FEZ: jewel in the imperial crown of Morocco

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.

Tightly packed buildings in the old medina with the zaouia  or shrine of Idriss II or Moulay Idriss II who ruled Morocco from 807 to 828 CE

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.

Houses, some more than 400 years old, overlook narrow, meandering lanes in the old medina known as Fez el-Bali

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.

Cutting leather for handsewn babouche, the classic soft leather slipper worn by both men and women in Morocco

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.

A boy making chechias, the traditional hat or fez. Aged sixteen, he is already a master of this ancient trade.

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.

A perfume blender, or “nose” in his tiny shop in the depths of Fez el-Bali

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.

Souq Sabbighin, the dyers market is little changed in a thousand years

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.

The smell of the medieval tanneries in Fez el-Bali will never leave your nose…


About Travels with My Hat

Australian photojournalist and author. Used London as a base for nearly forty years while freelancing in the Middle East, Arabian peninsular, Africa and South Asia. Have written and illustrated more than a dozen books and travel guides. Operates a well regarded religious images stock photo library: www.worldreligions.co.uk. Live in Leura in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney.
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