Fez – the royal city, the capital of moroccan culture, wisdom, religion, spirytuality, art and craft

Fez (arab. فاس, fr. Fès) – the fourth largest city in Morocco after Casablanca, Rabat and Marrakesh, with the population of about 1.000.000 people, located in the north-central part of the country, in the fertile plain of Saiss, at the crossroads of the most important commercial routes of the medieval Maghreb. It is the capital of the region of Fez-Boulemane. The name of the city probably comes from the Arabic word hoe, which was found while digging foundations of the first buildings. Fes el-Bali (the Medina) was inscribed on the UNESCO list in 1981. For more info read below

Fez, the oldest of the royal cities of Morocco, was founded in 789 by Moulay Idriss I and built during the reign of his son – Idriss II, who established Fez as the capital city in 807. Idriss I was the first Muslim ruler of Morocco and the founder of the first Muslim dynasty – the Idrisid. Unlike Rabat, which is the administrative capital of the country, and Casablanca, which is the economic capital, Fez is the spiritual and cultural capital of Morocco. Called the “heart of Morocco” by many people, it has guarded religion and tradition for centuries. All Moroccan dynasties have left their marks here. At first, Fez was inhabited by Muslims that came from Spain (mainly Cordoba), then Arab people joined them from the North Africa (Kairouan in Tunisia) and the Middle East. Despite the centuries-old, very noticeable impact of the Berber’s and even Africa’s culture, the nature of the city has remained Arabic. On the one hand, Fez appeared to be a center of strong religious fanaticism in the Medieval times (it was one of the holy cities of Islam), but on the other hand, it was the center of science, mainly medicine, mathematics and philosophy. After all, it is Fez that has the oldest university in the world – Al Karaouin, founded in 859 by Fatima el-Fihrija. According to some sources Pope Sylvester II studied here, however, it is not certain.

Fez is divided historically and geographically into several parts: Fes el-Bali, Fes el-Jdid with a Jewish quarter – Mellah and Ville Nouvelle (French spelling – in Morocco Arabic transcription is written in accordance with French pronunciation). All parts of Fez are described below, in the 3 point.

2. An outline of the history of the city of Fez:

Fez was founded in 789 CE by the first ruler of the Muslim dynasty of Morocco – Idriss I. Since 807 it has performed a function of the first capital of the Muslim state, which was established by Idriss II. At first, the city was inhabited by the Berbers, but after it had become a capital, a few thousands of families came from Spanish Andalusia, who settled on the right bank of the river Oued Fes and established the quarter Al-Andalous. Shortly afterwards, the inhabitants of Kairouan (the area of what is now Tunisia) joined them, who settled on the left bank of the river and established the quarter Al-Karaouine. Both nations brought the knowledge involved in craftsmanship, moulding and decorative techniques, they also improved the process of making zellige mosaic. Thanks to it, Fez became one of the most important centers of Moroccan crafts and was very prosperous for the next two centuries. During that time (in 859), two most important mosques came into existence – Al Karaouine and Al Andalous.

In 1069 Fez was conquered by the sultan of the Almoravid Dynasty – Youssef Ibn Tachfine. He actually found two cities surrounded by walls and separated by the river Fez, with bridges thrown across it and mills that stood by it. The Sultan joined the two cities, surrounding them with a wall. In the XI century Fez lost its position as the capital of the Empire in favor of developing Marrakesh. Nevertheless, in the XII and XIII centuries, the city had a population of tens of thousands of people and was the most populous in Maghreb. Fez had already had several hundred mills, bakeries but also tanneries and dye-works. There were also numerous workshops such as wood crafting, goldsmithing and pottery making. Located on the route of the main commercial routes, the city prided itself on a few roofed souks and funduks – roadside inns. It also had a few mosques, public hammams and toilets with running water.

In 1250, in the reign of the Marinid dynasty, Fez once again became the capital of the state or as a matter of fact, the vast empire, which included the areas of what is now Morocco, namely Andalusia, Algeria, Tunisia and part of Libya. During that time Fez was inhabited by up to 200.000 people. It was during the reign of the Marinid dynasty, in 1276, that Fes el-Jdid (New Fez) was founded to the south-west of the medina. It had its own defensive walls and served administrative functions. Here, in the area of 80ha, one of the most magnificent sultans’ palaces in the country came into existence. In this part of the city, apart from Muslims, there was also a large group of Jews and Christians. The medina, however, was a place where new mosques, Koranic schools, fortresses and new residential quarters were built. After all these transformations, Fez became the most significant center of science, culture and religion in Maghreb and for the next two centuries it was in its heyday, which was considered “ The Golden Age” for Fez.

Along with the end of the reign of the Marinid dynasty, which fell on 1471, Fez’s heyday was over. Marrakesh became the capital. Nevertheless, Fez’s trade and crafts lucky streak still went on. Fez was known for weaving, dyeing, tanning, milling, shoemaking, saddlery and ceramics. From 1550 it also produced weapons (mainly artillery guns). It was an important stop on the gold trading route from Timbuktu. In the beginning of the XVI century, an earthquake hit the city of Fez and destroyed many of its buildings. The outbreak of the bubonic plague at the turn of XVI and XVII centuries, but also hunger, poverty and riots were the reason of Fez’s economic decline.

In 1666, Sultan Moulay Rachid of the Alouit dynasty once again established Fez the capital city. After all, his brother and successor – Moulay Ismail changed it in 1672 and moved the capital to Meknes. Since he burned with reluctance to Fez, he imposed high taxes on the inhabitants (which was incomparably better, than his possible stay in the city – you can read about the cruel Sultan in the Meknes section)

The following years were about Fez’s development as one of the capitals of the state divided by the influences of the great European monarchies – France and Spain. Fez had served this function until 1912, when the capital was definitely moved to Rabat. The reason of moving the capital to Rabat was the outbreak of the uprising in Fez against the French occupation, during which dozens of French were killed. Rebellious and proud, inhabitants of Fez could not accept the reign of a foreign state. Inspite of the restrictions, the reign of French brought many benefits to the city – it was the time when a beautiful and modern Ville Nouvelle came into existence, with many interesting buildings in art deco style, wide boulevards and modern administration.

3. Places in Fez worth a visit:

Fez is a wonderful, big city, where you can find monuments dated back to the IX century CE, as well as those from modern times. As it was mentioned above, the city is divided into three parts, the monuments of which will be discussed below:

The Medina or Fes el-Bali – the oldest part of the city, beautifully situated in the valley and on hillsides, surrounded by a medieval wall with its marvelous city gates. Inscription on the UNESCO List of Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 1981, proves that it is a unique place. And here is the list of evidence: it is the biggest medieval Medina in the world, that has the largest urban area, free of cars. Moreover, it has the oldest still-functioning University of Al Karaouine, awarding university degrees. Many places have remained unchanged for hundreds of years and crafts is practised in the same traditional way.

The oldest, central part of the Medina dates from the IX century and lies on both sides of the river Fez. The oldest part includes: religious complex of Al Karaouine, The Mausoleum of Idriss II (Moulay Idriss Al Azhar) and The Mausoleum of Sidi Ahmed Tijani, which form the so-called “Gold Triangle”. On the Andalusian part of the Medina, there is a mosque of Al Andalous, built at the same time as Al Karaouine. In the center of the Medina you will find important Coranique schools: Medresa Attarinem Cherratine and Sahrij. The rest are souks and squares, which took names of crafts: Attarine (seasonings), Nejjarine (wood), Seffarine (dishes that are made of different kinds of metal, e.g. copper), Henne (herbs), Sabbighin (dyeing clothes and materials), etc. One of the biggest attractions of Fez, unique on a global scale, are leather tanneries and dyeworks, called Chouara. Of course today, the center of the medina is only small part of it. The Medina’s historical entrance is a marvelous gateway – Bab Boujloud with a huge Baghdadi square.

Below is a short overview of the most important monuments of Fez el-Bali:

  • Bab Boujloud – literally means ‘’blue gate’’ – the main gateway to the Medina from Fez el-Jdid and Ville Nouvelle. It was built in the XII century and renovated at the beginning of the XX century. From the outside, it is embellished with blue arabesque tiles – symbol of Fez, whereas on the inside, with green tiles –symbol of Islam.
  • Talaa Seghira and Talaa Kabira – two main pedestrian communication routes from Bab Boujloud to the Rcif square in the center of the Medina. They run along the major architectural attractions and souks.
  • Medresa Bou Inania – Coranique school built by the Sultan Bou Inan between 1350-1357. It is a great example of embellishment from the Marinid dynasty. You can see beautiful carved wood and stucco, intricate and arranged in a mosaic pattern – zellige tiles and decorations made of bronze, onyx and marble.
  • Dar el Magana – built in 1357 by the Sultan Bou Inan, stands opposite the madrasah and holds, one of a kind, water clock, the mechanism of which is still unknown.
  • Mausoleum (Zaouia) of Idris II – built in the IX century and rebuilt in 1437, situated in the center of the medina and now being renovated. Non-believers are prohibited from entering the mausoleum, but it is possible to see its lavishness through an open door. Donkeys and mules cannot even pass close to the mausoleum – they are stopped by the transversal beams and have to turn back. Pilgrims visit the temple in order to receive “baraka” (blessing). They can touch the holy tomb through a hole in a copper plate. The tomb is covered by the silk material – a gift from the Fez weavers, which is changed every year. A very interesting fact is that Muslims cannot be arrested inside the mausoleum, therefore, criminals often took shelter indoors.
  • Mausoleum of Sidi Ahmed Tijani – the mausoleum of the Sufi saints fraternity, to which faithful from this part of Africa go on a pilgrimage.
  • Medresa el-Attarine – took its name from the spice souk, next to which it is located. It was built between 1323 and 1325 by the Sultan Abou Said Othman.
  • Nejjarine Complex – consists of a square with a souk, where wood products are made and sold, Museum of Wooden Arts and Crafts, situated near a beautiful funduk and the most stunnning street fountain of Fez, richly decorated with zellige mosaic and a wooden finial. Nejjarine Square is one of Fez’s most beautiful squares and its photograph – one of the most characteristic of Fez.
  • Al Karaouine religious complex – the most significant mosque of Fez, founded in 859 by Fatima Al-Fihri, daughter of the merchant of Fez. The name of the mosque comes from the name of the district, which in turn, comes from the refugees from the Tunisian Kairouan, settled on this side of the river. In 1135, the mosque was expanded and became one of the largest temples in Maghreb and in Morocco (until 1993, when the construction of the Hassan II mosque in Casablanca was finished). Fourteen doors lead to a prayer room which has 16 naves and 270 columns. The courtyard in front of the prayer room (which can be seen through the open main door), is similar to one of the Alhambra courtyards in Granada. The Complex consists of the oldest University in the world, continually operating Al Karaouine and the library, founded in the tenth century and enlarged in the fourteenth century by SultanBou Inan. The library has 30.000 items in its collection, including 10.000 manuscripts, some of them very old and valuable, such as for instance, a copy of the Koran from the fourteenth century.
  • Chouara dyeworks and tanneries – the largest of the three existing dyeworks in Fez. Located to the north of the Al Karaouine Complex, by the river. The craft of dyeing and tanning leather began in the Middle Ages and still goes on, to this day. The circular concrete tanks contain natural liquids for tanning and dyeing leather products, such as quicklime, pigeon droppings and natural dyes extracted from poppy petals or madder (red), henna (brown), saffron or tobacco (yellow) and indigo (blue). The dyeworks can be admired from a terrace of one of the big leather cooperatives where you can get ready-made products. The view is fascinating, however, the odour can make your life a misery, which is why you are given a twig of mint at the entrance, to make it less bothersome. Looking at half-naked working men, who, after all, are wading in some chemical liquids, we should be grateful to fate that our jobs are different than theirs!
  • Al Andalouse Mosque – built on a hill in the same year as the mosque of Al Karaouine, but on the right bank of the river Fez. It was supposed to be a place for people who had come from Andalusia. The minaret was built in 956 and expanded in the thirteenth century. It cannot be entered by non-believers, however, they can admire its beautifully embellished main entrance with a carved wooden roof.
  • Sahrij Madrasah – located in the Andalusian district, distinguishes itself with beautiful embellishments and a water pool in the middle of the courtyard. The madrasah was built between 1321-23 by the Marinid Sultan Abu-l-Hassan.
  • Houses and mansions of the high and mighty families of Fez – you can encounter a few interesting urban mansions while walking along the medina. In French they are called “palais” (English: palace). The most impressive ones are: Palais Glaoui, Palais Jamai, Palais Mokri, Palais Dar Pach Tazi, Palais Dar Bayda, Palais Dar Adiyel and Palais Ba Mohamed Chergui.
  • Museums – a few interesting museums that are worth visiting are: Borj Nord Museum (military), Dar Batha Museum (arts and crafts of Fez), Nejjarine Museum of Wooden Arts, Dar Belghazi Museum(arts and crafts of Fez) and Batha Museum of Archeology.

The vastness of the medina is best visible from the surrounding hills. In the morning it is good to climb up the hill with the citadel Borj Sud and in the afternoon or evening (just before the sunset) the hill with the tombs of Marinids, near the citadel Borj Nord. Spectacular views extend from there, on green areas as well. For the time being, you can see them in our gallery below.

Away from the medina, on its eastern side are well-known pottery cooperatives of Fez. It is a place where, for centuries, green roofing tiles, painted vessels and colorful tiles (of which zellige mosaic is cut) have been created with unchanged methods of productions (manually). When you’re on the spot, there is a chance to see how it works and the brave ones can even try their hand at forming vessels on a potter’s wheel. In the shop, you can feast your eyes on ready-made products. A trip to the factory of pottery might be a very interesting and enriching experience – this is the only place where you can see how arduous the process of creating shapes of zellige mosaic is, shapes that are cut out of bigger tiles, one by one. Then, it is possible to see methods of tiling and processing. One of the workers tells you, in a very interesting way, how much time is needed to create even a small table or a fountain. You can also observe the process of painting, firing and glazing of functional pottery, such as jugs, bowls, etc. Your stay at the cooperative will help you better understand the art and architecture of Fez and, by extension, Moroccan and Arabic art and architecture. Taking into consideration all these aspects concerning the enormity of work that need to be done while creating intricate patterns on plates or making beautiful mosaic fountains out of zellige tiles, will enable us to understand why the hand-made goods cannot be cheap.

To the south-west of the Medina there is Fes el-Jdid, which means ‘the new Fez’. It was built by the Marinids in the thirteenth century. It consists of a residential part, which lies within the Mellah – the Jewish quarter and 80 hectares of the royal palace complex- Dar el-Makhzen.

Here is a brief overview of the most important monuments of Fez el-Jdid:

  • Mellah – the oldest Jewish quarter in Morocco. The name comes from the Arabic word ‘melh’, which means salt. According to the legend, it was the Jews who had the sad task of preserving heads of desperados before exposing them to public view. To do this, they used salt…The Jews were brought to Fez el-Jdid by the sultan Abou Said from the northern part of the medina. In exchange for additional taxes, they were to be protected by him. Until the nineteenth century, the gates of Mellah were locked at night. In the twentieth century (1948 and 1956), most of Jews left Fez – they moved to Casablanca, France or Israel. Those who have stayed (about 80 families), live mainly in Ville Nouvelle. The architecture of Mellah is interesting – the streets are wider than in the medina, house facades have wooden balconies and big windows. Within the quarter, there is a Jewish cemetery, museum and a few synagogues, the best-known of which is Ibn Danan.
  • Dar el-Makhzen – or ‘the royal palace’ occupies the area of 80 hectares in the western part of Fez el-Jdid. Ordinary people cannot enter the palace, we can only assume that it is the most beautiful palace in Morocco. It consists of a few residential pavilions, squares, gardens, menageries, madrasah and mosque. Of course, everything is richly embellished and maintained at constant brilliancy. We can see the sample of what’s inside on the seven doors of the palace which come out on the Alawite Square and which were renovated by craftsmen from Fez in 1970. The doors constitute an excellent example of Moroccan modern craft.
  • Petit Mechouar and Vieux Mechouar – squares located to the north of the royal palace, near the Bab Makina, which were once a forefield for the military parades and other gatherings, such as announcement of decrees, criminal sentencing. Lots of strange things happened there. According to the legend, the naked body of a Portugal sovereign was exposed to the public view in 1443 for four days and his coffin for 29 years. One day, a drop of blood had fallen on a blind man who, after the incident….regained his sight. In the middle of the twentieth century, Petit Mechouar performed similar functions as Jemaa el-Fna in Marrakesh – there were jugglers, snake charmers, dancers and troubadours. Since the 1970s, nothing happens here. The beginning of June is one of such moments when the square revives for a few nights, as the number of concerts of sacral music are held during that time.

In the beginning of the twentieth century, a modern quarter – Ville Nouvelle, came into existence. The oldest buildings were raised according to the Art Deco style, a very prevalent style in Europe during that time. Some of those buildings are still there and constitute embellishment of the central part of the city. Modern architecture is dominated by fairly strict modernist style which, however, has some elements of the Arabic architecture – colorful mosaics, keyhole-shaped windows or doors, monumental entrances to the buildings, etc. In recent years, a few modern, architecturally interesting buildings have come into existence. The city regularly announces the national architectural contests for the development of the most interesting places, which results in original ideas. It also focuses on a dynamic development of residential areas and tourist infrastructure. The airport terminal is also being extended. It will be several times larger and more modern than the current one, and its style bears traces of Arabic ornamentation.

Here is a brief overview of the most interesting places in Ville Nouvelle:

  • Hassan II Boulevard– is the main communication artery of the new city. It begins at Dar el-Makhzen in the north and it runs to the south. Its palm-lined central part is one of the favourite meeting places of the inhabitants of Fez. They sit on benches or grass and talk about significant and trivial matters concerning their lives. Married women sit together and look after their playing children. Youngsters stroll along the boulevard, looking for friends. This part of Fez is more European and open. People’s mentality here is different than in the medina. The boulevard presents a few spectacular, illuminated at night fountains and beautiful lawns with flowers. Along the boulevard and in its vicinity you can find the best hotels, cafés and restaurants.
  • Mohammed V Street – goes through the Hassan II Boulevard. In the area, there are also a few brilliant Art Deco and modern buildings. But you have to lift up your head high and look for some gaps among thickly grown trees, in order to see the most interesting facades. The lowest floors are occupied by numerous shops and cafés. You also cannot miss the entrance to a roofed bazaar with a huge ‘collection’ of fresh fish and seafood. Near is also a nice park café, where on the terrace, surrounded by greenery, you can drink coffee or milk cocktail.
  • Suburban residential areas – part of the city for the connoisseurs of modern architecture. On request we can offer you a tour: Ville Nouvelle in a few hours. The tour involves visiting one of such places. We recommend this to architects and all interested in new ideas when it comes to Arabic architecture.

4. Books and films about Fez:

  • „Bleu de Fès” (Blue Fez), documentary made by Françoise Gallo in 1993, concerning the medina of Fez before the ‘invasion’ of tourists;
  • „À la recherche du mari de ma femme” (arab: Al-bahth an zaouj imaraatî; pol: W poszukiwaniu męża mojej żony/ Looking for My Wife’s Husband), comedy produced by Mohamed Abderrahman Tazi in 1993;
  • „A House in Fez” by Susanna Clark – a book about fulfilled dreams of having a beautiful riad at an exotic place and a way to achieve it, full of peripeteia,. We recommend this book before traveling to Fez! 😉
  • „The spider’s house” by Paul Bowles – the action of the book takes place in 1954, during unsteady political situation of the country. The main character is American living in the medina of Fez.

5. See map of Fez and its location in Morocco:

6. See few videos of Fez: