As you can see from the map, there really isn’t a direct route from Marrakech to Fez. We had to backtrack the three hours to Casablanca and then head north through Rabat and eventually east towards Fez. It was about a 7 hour train ride….at one point, the arid landscape gave way to some wooded areas.
It was late in the afternoon when we arrived. Fortunately for us, the owner of the apartment we had rented, offered to have his driver meet us. It was very much welcomed as Fez is a very big city of approximately 1.2 million people.
Idris ibn Abdullah, the first Arab ruler in Morocco and head of the Idrisid dynasty, ruled from 788-791. In 789, on the bank of the Jawhar river Idris I, found the city of Fez as the capital of his dynasty. In 808, his son, Idriss II, built another city on the opposite side of the river. Soon, there were two walled and independent cities that often were in conflict with one another. In 1070, under the Almoravid dynasty, the walls of the city were torn down, bridges were built and the two medina became united. It is called Medina el Bali.
In 1276, a “new” town, Fez Jedid, was established west of the Medina el Bali. The palace, army fortification and mellah (Jewish neighborhood) are located in Fez Jedid. Today, Medina el Bali is considered an excellent example of a medieval city and is a UNESCO Heritage site. It has one of the largest pedestrian zones (car free) in the world. There are 200,000 people, 300 mosque and 9,500 streets or walkways within the walls of el Bali. As you can imagine, it is very, very easy to get “lost” and turned around there but we discovered, that was the fun of it. You never quite knew what was around the corner.
Mohammed, the manager of the apartment, met us at one of the many gates of Fez and walked us to the apartment. Unlike, Marrakech, there are no motorized vehicles allowed inside the medina. We were so grateful for this. It was nerve-wracking in Marrakech to be constantly looking over your shoulder so we wouldn’t get hit by a scooter or cyclist! Also, the streets of Fez were much narrower than those of Marrakech.
Our apartment was off of Rue Talaa Sghira, one of the two major streets in the medina. The route that Mohammed took us was pretty straight forward but I feared that we would get so twisted around and never be able to find our apartment for the whole time we had it rented!!!! That wasn’t to be the case but I suggested that we drop breadcrumbs on our first time out!
As you can see, the first step is a “doozie!!” With my 25 lb backpack strapped to my back, I gained a whole new appreciation for the Himalayan sherpas as I climbed those very uneven steps.
I just loved this cosy apartment. I appreciated the tile work and the “artistic” touches throughout…for example, this window –
and right below this window was a little nook holding this lovely Moroccan container.The first couple of nights, the neighborhood children were very vivacious! I kept thinking/hoping that they would have to go to bed soon…the day after our arrival was their Independence day, a holiday and no school….they stayed outside and played until 10:00! At one point, I went down and said, “s’il vous plaît” (“please” in French) and put my finger to my lips – the universal “quiet” sign, right? One little boy looked at me and said “no”….so much for asking! LOL!
We arranged for a tour of the Medina, which was interesting. Our guide grew up among the streets of Medina el Bali and therefore, he knew his way around and took us to some places that we would have totally missed. Our first stop was at:
Bou Inanian Madrasa
This Madrasa was built from 1351-58 by the reigning Marinid era sultan Abu Inan Faris. It is believed that the religious leaders of the Karaouine Mosque encouraged him to build it in order to have his sins forgiven. He was quite a tyrant ordering the death of his father and brutally murdering his rivals.
The madrasa was both a school and place of worship. It is the only madrasa, in Fez, that has a minaret.
It has been restored a few times and today remains open as a mosque. It is one of the few mosque that a non-believer may enter. It is the last madrasa built during the Merenid era and is one of the best examples of Merenid architecture in the world.
Here are a couple of photos to share with you showing the exquisite details in the carved designs on the wood and walls.
This is the mosque with the mihrab in the center. The mihrab is a niche that faces the Kaaba, the building inside the most sacred mosque, in Mecca. It indicates the direction of Mecca, where the people are supposed to face when praying. (On a side note, in some hotels that I have stayed in Arab countries, there is a little arrow on the ceiling indicating the direction of Mecca for their prayer time.) Our guide said that mihrabs were shaped like doors and that “prayers unlocked the doors of heaven.”
The mosque is to the back of the courtyard and on either side were the classrooms. Also, off to the side was the prayer room for the women, who are required to pray separately from the men. I thought this was a beautiful space, especially with the stain glass windows.
As we were leaving the Bou Inania Madrasa, our guide pointed out the large bronze doors and said that they were engraved by Jewish people who lived in the medina during the time it was built.
Almost opposite the madrasa is the famous water clock, Dar al-Magana. It was finished in May, 1357.
There are 13 windows and on the wooden platforms, under the 13 doors, would have been brass bowls. The rafters above the window had a roof that protected the windows and bowls. Evidently, there was a small cart behind the doors that ran from left to right. My non-mechanical mind cannot understand how it worked so I will take the liberty to quote from Wikipedia (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dar_Al-Magana) “The motion of the clock was presumably maintained by a kind of small cart which ran from left to right behind the twelve doors. At one end, the cart was attached to a rope with a hanging weight; at the other end to a rope with a weight that floated on the surface of a water reservoir that was drained at a regular pace. Each hour one of the doors opened; at the same time a metal ball was dropped into one of the twelve brass bowls.” I hope that makes more sense to you, who is reading this, than it did to me. I think I will have my husband, the engineer, try to explain it to me! (Update: after rereading it a couple of times and discussing it with David, I have a better understanding!)
Anyway, it was very impressive to me that in 1357, someone invented and built a time piece so accurate it was used to tell the muezzin the correct time to call the people to their daily prayer. It would be nice if someone could restore it.
Nearby this clock is the Clock Cafe. If you are in Fez, I highly recommend that you stop by for a coffee or something to eat. It is a quaint place with very friendly staff and excellent food. We liked it so much that we went back a second time. There were nooks and crannies where you could sit in privacy and quiet for a visit with friends or a special someone!
The first meal I had was hummus, falafel and tabouli. I had been looking everywhere for hummus thinking that it would be standard fare in an Arabic country. Not so! I was so excited and it was soooo good! I asked for some to take back to our apartment. Not only did they give me a good amount but they wouldn’t let me pay for it! What a treat!
The second time we went back, we both had the grilled veggie and goat cheese sandwich that was just as delicious. Along with wonderful meals, they offer movies, concerts, lectures on the culture, art exhibits and cooking classes! This place reminded me of the “Pudding Shop” in Istanbul, Turkey that I discovered when I was there 40 years ago. It was just a great place to hang out if you were an expat wanting to connect with other expats and mingle with the locals. I wish we had more time to spend at this cafe.
OK, enough of a “plug” for the Clock Cafe and back to the sites of Fez!!
The Blue Gate
In Arabic, it is known as the Bab Bou Jeloud. It was built in 1913 by the French and is considered the main entrance to Fez el Bali. Since the development of heavy artillery the effectiveness of gates as a defense is no longer needed. Today, the gates to the city, are ceremonial.
Here you can see the minaret of the Bou Inanian Madrasa through the gate. On this side of the gate, the tiles are blue which is the color for the city of Fez. Blue is often found on embroidery, carpet and ceramics throughout the city.
The other side of the gate is done in green tile, which is the color of Islam.
Walking outside of this gate will take you to the new medina, Fez el-Jedid. We spent no time in that medina….so much to see and so little time!
The Mellah of Fez
We walked briefly through the Jewish neighborhood as we continued our tour. Again, you can notice the difference of the neighborhoods by the balconies. The Jewish had balconies on the outside of their homes. The Arab neighborhoods have no outside decoration and are very plain on the facade. Unlike the Arabs, the Jewish had larger doors on the outside. The Arabs have their large doors on the inside. The Arabs consider this to be more humbling and not ostentatious.
The Andalusian District
Our guide took us to this area which was much less touristy and the streets were even narrower! This district was established at the beginning of the 9th century when the Muslim families, from the Andalusia region in southern Spain, emigrated to Fez. This district is noted for its craft activities. The government is investing money into this district to maintain the character of the souks by restoring them.
Our guide treated us to some of the high end craft centers or fundouks. We visited one where metal craft was being created. The work was exquisite and very time consuming.
The plates are made from bronze and are cleaned with lemon. It is a craft that is primarily done by the Jewish population. The covered dishes or tajines are made from different materials…The one in the foreground is from the Berber Tribe and made of camel bone and cedar wood. I am not 100% certain about the materials used on the tajine next to it…my notes say alpaca bones (are there alpacas in Morocco?) and copper. The teapots behind are made from silver.
The famous Chouara Tannery of Fez.
The smell was overload for the nose. To combat that, we were given sprigs of mint wrapped in a small bundle to hold to our nose, which did help. This is the oldest art in Morocco.
Being a vegetarian, I had real mixed feelings about seeing the tannery. I must say that the finished products were beautiful and if I wasn’t a vegetarian, would have loved to have had a leather jacket. They looked so very, very soft. Another reason I am glad to have seen this is that it is the about the same process that has been done since medieval times. There is no machinery and it is all done by hand. It just makes you appreciate the process and final results even more.
This was by far my favorite craft center that we visited. I had resisted buying from the other places we had visited but this one, I couldn’t wait to see what they had to offer. Sadly, it was the holiday and Friday so no weavers were working. I would have loved to have seen them weaving.
I have always been fascinated by weaving…whether it be on a loom or a basket. I would love to study weaving one day but don’t know if that will ever happen…
Our last stop was the where they made rugs. The workshops are in rooms on the upper floors of the building. Some were woven and other were made from tying knots for the design. Very meticulous but the results are stunning.
We had been to a shop in Merrekech so were familiar with the “drill.” They invite you to sit down and usually offer you mint tea. Then, they proceed to bring out rug after rug to show you the different designs and explain what tribe they originated from.
We had no intentions of buying and felt kind of badly for the workers who were bringing out one rug after another.
All of this was fine and like I said, I really had no intentions of buying a carpet until they brought out this beautiful Berber design of the sand dunes……
al-Karaouine Mosque and University
This learning center is believed to be the oldest in the world. It was founded in 859 by Fatima al-Fihri, the daughter of a wealthy merchant. Fatima had migrated, with her family, from Kairouan, Tunisia, therefore the name of the mosque.
Fatima and her sister were very well educated and when their father died, they were left a considerable amount of money. Fatima vowed to spend all of her money towards the construction of a mosque suitable for the community.
In the madrasa affiliated with the mosque, students were taught the Qur’an and other religious studies as well as mathematics, medicine and astronomy. In 1940, this learning center was merged with the state education system and became a modern university.
Unfortunately, non-Muslims are not allowed inside. It is acceptable, though, to look inside for a brief peek of life inside the mosque and the world’s oldest center of learning.
Exploring on our own we discovered:
Nejjarine (Carpenter) Museum of Wood Arts and Crafts
Our guide took us past this museum but it was closed. So, the next day, as we wandered through the medina on our own, we stopped to visit it. It was highly recommended on Trip Advisor and in my guide book.
This is the entrance to one of the most beautiful complexes in Fez. Originally, it was used as an inn for traveling craftsmen. They would stored and sell their goods on the ground floor and stay in the rooms on the upper levels.
The entrance fee was worth seeing the inside of the building, which is now used as a museum. The displays are of craftsmen tools, Berber locks, musical instruments, furniture, etc. Unfortunately, only photos of the courtyard could be taken and not of the displays.
There are three floors of displays and on the rooftop is a cafe that affords views of the rooftops of the medina
Souk al Henna
It was amazing just to wander through the medina on our own. We never quite knew what was around a corner. At one point, we were in the middle of what appeared to be a local “flea market.” We were the only foreigners in the place, vendors had piles of clothes and odds and ends of used appliances scattered in a plaza area. It was very, very crowded. There was hardly any room to step.
Then, around another corner, we came upon this tranquil setting of Souk al Henna that offered organic beauty products…..one of the well known creams in Morocco is made from a little nut found in the argan fruit. For centuries, the oil has been extracted from this small nut and used as a moisturizer on skin and hair. It comes in many forms of cream for hands and face. The oil, in its true form, is used for healing skin rashes, infections and bug bites. This was a common product for sale in the souk area. There were herbs offered, as well, for medicinal purposes.
The history of medicine being sold in this souk goes way back when the building at the end of the souk was built for a hospital. The Maristan Sidi Frej was built about 1286 by the Merinid king, Abu Yakoub (1286-1307). Maristan in the Persian language means hospital. This hospital was used both to heal and to teach. According to the Rough Guide to Morocco guide book, this was an asylum for people with mental health illnesses and was one of the first places in the world to try music therapy for healing. This hospital remained open until 1944. It is also believed that Maristan Sidi Frej was a model for the first psychiatric hospital that was established in the western world in Valencia, Spain in 1410.
The guide books said that this was the best place to see the extent of Median el-Bali, especially at sunset. Then, there was a sidebar of a warning not to pass through a particular neighborhood at night for safety reasons. We decided to take a taxi to the hilltop to be on the safe side. Once there, we realized that we didn’t have to pass through the neighborhood but could just walk back along the main road, which we did.
The guide book was right about the views! This view is behind the tomb ruins….
This is the view of Fez –
Odds and Ends
I always seem to have a few photos that I would like to share but don’t really have a special category to put them under. So, the “Odds and Ends” at the end of each posting gives me the opportunity to share these photos.
We walked past this building and peeked in through the open doors. A couple of very friendly men were standing nearby and invited us in to see the “Donkey Park.” The what???? Well, it is where people “parked” their donkeys after they had made the deliveries or while they did their shopping. A place for the donkeys to rest.
We watched these donkeys make their way up a street. They knew exactly where they were going.
We didn’t have an opportunity to see a Moroccan wedding. I believe they can be quite elaborate. I saw one blog post of the groom riding in on an elaborately decorated horse. When we arrived in Fez, there was a dignified, rugged horse; like a Belgium, with a gold threaded saddle blanket and highly decorated saddle. It was similar to this one that we saw in the souk.
Later in the day, we saw this wedding chair, to carry the bride into the ceremony, be transported through the street.
In the medina, we came upon this bakery. People were carrying trays of unbaked loaves of bread into the bakery and dropping them off. Many Moroccan homes do not have ovens. They carry their unbaked loaves of bread to the community oven to be baked. This is similar to the fountains found throughout the medinas. In the beginning of time, the homes had no running water so people would get their water from the local fountain and carry it back to their homes to use.
On the smaller streets of the medina, we discovered individual crafters….looking into partly opened doors, there might be a couple of looms with weavers working. Or, passing a storefront, the loom was the focal point, with a small display area of the finished product, off to the side. This gentleman was weaving away when we stopped in.
A couple of storefronts down, we discovered this room full of wool.
Finally, everywhere in Morocco, there are the cats….
The locals appeared to take care of them by putting food out. We were told that they like the cats around because they keep the rodent population at bay. For the most part, all the cats we saw looked healthy.
So, there you have it….Fez through my eyes. Our next visit will be to my favorite spot of all of our Moroccan trip, Chefchaouen. Until then, I wish you blessings.