It was everything I’d imagined it to be, and more.
When travellers claim no journey to Morocco is truly complete without a halt in the Kingdom’s oldest imperial city, it is no hogwash.
Fiercely spiritual and traditional. A centre for learning with the world’s oldest university. Yet fearless when it comes to voicing contradictory ideas.
Here the arts and crafts thrive, unhindered and unadulterated, as they have for 1,200 years. At the peak of the Almohad empire in the 12th Century AD, Fes had 372 mills, 9,082 shops, 47 soap factories, and 188 pottery workshops. But Fes is also politically voracious.
Its nine thousand alleyways are notorious as a place guaranteed to get lost in. Even locals claim they stick to the lanes they are familiar with.
Enigmatic and mysterious, it has secrets it does not divulge to the casual feet and eye.
Fes traces itself back to a 789 AD city plan drawn up by Idriss I, a descendant of Prophet Mohammed and founder of Morocco’s first imperial dynasty, the Idrisid Dynasty. But he died before he could see his plans through and it was up to his son Idriss II to fulfil his father’s wishes in 809 AD. For this, Fes remembers the son tenderly. His tomb in the heart of Fes el-Bali, the old walled city, attracts devout followers to this day.
Fes also traces itself back to 8,000 Muslim refugee families from Spain and Portugal, and Arab families from Tunisia, both of whom decided to make Fes their home that same century. The two cultures and their coming together laid the foundation of Fes’ identity from that point onward.
Though Fes’ fortunes changed with the rise and fall of subsequent dynasties [it became an imperial capital only once again under the Merenids (1244 – 1465 AD)], one thing remained constant. Its role as Morocco’s spiritual capital and seat of learning and culture.
To be indigenous to the old city of Fes meant, and still means, to be more religious, cultured, artistic, and refined than regular Moroccan folks. Almost as if to prove this belief right, Morocco’s intellectual and economic elite have traditionally hailed from here.
Of all the places I visited in Morocco, historical Fes, a UNESCO-listed heritage site, will always remain the most deeply etched in my memories. Comprising the 9th Century old walled city of Fes el-Bali, 13th Century Fes Jdid or “new city” with the Royal Palace, and Jewish Mellah, its very air is distinct.
Fes can be confusing too. There are so many experiences it holds in its folds. So, here’s what not to miss and what makes the Fes travel experience different from any other. They made my stay memorable. Perhaps they will do the same for you. Happy travelling. ❤
1. Enjoy a breathtaking view [with a difference] of Fes el-Bali from Borj Sud
What better way to kickstart one’s travels in Fes than a perfect view of the old city from high up in the surrounding hills. Helps to put it in geographical context. There are numerous viewpoints for this: Borj Nord and Borj Sud, both military towers built by the Saadian Sultan Ahmed Al Mansour in 1582, and the Merenid Tombs. My favourite though is Borj Sud. What does it have that is different? A graveyard. Rows and rows of graves covered in bright blue, green, and white tiles tumble down the slope of the hill while Fes el-Bali shimmers in the background.
2. Discover local life in the labyrinthine lanes of Fes el-Bali, the walled old city
One of the top attractions of Fes is Fes el-Bali, the world’s largest pedestrian-only urban space, with its convoluted lanes guaranteed to get you lost in no time. Though high on the things-to-do-in-Fes list, it is still first-and-foremost a residential area where local Fassis [Fes residents] live, work, shop, and pray and have done so for the past 1,200 years. There are currently around 150,000 Fassis inside the UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site. No trip to Fes is complete without exploring its maze of lanes which offer tantalizing insights into local Fassi life. Want to have a camel head or fresh snails for dinner like a Fassi? This is the perfect place to do your grocery shopping.
3. Shop till you drop for Morocco’s finest handicrafts in its 9,000 alleyways
The indigenous Moroccan goodies clamoured into Fes el-Bali’s tiny shops are all handmade by traditional artisans and community cooperatives merely a few yards away. Whether it be the perfect pair of leather babouches, Morocco’s old-style footwear handmade with leather from the local tanneries, or filigree lanterns in brass, copper, steel and iron, or woven rugs filled with patterns and colours, each with a story to tell—Fes’ souks never disappoint a shopper.
4. Spend a few moments in quiet reflection inside untouristy 17th Century Medersa Acharatine
Medersa Acharatine is relatively new in Fes’ old walled city. It is just 300 years old. Taller and less ornate than older medersas in Morocco, its stucco and cedar wood lattice work surrounding Moorish arches are one of the finest. The lack of tourists also makes it most likely you’ll be the only one within its walls. Take the stairs up and poke into the classrooms and lodging. Sit down for a few moments and let the magic of quietude wrap around you. You just might hear echoes of the squealing children, who once scampered around the courtyard centuries ago, across the ambit of time.
5. Smell the stench of Fes’ iconic Chaouara Tanneries
You will most likely be given a wisp of mint as you approach one of the many balconies of leather shops which overlook the Chaouara Tanneries. Fes’ most iconic sight is as surreal as it is pungent. Medieval buildings enclose a monumental paint palette filled with natural dyes and softening agents using a manual process unchanged since medieval times. Animal hides are first soaked in various mixtures of cow urine, pigeon potty, lime, salt, and water for two to three days after which they are soaked in natural dyes. Indigo for blue, henna for orange, poppy for red. Once dried in the sun they are ready to be transformed into leather products, soft as silk and vibrant with colour.
6. Stroll around Al-Nejjarine Square with lunch at Restaurant Ryad Nejjarine
If you blink you could miss it! A tiny asymmetrical rectangle near one of the 13 medina exits, the historic Nejjarine Square is steeped in medieval charm. On one edge is the 19th Century zellige-clad traditional public fountain or saqayya for caravans—Fontaine Nejjarine. On the other is the 17th Century Nejjarine Fondouk or Inn of the Carpenters, once a traditional inn, and now the Nejjarine Museum of Wooden Arts and Crafts.
The stunning Restaurant Ryad Nejjarine in a narrow lane leading out of the Square is a 19th Century Riad converted into a restaurant. It is also one of Fes’ most popular eateries. Do try the kofta tagine. Lip-smacking delicious would be an understatement.
7. Explore the esoteric spiritual centre of Fes
Deep in the heart of Fes el-Bali is a group of mosques and mausoleums clustered together. This precinct is the spiritual centre, not just of Fes, but of Morocco itself. Though the edifices are closed to non-Muslims, and it is hard to say where one ends and the other begins, you can get a peek inside when their doors briefly open.
The holiest of holy is the zawiya [shrine] of the founder and patron saint of Fes, Idriss II [791 – 828 AD], a descendent of the Prophet Mohammed. Close by, is one of the largest mosques in Africa and the oldest university in the world, Kairaouine Mosque and University. They were both set up in 859 AD by Fatima el Fihria, a Tunisian refugee woman, and enlarged under the Almoravids [early-12th Century AD]. 20,000 people in prayer can be seated inside the mosque. And lastly, there is the zawiya of Ahmad al-Tijani, founder of the Sufi Tijani order in the 1780s. The order is very popular in West Africa accounting for the large number of pilgrims from sub-Saharan countries in its vicinity.
8. Marvel at the glorious decorative elements of 14th Century Medersa Bou Inania
The magnificent 14th Century Medersa Bou Inania was built by the Merenid Sultan Abu Inan Faris in 1351 – 56 AD. It is part of Kairaouine University’s residential colleges and an oasis of calm plonk in the middle of the chaos which typifies Fes el-Bali. Unlike other medersas, it contains an entire mosque replete with a green-tiled tower looming over Fes’ huddled lanes. A black belt of ceramic tile mosaic around the entire courtyard in Arabic script extols the importance of the medersa as a centre for learning.
9. Check the time on the 14th Century water clock at Dar al-Magana
Just outside Medersa Bou Inania is a water clock dating back to 6 May 1357 AD. It is perched high up on a house appropriately called Dar al-Magana or “clockhouse,” and was built by the Merenid Sultan Abu Inan Faris as part of the Medersa [see above]. The water clock was used to ensure its muezzin called out at the correct prayer times.
If you wondering how it worked, it was a complicated process in which a cart went to and fro behind 12 windows and platforms carrying brass bowls. Each hour, a window would open and a metal ball would be dropped into the brass bowl. Oops, it does not work anymore, but hey, a clock is still a clock!
10. Make some local friends and share some high-fives
We tend to get so bogged down seeing sights or buying stuff, we forget a place is also made of people. Don’t you agree? So, come on, give some smiles. And some high-fives. In a place like Fes el-Bali this takes on added meaning. The maze-like lanes are packed with “homes”. The people on the streets are friends and families of each other. We are the ones stepping into their space. Why not smile back to show our gratitude for letting us in and make some friends.
11. Have a crash course in traditional Fes ceramic pottery
Ever wanted to know how those gorgeous ceramic tagine pots or exquisite zellige on traditional edifices were made? Fes is the perfect place to learn it. Ceramic pottery in Fes is considered the finest in the country and produced just as it has since medieval times. Clay from the surrounding hills is shaped into vessels on a pottery wheel or poured into frames, hand painted, and finally glazed. Silver is used to prettify vessels. For the zellige, the glazed tablets are cut into interlocking pieces, laid face down in patterns, and sealed with mortar. Nothing has changed. Neither technique nor product.
12. Say hello to the colossal brass doors of Fes’ 13th Century Palais Royale
Behind the seven colossal brass doors surrounded by zellige and topped with carved cedar wood are 80 hectares of Fes’ palace grounds. When Morocco’s royalty is in Fes, this is where they live. Referred to as Palais Royale or Dar al-Makhzen, it was built by the Merenid Dynasty in the 13th Century and comprises of palaces, gardens, parade grounds, a mosque, and a madrassa dating back to 1320 AD. The complex is closed to visitors. The closest one can get to royalty, thus, are these restored entrance gates which are scrubbed with fresh lemons regularly to keep their shine.
13. Wander through Mellah, Fes’ Jewish Quarter, once home to 250,000 Jews
In the 14th Century, Fes’ Merenid Sultans made a strategic pact with Jews. The Sultans offered them refuge near the Royal Palace. In return, the Jews contributed to the economy of the kingdom and supported the Sultan during conflict. Around 250,000 Jews once lived in the Fes Jewish Quarter or Mellah. Though now abandoned, their old houses in Rue des Mérinides are characterised with wrought-iron balconies and stucco walls framing shuttered windows, a far cry from typical Islamic architecture.
14. Visit the lovely 17th Century Ibn Danan Synagogue in Mellah
Concealed in a cul-de-sac in Mellah, with its doors usually shut, is the lovely but desolate 17th Century Ibn Danan Synagogue. It was restored by UNESCO in 1999 as a tribute to the once sizable Jewish community in Fes. Rows of mute polished wooden benches sit in the main hall under iron filigree chandeliers. The elderly guard will happily show you the ritual bath in the basement [a bit spooky] and the original 17th Century Torah scrolls made of gazelle skin inside the wooden cupboard in the back wall.
15. Take a picture of yourself in front of Fes’ landmark gate Bab Boujeloud; the other alternative, a picture of yourself dressed as a Bedouin 😀
… For that is what memories are made of. The right picture at the right place.
Bab Boujeloud is the main and most striking point of entry into Fes el-Bali. It is also the medina’s newest monument—the gate was built in 1913 by General Hubert Lyautey during the French Protectorate. Blue ceramic tiles cover the outside wall while green tiles face the walled city. No landmark is more synonymous with Fes than this Bab [gate] with the green-tiled tower of the 14th Century Medersa Bou Inania seen through its horseshoe arch.
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[Note: This blog post is part of a series from my travels to Morocco for 3 weeks in November-December 2018. To read more posts in my Morocco series, click here.]