"Fez! In you is gathered all the beauties of the world.
How many are the blessings and riches that you bestow on your inhabitants."
Thus wrote a Moroccan poet describing this historic and intellectual heart of Morocco as the `Queen of Cities' and `Jewel of North Africa'.
Fez is the oldest of Morocco's four Imperial Cities - the others being Meknes, Marrakesh and Rabat. Idris I founded the city in 789 on the right side of the Fez River. His son Idris II, built a settlement on the opposite side in the early 9th century, the two sides becoming one in the 11th.
Fez became known as the `City of Islam' and the leading centre of culture and religious learning in North and West Africa. In the subsequent centuries, especially under the Almoravide, Almohade and above all the Merinid Dynasties, mosques, madrasas (schools), palaces, Moorish-Andalusian style homes and public buildings were continually added. Many of these, tarnished with age, still stand.
Modern Fez, with approximately 1,400,000 inhabitants, is divided into three sections: Fez el-Bali, the original city and medina, Fez Medina declared in 1981 by UNESCO, a World Heritage Site; Fez Jedid, constructed in the 13th century by the Merinids; and Ville Nouvelle with broad avenues and modern buildings, built after the French occupation in 1912. Each one of these quarters has its own character, but Fez el-Bali or more popularly, el-Medina, is the mecca for visitors travelling to this historic city.
Within its ancient walls, the largest medina in the Arab world has been preserved almost intact, conceding only to 21st century electricity and style of clothing. No vehicles are allowed to enter within its ramparts, making it, unlike other cities and towns, devoid of car pollution. As well, noises produced by modern machines are non-existent. As in its medieval times, through its 300 km (186 mi) of twisting streets, donkeys, mules and humans do all the transport and labour. No other urban centre in the world has kept so well its original character.
The choice place to enter the old city is Bab Bou Jeloud, an ornate portal built in 1913 – some half million shoppers enter the Medina every day through this and the other gates. It is the most famous portal in the walls of Fez el-Bali. Guides claim that it is photographed more than any other spot in the city.
First time visitors should hire a guide from among the men and boys at the gate to take them through the maze of narrow streets and alleyways. Plunging into a cauldron of activity that has changed very little since the Middle Ages, a visitor is soon seduced by the Fez el-Bali's charms. Small workshops with craftsmen at their trade seem to leap from the Arabian Nights. Out of the Medina's quarter million inhabitants, at least 30,000 are artisans.
Each souk has its own trade and one can see everywhere fathers teaching sons their vocation. It is a show that never ends. Seeing the new generations at work gives one the feeling that the 21st century factories will not erase the age-old handiwork of Morocco.
All over the labyrinth of winding narrow streets, never touched by the wheel, the enticing aroma of fresh baked bread carried on the heads of women and children, intermingle with the smells of foods from the tiny restaurants as well as that of freshly roasted peanuts and chickpeas.
As visitors make their way through a thicket of humans toward the heart of the Medina, they can stop at stalls selling everything under the sun to examine beautiful leather purses and handmade carpets, then move on, making way in the few feet wide alleyways for loaded donkeys. The shout by the drivers, balak! (beware!) seems never-ending. Amazingly, the streets are empty of refuse - they are cleaned twice daily.
The heart of the city is a kaleidoscope of colours, sounds, sights and smells. Every turn of a street hides a surprise. Craftsmen making and selling traditional huge copper and iron pots for couscous and tajine, two of Morocco’s favourite dishes, soon replace the pyramids of heavenly smelling spices and all types of olives and peppers. Nearby, men dye silk, cotton and woollen threads in innumerable colours. A short distance away at the foul-smelling tanneries the tanners produce the famous Moroccan leather sold worldwide.
A cool drink to quench one’s thirst at one of the exquisitely tiled fountains found throughout the Medina is refreshing before exploring some of the historic monuments. From among these, the most famous are: the Qarawiyin, Morocco's holiest mosque and home of the world's first university in which a pope once studied; Al-Andalus Mosque, the second largest religious monument in the city; Place Najarine, the home of the most beautifully tiled fountain in Fez; the Mausoleum of Idriss II, which non-Muslims can only see from the outside; Madrasa Bou Inania, the best preserved Qur`anic school in Morocco; Madrasas El-Najarine – now a museum and El-Attarine, masterpieces of Merinid art; and an endless number of magnificent ancient homes, each an architectural treasure invoking the mysterious and colourful life of the East.
After exploring this fairytale ancient town, it becomes apparent why Fez continues to be Morocco's centre of culture and religion, considered ‘the most brilliant centre of intellectual radiance in the world'. Fez knows more than any other urban centre how to tantalize and hypnotize. Without doubt, visitors will not have savoured Morocco unless Fez is included in their plans.
Habeeb Salloum, M.S.M.
FEZ QUEEN OF NORTH AFRICAN CITIES
by Habeeb Salloum, M.S.M.