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.