If someone were to ask me where the cultural and spiritual capital of Morocco would be, it would be Fez.
The city of Fez is old. It is steeped in Moroccan culture and tradition. It’s Médina has a long and rich history and is doing a pretty good job in resisting the march of modernity. I hardly see any modern looking building or architecture within the Médina. Its never ending alleyways snaking through the Médina most probably looked the way it is today, as it was a hundred years ago.
We approached Fez, three or so hours later from Chefchaouen. Enroute to Fez, we were traveling to the deeper regions of Morocco. The lush green landscapes that we encountered near the coastal cities, were slowly giving way to less vegetation, more shrubs, and grassland. The overall landscape was definitely getting drier.
Towns were smaller, making way for remote villages. Farmlands were less plentiful, as were the people we encountered. It was definitely more rural. The road, less well maintained and at times treacherous. On one long stretch of a road towards Fez, the road was riddled with potholes filled with water and mud, most probably from yesterday’s downpour.
The Medina of Fez was founded in the 9th century. It is walled in and is home to the oldest university in the world, the University of Al Quaraouiyine. The Medina is also a UNESCO, World Heritage Site and used to be the capital of Morocco before transferring to Rabat in the early 20th century.
The walled exterior was obvious the moment we reached the periphery of the Medina. The Medina is home to numerous craftsmen and that have been plying their trade for generations and now consists of thousands if not tens of thousands of stalls selling all manner of things the traditional moroccan way, anything from woodworking, to textiles, carpets, metalworking, tanneries and many more.
We entered Fez by the southern part of the city. Our hotel accommodation was Riad Fez Aicha, near Place R’cif, one of the main entrances to the Medina with a large public square. The riad that we stayed had a beautiful interior courtyard, traditionally designed and preserved. The owner of the hotel spoke really good English and was extremely friendly. As soon as we were shown to our room, he suggested a guided tour of the Medina the following day.
I had been contemplating of such a tour of the Medina. So far, our exploration in the various Medina of various cities in Morocco were unguided. So while we may appreciate the beauty of the place, we were still largely ignorant of the historical aspects of the Medina. Since Fez is such an ancient city, I decided to go ahead and hire a local guide to show us around the Medina and hopefully learn more about the history behind it. I was pretty confident that we would appreciate a lot more about the Medina if we understand its history.
We were right. It was one of the best decision I have made on this trip. The Medina had in fact a really a rich history. A middle age woman was waiting for us at the hotel the following morning and introduced to us as the local guide for the day. For more than four hours, we walked inside the Medina, marveling at the history behind Fez. Our local guide was very thorough in explaining the history, its previous inhabitants and important historical buildings and places that make Fez Medina unique. Throughout the walk, we learnt about how the Medina was founded, how it grew, important people and places in the Medina, including places of worship, even the architecture of certain buildings and its defining features. It was literally Medina 101.
My favorite part of the Medina, and widely reported online as the must-see places, is of course, the Chouara Tannery. It’s extremely smelly. You know you have reached the tannery if you start to pick up the pungent smell in the air. It is where animal skins are processed, dyed, and dried in the sun before using it to make various leather products the traditional way. We saw large vats of murky, water, the colour of mud and of other hues in gray, red, and orange. Several dyes of various colours with the leather being soaked as part of the dyeing process were done by so many laborers. It was the first time I ever witness people working in the tannery and it was really a backbreaking form of labor. While tourists are not allowed on the actual grounds of the tannery, we get to see the whole thing in action up on the balconies of various buildings surrounding the tannery. These buildings also serve as stalls selling various kinds of leather and leather products from wallets to bags to shoes.
University of Al Quaraouiyine and various madrasahs
The tannery was an eye opening experience for me. Another attraction in the Medina that I was really interested in was definitely the University of Al Quaraouiyine. It is the world’s oldest university, having founded in 859. The university is attached to a mosque and most of the compound is off limits to non-Muslims. However, as a Muslim, I was able to enter and admire the intricate architecture, tile works on the walls of the compound and various artworks throughout the area. I felt really privileged to be given the opportunity to explore and witness such a deeply historical place.
The Marinid Tombs is another part of Fez that I will remember dearly. At first glance, it doesn’t look much. Just a single dilapidated monumental tomb that has been in ruins in the middle of an open field. But once you walk there, you will immediately understand why this place is such a popular tourist attraction.
Set outside the walls of the Fez Medina, on top of a hill, this place serves as a popular lookout point over the historic city of Fez. I was immediately stunned by the significance of this place. When we reached the place, we were rewarded with an amazing view of the entire city of Fez. You can clearly make out the various gates and main entrances of the Medina, the Minarets of various mosques and the unique and historic architecture that is housed from within.
I remembered walking quite a distance from our hotel, navigating through the Medina to find the appropriate exit to reach the Marinid Tombs. We got lost many times within the Medina, often encountering dead ends. We had to backtrack many times and navigating the alleyways is not easy, especially when data connection needed for Google Maps navigation is spotty.
But the trip was worth it. We managed to reach just in time with a couple hours of daylight to spare to soak in the atmosphere and the beautiful city before us. Just like Chefchaouen, Fez has an incredible lookout point that is the Marinid Tombs. This is one place that everyone must at least visit when anyone visits Fez.