City of the endless mosque
The capital of Morocco for more than 400 years, home of the oldest university of the country and the leading cultural and religious center. Fez is also the home of the oldest and largest medieval city in the world, a city that is almost unchanged through the modern ages and still most definitely alive.
Fez was founded in 789 at a place between the mountains where the river was flushing by. History has provided the city with long periods of hardship, but Fez has never died. Today it has its own culture, pride, art, and even cuisine.
The Bali, or the oldest quarters of Fez, were to a large degree saved by the French general Lyautey. When the French got in control of Morocco around the time of World War I, he made all necessary arrangements to protect the medieval structures against modern development.
The result is that Fez el-Bali has taken good care of its old architectural structures and is also very much a living city, where most streets are too narrow for cars, and donkeys and mules are in common use. Just like all through its history, Fez el-Bali has a striking combination of poverty and developed culture.
Nothing appears to have changed for centuries here in Fez. Donkeys and mules are still the preferred vehicle here between house walls that were erected long before the first European Christian came to visit.
While life forms could appear to be crude and primitive to visitors, it is all a well tested organic structure that has survived more than 1000 years of history.
Narrow shopping streets
There are few streets in old Fez that do not have many shops. The basic shop is the tiny grocery store, where basic commodities like sugar, tea, tins, and Coca Cola can be bought. Often there will be shops selling goods needed by the local craftsmen. In slightly wider streets, the more typical touristic shop is found. But even this will often have a good part of its money coming in from local customers.
It has its name from the city Kairouan in Tunisia. Either there was a woman with the origin in Kairouan who established it, or it simply got its name from the quarter where immigrants of this town lived.
Kairouine mosque has been the center of Islamic learning in Morocco for more than 1000 years, but its real growth to importance came in the 10th and 12th centuries when most of its structures were added to the rather modest original structures.
As a mosque, it is rather unusual. Its large quarters have since long grown together with the rest of Fez, and unless you enter it, it is therefore almost impossible to get a grip of its real size. Fortunately, there are sometimes doors open that allow non-Muslims to look inside so that they can at least make a guess.
But even if you cannot enter the mosque, at least many of the Islamic schools that lie around it are open to visitors. The most famous of these is the Attarin madrasa.
As long as the gates are open, there will be nobody to prevent you from looking in. And a good number of the gates are open, too. By carefully noticing any good possibility, you should have a good chance to see both the main courtyard as well as the prayer halls (as on this photo).
Photographing appears to be well accepted, too, but you should try to avoid photographing individuals coming in or going out.
Around the Kairouine mosque, there are many madrasas — Islamic schools. The most famous of them is the Attain, right up the main street.
It was built in the early 14th century and excels in a beautiful bronze door and an elegant courtyard. The school has numerous examples of excellent detail work, in both marble, alabaster, and cedarwood.
Being among the most famed gates of Morocco, the Bab Boueloud is surprisingly young. It was built as late as 1913 and marked the completion of Fez el-Bali and Fez el-Jedid. The gate is strikingly beautiful, with the view from the outside as the most impressive.
Seeing the minarets and the houses through its opening mark an excellent introduction to Fez. As you enter the gate, note that the color of the mosaics change: the outside blue reflects the color of Fez, while the inside green is the color of Islam.
It is not only the gate that is of recent age. Most of the surrounding houses also belong to the 20th century. But it is easy to be fooled, as it looks much older.
Inside the clothes shop
Visiting some of the clothes shops of Fez is an experience that is worthwhile even if you’re not buying anything. Like this one, clothes in all colors and qualities hang from every possible spot as high as the ceiling.
Long sticks are easily available when you want to take a better look at the item that is 6 meters above you.
Dog’s life for a mule
Animal friends could easily find themselves shocked from what they see around Fez. There is little in Fez that secures the situation of the animals. Hence the donkeys and mules are loaded to the maximum before the journey around the narrow and often steep streets of Fez begins.
While the tanning is not considered much of a job by most Fassis, the people who bring in skins into town, remove the hair and fur and bring it out to the tanners’ quarter are still a step or two down on the ladder from the tanners.
As you walk into their funduq where the skins are sorted, no happy face will look up at you. And just like subdued convicts none of them will stop you from photographing. But still, you get a clear feeling that your photo angles should be made so that no face is revealed: even people who don’t object openly deserve to have their privacy protected.
Suuq Dabbaghin, or the tanners’ quarter, is situated no more than 50 meters away from the Kairouine mosque. That is quite surprising since tanning is considered to be an unclean activity and should therefore be as far away as possible from the main mosque. The reason for this proximity might just be that both were located here in times when Fez was no more than a small town.
The tanners’ quarter has become one of Fez’s main attractions. The reason comes from the platform where you can look down on the entire area, and see how the process is done, and enjoy watching the contrasts between the brownish honeycombs, the white houses, and the intense colors of the dye.
There is not much left from the Merenid tombs anymore, here to the north of the city near the Bab el-Guissa. But the view over the city, as well as the knowledge that the Merenid rulers were central in making Fez the cultural and religious capital of Morocco, will make the visit worthwhile.
Fez is like the city version of the rule that if you are the youngest of siblings, you will always be the little one. Even now, more than 700 years after it was begun this new Fez is still “new”, or “jedid” in Arabic.
The new Fez was a planned city, ordered constructed by the Merenids. It took only 3 years to build, finished by 1273. The administration of the Merenids could operate in safety from the Fassis, who objected strongly to the new dynasty.
In the 14th century, the Mellah or Jewish ghetto was built right to the west, and inside the same city walls. With the next dynasty, that of the Saadians, el-Jedid fell into decline. In the 20th century, the French turned large parts of the el-Jedid into a red light district. Today, the el-Jedid has an empty feeling to it, there are considerably fewer people in the streets and far less shops than in both The modern town and Bali.
|The Mellah has its name from the Arabic word for salt, “melh”, and is the Jewish quarter which now to a large degree is abandoned and taken over by rural Moroccan immigrants. The area had its own architecture which principally took its shape in bays and windows which often could be beautifully adorned, a qualkity that was quite striking compared to the plain white walls of the houses in which they were placed.
A shop keeper in the Mellah district who uses all available space for his display of goods.
The Mellah was not always such a nice place to live, as certin rulers of Fez at times imposed ghetto regulations. This served a both as protection and enclosure. While their rights inside the Mellah were good and safe, the Jews of Fez experienced hard limitations outside: they could not wear shoes or ride on horse or donkey.
The main attractions around the Mellah are the windos and some few synagoges. The Habanim synagogue is now being developed into a museum of Jewish lifestyles.
The Royal Palace
The Royal Place is closed to all visitors these days – which is sad because it is in little use and has a reputation of being among the mot elegant structures of Morocco. As it is today. there is little on offer except the views you get through the few open gates. Also there are the decorations around the gates, which give some indications on what is on display inside.
—«They are the best, because their fingers are so small.» We were 4 young tourists who were slightly shocked when the “most famous carpet seller in Fez” (I have forgotten his name now) exhibited his factory and started to explain the low age of his labour. But considering the vast amount of carpets for sale in his shop, these 3 little girls can hardly be his only source for carpets.
Whenever you walk around Morocco, you will see mosaics of different qualities. These guys cut out the smallest tiles, but until water is used for washing no color will be visible.
The reel specialist
One of the more typical characeristics of Moroccan business iife is the high number of specialist shops. This shop sells only reels, and that is all he sells. And next to his shop there are more reel specialists
The river of Fez
The river of Fez is the life source of this city. If the stories told of the city’s foundation are true, Moulay Idriss I had his men sent out to search for the best location of a new central city.
Where Fez was founded, the rivers were full and life appeared to have a good chance. Today, the river runs through the city with houses on both sides, and if you are not careful you could easily overlook the river. It is however visible from the bridge that crosses it all through Fez.
The modern town
Dave Bowles makes quite a point in his mid-1950’s The Spider’s House that when the French built the modern town they chose an impossible location. That it was a place without protection against the summer sun, nor the winter winds.
Still, the modern town has survived and is a popular place both with locals as with foreigners. It has plenty of charm, good shopping, good restaurants and plenty of hotels of all standards.
Middle class summer
In the summer, Fez can easily become very hot. With a geographical position between the mountains in a place where there is hardly any wind nor rain, temperatures quickly pass 40ºC before noon.
The solution for anyone with some money, but not quite enough to spend their holidays out near the sea or to go abroad, is to pass entire days in swimming pool clubs.
There are several of them around Fez, and these are good places to meet normal Moroccans who often are fluent in more Western languages than French.
al Andalous (t. 035 648262)
Lamrani (t. 035 634411)
Batha (t. 035 741077)
Dar el-Ghalia (t. 035 634167)
Maghreb (t. 035 621567)
Amor (t. 035 622724)
Olympic (t. 035 932682)
Menzeh Fes (t. 035 943847)
Crown Palace (t. 035 948000)
Hotels and alternatives
People traveling on budgets will find good offers all over Fez, and this is one of the cities where recommendations is a bit superfluous, but many prefer to stay in a hotel in the modern parts of town. Most of the better hotels lie in the modern city, but you find a couple of good places inside the walls, too.
Restaurants and alternatives
Excellent. Fez has some of Morocco’s finest restaurants, but you should not let simple, popular restaurants and food stalls untried: they often have the very, very best there is of tasty, if unsophisticated, food.
Fez, and then we concentrate on the modern city has some nightlife, oriented to night clubs and bars. Night clubs are somewhat seedy and are more about prostitution than going out and having fun.
Every opportunity is available. Good on banks, and there are many ATMs available too. Larger hotels will change money, even for non-residents. Traveler’s checks can cause problems, but Fez is still a much better place to find banks that provide service for these.
Excellent connections for both train, buses, and taxis, but the size of Fez will often make you travel by a bus inside the city to get from or to the station.