May 2009

Part 2: Fez

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Fez (May 1st-2nd, days 4-5)

Fez (or Fes) was founded around 800 to be the capital of Morocco's first dynasty. In 859 the university of Al-Karaouine was founded here and it is still operating, giving it a claim to being the oldest existing university in the world. Fez was Morocco's capital several times, and in the 12th century it may have been the biggest city in the world for a while. Nowadays Fez is Morocco's cultural heart. Though Marrakesh has the more impressive monuments, Fez is more interesting because of its authenticity.

Fez el-Jdid (Fez the New)

We got a hotel in the Ville Nouvelle (the newest part of town which dates from the French period) and on the first morning walked all the way to the medina. This took us through Fez el-Jdid or New Fez, which despite its name dates is a city extension from the 13th century.

Bab Sammarine, a gateway into Fez el-Jdid (New Fez). Both date from the 13th century.

Inside Fez el-Jdid lies Dar el-Makhzen, the royal palace, which was built in the 17th century. It's closed for visitors but its huge brass doors are a sight by themselves.

The gates of Dar el-Makhzen, the royal palace of Fez The gates of Dar el-Makhzen
The cover of the Lonely Planet for Morocco has this same picture but with a local instead of me Close up of the main palace door

Fez el-Jdid is linked to the old city by a cluster of squares surrounded by fortress walls which I couldn't make much sense of. If the idea was to confuse possible invaders by having walls everywhere and sending them through this gate and that then it works beautifully though.

Some of the many fortress walls near the old city Me in front of a gate

Since all the walls threw us off course we walked into the Kasbah an-Nouar instead of the medina proper. This is a sort of city inside the city, all walled around. Only one gate (the one we'd come through) was open, as a local brat kept pointing out to us. It seemed inconceivable to him that we would still want to look around instead of turning back, and I got into a little verbal brawl with him.

Lotte inside the Kasbah an-Nouar

Fez el-Bali (Fez the Old)

The big medina (walled old city) of Fez is called Fez el-Bali (Fez the Old) since it's the original town. It is the best preserved medieval Arab city in the world and probably the world's largest car-free urban area. It's a huge (2km across) labyrinth of tiny alleys which is nearly impossible to navigate because none of these alleys are straight and many have dead ends. 150 000 people still live in this amazing place.

This is Bab Bou Jeloud, the main western entrance to the old city The view right beyond the gate

We mostly stuck to Talaa Kebira (Big Slope), one of the main streets which runs roughly west to east, and the alleys close to is. All the following pictures were taken in Talaa Kebira itself.

Talaa Kebira Talaa Kebira Talaa Kebira

These pictures give a good idea of what the medina of Fes is like. There are no cars, only people and donkeys. It's very crowded (not so much on these pics though coz it was friday) and there are small shops everywhere.

Talaa Kebira Talaa Kebira Talaa Kebira

Some alleys in the medina can be opened or closed with the exact same wooden doors as the thousands of little shops. The picture of speckled Lotte below is taken in such an alley.

Lotte in the sun. Inside the very fancy restaurant Dar Saada A lamp shop

In Morocco almost all mosques are forbidden territory for non-muslims, which I find very weak and unhospitable of Morocco. None of the other islamic countries I've visited were like that, quite the contrary.

The ceiling of an entry hall of a mosque (actually the mausoleum of Moulay Idriss II I think) which we couldn't visit The gate of Medersa Bou Inania (viewed from inside)

Fortunately you can visit Morocco's medersas (islamic schools) to give you an idea of its religious architecture. Fez has two big 14th century medersas. One was closed for restauration but fortunately we could visit the other, Medersa Bou Inania, named after the Merenid sultan who had it built in 1350.

The courtyard of Medersa Bou Inania Medersa Bou Inania

The carved ornamentation in all the walls is an amazing sight.

Medersa Bou Inania Medersa Bou Inania Medersa Bou Inania

The medersa is not used as a school anymore but it is still a very active mosque; we had to wait as a lot of people streamed out after a prayer service before we could get in.

The prayer hall of Medersa Bou Inania Me taking the previous picture

In the heart of Fez el-Bali lie the Al-Karaouine university, which is the oldest still active one in the world, and the mosque that belongs with it.

This is where the Talaa Kebira ends in fact. The huge mosque can hold 20000 worshippers but only a few gates are visible from the outside and again non-muslims can't visit. The university is said to be the second most prestigious site of islamic learning after al-Azhar in Caïro, and it also can't be visited. I'd like to mention that I could visit al-Azhar in Cairo any time, even during prayers.

Anyway, on the far side of Al-Karaouine is the little Place as-Seffarine and the small Medersa of the same name, which we could and did visit. A student showed us around and invited us to get on the roof and climb the little minaret - for money of course.

On the roof of Medersa as-Seffarine. Next we climbed that little minaret, which gave us a great view despite being so small. View from the minaret of Medersa as-Seffarine


On the second day in Fez and our second visit to the medina our main goal were the famous leather tanneries. These go back to ancient times, and little has changed in the process: skins get coloured in traditional dye pits by tanners who stand among the chemicals all day. The pits lie in the north east of the medina and are completely surrounded by buildings, but vendors eagerly take tourists to terraces on the back of those builings to watch the spectacle. It's a fascinating sight.

The Chouwara tanneries in Fez The Chouwara tanneries in Fez
The Chouwara tanneries in Fez The Chouwara tanneries in Fez

The tanneries are said to be a very smelly affair because of the use of ingredients like pigeon dung and cow urine, but we didn't really notice that.

Borj Nord

From the hills north of Fez, called Borj Nord, on which the ruins of the Merenid tombs stand, you get a fabulous view on all of the medina of Fez which lies at your feet. I was very much reminded of the view on Jerusalem from Mount Olive. Open the following panorama in a separate tab or window to see it at full size.

The medina of Fez as viewed from Borj Nord

The cluster of buildings in the middle of the following pictures (and in the heart of the medina) are the Al-Karaouine university and mosque.

The medina of Fez as viewed from Borj Nord The medina of Fez as viewed from the Merenid tombs Zooming in on a Moroccan who walked by for a nice picture

On the opposite side of the hills there's a graveyard and views on the green hills beyond the city.

Graveyard on the far side of Borj Nord

Our original travel plan was to visit Meknes and Volubilis as a day trip from Fez, then head south across the Atlas to visit the desert and then work our way west towards Marrakesh from there.

Since there were no agencies offering such a day trip in Fez (there simply weren't any agencies for travelers at all, a gaping hole in the local tourism market), and since I gradually came to realise that visiting the south of Morocco with public transport would be very tough and inefficient, that travel plan got changed completely.

We took a train to Meknes (a one hour ride only) in the early afternoon of our second day in Fez, but instead of making it a day trip we'd stay there for three nights, longer than we did in Fez. But all that is the subject of the next part.

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Vivien Sat 13 Nov 2010 @ 21:36
Beautiful photos and well narrated travelog. It gave us a good preview of the trip we planned for this April. We are planning a twelve day trip to Morocco following a similar itinerary. Thank you for sharing.

Curtis Reynolds Wed 28 Jul 2010 @ 04:20
Great photos... However I lived in Morocco in 1973 and my photos are also impressive. Give me a little fed back.


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