Unlike Fez el Bali, whose development and growth seems to have been almost organic, Fez el Jedid (“New Fez”) was a planned city, built by the Merenids at the beginning of their rule, under Sultan Abou Youssef in 1276, as a practical and symbolic seat of government.
The chronicles present the Merenids’ decision to site their city some distance from Fez el Bali as a defence strategy, though this would seem less against marauders than to safeguard the new dynasty against the Fassis themselves – and it was only in the nineteenth century that the walls between the old and new cities were finally joined. It was not an extension for the people in any real sense, being occupied largely by the vast royal palace of Dar el Makhzen and a series of garrisons. This process continued with the addition of the Mellah – the Jewish ghetto – at the beginning of the fourteenth century; forced out of Fez el Bali after one of the periodic pogroms, the Jews provided an extra barrier (and scapegoat) between the sultan and his Muslim faithful, not to mention a source of ready income conveniently located by the palace gates.
The Jews of Fez
The Jews of Fez
The enclosed and partly protected position of the Mellah fairly accurately represents the historically ambivalent position of Moroccan Jews. Arriving for the most part with compatriot Muslim refugees from Spain and Portugal, they were never fully accepted into the nation’s life. Yet nor were they quite rejected as in other Arab countries. Inside the Mellah, they were under the direct protection of the sultan (or the local caïd) and maintained their own laws and governors.
Whether the creation of a ghetto ensured the actual need for one is debatable. Certainly, it greatly benefited the reigning sultan, who could depend on Jewish loyalties and also manipulate the international trade and finance that they came to dominate in the nineteenth century. But despite their value to the sultan, even the richest Jews led extremely circumscribed lives. In Fez before the French Protectorate, no Jew was allowed to ride or even to wear shoes outside the Mellah, and they were severely restricted in their travels elsewhere.