Exploring “New” Fez, Morocco

 Fez el-Jehid: Fez’s “New” Royal City

Fez el-Jehid, as mentioned above, is called “New Fez” despite its being nearly eight centuries old. Time, after all, is relative in a 12 century-old city. It came about when the Merinids Dynasty established Fez as the country’s imperial city in the 13th century. It created a new town west of the old city to house the royal family, political and administrative elites and the military. A large square and tall ramparts were built to separate—and also to protect—these elites from the rest of the population then housed in the Old Town. The area was enhanced through the 16th century, when the country was conquered and the new rulers moved the capital to Mekenes (see our next post).

Transitioning from Old to New Fez

New Fez is reached from the western end of the “Great Climb”. You leave Old Fez (Fez el-Bali) by passing through the monumental Bab Boujeloud (or Blue) gate and the large square, Place Pacha el-Baghdadi which lies behind high walls that have been reconstructed after being largely destroyed in a 1755 earthquake. The Moorish-style gate consists of three symmetrical arches and elaborate geometric, calligraphic and floral decorations and glazed tiles—green on one side and blue on the other.

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Beyond the gate is the large Place Pacha el-Baghdadi, which is lined with reconstructed crenulated city walls (rebuilt atop their original, pre-earthquake foundations) and gates on all sides. The Place itself is currently divided into two primary sections: one is a big parking lot. The other is a place in which individuals are able to set up tables, racks, blankets or whatever else they wish to display virtually any goods they wish to sell. These ranged from a man selling a small selection of used tools to those with tables piled with big stacks of clothes, with no seeming rhyme nor order to what was where.

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Then, wandering out the west gate, we managed to find ourselves in the middle of what appeared to be a wedding celebration, with man and woman surrounded by people bearing celebration ornaments and others playing instruments. We’re not sure who they were or exactly what they were doing, but it looked like they were having fun.

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New Fez

New Fez is reached through a gate on the opposite end of the square. When you enter this gate, you reach a large, lovely garden that combines both ornamental and natural spaces.

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Since this section was built primarily for royalty, it isn’t surprising that it contains some of the city’s grandest buildings. especially:

  • Dar el-Mahkzen, the 200–acre sultan’s palace, which is surrounded by walls and entered through a huge, ornate Moorish gate with engraved bronze doors, is still used as the royal residence when the king is in town. Inside are an array of administrative and military buildings aligned around large courtyards, a mosque, medersa and gardens. Outside, it remains so private that you can’t even take a picture of the gate.
  • Palace Dar el-Bartha (now an ethnographic museum), is a large Moorish building with a tiled courtyard, impressive fountain and pretty garden. The museum houses a wide selection of Moroccan crafts including ceramics, leather products, woven and embroidered cloth, carved wood (including, of course, doors), furniture, ancient books and manuscripts and art.

Old New Town, consists of much more than ancient palaces. The current area, which has gone through many iterations since it was built by and for the royal family, administrators and the military, is divided into three primary quarters: the

  • Western royal quarter, with its palaces and administrative buildings;
  • Eastern Muslim Quarter, and the
  • Southern Jewish Quarter.

The Royal Quarter, which includes, but is separated from the palace by walls and two gateways, includes a military parade grounds and two mosques.

The Muslim Quarter, which is surrounded by yet another wall with two gates, is connected to Old Town by Grande Ruede Fes el-Jedid, the Quarter’s main road, which serves as the main street of the area’s medina. While it has the same type of shops as Old Town’s medina, the street is much wider and less crowded and is largely covered by a wooden lattice roof. It is also surrounded by a maze of narrow residential streets, a number of which are packed with street vendors selling all types of fresh food.

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The Jewish Quarter, known as the Mellah, was the first Jewish enclave in Morocco, which was located close to the palace to protect its inhabitants (in return for a fee), was a relatively self-contained community that was generally organized, like the Muslim Quarter, by craft. Since the space allotted to Jews was limited, the buildings are generally taller, narrower and are built around smaller courtyards than those of the Muslim Quarter. Another section of the Jewish Quarter, particularly on and around Rue Boukhessissat, which was home to more well-to-do Jews, consists of larger homes that are more ore consistent with each other in style.

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Although relatively few Jews remain in the Jewish Quarter (or in all of Fez for that matter), it is still home to:

  • The Danan Synagogue, with an associated Jewish cemetery.
  • The section’s primary Jewelry Souk, which is primarily along one road (Rue des Merinides).

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The northern exit of Fez el-Jehid is marked with a 17th-century Kasbah that protected the city from and provided a gateway to trading towns to the north, including Meknes.

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