A bit of history...
Rightly considered as the cultural capital of Morocco, Fez, located at the foot of the Middle Atlas, is the fourth largest city of Morocco with 1.4 million inhabitants.
see map of Morocco
Founded in the year 789 on the right bank of Wadi Fez by Idris I, a descendant of the Prophet, it is the oldest of the imperial cities. Its founder, besides indigenous tribes, welcomed arab refugees expelled from Cordoba after an insurrection, forming the district said the Andalusians. His son Idriss II decided to extend the city on the left bank which was richer in water and made it in fact its capital. He early hosted Jewish families or from Tunisia, the latter settling west of the river in the area said district of Kairouan. Fez is then made up of two cities on both sides of the river, each with its own walls.
This melting pot of civilizations allows the city to become in a few decades the economic, intellectual and religious center of the country, each community bringing its technical, scientific and artistic skills. Its location in the fertile plain of Saiss at the crossroads of major caravan routes contributed to its rapid development, too.
The Almoravid sultan Youssef Ben Tachfine, founder of Marrakech, captured the city in 1069 without making it his capital. He pulled down the walls and united the two cities in one, connected to eachother with two bridges. Fez lost its status of imperial city but still enjoyed a period of prosperity.
In the middle of the twelfth century the Almohad Sultan Abd el-Moumem enters into the city. At that time, Fez's reputation lies far beyond the borders of the country, its people trading with Spain, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. Fez reached its apogee in the early fourteenth century after the weakened Almohad dynasty had been chased away by the Merinids who made it their capital.
At that time, a new city, Fez el Jadid, is created on the surrounding heights to accommodate the Caliph, his court and his army, and the city becomes again a double town, on one side the medina for the inhibitants, on the other the administrative and military city. This is the golden age of madrassas, the Koranic schools with scholars and students from throughout the Islamic world, especially at Al-Qarawiyin, the first university in the Arab world built in the ninth century, before that of Oxford or the Sorbonne, thanks to Fatima Al-Fihria, its rich donor from Kairouan
As Europe sank into the darkness of the Inquisition in Fez coexisted Muslim scholars, Jewish doctors and Christian humanists, those scientists without borders deepening their knowledges in geography, chemistry or mathematics, studying world literature and arts and showing a great tolerance and a profound openness, thus contributing to the development of a refined city life.
The fifteenth century saw the advent of a thriving global commerce reaching the Far East, East Africa and North Europe and Fez is now a hub in the Maghreb.
In the sixteenth century, while the Saadian kings reign in Marrakech, Fez falls into their hands in 1549 and lost its rank of capital.
In the seventeenth century, as Europe knows its cultural golden age, Fez has to deal with epidemics, wars and famines and declines until the advent of the Alawite dynasty in 1666, the first sultan Moulay Rachid decided to rebuild the city. His successor, the great Moulay Ismail (1646-1727), chose Meknes as the new capital. Fez is then weakening and slipping back into decline.
The city regains its prestige and rank of capital under Sultan Moulay Mohammed ben Abdellah in the eighteenth century and despite the constant development of Casablanca, it manages to maintain its influence.
In 1911, French troops are called to the rescue by the sultan to quell a revolt and a year later, they impose the Protectorate of Morocco. The Ville Nouvelle (New Town) is created, with its wide avenues and residential areas but despite this, Fez manages to conciliate modernity and its millennial character. It definitely loses its position as administrative and economic capital in favor of Rabat and Casablanca, but without giving up its status as the spiritual capital of the country.
The medina (old city)
It is the largest and oldest of Morocco and it gives a perfect idea of what could be an oriental city in the Middle Age. As soon as you enter there by one of the many gates, the most monumental being Bab Boujloud, Bab Ftouh, Bab R'cif or Bab Guissa, you'll blend in an animated crowd, where everyone goes about his business. Here no motor vehicle, everything is transported with carts or on donkeys or mules.
You must have a serious sense of orientation for not getting lost in these intertwining streets and alleyways, some ending in deadends. Especially the names of derbs are rarely displayed, sometimes they are even multiples! But when in doubt, you can always ask your way, the friendliness of the people doing the rest, or you opt systematically for the direction of descent, you will then arrive at the bottom of the medina near Bab Ftouh. As most cities in the Middle Age, the medina is divided into working areas: the souks of coppersmiths in the square Seffarine, the dyers and tanners
in the neighborhood of Debbaghine, the potters, butchers, the souk of spices El Attarine and the carpenters on the place Nejjarine.
But what a delight to follow only his own inspiration, discovering during your walk the chiseled bronze door of a madrasah or the thin minaret of a mosque. The city also is full of magnificent fountains and former fondouqs who were once guesthouses welcoming travellers and caravans, nowadays home of workshops, craftsmen or boutiques. Some of these fondouqs have great artistic value, including that of El-Nejjarine, the carpenters fondouq, flanked by a magnificent fountain with polychromic ceramic tiles.
Thanks to its outstanding universal value, the Fez medina is listed by UNESCO among the World Heritage Sites since 1981.
The medina sites
The monumental Bab Boujloud is considered as the main entrance to the medina. Its construction is recent, in 1913 under the Protectorate. Covered with chiselled tiles, blue on one side and green on the other, it overlooks the square of the same name from which depart two main streets, Talâa Kebira and Talâa Seghira. 150m further, the madrasa Bou Inania, built around 1350 by the Merinid sultan Abu Inan, is the most spectacular of Koranic schools and is also open to non-muslims. It offers beautiful samples of the architecture of that time, especially beautiful carved woodworks and bronze decorations. It contains in its facade a water clock with unique and complex mechanism.
The madrasah Al Qarawiyin, mosque and university as well, was founded in 859 by Fatima Al-Fihria and is the true emblem of Fez, recognizable from far away with its green tiled roofs but inaccessible to non-muslims. It is also the oldest mosque in the country and has a library of over 30,000 books.
The Andalusian Mosque, located in the district of the same name and the second largest after Qarawiyin, was founded by Al-Fihria Meryem, sister of Fatima. It can be reached by crossing a bridge over the river separating the two areas.
The smaller madrasah Al-Attarine (1323) is especially decorated with stucco, woodwork and zelliges. The Zaouia of Moulay Idriss II, son of the founder but considered as the patron of the city, attracts many pilgrims who come to honor him.
The mosque of Ahmed Tijani houses the tomb of the other highly revered saint of Fez, founder of a native brotherhood in West Africa whose followers come every year from as far as Mali, Niger and Senegal.
Fez is undoubtedly the Morocco capital of handicrafts with its many artisans mainly grouped around the Qarawiyin, the true heart of the ancient city.
At Debbaghine, tanneries workers established since the Middle Age offer the most unusual show, their duty consisting in processing animal skins in trampling on them in circular tanks covered with tiles and filled with colorful and smelly liquids. The Seffarine Square is the center of the coppersmiths, rhythmically hammering and shaping the copper, brass or bronze cauldrons.
The Attarine souk shows its bags of spices and Ain Allou souk offers its leather goods, bags, jackets and slippers. It is mainly in Fez that are made the most slippers of the country, whether as mass production for souks of big cities or those of high quality sought by more demanding customers. Also in the domain of weaving and woodworking, Fez contains exceptional quality workshops.
Fez is definitely the mecca of Moroccan cuisine. with a fine taste and rich in flavor, benefiting from the contribution of cultures and Arab-Andalusian civilizations, Berber, Jewish, Christian and Muslim, the Fassi cuisine is among the most varied and popular in the world because its recipes and methods of ancient origin have been the subject of continuing research. It is for this reason that Fez has numerous chefs, among the best of Morocco.
Fez is famous for its Festival of World Sacred Music founded in 1994 and held every year in early June. It offers artistic evenings of high quality and popular entertainment.
In 2005, the sitar player Ravi Shankar was among the many talented artists and in 2006 Salif Keita of Mali, Saber Rebai Tunisia and Abida Parveen of Pakistan delighted the festival. In 2007 the diva Barbara Hendricks was on stage and the South African singer Johnny Clegg as well while the flamboyant horseman and equestrian choreographer Bartabas accompanied by Sufi musicians gave a demonstration of his art.
More recently in 2014, Andalusia has been honored by the voice of Amina Alaoui and flamenco of Andres Marin, with the presence of Carmen Linares and Paco de Lucia.
Since 2015 the festival opens exceptionally in May because of Ramadan.
Alongside the festival, other artistic events (painting and photography exhibitions), have emerged, giving Fez a festive appearance during the cultural week.
The other big event in Fez is the Festival of Sufi Culture in April, that offers not only musical but also artistic manifestations ( as painting, calligraphy, poetry) organized by brotherhoods from various countries and cultures with the aim to widespead the spirit of humanity and spirituality of this philosophy.
Fez, at the crossing of the country main roads, occupies a strategic position in the heart of a region with a great heritage but also with natural wealth. The countryside is home to high places of culture and villages with great interest. These include in particular the Roman site of Volubilis, Morocco's most important former capital of the kingdom of Mauritania. Here we can find beautiful frescoes and mosaics, baths, the remains of patrician houses and a forum whose entrance is dominated by an arch dedicated to the Emperor Caracalla.
Not far away, Moulay Idriss, the city with green roofs, houses the tomb of Idris I, founder of Fez, who brought Islam to the heart of Morocco. Sefrou, a center of Jewish culture, one of the largest in Morocco, is a resort located 28 km southeast of Fez and at an altitude of 850m, in a region surrounded by green forests and lakes. Within its walls, a Great Mosque, the old mellah (Jewish quarter) and several zawiyas and fondouqs. Sefrou is also known for its delicious cherries which are celebrated every year at the beginning of June throughout the Kingdom.
Immouzer, a mountain station (1350m) 36 km from Fez on the road to Ifrane, is the perfect place for hiking and walks. His source of Ain Soltane produces high quality water.
Ifrane, located at 1650 m altitude and 60 km of Fez, in the middle of a beautiful forest of cedars and oaks, is both a winter and summer resort with its houses with sloping roofs covered with red tiles, similar to those of Europe. It is the ideal getaway for hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking and cross country skiing as well as for hunting and fishing.
At 16 km from Ifrane, the village of Azrou nestled at 1200m above sea level, is known for its Berber carpets that can be found here for a much better price than in Fez, the best is to go to the souk (Tuesday) and buy directly from villagers. There are also interesting wood carvings often representing animals.
South of Azrou, the Berber village of Ain Leuh near which the Oum Rbia, one of the main rivers of Morocco, has its source. Ski slopes at Mischlifen Station and Jebel Habri.
Activities in Fez and around
Morocco's first wellness center, Moulay Yacoub 20 km from Fez offers modern facilities for a variety of therapeutic treatments (rheumatism, skin diseases, asthma) or for general fitness.
15 km from Fez towards Ifrane, the Royal Golf of 18 holes, one of the most beautiful of Morocco, is located in the heart of a vast olive grove at the foot of the Atlas Mountains at an altitude of 700m, offering a very technical course in hilly landscapes dotted with six lakes. It is open all year, but closed on Mondays. Here is held the prestigious tournament of the Hassan II Trophy. You can also rent the golf equipment (carts, clubs and caddies).
Located 27 km south east of Fez, Sefrou is a picturesque Berber town at the foot of the Middle Atlas and has a colorful market on Thursday. A large Jewish community lived here until the end of the 1960s in the quarter of mellah. It is known for its cherry festival (at the end of June).
At 15 km east of Fez, Sidi Harazem is a small spa and wellness center and the warm water of its fountains is famous for the treatment of kidney stones and liver diseases.