remains intact, and nothing wholly perishes, but the architecture, like all else, lingers on half-ruined and half-unchanged. The Merinid tombs, however, are only hollow shells and broken walls, grown part of the brown cliff they cling to. No one thinks of them save as an added touch of picturesqueness where all is picturesque: they survive as the best point from which to look down at Fez.
There it lies, outspread in golden light, roofs, terraces, and towers sliding over the plain's edge in a rush dammed here and there by barriers of cypress and ilex, but growing more precipitous as the ravine of the Fez narrows downward with the fall of the river. It is as though some powerful enchanter, after decreeing that the city should be hurled into the depths, had been moved by its beauty, and with a wave of his wand held it suspended above destruction.
At first the eye takes in only this impression of a great city over a green abyss, then the complex scene begins to define itself. All around are the outer lines of ramparts, walls beyond walls, their crenellations climbing the heights, their angle fortresses dominating the precipices. Almost on a level with us lies the upper city, the aristocratic Fez Eldjid of painted palaces and gardens, then, as the houses close in and descend more abruptly, terraces, minarets, domes, and long reed-thatched roofs of the bazaars, all gather around the green-tiled tomb of Moulay Idriss and the tower of the Almohad mosque of El Kairouiyin, which adjoin each other in the depths of Fez, and form its central sanctuary.
From the Merinid hill we had noticed a long facade among the cypresses and fruit-trees of Eldjid. This was Bou-Jeloud, the old summer-palace of the Sultan's harem, now the house of the Resident-General, where lodgings had been prepared for us.
The road descended again, crossing the Oued Fez by one of the fine old single-arch bridges that mark the architectural link between Morocco and Spain. We skirted high walls, wayside pools, and dripping mill-wheels; then one of the city gates engulfed us, and we were in the waste spaces of intramural Fez, formerly the lines of defense of a rich and perpetually menaced city, now chiefly used for refuse-heaps, open-air fondaks, and dreaming-places for rows of Lazaruses rolled in their cerements in the dust.
Through another gate and more walls we came to an arch in the inner line of defense. Beyond that, the motor paused before a green door, where a Cadi in a silken caftan received us. Across squares of orange-trees divided by running water we were led to an arcaded apartment hung with Moroccan embroideries and lined with wide divans; the hall of reception of the Resident-General. Through its arches were other tiled distances, fountains, arcades, beyond, in greener depths, the bright blossoms of a flower-garden. Such was our first sight of Bou-Jeloud, once the summer-palace of the wives of Moulay Hafid.
Upstairs, from a room walled and ceiled with cedar, and decorated with the bold rose-pink embroideries of Sale and the intricate old needlework of Fez, I looked out over the upper city toward the mauve and tawny mountains.