Fez-The Queen of North African Cities
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
“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 who went on to describe this historic and intellectual heart of Morocco as the `Queen of Cities’ and `Jewel of North Africa’.
Fez, declared by UNESCO a part of the world’s heritage, is the oldest of Morocco’s four Imperial Cities – the others being Meknes, Marrakesh, and Rabat. Idriss II descendant of the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad laid its foundation stone in the first part of the 9th century. At its founding, it is said that Idriss lifted up his hands saying, “O God! Might this town be one of science and learning and might it be the place where Your Book (Qur’an) be recited and Your Commandants respected.”
His prayer must have been heard for from its inception, it became known as the `City of Islam’ and the leading center 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 and Moorish-Andalusian style homes and public buildings were added on an on-going basis. Many of these, tarnished with age, still stands.
Modern Fez or Fes, with 1,000,000 inhabitants, is divided into three sections: Fez el-Bali, the original city; 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 as it is commonly called, el-Medina, is the mecca for visitors traveling to this historic city.
Inside its ancient walls, the largest medina in the Arab world has been preserved almost intact. The only concessions to the 21st century are electricity and the styles of clothing. No vehicles are allowed to enter within its ramparts. Hence, the dense traffic-caused pollution found in old towns, and the noises produced by modern machines are non-existent. As was the case in the Middle Ages, through its 300 km (186 MI) of streets, donkeys, mules, and humans do all the transport and labor. No other urban center 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 mouth-watering aroma of freshly baked bread carried on the heads of women and children, intermingle with the smells of the foods being offered in 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 some beautiful 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. At times, one has to leap into doorways to avoid a collision. Amazingly, in spite of the masses of humanity, the streets are empty of refuse – they are cleaned twice daily.
The heart of the city is a kaleidoscope of colors, noise, sights, and smells. Every turn of a street hides a surprise. Craftsmen making and selling huge copper and iron pots for cooking couscous and tajine, two of Morocco’s favorite dishes, soon replace the pyramids of heavenly smelling spices and all types of olives and peppers. Nearby, men dye silk, cotton and woolen threads in innumerable colors. A short distance away at the foul-smelling tanneries visitors can watch the tanners producing the famous Moroccan leather from which are made a myriad of tourist-appealing articles.
Should visitors become thirsty, they can stop for a drink at one of the exquisitely tiled fountains found throughout the Medina. This will refresh them for the exploration of 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 Najarian, 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 Quranic school in Morocco; Madrasas El-Najarian – now a museum and El-Attarine, masterpieces of Merinid art; and an endless number of magnificent ancient homes. Each is an architectural treasure, bringing to mind the mysterious and colorful life of the East.
After exploring this fairytale ancient town, it becomes apparent to a visitor why Fez continues to be Morocco’s center of culture and religion. A truly imperial city considered the country’s jewel, it lies modestly behind its ramparts. Called by some the ‘wonderful city of Islam’ and by others ‘the most brilliant center of intellectual radiance in the world’, it knows more than any other urban center how to tantalize, then hypnosis its guests. Without a doubt, visitors will not have savored Morocco unless Fez is included in their plans.