Fez, Morocco

Morocco’s second largest city is fascinating, especially the walled-in section called Fes el Bali. Dating back to the late 9th century, the Medina of Fez has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This living time capsule – home to 150,000 people – has changed little since the Marinid Era (1244 – 1465).

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1 Bab Bou Jeloud in Fes el Bali at Fez, Morocco

Bab Bou Jeloud is an ornate gate leading into Fes el Bali, the Medina of Fez. Its name means The Blue Gate in recognition of the blue glazed tiles adorning its façade. Through the Moorish, horseshoe-shaped arch is the minaret of Madrasa Bou Inania. This Islamic religious school was founded in the mid-14th century during the Marinid Dynasty. This period of Sunni Muslim rule over Morocco occurred from 1244 through 1465.

Bab Boujloud, Fes, Morocco
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2 Madrasa al-Attarine Courtyard in Fes el Bali at Fez, Morocco

Located off a decrepit alley near a spice souk is this beautiful madrasa. The school for the Koranic religion was commissioned by a sultan from the Banū Marīn dynasty. His name was Abū Sa’īd Uthmān II and he reigned over Morocco from 1310 to 1331. In the courtyard is a masterpiece of architecture, with its mosaic ornate tiles, carved cedar wood and marble columns. In front of these arches (not in picture) is a checkerboard tile floor and fountain.

Al Attarine Madrasa, Rue Talaa Kebira, Fes, Morocco
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Donkey Carrying Coke in Fes el Bali at Fez, Morocco

Fes el Bali covers 692 acres and is one of the largest, pedestrian-only zones in the world. All supplies into and out of this ancient city are carried by hand, carts, donkeys and an occasional scooter. This bridled mule carrying Coca-Cola products may seem docile. But if you hear someone shout “balak” or “andak,” it means you are about to be run over by a pack animal.

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Small Alley in Fes el Bali at Fez, Morocco

The Medina of Fez is a labyrinth of thousands of small alleys and very narrow paths. They are canvassed by tarps, scrap metal and loosely fixed wood. These ramshackle canopies are designed to block the sweltering summer heat which averages above 90° F. Stepping inside Fes el Bali is a step back into medieval history. It is essential to have a guide when visiting or you will quickly get lost within its winding 692 acres.

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3 Architecture in Fes el Bali at Fez, Morocco

The building façades in Fes el Bali are ashen constructed with a mixture of lime and sand called medloukj. The exteriors are nondescript, without windows and border on decrepit. But step inside some front doors (bab-i-dar) for a delightful surprise. The interiors can be ornately decorated with mosaics, colorful tiles (zellij), marble, carved cedar woodwork and Moorish arches. In the center is often a courtyard (wustadar) containing a fountain and surrounded by two or three-storied balconies. They typically contain a small garden with citrus trees. A great example is the Nejjarine Museum of Wooden Arts and Crafts. The Musée Nejjarine is housed in a restored funduq. Historically, these were hostels for foreign travelers.

Nejjarine Museum of Wooden Arts and Crafts, Place an-Nejjarine, Fes, Morocco
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4 Leather Tannery in Fes el Bali at Fez, Morocco

The noxious stench of the Chouara tannery is bad. Yet it is nothing compared to watching the barbaric process of creating leather. The animal skins are first dried in the blistering, North African heat on roofs and balconies. Then they are bathed in pigeon excrement and animal urine. Next stop is to a honeycomb of stone vessels. Workers stand in the colored vegetable dye while soaking the hides along with their own arms, waist and legs. OSHA would not approve of the practices at the Tanners’ Quarter. However, the resulting leather goods are magnificent.

Morocco Tannery Shop, Fes, Morocco
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Sacks of Grains and Nuts in Fes el Bali at Fez, Morocco

These sacks of grains and nuts are typical of how produce is displayed for sale at Fes el Bali. Over 150,000 people bustle along its cramped stone walkways on a daily basis. It takes practice to dodge and weave among the bustling crowd without literally rubbing shoulders with the locals.

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Men Socialize While Feeding Poultry in Fes el Bali at Fez, Morocco

The wall around Fes el Bali has sealed in Morocco’s medieval history. Each neighborhood hosts a different craft or type of merchant (guild). Examples include blacksmiths, potters, weavers, butchers and leather tanneries. Few of the vendors use modern equipment. Instead, they follow traditional practices handed down through the generations. It is typical to see men like these socializing while another works. At first glance, you will be amazed how these poultry form a perfect circle while being feed, as if they were domesticated. Then you will notice their legs are bound.

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5 Ablution Fountain at Kairaouine Mosque in Fes el Bali at Fez, Morocco

The Kairaouine Mosque is the holiest and second largest in Morocco. Also called Al-Qarawiyyin, it was commissioned by Fatima al-Fihri in 857. Two years later, she founded a madrasa (school) named Al Quaraouiyine. It is now considered to be the world’s oldest university. In the mosque courtyard (called a sahn) is a water basin for wudu, the ritual purification of the body and partial ablution. The arched wall in the background is a mihrab. It points towards the Kaaba in Mecca and is faced during prayer. Behind the cedar wood screen is the main prayer hall. Non-Muslims are prohibited from entering this area.

Mosquee et Universite Karaouiyne, Fes, Morocco
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Grade School Children in Class in Fes el Bali at Fez, Morocco

This photo of grade school children huddle together at wooden desks was not taken decades ago. Instead, this rudimentary classroom is located within the Fes el Bali. Morocco’s official languages are Arabic and Tamazight. The latter is derived from the Berbers. French is also heard in the larger cities. However, notice the English alphabet on the blackboard. Despite limited resources, the teachers are trying to prepare their students to be multilingual.

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Candied Figs and Dates For Sale in Fes el Bali at Fez, Morocco

Two thousand years ago, Nomads called Berbers began harvesting figs and dates in Morocco in northwestern Africa. When the Arabs conquered them in the seventh century, they brought along spices like ginger, cinnamon and caraway. Together the two cultures created the type of candied figs, dates, bananas, apricots and walnuts sold at Fez el Bali.

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Rug Merchants in Fes el Bali at Fez, Morocco

During your walking tour of Fes el Bali, your guide will eventually lead you to Rue Talaa Kebira, one of the two main shopping streets. This is not retailing in the traditional sense. Instead, most merchants are housed in tiny quarters averaging six by ten feet. Each shop is crammed with merchandise. A unique experience is perusing hand-crafted rugs. While sipping sweet green tea, you will be bedazzled as two men unroll and display every imaginable size and pattern while the shopkeeper bestows their quality and insistently asks for the order. The ability to bargain is an essential skill.

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6 Palais Jamaï Hotel in Fes el Bali at Fez, Morocco

After a long yet exhilarating day at the adjacent Fes el Bali, you will feel like a sultan when you check into the Palais Jamaï. This highly-rate Sofitel Hotel was a royal residence when it was built in 1879. The architecture and décor is genuine Arabo-Moorish yet the amenities belong in the 21st century. Unwind in the pool and sauna resembling an Arabic bath. Then for dinner, sample local cuisine while being entertained by belly dancers accompanied by a live band.

Palais Jamaï, Hôtel Sofitel Bab Guissa, Fès 30000, Morocco
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7 Dar el Makhzen in Fez el Jdid at Fez, Morocco

Seven elaborate, golden doors with Moorish arches and brass handles lead to Dar el Makhzen. The center of the façade stands 80 feet tall. This is the Royal Palace for the King of Morocco and the sultan’s family when visiting Fez. Inside are 200 acres of gardens, a parade ground and multiple grandiose buildings and mosques. The palace is not open to the public. However, it is worth visiting within the Fez el Jdid section of the city in order to savor its exterior.

Royal Palace, Fes, Morocco
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Historical Formation of Fez, Morocco

Over 1.1 million people live in Fez, making it Morocco’s second largest city. Historically, it was formed during three time periods. The oldest is Fes El Bali, also called the Medina of Fez. It was founded in 789 during the Idrisid dynasty. A separate settlement was created just across the Jawhar River in 808. They were connected during the late 11th century. The Fez el Jdid section dates back to 1276. This was during the early stage of the Marinid rule when it became their capital city. Fez maintained this distinction until 1925 when the country’s capital moved to Rabat. The third district of Fez was established by the French during the 20th century. It is called Ville Nouvelle or the “New City.”

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