An introduction to Fez

By | Category: Travel destinations

a panoramic view of Fez

The Moroccan city of Fez – a two and half hour flight from London – should be added to your bucket list. In just a short journey you step into a completely different history and culture.

The oldest part of Fez was built in the eighth century on the banks of the Fez River which flows from west to the east through the low hills of the Atlas Mountains. Today, much of the city is modern with many palm tree lined boulevards and wide highways circling the new Ville Nouvell urbanisation embracing the jewel of Medina.

The UNESCO World Heritage site of the Fez Medina (one of the nest preserved medinas in the Moslem world) consists of two quarters, Fes el Bali and Fes Jdid and is the consequence of centuries of Islamic cultural evolution and urban development in North Africa. There are many Riads – old houses and palaces – converted to modern guesthouses in the Medina. You can choose to explore the old city by staying in a Riad in the heart of Medina or stay in a hotel in the more modern neighborhood of the city.

fresh food shops in the souk

The element of hospitality is strong in Morocco so when we checked into our hotel – the Fes Marriott Hotel Jnan Palace – two ladies standing by the entrance welcomed us and a man dressed in traditional Moroccan outfit poured us a glass of Moroccan mint tea from a silver pot.

In the morning, we took a red petit taxi to the Medina. We just said to him, “old Medina please” and the driver dropped us by the Bab Rcif gate where a large plaza leads us to another smaller gate (Bab Sid El Aoud) through which you enter the souk.

Like many souks, it was like being in a maze. We tried to avoid turning to the right or the left and kept to a straighter path, passing several small shops selling textiles, clothing, groceries, shoes and household materials. As we strolled deeper and deeper into the heart of the souk, the passage narrowed and we sometimes had to walk shoulder to shoulder. Often we had to give way to a donkey carrying loads of materials or a man with a small trolley. Eventually, the path got wider and opened into a courtyard where there was a door to a mosque and a beautifully tiled fountain.

We continued climbing the narrow passage until we reached that part of the souk known as the Andalusia neighbourhood. Although the Al Andalous Mosque is closed for refurbishment, standing in front of mosque, gives you a good view of the layers and layers of the Medina, the far city wall all silhouetted against the dramatic backdrop of the Atlas Mountains.

To many first time visitors to the souk, it appears that it is endless and it wasn’t long before we had lost our way. But this is part of the fun and charm! Would we have found the market dedicated to a variety of spices, herbals and raw materials or the vegetable and fish market at the edge of Medina otherwise?

Eventually we had to ask for directions. I knew not ask the men or boys in the street for if I did that they would stick to me like glue demanding money. These unofficial guides could be real pain so my recommendation is that you should ask the shopkeepers for directions.

leather goods are popular in the souk because…

Returning to the Al Andalous Mosque, we headed down a path that took us to a more residential area. We passed two old Medersas of Sbaiyine and Sahrij, both connecting to the Andalusia mosque and which dated back to the fourteenth century. We passed a small park overlooking Medina and continued downwards through narrow alleys in the residential neighbourhoods where we found only a few shops. I thought I was heading in one direction whereas we were walking in a circle. Be warned. It is easy to get lost!

 

…Fez is known for its tanneries making an array of leather goods

Seeking directions once again, we headed off to Bab Boujloud, we followed a student, Yassin, and his friends through more of the busy and packed souk which was crammed with shops overflowing with leather bags, jackets and shoes. The path was very steep and narrow but what you really notice is the flow of energy in the ancient city. I could see the interactions between the shop owners and local people. It appeared that they were just like a big family, very close and very warm to each other.

On our way, we passed the Shrine of Moulay Idriss and El Quaraouiyine Mosque and University. Yassin invited us to his home, which was near the ruins of the Merinid tombs built in the fourteenth century at the top of Fez on a hill overlooking the Medina. It was nearly sunset and the panoramic view of the Medina with the backdrop of new Fez and the mountains was magnificent. The view of Medina slowly faded away as it got darker and darker, but the shining light of mosques and minarets gave us a completely different view of Fez.

lights as evening falls in Fez

We walked to Yassin’s house which was in a new, middle-class neighbourhood where we were welcomed by his parents and offered tea and dates. They were very friendly and warm, but we had to go back to the hotel for our dinner but, before we left, his mother insisted that we each had a bowl of Harira Soup.

In the morning, we returned to Bab Boujloud and began our exploration of the Medina. Being Friday, the souk was closed and only a very few shops were open. It was easier and faster to move around, but it was less exciting without window-shopping.

We headed downwards in the steeply winding path and passed several smaller passageways in order to get to the Shrine of Mulla Idrisi, the founder of Fez. Mulla Idrisi’s tomb is a place of pilgrimage for he is highly regarded in Fez. Treated like a saint he was a descendant of the Holy Prophet Muhammad and the great grandson of Imam Hassan who was himself the grandson of Muhammed. The shrine has been built around a large, open- air court yard with a small pool and fountain in the middle surrounded by high columns in all four corners. The interior is adorned by colourful mosaics inscribed by the verses from the Quran. Non-Muslims are not allowed to enter.

Shrine of Mulla Idrisi.

We continued our journey and asked for directions to the ninth century, Al Qaraouiyine Mosque and arrived there just after sunset at the time of Maghreb prayers. It is one of the oldest mosques and universities in the world and contains an interior that has a very simple décor painted in white with a long row of arches. Except in front of the mosque, where the Imam leads the pray, the Mehrab is decorated with mosaics inscribed by verses from the Quran. In contrast to the interior, the courtyard is a work of art, being decorated with colourful tiles, a gallery of mosaics and Arabic calligraphy.

My 48 hours tour of Fez allowed me to glimpse the mystery of this ancient city. I plan to return to Fez this month during the sacred music festival, an annual gathering of the composers of classical and spiritual music from all over the world when I hope to experience a different side to Fez.

Reza flew to Morocco on a direct Air Arabia Airlines flight from Gatwick Airport to Fez and stayed at the Fes Marriott Hotel Jnan Palace

For more about Morocco, click here.

Images and story © Mohammed Reza Amirinia

For more of Reza’s images of Fez, go to http://www.amirinia.com/morocco/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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