The oldest of Morocco’s four imperial capitals and the most complete medieval city of the Arab world, FEZ stimulates all the senses: a barrage of haunting and beautiful sounds, infinite visual details and unfiltered odours. It has the French-built Ville Nouvelle of other Moroccan cities – familiar and contemporary in looks and urban life – but a quarter or so of Fez’s one-million-plus inhabitants continue to live in the extraordinary Medina-city of Fez el Bali, which owes little to the West besides electricity and tourists. More than any other city in Morocco, the old town seems suspended in time somewhere between the Middle Ages and the modern world.

Like much of “traditional” Morocco, Fez was “saved” then recreated by the French, under the auspices of General Lyautey, the Protectorate’s first Resident-General. Lyautey took the philanthropic and startling move of declaring the city a historical monument; philanthropic because he certainly saved Fez el Bali from destruction (albeit from less benevolent Frenchmen), and startling because until then Moroccans were under the impression that Fez was still a living city – the imperial capital of the Moroccan empire rather than a preservable part of the nation’s heritage. More conveniently for the French, this paternalistic protection helped to disguise the dismantling of the old culture. By building a new European city nearby – the Ville Nouvelle, now the city’s business and commercial centre – then transferring Fez’s economic and political functions to Rabat and the west coast, Lyautey ensured the city’s eclipse along with its protection.

To appreciate the significance of this demise, you only have to look at the Arab chronicles or old histories of Morocco – in every one, Fez takes centre stage. The city had dominated Moroccan trade, culture and religious life – and usually its politics, too – since the end of the tenth century. It was closely and symbolically linked with the birth of an “Arabic” Moroccan state due to their mutual foundation by Moulay Idriss I, and was regarded as one of the holiest cities of the Islamic world after Mecca and Medina. Medieval European travellers described it with a mixture of awe and respect, as a “citadel of fanaticism” yet the most advanced seat of learning in mathematics, philosophy and medicine.

The decline of the city’s political position notwithstanding, Fassis – the people of Fez – continue to head most government ministries and have a reputation throughout Morocco as successful and sophisticated. What is undeniable is that they have the most developed Moroccan city culture, with an intellectual tradition and their own cuisine, dress and way of life.

Brief history

When the city’s founder, Moulay Idriss I, died in 791 AD, Fez was little more than a village on the east bank of the Oued Boukhrareb. It was his son, Idriss II, who really began the city’s development, at the beginning of the ninth century, by making it his capital and allowing in refugees from Andalusian Cordoba and from Kairouan in Tunisia – at the time, the two most important cities of western Islam. The impact of these refugees on Fez was immediate and lasting: they established separate, walled towns on either riverbank (still distinct quarters today), and provided the superior craftsmanship and mercantile experience for Fez’s industrial and commercial growth. It was at this time, too, that the city gained its intellectual reputation – the tenth-century Pope Sylvester II studied here at the Kairaouine University, technically the world’s first, where he is said to have learned the Arabic mathematics that he introduced to Europe.

The seat of government – and impetus of patronage – shifted south to Marrakesh under the Berber dynasties of the Almoravids (1062–1145) and Almohads (1145–1248). But with the conquest of Fez by the Merenids in 1248, and their subsequent consolidation of power across Morocco, the city regained its pre-eminence and moved into something of a “golden age”. Alongside the old Medina, the Merenids built a massive royal city – Fez el Jedid or New Fez – which reflected both the wealth and confidence of their rule. Continued expansion, once again facilitated by an influx of refugees, this time from the Spanish reconquest of Andalusia, helped to establish the city’s reputation as “the Baghdad of the West”.

After the fall of the Merenids, Fez became more isolated under the Saadians and Alaouites, and French colonial rule allowed the city little more than a provincial existence. Despite the crucial role the Fassis played in the struggle for independence (a time brought to life in Paul Bowles’ novel The Spider’s House), Mohammed V retained the French capital of Rabat, condemning the city to further decline. If UNESCO had not inscribed it onto their World Heritage list in 1981, it seems likely that much of the old city would have been threatened by extensive physical collapse.