“Many destinations are interesting, but few are truly intriguing—for intrigue requires mystery; something fascinating, yet not immediately obvious. Fez, the oldest of Morocco’s imperial cities, very much fits that description: It’s hypnotic, idiosyncratic, and often confounding.”
Conde Nast Traveller, Lindsay Cohn; April 11, 2022
Fès is the second largest city in Morocco after Casablanca, with a population of over 1 million people. The oldest of Morocco’s four imperial cities, it was founded on the east bank of the Wadi (river) Fès in about 789. The city is almost completely surrounded by low hills covered with olive groves and orchards. The ancient battlements of Fès, flanked by stone towers, still partly enclose the old city, which is known as the Fès el-Bali.
We were staying inside the walled Medina which is the old city. It is known to be one of the largest car-free, urban zones in the world (like Venice). The Medina is not only a place of business but a place where roughly 100 000 people live. It was explained to us that many people grow up in the medina and never see life outside the old city walls.
The city has been called the “Mecca of the West” as well as the “Athens of Africa” and has derived a status as the cultural, spiritual, and intellectual capital of Morocco, over the course of centuries.
From the moment we’d parked our car in a dry and dusty lot, just outside one of the medina’s gates, there were young men offering to show us around. “Bonjour! Where you from?”
There’s nothing wrong, of course, with employing a little local assistance, but Geoff and I are used to doing things on our own, and from previous experience, prefer not to be persuaded into the inevitable stores that although they earn the guide a small commission, suck the energy out of me with the pressure to “Just look. No buy!” while you are plied with endless produce that you have no choice but to admire.
Fortunately our guest house, Dar Roumana had arranged with us to send a porter to help with the luggage and more importantly to locate the place. With our suitcases in a wheeled cart, we left behind the bright sunlight of the Ville Nouvelle, passed through one of the numerous gates in the fortified wall that surrounds the old city, and immediately stepped into the Old Testament. On the outskirts of town, we literally watched transportation history reversing itself, as trucks were unloaded onto mules, donkeys and carts.
We scurried along behind the porter, impressed at how swiftly he walked while simultaneously pushing his barrow, dodging the human and animal traffic, and ensuring that we avoided stepping into the fresh and pungent donkey excrement. The solemn pack mules seem unaffected by the chaos, retaining their indifference to both tourist and vendor, commandeering the narrow streets and public plazas.
We were immediately sucked into a complex tangle of twists and forks. We remained positive that we’d find our way back, and we concentrated hard…then soon realised that we’d already become disorientated.
Despite the relative coolness provided by the tall walls and narrow streets, we were perspiring when we reached the unassuming entrance of our hotel and were warmly welcomed with that trademark of Moroccan hospitality, mint tea.
Named after the huge pomegranate trees that used to fill this quiet neighbourhood in Fez, Dar Roumana was once the home of prominent oil merchants. The inside of the hotel is comfortable, cool and sumptuous.
With only five suites, the spacious Dar is a peaceful sanctuary. No detail was left out in the restoration of Dar Roumana, from the fine mosaic tile work to the handmade linen throws decorating the rooms.
Our suite was up a steep, twisting staircase of no less than 6 flights. Halfway up was a landing with an intricate grille overlooking the courtyard below, (perhaps a place for a young lady to view a prospective suitor visiting downstairs?) There was another flight of stairs to reach the bathroom. It certainly was very comfortable and the aircon was bliss. We had a window that overlooked a quiet part of the Medina. At night I could hear the local cats yowling in the street below.
Fès was founded in the 8th and 9th centuries under Idrisid rule. In the early 9th century, Arab families moved in, giving it an Arabic character. Empires came and went and in the 11th century, the city was rebuilt into what is now the Fès el Bali quarter. Under Almoravid rule, the city prospered with mercantile activity and gained a reputation for religious scholarship. They built many mosques, schools, and other religious institutions (madrasas and zawiyas).
“Fez was built at a natural crossroads, the spot where the route from the Sahara to the Mediterranean coast intersects the east-west passage between Algeria and the Atlantic … Civilization ended at the gates of the medina; outside was the wilderness.”
Paul Bowles, Author of “The Sheltering Sky”
Having spent sufficient time in Morocco to know that only “fools and Englishmen venture into the noonday sun”, we opted for an afternoon rest. Our Moroccan host suggested that we take a guide for our next sojourn and we agreed to consider that, although we explained that we were keen to avoid the obligatory “guided tours” of retail vendors that tend to be part of a guide’s repertoire. Our host was a little taken aback. He explained that Fès is a town of skilled artisans and that unlike Marrakech and other cities, the Medina is the showcase of a variety of crafts such as pottery, copper, silver and woodwork, weaving and leather. “This is where you come to see how the ancient masters worked. This is the real thing.”
Suitably chastised, we acknowledged that this was indeed our plan, but we wanted a chance to “get our feet wet” on our own.
Armed with Google Maps, Maps.me and numerous detailed screen grabs on the iPad, we boldly headed out into the streets beyond with a view to immersing ourselves in the medieval culture and history and ticking off a few of the sights.
The life blood of the city flows through an endless dichotomy of pedestrian roads – straight and winding, cobble-stoned and paved and even gravel. It has busy streets, quiet alleys, exuberant markets and charming squares where artisans’ workshops spill out on the street.
The medina is both accessible and impenetrable. It’s nearly impossible to manoeuvre through the complex tangle of thousands of narrow lanes, alleyways, unmarked doors, and passage-ways on your own. Even seemingly straightforward plans can become fraught with confusion in seconds as you get disorientated in the maze of corridors and blind turns. Dead ends appeared where there were supposed to be thoroughfares, a store serving as a landmark was suddenly rendered anonymous, merely by closing its wooden shutters (there are no exterior signs or branding) and so exploring was both captivating and frustrating. We’d done our prep and knew that Fès had so much to show us, but her treasures remained tantalisingly out of reach as we exhausted ourselves going in circles. Even the purchase of an old-fashioned map turned out to be a waste of money.
GPS is pretty much useless in the Medina. There are more than 9000 streets and alleys and one wrong turn and we were adrift in a maze of nearly identical alleys, each without street signs or an indication of where it might lead. I had the idea of taking iPhone pictures at every turn, of some type of landmark, to help us a find our way back again. This was not fool proof.
Nevertheless Geoff managed to get us onto the main street and it was as if the city was coming to life. Food vendors were preparing for the evening meal and were chopping enormous carcasses of beef and lamb right in their shop fronts; stuffed parcels of spleen were sizzling on grills; a variety of seafood was being stir-fried; all giving off incredible aromas and all being watched closely by admiring cats. It was gratifying to see that they were slipped a shaving of raw chicken here, a sardine there…
The fortifications of Fès comprise a complex circuit of ramparts and gates. The city gates vary greatly in design and date, ranging from heavily defensive gates to simple openings in the walls. The most famous gate is the imposing entrance of Bab Boujloud, with its mosaic tiles and is the emblematic portal of the old medina. The blue tiles on the side that welcomes new visitors represents the colour of the city of Fès, and the reverse, facing the medina, are green – the colour of Islam. Built in 1913, the bab (portal) is a gateway between two equally colourful and dynamic scenes, one distinctly from the 21st century and the other an intriguing blend of different eras. Once you have crossed the “Blue Gate”, the roar of the trucks, buses, motorbikes and cars quickly vanishes, replaced by the clatter of merchants selling their wares and the muffled footsteps of hundreds of animals and pedestrians making their way through winding lanes. The entrance of Bab Boujloud, leads to the two main arteries of the medina, Tala’a Kbira and Tala’a Sghira. This is the central heartbeat of Fès. The city walls also incorporate a number of Kasbahs (citadels) and forts which were built over many centuries both to protect and to control the city.
Tail firmly between our legs, we eventually reached our Riad. “Trying to explore Fès alone is a common mistake tourists make”, our host told us, “and the primary reason many people don’t ever discover the true magic of this ancient and complicated city.” We booked Hashim for the next morning…
Bravely we ventured out unaccompanied again for dinner. This time we had more or less memorised the route to a lovely-looking restaurant that we had spotted on our earlier reccie – Fondouk Bazaar, promising “modern Moroccan”. We sat upstairs on the open air rooftop where we enjoyed a delightful cooling breeze. We listened to the final call to prayers resonating over the city as we watched the sun go down and nibbled on delicious tapas. We even made it home the fast route without getting lost!
Hashim took no prisoners in his mission to ensure that we covered the key sights of Fès. We set off at a steady pace hoping to tick off our list before we got either a) too tired, or b) too hot. It was a Friday, the Islamic equivalent of the Sabbath and we were concerned that some things might be closed.
It was a relief to be unconcerned about where we were exactly, or which direction we should take. Some of the roads undulated steeply uphill and then down again. Some streets were as narrow as 50 centimeters (about two feet). A few streets were as wide as five meters (about 16 feet), but rarely for any distance. Occasionally we had to press ourselves flat against a wall, or hop into a shop to avoid being trundled over by a passing wagon, bicycle or mule.
“There is a good deal of frustration involved in the process of enjoying Fez,” says writer Paul Bowles “The street goes down and down, always unpaved, nearly always hidden from the sky. Sometimes it is so narrow as to permit only one-way foot traffic; here the beasts of burden scrape their flanks on each side as they squeeze through, and you have to back up or step quickly into a doorway while they pass, the drivers intoning, ‘Balak, balak, balak …’” (“Watch out, watch out, watch out!”)
The most outstanding feature of this area are the fondouks, which are old inns that catered to merchants who visited the city. They used to have a ground floor for storing merchandise and livestock under lock and key, and one or two upper floors for sleeping. Today they’re used as workshops and stores. Hashim showed us one that was still being used to overnight donkeys and mules.
Buildings in Fès are typically 2-3 storeys tall, with a fair number of 4-storey buildings. No building exceeds this height except the minarets of the mosques (and perhaps the ubiquitous satellite dishes on every rooftop.)
“The indifferent anonymity of a blank wall outside – nothing to indicate the existence of this very private, remote and brilliant world within. A noncommittal expanse of earthen wall in the street hides a little Alhambra of one’s own. A miniature paradise totally shielded from the gaze of the world.” Paul Bowles, Author
Wealthy and poor neighbourhoods are side-by-side; big and small houses stand next to each other. The houses in Fès are mostly conceived around a courtyard. Some courtyards are more elaborate (with a pool or fountain) than others but the arrangement is similar for all houses. The street facade is a high bare wall with a door which can be simple or rather ornamental.
The door in the picture is a great example of a typical entrance. The smaller door within the door is for daily use. “Ducking your head when you enter, ensures that you remain humble and show respect to your host,” explained Hashim. There are also two door knockers. One is for ladies and one for the gentlemen. Because the knockers have different tones, the lady of the house would not reveal herself if a male was at the door, thereby ensuring her modesty.
The hinge in the top left is known as “the hand of Fatima.” It indicates that a person of Muslim faith resides there and is symbolic of protecting the inhabitants.
The Unesco designation means that the architecture of Fès is meant to be preserved. The twisting cobblestone paths will not be enlarged or smoothed out, the tight jumble of sand-colored madrasas, mosques, bazaars and homes — their colorful tiled courtyards rendered invisible by imposingly thick outer walls — will not be broken by a sleek, modern building. Hashim explained that if a building collapses before it can be restored, the area will be cleared and made into a neighborhood garden. It will not be replaced.
The (interminable) walk was a dizzying sensory overload, full of unexpected scenes and activity, especially as we wandered through the souks. Here was a fragrant shop packed with potions and perfumed oils, next to a tableau of babouches (pointy leather slippers), abutting a display of pastel-coloured nougat, or plump and glossy dates. There were are all manner of shops selling lamps, jewellery, ceramics, rugs, leather, perfume, confectionery and more.
The plazas often take their names from the activity that happens there, or perhaps did traditionally. For example Nejjarine means “the carpenters”; Seffarine, which comes from the word yellow, is the plaza of the coppersmiths.
Stray cats were everywhere. It was heart-warming to see a cat peacefully sleeping amongst the merchandise in a store (clever kitties that chose carpet shops) or cats sleeping below a butchery or fishmonger (even cleverer kitties!) Knowing that they were being fed and sheltered made me feel happy. In one alley we came across a whole colony of cats that had been given a makeshift hotel of boxes and crates. Our guide explained that one of the citizens looks after them and feeds them and the street has subsequently become a cat sanctuary. 😻
Hashim was bursting with pride to explain to us that the district we were in, Fez El-Bali, was the scholarly and commercial centre of North African and Muslim life, and is the home of the oldest and continuously operating university in the world, University of Al-Karaouine, founded in 859 by Fatima al-Fihri along with a religious madrasa and became one of the top spiritual and educational institutions of the Muslim world. The university’s focus is on Islamic religious and legal sciences and students come mostly from Morocco and Islamic West Africa. The definitive green roof can be seen from the rooftop vantage points.
One of the few mosques that non-muslims can enter in Morocco is Bou Inania Madrasa. It is regarded as the most architecturally refined of Fès’s theological colleges and was built by the Merinid Sultan Bou Inan between 1351 and 1357. Beyond the massive brass entrance doors, its interior courtyard is a masterpiece of elaborate zellige tilework, carved plaster and beautiful cedar lattice screens. Smaller courts off either side functioned as classrooms, and students lived upstairs. Unlike many such schools, the Bou Inania has a full mosque adjoining it. The mosque’s beautiful green-tiled minaret is the one that’s visible when you enter the medina via Bab Bou Jeloud.
In front of the Madrasa is Dar al-Magana (the Clock House). It has a water clock on its inside wall. The water clock has 12 windows and 13 small wooden platforms where there used to be 13 bronze bowls. It used a hydraulic pulley system, a cart moved on a rail. When it moved forward it would open each of the windows, releasing metal balls that fell into each bowl producing a characteristic sound. A useful tool in the Muslim culture, there would be no need to ask if it was time to break a fast or to go to the mosque.
Probably one of the most interesting attractions in Fès is the Chouara tannery which dates back to the Middle Ages. The practice of transforming animal hides into glorious, supple leather is still carried out in a similar way today. Each day dozens of workers toil over open vats that contain animal urine and pigeon dung, dipping the skins to soften and treat them before hand-dyeing them in enormous concrete tubs of bright colour, stomping on them under the blistering sun to distribute the pigment. You can sniff the tannery out from far away. As it was a Friday we were worried that it might not be open but we were led up via a leather goods store to observe the pits below, which were laid out in a honeycomb pattern. Definitely open although there were relatively few men at work. We were given a sprig of mint to hold under our noses to combat the pungent odour, which I suspect must be far worse in the heat of the summer.
The men must be incredibly strong to lift these heavy and soaking wet hides and haul them in and out of the pits.
It’s gruelling, back-breaking work and they are perpetually enveloped in that nauseating smell. We walked through the showroom to see the end result and the range of colours was stunning. There were red items from the petals of poppies, green from mint, yellow from saffron (and therefore pricier!) blue from indigo, black from kohl, orange from henna, brown from cedar wood or pomegranate skins. All natural processes.
The feel of the leather was absolutely soft and almost creamy in texture. The quality is superb and the prices were surprisingly affordable given the manually intensive process. I managed to resist the overwhelming coercion to force me to buy something. I am not a fan of shopping under pressure and left feeling quite drained.
The Zaouia of Moulay Idriss II is one of Fès’s most sacred places. A religious school and mausoleum, it houses the tomb of Moulay Idriss II, who made the city great in the ninth century. Although it’s closed to non-Muslims, it was lovely to catch a glimpse of the exquisite wooden doors and elaborate decor .
The Royal Palace is in Fes el Jdid, right near the Jewish quarter (the Mellah) It’s the oldest Royal Palace in the country (built in the 14th century.) Visitors aren’t allowed inside, but the golden doors are stunning to observe. The king actually does visit and live here for parts of the year. We were fortunate to find it completely tourist free.
Another quick pause to observe this plaque and hear the story from Hisham. The word ‘maristan’ is derived from a Persian term meaning “locus of the sick people”. The maristans’s work was restricted to mental illness specifically and focused on understanding psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations, delusions and other paranoid behaviour. Before this kind of treatment, people displaying these kind of symptoms were likely tortured, jailed or even killed. This Fès institute of the 13th century, initiated the kind of sophisticated treatment that was then expanded to Europe.
With the decline of the economy in Morocco in the following centuries, the conditions in the maristans seriously degenerated and by 1911, two French psychiatrists were appalled by what they found (more jail than mental health asylum) and by the decline from the golden ages of centuries before.
The maristan Sidi Frej burnt to the ground in 1944.
Prior to the establishment of Israel, Morocco was home to the largest Jewish community across the Arab-speaking world. Despite the mass exodus of Jews (who now number less than 2,500 as of 2022) many of the community’s historic sites still exist and draw visitors. Nestled in the former Jewish quarter of Fès (Mellah), the Jewish cemetery, known for its white nondescript, semi-cylindrical tombs nestles against the backdrop of the Mellah’s residential buildings, once populated by wealthy Jews.
The Muslim cemetery that we visited is on the slopes of a hill also outside the Medina, with every grave facing towards Mecca.
The Merenid tribe captured Fès and established the capital of their kingdom in the 11th century. The dynasty remained in power until the beginning of the 15th century and left a deep mark on Moroccan history.
The tombs that loom above the city are one of the many structures built by the Merenids during their rule. Very little remains of their original structure and decoration and not a lot is known about who exactly is buried there. The site is spectacular for its panoramic views across Fès.
Fès is a city that beguiles you with its many facets.
Sitting high above the city watching the sun disappearing, I was reminded again of some of the simple things in life like the beautiful and diverse places on this planet; and intriguing cultural differences. As the sun got lower we heard the call to evening prayer echoing from a mosque below. Within seconds, dozens more muezzins were responding from other minarets, a wave of distinctive sound that washed over and around this ancient city.