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Old Moroccan City of Fez, lures tourists from across the globe

The imperial city, Morocco’s “spiritual” capital has been overlooked by tourists in favour of Marrakesh.

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A view of the tannery in the 9th century walled Medina in the ancient Moroccan city of Fez

In recent times the imperial city of Fez has been overlooked by tourists in favour of  Marrakesh, but now Morocco’s “spiritual” capital is bustling with visitors due to major renovations and low-cost flights. “It is an open-air museum, with the largest pedestrian zone in the world and its 10,000 alleyways,” said Yassir Jawra, vice president of the Fez tourism commission.

Fez “is the spiritual capital of Morocco, famed for its culture and its (age-old) handicraft work,” he added. Since 2013, more than one billion dirhams (92 million euros, $103 million) of investment have been poured into the city of Fez to restore the 9th-century walled medina and develop tourism.

A Moroccan man walks in the tannery in the 9th century walled medina in the ancient city of Fez
A Moroccan man walks in the tannery in the 9th century walled medina in the ancient city of Fez on April 11, 2019. – In recent times the imperial city of Fez has been overlooked by tourists in favour of Marrakesh, but now Morocco’s ‘spiritual’ capital is bustling with visitors thanks to major renovations and low-cost flights. Since 2013, more than one billion dirhams (92 million euros) of investments have been poured into Fez to restore the 9th century walled medina and develop tourism. (Photo by FADEL SENNA / AFP)

The medina, home to the world’s oldest working library, was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981 for its “outstanding universal value”. Guardian of priceless treatises in Islamic studies, astronomy and medicine, the library is nestled in the maze of narrow and dark alleyways which tourists and donkey-drawn carts can struggle to navigate.

Like many monuments it has been renovated after the authorities in the late 1980s sounded the alarm in a report saying that more than half of the buildings in the medina were crumbling and 10 percent were threatened with ruin following years of neglect and a lack of public funds.

Behind the high crenellated walls that surround the medina lie 9,000 historical houses, 11 madrassas, 83 mausoleums, 176 mosques and 1,200 handicraft workshops. Patrician palaces with their secret gardens and terraces, elegant fountains and ancient caravansary, or inns, are among the jewels lying there to be discovered.

Respect ‘authenticity’

According to Fouad Serrhini, head of the Agency of Development and Restoration tasked with rehabilitating the medina, “thousands” of buildings and monuments have been saved from ruin since 2013. “They were chosen according to their state of degradation and how urgently the work was needed,” he said.

In all, 4,000 buildings were saved between 2013 and 2018, while 27 monuments were restored. In mid-April, King Mohammed VI visited Fez to inaugurate some buildings that had been renovated and launch the second phase of the rehabilitation programme.

A woman stands in the balcony of a traditional building in the 9th century walled medina in the ancient Moroccan city of Fez
A woman stands in the balcony of a traditional building in the 9th century walled medina in the ancient Moroccan city of Fez on April 11, 2019. – In recent times the imperial city of Fez has been overlooked by tourists in favour of Marrakesh, but now Morocco’s ‘spiritual’ capital is bustling with visitors thanks to major renovations and low-cost flights. Since 2013, more than one billion dirhams (92 million euros) of investments have been poured into Fez to restore the 9th century walled medina and develop tourism. (Photo by FADEL SENNA / AFP)

Following his visit, authorities issued a report insisting that the rehabilitation work respect the medina’s “authenticity” and “original architecture”.

“The ancient medina is a live treasure, hidden and secret, which cannot be taken lightly,” said Salim Belghazi, a 33-year-old who has transformed his 14th-century riad, or traditional family home, into a private museum. Belghazi, who hails from a wealthy background, said he hopes that despite the transformation, Fez will maintain its soul.

Ancient tanneries in Fez

Meanwhile, tourists are flocking to Fez, where the regional Fes-Saiss airport has undergone an expansion to accommodate the growing number of visitors and low-cost flights mainly from across Europe.

The number of passengers has jumped from 108,000 in 2004 to more than a million in 2018, according to official figures. But Marrakesh remains the country’s top tourist destination, with more than two million arrivals in 2017.

Tourism is a major source of revenue for Morocco, which received more than 12 million visitors in 2018, according to official figures. Abderahim Belkhayat, head of a regional body of artisans, said the influx of visitors to City of Fez “benefits” craftsmen, noting that three-quarters of the medina’s residents earn a living directly or indirectly from the sector.

Local authorities have mapped out a “vision” to revamp the sector by giving it a “new look” in order to produce “high quality” crafts, he said.

A 2005 official report indicated that in the long term, authorities hope to transform the medina into a “showcase” of handicrafts while the workshops themselves would be relocated outside the walls. So far, 6,000 potters and brass and copper workers have been moved into zones with modern infrastructure and tanners are expected to follow suit in a separate location.

The idea is to rid the medina of the cacophony of noise emanating from brassware and potter workshops as well as the pungent odours that rise from the ancient tanneries – the later a “must” stop on the tourist circuit.

Tourists, their noses covered with mint leaves to ward off the stench, congregate on terraces overlooking the tanneries to snap pictures of the men working below, using the same methods as their ancestors did.

The tanners stand almost knee-deep in large vats containing quicklime, cow urine, salt and water to clean the hides, which they will later soak in pigeon poop and water before the dying process can begin.

But the sight seems to delight the visitors and the end result, such as leather belts and bags sold in the boutiques, proves popular with buyers.

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‘Year of Return’ attracts African-American tourists to Ghana

A string of prominent African-Americans have headed to the site this year to mark the anniversary since the first slave landing

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The Cape Coast Castle on the coast of Ghana

US preacher, Roxanne Caleb blinked away the tears as she emerged from a pitch-dark dungeon where African slaves were once held before being shipped across the Atlantic to America. 

“I wasn’t prepared for this. I’m heartbroken,” she told reporters as she toured the Cape Coast slave fort on Ghana’s ocean shore. 

“My mind still can’t wrap around the fact that a human being can treat another worse than a rat.”

Caleb is among the African-American visitors flocking to Ghana as it marks the “Year of Return” to remember the 400th anniversary of the first slave ship landing in Virginia.

The country is banking on the commemorations to give a major boost to the number of tourist arrivals as it encourages the descendants of slaves to “come home”.

Cape Coast Castle, 150 kilometres from the capital Accra, is a major magnet for those visiting 

The white-washed fort lined with cannons was one of the dozens of prisons studying the Atlantic coast where slaves were held before their journey to the New World.

A string of prominent African-Americans has headed to the site this year to mark the anniversary since the first slave landing in 1619. Among them was a delegation of Congressional Black Caucus led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that toured last month.

The Cape Coast Castle on the coast of Ghana served as an important base for the slave trade on the Gold Coast.
The Cape Coast Castle on the coast of Ghana served as an important base for the slave trade on the Gold Coast. Today the former fortress is a museum and Unesco World Heritage Site since 1979. | usage worldwide

‘Can’t forget history’ –

For those visiting, it is an emotional rite of passage. 

“This has been understanding my history and my roots where I came from,” Caleb said.  

“I am very thankful I came here as part of the ‘Year of Return’.”

Sampson Nii Addy, a corrections officer with the Montgomery police department in Alabama, said he and his family had found the tour an “education”.

“I think every black person needs to come around to learn history; how people were treated,” the 52-year-old told reporters. 

“We can’t forget history but we can always learn something from it.”

Ghana, one of the continent’s most stable democracies, has long pitched itself as a destination for African-Americans to explore their heritage and even settle permanently.  

In 2009, President Barack Obama visited with his family and paid homage at the Cape Coast Castle. 

The “Year of Return” has added fresh impetus and the country is hoping it will increase visitor numbers from 350,000 in 2018 to 500,000 this year, including 45,000 African-Americans. 

Kojo Keelson has spent nine years guiding tour groups around the Cape Coast Castle and says 2019 has seen a surge in interest as Ghana looks to rake in tourism revenue of $925 million. 

“It’s like a pilgrimage. This year, we have a lot more African-Americans coming through than the previous year,” he told reporters.

“I’m urging all of them to come home and experience and reconnect to the motherland.”

Stairs next to the "Door of Return", the former "Door of no Return" of  the Cape Coast Castle
Stairs next to the “Door of Return”, the former “Door of no Return”. The Cape Coast Castle served as an important base for the slave trade on the Gold Coast. Today the former fortress is a museum and Unesco World Heritage Site since 1979. | usage worldwide

‘Love to come again’ –

Akwasi Awua Ababio, the official coordinating “Year of Return” events, pointed to high hotel occupancy rates as he said, “enthusiasm is very high and we’ve got huge numbers coming from the US and Caribbean”.

He insisted that beyond the major economic boost, Ghana was also looking to use the new connections it is forging to convince the descendants of slaves to resettle for good and help the country develop.

“Human resource is always an asset and we need to see how we can welcome them home to utilise their expertise and networks,” the director for diaspora affairs at the presidency said.

The African American Association of Ghana brings together those who have moved to West Africa and offers help to integrate them into their new surroundings.

President Gail Nikoi praised the “Year of Return” initiative by Ghanaian leader Nana Akufo-Addo and said the country was “setting the stage for future engagements and involvement of African-Americans and other Africans from the diaspora in the development of this country.”

But she said the authorities could still be doing more to help attract arrivals and convince them to stay.

“Dialogue and engagement is the first step,” she said.

While most of those visiting Cape Coast were not thinking about settling back permanently — they said the trip had opened their eyes to both their own history and what Ghana has to offer.

“It has broadened my horizons about how we came to be here and what our ancestors went through,” said William Shaw, 57, from Montgomery.

“I would love to come again. There is a lot more to see here in Ghana… at least once in a year, I’d advise African-Americans to come back to their native land and learn about their history.”

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Practitioners worry as Nigeria’s tradition of facial marking declines

Traditional practitioners, known locally as “oloola” are worried about the decline of facial scarification, but critics remain opposed to it

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Practitioners worry as Nigeria's tradition of facial marking declines
A Muslim lady bearing tribal marks on her cheeks poses in Lagos. - The incisions have traditionally been performed in an array of styles by different ethnic groups in Nigeria. The scarring is done by burning or cutting of the skin during childhood. From the Yoruba in the southwest to Igbo in the east and Hausa in the north, the marks serve different purposes: identification, healing, spiritual protection, beautification. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

When six-year-old Naziru Abdulwahab was abducted from northern Nigeria, his kidnapper transported him across the country and tried to sell him — but the potential buyer backed out. 

What saved the boy from the child-smuggling rings, police said, was the traditional facial scarrings on his cheeks that he had been marked with at birth.

Fearing they would make him too recognisable, the would-be purchaser refused to buy him.

After suspicions were then raised by local residents, the trafficker was arrested and the child rescued.

The incident in June shone a spotlight on the practice of tribal markings that has been fading since the 1980s in the fast-changing country of nearly 200 million people. 

Traditional practitioners, known locally as “oloola”, said it showed the benefits of the practice that critics have long argued is unsafe and child abuse.

Practitioners worry as Nigeria's tradition of facial marking declines
A man bearing tribal marks on his cheeks speaks in Ibadan, southwest Nigeria. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

“Our taste for foreign things has robbed us of our customs,” Mashopa Adekunle, an oloola in the southwestern city of Ibadan, told reporters. 

“Nobody wants to put tribal marks on his child anymore. People see the practice as archaic, fetish and unhygienic.”

On the battlefield – 

The incisions have traditionally been performed in an array of styles by different ethnic groups in Nigeria. 

The scarring is done — both to boys and girls — by burning or cutting of the skin during childhood. 

From the Yoruba in the south-west to Igbo in the south-east and Hausa in the north, the marks serve different purposes: identification, healing, spiritual protection, beautification.

Prominent figures, including ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo, have tribal marks on their cheeks.  

“In the days of inter-communal wars, tribal marks helped to identify fighters. You would know who were your friends and enemies in the battlefield,” said Adekunle. 

He agreed that the traditional practitioners needed to move with the times if they wanted to remain relevant — pointing to the growing numbers of Nigerian youths embracing western-style tattoos. 

“The oloola have to do more to convince their critics that their tools are safe for use,” he said.

‘Facial mutilation’ –

Opponents have pushed for a country-wide ban on facial markings.

In 2017, the Nigerian Senate debated a bill for the “prohibition of facial mutilation” that would have introduced punishments for those who perform it and protection for those at risk. 

Proponents of the move argued that the “barbaric” practice left people disfigured for life and put them at risk of contracting HIV. 

The proposed legislation is currently bogged down in parliamentary procedure.

The practice of facial markings has been waning for around 40 years, said the Oloola Descendant Association in Ibadan, whose members barely carry out one case a month now, compared to about 10 in the 1980s.

Sefiu Yusuf, the association’s head, insisted that there was still a role for traditional methods, as he showed reporters his metal instruments wrapped in white handkerchiefs at his dark clinic.

A man holds native instruments for tribal markings at the family compound of the Oloola Descendant Association, traditional practitioners of tribal markings in Ibadan, southwest Nigeria. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

He inherited his position from his father and said his family had long been known for performing circumcisions. 

“Only yesterday, a boy was brought here because our patrons believe in our ability,” Yusuf told reporters, at his dilapidated home in the centre of the city. 

“Even doctors and nurses seek our help when they have complicated cases.” 

He dismissed criticism that his practices were unsafe.

“It’s a smear campaign by NGOs and people in government to… put us out of business,” he said.

For another Ibadan-based oloola, Babatunde Hamzat, the decline of the tradition has had serious consequences for the Nigerian society. 

He said its loss had contributed to the high levels of crime in the country. 

“In the time of our fathers, a child with tribal marks would not want to commit any crime for fear of being identified,” he said. 

“But nowadays, people commit crimes with levity since there is nothing to identify them with.”

‘Preserve family identity’ –

Trader Dauda Lawal, 60, proudly sports the facial marks his parents gave him as a child and says he was happy to do the same to his offspring.  

“Being the first son, my parents gave me tribal marks. Though the practice is dying, I still made sure my first son got it to preserve the family identity,” he said. 

Practitioners worry as Nigeria's tradition of facial marking declines
Head of the Oloola Descendant Association, traditional practitioners of tribal markings Sefiu Yusuf, speaks about the benefits of the customs in Ibadan, north of Lagos. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

Lawal claimed his wife married him because of the facial marks he bears. 

But he is not sure if his son will follow suit.

“I will be happy if he does a similar thing to his own son because it’s part of our culture that should not be allowed to die,” he said.

That positive view of facial marking is not shared by everyone.

“I can never allow tribal marks on my child’s face because the practice is old-fashioned and unhealthy,” said Lagos beautician Damilola Ajayi.

She said that she was firmly opposed on both health and aesthetic grounds. 

“In these days of HIV/AIDS and other communicable diseases, it’s risky to use unsterilised instruments such as the ones used by the oloola on a child’s body,” she said.

“I also cannot date, not to talk of marrying, a man with tribal marks. It’s disgusting.”

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Kenya’s fossil treasury contains unearthed mysteries

Museum staff knew the bones were something special – they just didn’t know what exactly.

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Newly-discovered giant 'simbakubwa kutokaafrika

The only hint that something extraordinary lay inside the plain wooden drawer in an unassuming office behind Nairobi National Museum was a handwritten note stuck to the front: “Pull Carefully”.

Inside, a monstrous jawbone with colossal fangs grinned from a bed of tattered foam – the only known remains of a prehistoric mega-carnivore, larger than a polar bear, that researchers only this year declared a new species.

“This is one-of-a-kind,” said Kenyan palaeontologist Job Kibii, holding up the 23-million-year-old bones of the newly-discovered giant, Simbakubwa kutokaafrika, whose unveiling made headlines around the world.

But the remarkable fossils were not unearthed this year, or even this decade. They weren’t even found this century. For nearly 40 years, the specimens – proof of the existence of Africa’s largest-ever predator, a 1,500 kilograms meat-eater that dwarfed later hunters like lions – lived in a nondescript drawer in downtown Nairobi.

Museum staff knew the bones were something special – they just didn’t know what exactly. A source of intrigue dusted off on occasion for guests, Simbakubwa lay in wait, largely forgotten. How did these fossils, first excavated on a dig in western Kenya in the early 1980s, go unrecognised for so long?

Kibii – who presides over the National Museums of Kenya’s palaeontology department, a collection unrivalled in East Africa and one of the world’s great fossil treasuries – has a pretty good idea. “We have tonnes and tonnes of specimens… that haven’t been analysed, Definitely there are things waiting to be discovered,” he said.

Out of space

The main wing has changed little since legendary paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey first started stockpiling his finds there in the early 1960s. A card-based filing system is still used to find a specific fossil among the trove, the entries written by hand. 

Reconstruction image shows a Simbakubwa kutokaafrika
This handout reconstruction image released on April 18, 2019, by Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, shows a Simbakubwa kutokaafrika, a gigantic mammalian carnivore that lived 22 million years ago in Africa and was larger than a polar bear. (Photo by Mauricio ANTON / Ohio University / AFP)

But the collection has grown exponentially, faster than Kibii and his team can keep up. “We’ve run out of space,” said Kibii, pausing between dusty archival shelves crammed floor to ceiling with finds, dating back more than half a century. “In this section alone, we have more than a million specimens.” 

Gigantic skulls of ancient crocodiles compete for space with a bygone species of horned giraffe. Nearby, the behemoth tusks of an early African elephant take up valuable real estate. Even the windowsills are littered with the petrified remains of all manner of weird and wonderful creatures. 

Between 7,000 and 10,000 new fossils arrive at the lab every year, Kibii says, overwhelming his 15 staff who must painstakingly clean and log each specimen. By law, fossils uncovered in Kenya must go to the museum for “accessioning” – the process of labelling, recording and storing for future generations. The backlog is enormous.

Chipping away

In a dark room, a lone staff in a protective mask blast away rock from fossil using an air-powered brush, as Kenyan pop tunes crackle through an old radio. Outside the door, metal chests sent from dig sites filled to the brim await his magic touch – literally years of work stretching before him.

If a specific expert is not on hand to identify a specimen, things can get wrongly categorised or waylaid. In some cases, they’re sent to the dreaded “waiting area”, where faded cardboard boxes, sagging with unknown and abandoned fossils, gather dust.

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“We have fossils from the 1980s that have not been accessioned,” said collections manager Francis Muchemi, chipping away at a giant elephant molar.

Cradle of humanity

Simbakubwa met a similar fate. Thought to be a type of hyena, it was filed away in a backroom and unstudied for decades, until stumbled upon by American researchers. Specific finds unearthed at one of Kenya’s many digs by researchers writing academic papers are given priority and fast-tracked for assessment by the museum.

Even today though, the museum lacks specialists and resources. Kibii is one of just seven palaeontologists in Kenya. He trained in South Africa because there was no course available at home.

“It’s important because Kenya is the cradle of human evolution,” said Muchemi, who learned his skills on the job. “We have very few Kenyans doing this job. Ninety-nine per cent of the people who work here are foreign.”

Kibii said palaeontology was considered a lower priority than conserving Africa’s endangered wildlife. “This one has been in the ground for millions of years. What are you saving it from?” he said, of the prevailing attitude to the science.

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He hopes to acquire collapsible shelves to create space in the collection. Even better, a micro-CT scanner – a powerful tool driving breakthroughs in the world of palaeontology – would allow a fresh look at the museum’s most-forgotten corners.

“I always wonder what lies in there on some of these shelves,” Kibii said. “Simbakubwa is telling a new story. What if, among these thousands, we have 10, 20, new stories that are lying, waiting to be told? That’s always the mystery.”

WATCH: Kenya’s fossil treasury contains unearthed mysteries

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