Exploring Old Fez, Morocco

Fez Morocco was our next stop. Founded in 789, it is the oldest of Morocco’s imperial cities and the country’s historic and religious capital. Created by the fusion of two cities on either side of the river, it became the country’s de facto economic and imperial capital from the 12th through 16th centuries–the period when many of its grandest structures were built. The city fell into a long decline beginning in 1666, when the city was captured by the Alaouites who chose Meknes (see our upcoming post on Meknes) as its capital, largely abandoning Fez.

Its fortunes began to somewhat improve in the early 20th century under the International (almost exclusively French) Protectorate. The French presence, however, was a very mixed blessing for the city. On one hand, the French did build hospitals, schools, roads and rail systems. The also built Ville Nouvelle, the modern section of Fez. On the other hand, since Fez arose as a hotbed for resistance to the French “occupation”, France closed the city’s universities (the source of much discontent). Even the creation of Ville Nouvelle had ill effects, in that it prompted people with money to leave old town, resulting in further deterioration. This, however, did prevent buildings from being torn down.

Fortunes began to reverse for Old Town and the royal city in 1981, when UNESCO declared Fez’s medina a World Heritage Site and began a concerted restoration program. This not only brought in international money, it also prompted locals and private investors from other countries to resurrect grand old structures.

The city is divided into three primary sections:

  • Fez el-Bali, which is its historic core, built from the 8th century;
  • Fez el-Jehid, the royal city to the west of the historic town, which was constructed primarily during the early years of the city’s Imperial period from the 13th through 16th centuries, centuries; and
  • Ville Nouvelle (New Town) which was built by the Protectorate in the early 20th century.

Our focus, of course, was on the first two.

Fez el-Bali: The City’s Historic Core

The bulk of the city’s primary historic sites are in Fez el-Bali, the historic medina. Many are concentrated along and near two streets:

  • Rue Talaa Keira (The Great Climb), the medina’s primary commercial street, is lined with shops and leads to a number of souks;
  • Rue Talaa (The Short Climb), the other of the medina’s main streets, which generally runs parallel to Rue Talaa Keira.

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Visiting the Souks

The souks are among the most interesting of the medina’s attractions. These commercial areas used to be strictly divided into groups in accordance with the specific trade or the types of goods being sold. Although this strict traditional segmentation has faded, many merchants still do cluster in common sections. Among the more interesting are those selling spices, silks, ceremonial dresses (which are worn with matching slippers, belts and accessories from neighboring stalls), fabrics (which they are happy to show you and explain the hand weaving process) and nougats and honeyed desserts (which tend to attract more bees than people).

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We have however, been to many souks before. Seeing the same types of shops selling the same types of products can get a bit old. The Fez souk, however, is one of the nicer ones in which to just wander around and get lost. And, if you end up buying too much to carry, you can even hire a donkey taxi to carry any manner of goods from one location to another.

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This being said, a few destinations should not be missed. These include souks dedicated to:

  • Carpentry, where craftspeople make and rent elaborate (often big, flamboyant and gaudy white) furniture for weddings and other celebrations. There are also displays of other types of furniture that can be custom made and even small, rather plain and cramped women’s coffins (while men are just wrapped in shrouds, women are buried in coffins as a sign of respect).

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  • Metalworking (in Place el-Seffrine) in which brass, copper, silver and tin products are hand-formed, hand shaped and decorated (as by using hammers to provide decorative denting) and hand finished;

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  • Henna market, which is built in the first psychiatric hospital in the world (from 1286) and where the shops were once patient rooms. We learned about the desert plant from which henna is derived, the various ways in which it is used (especially hair dye and temporary tattoos) and how it is supposed to bring good luck. The market also sells other natural cosmetics, such as mascara which comes from a shiny, very dense metal (antimony), amber (which is used for perfume), argan oil (different types used for skin care and for cooking) and olive soap (which both cleans and moisturizes the skin)

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  • Traditional medicine, where the naturalist doctor is happy to explain which herbs and which oils should be used for different maladies and also, which can be used as natural perfumes and natural coloring agents.

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  • Combs, where you can watch the few remaining craftsman hand-carve combs from cow horn.

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Fez el-Bali, however, is about more than souks. It also has some of the city’s most historic and beautiful buildings. Among the most important of these are:

  • Fondouk el-Nejjarine, an 18th-century hotel, restaurant and storage facility for merchants who came from afar to trade in Fez’s markets. The UNESCO-restored building now houses a museum with displays devoted to carpentry (the souk in which it is located). These include different type of wood and carpentry tools and, of much greater interest to us, examples of beautiful furniture and artistically-carved decorative pieces.

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  • Karaouiyine Mosque, which is the oldest (established in 859) and one of the most cherished mosques in the Western Arab world, also housed one of the country’s first universities. Although it is open only to Muslims, it is possible to at least get a picture from the front entrance.

Karaouine Mosque

  • Zaouia of Moulay Idriss II, which houses the tomb of the founder of Fez And the first king of Morocco, is the most sacred site in the country. Although not open to non-Muslims, you can see some of the exterior’s rich carving and beautiful tilework as well as a number of views inside, including the beautiful marble ablution fountain and even part of the tomb itself.
  • El-Attarine Medersa, which was built in the early 14th century, is a showplace of Moorish architecture with its ornate entrance, tiled courtyard, carved limestone (mixed with marble dust), decorative door, fountain, and beautiful prayer hall (mihrab) into which the Iman speaks so his voice can be heard through the hall. We also learned from our guide how each geometric pattern and every color (within the Muslim geometric/calligraphic/floral decorative pattern) has a different meaning in a symbolic art form where figuration is not permitted.
  • Bou Inania Medersa, the largest and most lavishly decorated of Morocco’s medersas, it was built in the mid-14th century. In addition to the school, the complex also has its own mosque and student’s quarters, all organized around a marble and onyx courtyard and surrounded by a cloister. Among its most impressive features—in addition to its sheer scale, are its tile, stucco and carved wood façade, its minaret, its interior tilework (with geometric, cursive and stucco designs), carved wooden screens and especially its mihrab.

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And the further east are two other sections of the old, historic area. The Andalusian Quarter, which is on the eastern bank of the river, is more working class, residential and less renovated than the section to its west and, since youth drug usage can make it more dangerous, we were advised not to go. We could not, however, miss another section that is perfectly safe to visit, but whose odors do keep some away.

  • The Tanners’ Quarter is an important economic center that is removed from the city’s other commercial and well-to-do residential areas due to the smell (and boy does it smell). We visited one of six of the city’s primary tanneries and had an overview of yet another large one that is currently being built.

We saw and learned the entire tanning process starting with the raw skins, recently removed from cows, goats and so forth just arriving at the tannery, being soaked in salt water to keep the skins from decomposing. They are then soaked for three days in vats of water and lime to allow the hair to be easily removed. Once the skins are washed in a giant revolving tank, the hair is removed with a sharp knife (the only part of the process we weren’t allowed to photograph). They are then tanned by being soaked in vats with ammonia (especially from pigeon droppings) to soften the leather, after which they are rinsed and then thrown into vats of appropriately colored vegetable dye an then hung or placed on a roof in the sun to dry.

From there, the skins are transported (especially on donkey) to leather crafters who cut and sew the leather to make the various goods that are displayed so prominently in shops throughout the souk.

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While in Old Town, we also made one other can’t miss stop. In the middle of what used to be the Jewish section of old town is a riad (a mansion with a garden in the center courtyard) that was the home of a prominent rabbi in the Old City’s Jewish district. The building has since been converted into an amazing antique store (Ali’s Art Gallery). The building itself has been beautifully renovated.

The gallery’s products, however, are even more beautiful than the building itself. It is filled with Moroccan, Arabian, Judaic and Berber (especially jewelry and woven rugs) antiques. It has amazing carved chests, inlaid furniture (including an amazing side table that can be converted into chess or backgammon board (both pieces of art) or even a felt-covered card table. Then there were lovely camel-bone carvings. Although the antiques may not be your style, you can’t help but to appreciate their artistry, their craftsmanship and their beauty.

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Our next blog will explore “New” Fez.

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