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.
With its mosques, medersas and fondouks, back alleys crammed with goods-laden donkeys, and a mile-long labyrinth of souks, there are enough sights in Fez el Bali (Old Fez) to fill three or four days just trying to locate them. In this – the apparently wilful secretiveness – lies part of Fez’s fascination, and there is much to be said for Paul Bowles’ somewhat lofty advice to “lose oneself in the crowd – to be pulled along by it – not knowing where to and for how long…to see beauty where it is least likely to appear”. Do the same and you must be prepared to get really lost, but then that is half the fun – and it is all the more uplifting to stumble across the magnificent Medersa Bou Inania, or to unexpectedly find yourself on Rue Boutouail and realize that the courtyard you are peering into is that of the Kairaouine Mosque, the epicentre of religious life in Morocco.
Like its southern counterpart across the valley, the fortress of Borj Nord, perched on the hillside overlooking Bab Boujeloud, was built in the late sixteenth century by the Saadians to control the Fassis rather than to defend them. Carefully maintained, the borj now houses the country’s arms museum, full off daggers encrusted with stones and an interminable display of row upon row of muskets, most of them confiscated from the Riffians in the 1958 rebellion. The pride of place is a cannon 5m long and weighing twelve tonnes, said to be used during the Battle of the Three Kings. The main reason for coming up here, though, is for the commanding views across the Medina: a spectacular sweep of daily life that, together with the views from the Merenid tombs (a 500m walk round the hillside, along Avenue des Merenides), constitute the best panorama of the city.
There is no particular evidence that Moulay Idriss II was a very saintly marabout, but as the effective founder of Fez and son of the founder of the Moroccan state he has considerable baraka, the magical blessing that Moroccans invoke, and his moussem brings the city to a standstill. Originally, it was assumed that Idriss had been buried near Volubilis, like his father, but in 1308 an uncorrupted body was found on the spot where his zaouia now stands and the cult was launched. Presumably, it was an immediate success, since in addition to his role as the city’s patron saint, Idriss has an impressive roster of supplicants: this is the place to visit for poor strangers arriving in the city, for boys before being circumcised and for women wanting to facilitate childbirth – and for some long-forgotten reason, Idriss is also the protector of Morocco’s sweetmeat vendors.
If there is just one building you should seek out in Fez – or, not to put too fine a point on it, in Morocco – the Medersa Bou Inania should be it. The most elaborate, extravagant and beautiful of all Merenid monuments, immaculate after renovation, it comes close to perfection in every aspect of its construction: its dark cedar is fabulously carved, the zellij tilework classic, the stucco a revelation. In addition, the medersa is the city’s only building still in religious use that non-Muslims are permitted to enter.
Set somewhat apart from the other medersas of Fez, the Bou Inania was the last and grandest built by a Merenid sultan. It shares its name with the one in Meknes, which was completed (though not initiated) by the same patron, Sultan Abou Inan (1351–58), but the Fez version is infinitely more splendid. Its cost alone was legendary – Abou Inan is said to have thrown the accounts into the river on its completion because “a thing of beauty is beyond reckoning”.
At first, Abou Inan doesn’t seem the kind of sultan to have wanted a medersa – his mania for building aside, he was more noted for having 325 sons in ten years, deposing his father and committing unusually atrocious murders. The Ulema, the religious leaders of the Kairaouine Mosque, certainly thought him an unlikely candidate and advised him to build his medersa on the city’s rubbish dump, on the basis that piety and good works can cure anything. Whether it was this or merely the desire for a lasting monument that inspired him, he set up the medersa as a rival to the Kairaouine itself and for a while it was the most important religious building in the city. A long campaign to have the announcement of the time of prayer transferred here failed in the face of the Kairaouine’s powerful opposition, but the medersa was granted the status of a Grand Mosque – unique in Morocco – and retains the right to say the Friday khotbeh prayer.
The basic layout of the medersa is quite simple – a single large courtyard flanked by two sizeable halls (iwan) and opening onto an oratory – and is essentially the same design as that of the wealthier Fassi mansions. For its effect it relies on the mass of decoration and the light and space held within. You enter the exquisite marble courtyard, the medersa’s outstanding feature, through a stalactite-domed entrance chamber, a characteristic adapted from Andalusian architecture. From here, you can gaze across to the prayer hall (off-limits to non-believers), which is divided from the main body of the medersa by a small canal. Off to each side of the courtyard are stairs to the upper storey (closed to the public), which is lined by student cells.
In the courtyard, the decoration – startlingly well preserved – covers every possible surface. Perhaps most striking in terms of craftsmanship are the woodcarving and joinery, an unrivalled example of the Moorish art of laceria, “the carpentry of knots”. Cedar beams ring three sides of the courtyard and a sash of elegant black Kufic script wraps around four sides, dividing the zellij from the stucco, thus adding a further dimension; unusually, it is largely a list of the properties whose incomes were given as an endowment, rather than the standard Koranic inscriptions. Abou Inan is bountifully praised amid the inscriptions and is credited with the title caliph on the foundation stone, a vainglorious claim to leadership of the Islamic world pursued by none of his successors.
Medersas – student colleges and residence halls – were by no means unique to Fez. Indeed, they originated in Khorasan in northeastern Iran and gradually spread west through Baghdad and Cairo, where the Medersa al Azhar was founded in 972 AD and became the most important teaching institution in the Muslim world. They seem to have reached Morocco under the Almohads, although the earliest ones still surviving in Fez are Merenid, dating from the late thirteenth century.
The word medersa means “place of study”, and there may have been lectures delivered in some of the prayer halls. However, most medersas served as little more than dormitories, providing room and board to poor (male) students from the countryside, so that they could attend lessons at the mosques. In Fez, where students might attend the Kairaouine University for ten years or more, rooms were always in great demand and “key money” was often paid by the new occupant. Although medersas had largely disappeared from most of the Islamic world by the late Middle Ages, the majority of those in Fez remained in use right up into the 1950s. Non-Muslims were not allowed into the medersas until the French undertook their repair at the beginning of the Protectorate, and were banned again (this time by the colonial authorities) when the Kairaouine students became active in the struggle for independence.
Since then, restoration work, partly funded by UNESCO, has made medersas more accessible, although it will still be some while before all the work is complete – at the time of writing, for example, the Medersa es Seffarine and the Medersa es Sahrija were both closed for renovation. As restoration across the city continues, accessibility is impossible to predict.
There is a compulsive fascination about the tanneries Chouwara, the biggest in Fez and the most striking sight in the Medina. Every morning, when the tanneries are at their most active, cascades of water pour through holes that were once the windows of houses, hundreds of skins lie spread out on the rooftops to dry, while amid the vats of dye and pigeon dung (the white vats at the back), an unbelievably Gothic fantasy is enacted as tanners treat the hides. The rotation of colours in the honeycombed vats follows a traditional sequence – yellow (supposedly “saffron”, in fact turmeric), red (poppy), blue (indigo), green (mint) and black (antimony) – although vegetable dyes have largely been replaced by chemicals, to the detriment of workers’ health.
This “innovation” and the occasional rinsing machine aside, there can have been little change here since the sixteenth century, when Fez replaced Córdoba as the pre-eminent city of leather production. As befits such an ancient system, the ownership is also intricately feudal: the foremen run a hereditary guild and the workers pass down their specific jobs from generation to generation.
For all the stench and voyeurism involved, there is a kind of sensuous beauty about the tanneries. However, it is a guilty pleasure, as one glance across at the gallery of camera-touting foreigners snapping away will testify.
Up above Bab Guissa, the crumbling remnants of the Merenid tombs stand vigil over the sprawling Medina, a particularly atmospheric place at dawn or dusk, when the call to prayer sweeps across Fez el Bali. From this superb vantage point you can delineate the more prominent of Fez’s reputed 365 mosque minarets. At sunset, the sky swarms with a frenzy of starlings, egrets and alpine swifts adding further spectacle to the scene. All around you are spread the Muslim cemeteries that flank the hills on each side of Fez, while below, the city’s major monuments protrude from the hubbub of rooftops. The pyramid-shaped roof of the Zaouia of Moulay Idriss II is easily defined. To its left are the two minarets of the Kairaouine Mosque: Burj en Naffara or the Trumpeter’s Tower (the shorter of the two) and the original minaret. The latter, slightly thinner in its silhouette than usual and with an unusual whitewashed dome, is the oldest Islamic monument in the city, built in 956 AD.
The sounds of the city, the stillness and the contained disorder below all seem to make manifest the mystical significance that Islam places on urban life as the most perfect expression of culture and society.
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 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.
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.
Staying in Fez used to mean either comfort (and a reliable water supply) in modern Ville Nouvelle hotels or roughing it in the Medina hotels of Fez el Bali and Fez el Jedid. No longer. While the majority of hotels in Fez el Bali are still basic pensions, most of which could do with a makeover and better plumbing, the rise and rise of Fez’s riad scene means that there is plenty of class and character in renovated old-city palaces, if you are prepared to pay for it – though most riads have one smaller room available to suit restricted budgets. The group of backpacker hostels around Bab Boujeloud, though, remain an ideal launchpad from which to explore the old city’s sights and souks. As an alternative, the places in Fez el Jedid are within a 15min walk of Fez el Bali and less frequented by tourists (and hustlers). Space is at a premium in all categories, so be prepared for higher prices than usual and reserve in advance if possible.
Fez is the culinary capital of Morocco, and you should try pastilla, the great Fassi delicacy of pigeon pie, at least once during your stay. Eating options in Fez el Bali and Fez el Jedid have improved greatly in recent years, though outside the riads and the smarter palace-restaurants, they are generally on the basic side; this is a good place, though, to try street-stall snacks such as bisara soup, while the colourful fruit and veg market near Bab er R’cif (9am–1pm & 2–7pm; closed Fri) is worth a visit for its mounds of olives, dates and other nibbles. The Ville Nouvelle is home to most of Fez’s patisseries and modern (licensed) restaurants, and if you want to talk with Fassis on any basis other than guide or tout to tourist, your best chance will be in its numerous modern cafés – as the home of the city’s university, it’s also more likely that the students you meet here will be exactly that.
Wandering the lanes of Fez el Bali, you’ll notice whisps of steam swirling around metal cauldrons and carrying with them the tempting aroma of bisara, a thick fava-bean soup; vendors (try those near the start of Talâa Kebira) usually top it with a glug of local olive oil and a sprinkle of cumin. Braver souls may like to tackle the snail stands on the corner of Talâa Seghira and Derb el Horra, where safety pins constitute the cutlery – they’re used for plucking the little critters out of their softened shells. Another street snack worth trying is jben, an acidic white goat’s cheese that’s only vaguely removed from yoghurt; the stall on the corner of Talâa Seghira and Sidi Mohammed Belhaj proudly displays theirs stacked on dark green leaves.
It’s never going to be easy to replicate the rich and resounding flavours of Fassi cuisine in your kitchen back home, but knowing the right blend of spices to put into your tajine will make a real difference to your cooking, while whipping up a sweet pastilla pie should wow even the most discerning of dinner-party guests. Most cookery classes focus on a three-course menu and start with a visit to one of the Medina souks to pick up the necessary (fresh) ingredients. Some, such as Plan-It Fez, also include bread-making and the opportunity to bake your creation in a local farine (oven). Full-day cookery classes cost around 500dh to 600dh.
Several of Fez’s finest old mansions have been converted into palace restaurants, popular places, particularly with tour groups, for sampling (relatively) traditional cuisine in sublime surroundings. Some really do provide a Fassi banquet, but you’ll need to choose your “palace” carefully – the more elaborate the decor, the less, it seems, the need to worry about the quality of the cooking, and some menus are positively bland in comparison. The belly-dancing floor shows, musicians and, on occasion, staged “marriages” aren’t to everyone’s taste, especially when you’re paying a substantial surcharge for the privilege, but the whole package (usually around 300dh per person) can make for an entertaining evening
With a reputed 250 hammams sprinkled across the city, Fez is one of the best places in Morocco to join the locals in a long, relaxing hot bath, with a rigorous scrub-down thrown in for good measure. If you’re unfamiliar with the routine, it is best, especially for women, to ask someone at your hotel to escort you. Don’t forget to take your towel, soap, shampoo (or ghasoul, the fine-mud alternative) and swimsuit (or change of underwear). Several upscale riads have their own hammams and spas, which are more luxurious and less daunting, but also much pricer and, at the end of the day, not quite the same experience.
Fez is home to several important festivals and moussems, ranging from annual pilgrimages to week-long celebrations of Fassi cuisine. The focal point of the cultural calendar, though, is the nine-day-long Festival of World Sacred Music, a highly regarded gathering of global musicians that has produced spin-offs in the UK and North America.
Fez has a rightful reputation as the centre of Moroccan traditional crafts, but bear in mind that it also sees more tourists than almost anywhere bar Marrakesh. However much you bargain, rugs and carpets will probably be cheaper in Meknes, Azrou or Midelt, and although the brass, leather and cloth here are the best you’ll find, you will need plenty of energy, a good sense of humour and a lot of patience to get them at a reasonable price. Fassi dealers are expert hagglers – making you feel like an idiot for suggesting a ludicrously low price, jumping up out of their seats as if to push you out of the shop, or lulling you with mint tea and elaborate displays.
The red cylindrical hat with its black tassel, more correctly known as a Fassi tarbouche, is not only worn and manufactured in Fez but as far afield as Egypt and Syria. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the fez became associated with the Ottoman Empire and in some places it was donned as a mark of support, a gesture that led to it being banned by Kemal Atatürk when he took power in Turkey and abolished the empire. The fez is also going out of fashion in its home town, and tends to be worn only by older men – most young men now prefer the Tunisian chechia or baseball caps.
A pleasant day-trip for a swim and a hot bath, the spa village of Moulay Yacoub, 21km northwest of Fez, has been offering cures for the afflicted for centuries. Legend relates that the village was named either after Sultan Moulay Yacoub Ben Mansour – cured after his first bath, they say – or from the corruption of Aquae Juba, the spring of a local Berber king, Juba, who was envious of Roman hot baths. Either way, the hillside village’s fame is founded on its sulphur-rich spa waters, which are pumped from some 1500m below ground and reach temperatures of around 54˚C. Cars and taxis park at the top of the village, leaving you to descend flights of steps past stalls whose bathing goods add a chirpy resort atmosphere; the swimming pool (daily 6am–10pm; separate areas for men and women; 8dh) is near a square halfway down the hill.
The old thermal baths (baignoires or anciennes thermes) are a short walk beyond the swimming pool, and have a more medicinal purpose – albeit fairly basic to Western eyes. They’re usually busy, but you can enjoy a hot bath on your own (baignoire individuelle) or with a friend. Massage and jacuzzi are also available, while the masseurs in the thermal baths can put you through your paces with a hammam-style scrub. Beware that both facilities – baths and pool – are only cleaned once a week on Monday evening, so you’re probably best not swimming that afternoon.
Much more upmarket than the old thermal baths, the Thermes de Moulay Yacoub is a spa for serious medical treatment – mostly rheumatism and respiratory problems – and serious self-indulgence that is as exclusive as it gets in Morocco. Not surprisingly, prices rise accordingly, though they do include a bathrobe and towel. The main reason to come, however, is that the main pool is mixed – a rare chance for couples to bathe together.