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Originally published Saturday, November 2, 2013 at 7:10 PM

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Lost and found in Moroccan city’s maze

Exploring the ancient medina in the city of Fez.

The New York Times

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The craftsman was alone in his workshop, a cubbyhole barely larger than a closet. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of such stalls in the medina in Fez, an ancient Moroccan city within a city of winding paths and centuries-old artisanship, where vendors tout their leather and oils on every corner.

But this stall stood out. It was nearly bare, not crammed as most of the others were with doodads to be negotiated over. A few tools hung on the wall, alongside some old photos of the craftsman, now white-haired and wearing a traditional long robe.

It was early afternoon, and the craftsman sat on the floor, a few feet above the sidewalk, his wares spread out before him: delicate combs and spoons, in pearlescent cream and black, seemingly crafted out of bone.

Suddenly, he rose, stepped out of his shop and shuttered it. My photographer and fellow traveler, Ben Sklar, and I thought that perhaps it was time for midday prayer, or tea, and that our interaction was over. But the man beckoned us to follow him as he walked up the street in his orange djellaba, pausing to talk to a man outside a cafe, who turned to us. “He wants to invite you to his home for lunch,” he said in English, smiling.

And so off we went, trailing after our new host — whose name, we later learned, was Mohammed Saili — as he led us through this labyrinthine North African city, toward a meal with his family.

It was one of the many instant connections we made during our trip to Morocco where immersing ourselves in medieval history, and leapfrogging cultural and geographical obstacles, proved smoother than we’d imagined.

Stepping into history

Traversing Fez, as many visitors have noted, is like stepping back in time. Laid out in the ninth century, its 540-acre medina, Fez El-Bali, was a scholarly and commercial center of North African and Muslim life, and claims to be the home of the oldest university in the world, University of Al-Karaouine, founded in 859.

Socially and architecturally, the city reached its heyday in the 13th and 14th centuries; the expansion known as the “new town,” Fez Jdid, dates to this period. Once the capital of Morocco, Fez remains a cultural and spiritual locus. The medina, named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1981, is said to one of the largest car-free urban zones in the world.

To navigate this bustling walled area, many visitors hire a guide. Indeed, from the moment we’d parked our car in a dusty lot just outside one of the medina’s gates, there were young men and teenage boys offering, in good English, to show us around for a negotiable fee. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with employing a little local assistance. But Ben and I were used to doing things on our own, and preferred self-guided adventure. And as we discovered on our four-day trip, exploring Fez independently is not only possible, it’s also vastly rewarding.

Which doesn’t mean we didn’t get lost.

The UNESCO designation means that the architecture of Fez is meant to be preserved. The twisting cobblestone paths will not be enlarged or smoothed out, the tight jumble of sand-colored mosques, bazaars and homes — their colorful tiled courtyards rendered invisible by imposingly thick outer walls — will not be broken by a sleek, modern building.

Our hotels provided hand-drawn maps, and staff and shopkeepers graciously sketched out walking directions. But one wrong turn and we were adrift in a maze of nearly identical alleys, each without street signs or visible outlets.

Sometimes we didn’t need to look to find our way. Place Seffarine, a breezy square, was recognizable by its soundtrack: metal clanging on metal. Under the shade of a three-story tree, a man in a soccer jersey was banging out a copper pot. On the steps surrounding him, others hammered and sculptured, chiseled, polished and buffed. This was a central marketplace for brass and copper cookware, and each finely wrought teapot or 3-foot plate produced its own resonating chime as it was hand-finished, a cacophonous public orchestra.

Lunch with the locals

Back with Saili, we walked through the street market, down garbage-strewn alleyways and through three tightly locked doors to his home. The narrow entryway and dune-colored building opened to a vast, multistory oasis, with high ceilings, blue, green and white tile and traditional woodwork. His wife, Aziza Krimi, had prepared lunch: spiced lamb, served with fluffy pita and French fries. It was easily the best food we had in Fez.

Saili’s granddaughter Nouha El Alloui joined us and served as a translator. Her grandfather, she said, was 82. He carved his combs and spoons not out of bone but out of cow horns. It was a common skill generations ago, but now practitioners are rare.

After lunch, Saili led us back to his shop, at 39 Rue Mechatine. It was only later that we noticed the official city placard at the top of the street. Rue Mechatine was once filled with horn-carvers, it said. Now, as we’d just learned, there was only Saili.

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