To visit Morocco without seeing the historic capital of Fez is like eating a birthday cake without the icing. Fez is a gem. Some people might even say it is the jewel in the crown of the Kingdom of Morocco.
The city was founded in the ninth century, roughly at the time when Scherazade was spinning tales of the ‘thousand and one nights’ to the Caliph Harun al-Rashid in Baghdad. But it is Fez, not the Iraqi capital, which remains a colourful example of this exotic period in the development of civilisation.
Fez reached its apogee during Merinid rule in the 13th century when it was one of the most advanced centres of learning and urban infrastructure in the ancient world. Its university, incorporated within the Karaouine Mosque (founded in 859) was attended by Pope Sylvester II, a student of Arabic numerals.
The town had hospitals, schools, funduqs (hotels) for travellers and 93 hammams (bath-houses) while local trades and crafts were organised into 150 different unions. Each with its own patron saint.
Originally measured against the width of a loaded mule, the streets in its old medina known as Fez el-Bali, are too narrow for motorised traffic. Hence you can wander at will, in perfect safety, among its sprawling souqs or covered bazaars.
Each trade or product still occupies the same quarter allocated to it centuries ago by the mutasib, prefect of Fez.
There are wax chandlers, knife-grinders, scribes, cabinet-makers, embroiderers, coppersmiths, leather-makers and perfume blenders. Foods are also segregated: fruits here, vegetables there, spices in the attarine or spice market.
Friendly traders invite you to try a bit of this, or a sniff of that. To dip your finger in a tub of honey, to taste a slice of cheese, to try a lump of nougat, to suck a tangerine. Or to sit on a tiny stool and enjoy a mint tea as you bargain the price of a hand-woven carpet.
In 1981 Fez el-Bali was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. not only for its splendid architectural heritage and urban planning, but because the entire medina remains a living, breathing museum.