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Fes is a city of immense history and cultural richness. During its peak in the 13th century, it was a hub for scholars and intellectuals from a variety of fields such as mathematics, astronomy, law, theology, philosophy, and many others. This, in turn, drew the best craftsmen to build houses, palaces, mosques, and madrasas for the kings.
Trade flourished with merchants bringing exotic goods from the silk roads and sub-Saharan trade routes, making Fes one of the largest cities in the medieval world. Despite the passing of time, the heart of the city remains largely unchanged.
The medina of Fes is the largest car-free urban area in the world and offers a unique and immersive experience that transports you back in time. Entering the medina is like stepping into a time machine and emerging in the city of Fes.
Introduction to Fes
Fes is one of the four Imperial Cities of Morocco (together with Marrakesh, Meknes, and Rabat). It is located in the northern part of the country, away from the coast, near the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, and on the crossroads of ancient caravan routes. Some say that Fes is the most Moroccan city in Morocco. They may be right.
Even UNESCO recognized the importance of Fes el-Bali, the oldest neighborhood. The organization argues that it represents an exceptional architectural, archaeological and urban heritage while, at the same time, it is capable of transmitting a lifestyle and culture of its own, in spite of now being with us in the 20th century. We agree entirely! And you will too once you find some of the military, civil and religious monuments while you navigate the narrow alleys into squares that reward you with fountains or streets exploding in aromatic sensations, masterful craftsmanship and views over dozens of minarets.
Highlights of Fez
- Rich history: Fez is one of the oldest imperial cities in Morocco and has a rich history dating back to the 9th century. It is considered one of the country’s cultural capitals and is home to many historical sites and landmarks.
- UNESCO World Heritage Site: The old city of Fez, known as Fes el Bali, has been designated one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Morocco due to its well-preserved architecture and traditional urban fabric.
- Medina: The old city of Fez, or Medina, is one of the largest car-free urban areas in the world and is a labyrinth of narrow alleys, colorful markets, and beautiful palaces.
- Artisanal tradition: Fez is famous for its artisanal traditions, including leather work, ceramics, and textiles. The city’s tanneries, dating back to the medieval period, are a unique sight and a testament to the city’s historical importance in the leather trade.
- Religious landmarks: Fez is home to many religious landmarks, including the Al Quaraouiyine mosque and library, which is one of the oldest universities in the world, and the Bou Inania Madrasa, a 14th-century Islamic school and mosque.
- Culinary scene: Fez is known for its rich culinary heritage and offers a diverse range of traditional Moroccan dishes. From street food to high-end restaurants, the city has something for everyone.
- Modern developments: Despite its rich history and traditional atmosphere, Fez is a modern city that offers many amenities, such as museums, art galleries, and shopping centers. The city is also home to the Royal Palace of Fez, a modern residential palace built in the early 20th century.
History of Fez
Fes was founded in 789 by Idriss I, who came from Baghdad and lead local Berbers to conquer the region and establish the Kingdom of Morocco. Shortly after, Muslims from Spain arrived in waves, running away from the Catholic Reconquista, and then the Tunisians. In the 9th century, the University of Al Quaraouiyine was built, now the oldest in the world. This meant that Fes had a massive population by the 11th century, composed of Moors, Berbers, Jews, Turks, and Christians.
In 1250, it became the capital of Morocco and grew as a center of learning and commerce during the rule of the Marinids. A lot of magnificent buildings, monuments, and madrasas were built during this era is a characteristic mixture of Arab and Andalusian styles. The centuries that followed were a lot more agitated. The Wattasid Dynasty took over the city with the support of the Turks and then, in 1579, the Ottoman Empire finally conquered it. Fes lost its stature as the capital to Marrakesh and got it back during the 18th-century reign of Moulay Abdallah, only to lose again (to Rabat) when Morocco became a French protectorate in 1912. However, the city also gained a Ville Nouvelle, with large boulevards, completely different from the Medina.
Important dates in the history of Fez
- 789 AD: The city of Fez is founded by the Idrisid dynasty, becoming an important center of learning and commerce.
- 809 AD: The Al Quaraouiyine mosque and library is founded, making Fez a center of scholarship and religious study.
- 1276 AD: Fez becomes the capital of the Marinid dynasty, marking the start of a period of political and cultural stability in the city.
- 1450 AD: The Bou Inania Madrasa is built, adding to the city’s already impressive architectural heritage.
- 1549 AD: The city is conquered by the Saadian dynasty and becomes an important center of trade and commerce.
- 1912 AD: Fez becomes part of the French Protectorate of Morocco, beginning a period of modernization and westernization in the city.
- 1956 AD: Morocco gains independence from France and Fez becomes an important cultural and economic center in the new nation.
What to do in Fes
Although Fes has three different parts, most attractions lie inside the walled-in medina of Fes el-Bali, literally a labyrinth of cobblestone lanes where donkeys and bicycles are the only means of transportation for the locals going about their business. You may very well decide to just wander around but a deeper exploration of this district and the other two in Marrakesh can be even more rewarding.
Do visit the souks and buy textiles, leather goods, ceramics, pottery, dried fruit,… You name it! Look for the bustling Bou Jeloud Square, which comes alive at dusk. Get to know the culture more deeply at Batha Museum (a valuable collection ranging from traditional Moroccan tiles to astrolabes and carpets), the Nejjarine Museum of Wooden Arts and Crafts, and Borj Nord (a military museum in a 16th-century fortress). Find Dar El Magan, a house with an interesting hydraulic clock. Enter Glaoui Palace and see the beautiful garden and the art gallery inside. Head to the Merenid Tombs to check out the ruins but also to discover the best view over the medina. To learn about the Jewish presence and culture, you must visit the Mellah, their old quarter. The spotlights here will be all over Rue des Mérinides (very different architecture, with verandahs made of wood and wrought iron), the small restored Aben-Danan Synagogue, the Jewish Museum, and the peaceful Jewish cemetery.
Top 5 Must-See Landmarks in Fez
Here are five sights and landmarks you can’t miss in Fez, Morocco:
- Al Quaraouiyine Mosque and Library: This historic mosque and library is one of the oldest universities in the world and a symbol of Fez’s rich cultural heritage.
- Bou Inania Madrasa: This 14th-century Islamic school and mosque is a masterpiece of Moroccan architecture, featuring intricate geometric designs and carved cedar wood.
- Fes el Bali (Old City): This historic neighborhood is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is known for its narrow alleys, vibrant markets, and beautiful palaces.
- Fez Tanneries: These historic leather tanneries are a unique sight in the city and have been in operation since the medieval period. Visitors can observe the traditional dyeing and leather-making process from a viewpoint above the tanneries.
- Royal Palace of Fez: This modern residential palace was built in the early 20th century and is a beautiful example of Moroccan architecture. The palace is located in the heart of Fez and is surrounded by lush gardens and courtyards.
Inside the medina of Fes, surely you can’t miss the 11th-century Chaouwara Tanneries, the largest leather workshop in the city. You will see men working around stone vessels filled with colorful dye, using the ancient leather-making process. The best places to witness the action are the elevated terraces of shops where you can then get products such as handbags or sandals.
Highlights of Fez tanneries
- Historical Significance: The Chaouwara Tanneries in Fez, Morocco are one of the oldest tanneries in the world and have been in operation since the 11th century. They are a testament to the rich cultural heritage of Morocco and are an important part of the country’s history.
- Complex Process: The process of tanning leather at the Chaouwara Tanneries is incredibly complex and involves a number of steps, including soaking the hides in natural dyestuffs, washing, drying, and treating the leather with various oils and waxes.
- Artisanal Tradition: The Chaouwara Tanneries are a prime example of the rich artisanal tradition that still exists in Morocco today. The skilled workers who operate the tanneries have passed down their knowledge and techniques for generations, ensuring that the tradition continues to thrive.
- Sights and Sounds: Visiting the Chaouwara Tanneries is an immersive experience, with the sights and sounds of the bustling workshops, the pungent smell of the dyeing agents, and the skillful workers all contributing to the atmosphere.
- Handmade Products: The end result of the intricate process at the Chaouwara Tanneries is beautiful, high-quality leather goods, such as bags, shoes, and jackets, that are all handcrafted by skilled artisans. These products are highly prized by tourists and locals alike, making them an excellent souvenir to take back home.
Kairaouine Mosque is Morocco’s second-largest (after Rabat’s Hassan II) and one of the most iconic landmarks in Fes. It has a green triangular-shaped roof and two historic minarets. It was right here that the university was created. The whole complex has fountains, courtyards, and an extremely old library. Entrance is limited to Muslims only.
Highlights of Kairaouine Mosque
- Historical Significance: The Kairaouine Mosque in Fez, Morocco is one of the largest and oldest mosques in the country, and is considered one of the most important religious and cultural landmarks in North Africa.
- Education Hub: The mosque has been a center of learning and education since its founding in the 9th century, and is home to one of the oldest universities in the world, the University of Al Quaraouiyine.
- Architectural Beauty: The Kairaouine Mosque is a magnificent example of Moroccan architectural style, with its intricate tile work, intricate carved stonework, and ornate arches and columns.
- Religious Significance: The mosque holds great religious significance for the people of Morocco and is considered a sacred site by the country’s Muslim population. It is a place of worship for the faithful, as well as a place of study and reflection.
- Cultural Importance: Beyond its religious significance, the Kairaouine Mosque is also an important cultural landmark, reflecting the rich history and heritage of Morocco. Visitors to the mosque can learn about the country’s past and experience its traditional architecture and art, making it a must-visit destination for anyone interested in the history and culture of Morocco.
Bou Inania Madrasa vs Al-Attarine Madrasa
Two extremely beautiful madrasas, Islamic schools of learning, are a great example of fine Merenid architecture. Bou Inania Madrasa was built between 1350 and 1357 by sultan Bou Inan. After its restoration, we can now again see the magnificently carved woodwork and stucco decoration. Al-Attarine Madrasa is even older, constructed in 1325, by Abu Said. The courtyard has elaborate zellige tile work and cedar wood carvings. From the rooftop, it is possible to see the green-tiled roof of the Kairaouine Mosque.
Madrasa el-Attarine and Madrasa Bou Inania are both historic Islamic schools, or madrasas, located in Morocco. While both are notable examples of Moroccan Islamic architecture and have unique historical and cultural significance, they differ in their design, construction, and purpose.
Madrasa el-Attarine is located in the city of Fez and was built in the 14th century during the Marinid dynasty. It was used as a religious school and is noted for its intricate tile work, carved stucco decoration, and beautifully crafted wooden screens. The madrasa is also known for its unique layout, which includes a central courtyard surrounded by student rooms, a mosque, and a library.
Madrasa Bou Inania, on the other hand, is located in the city of Meknes and was built in the 14th century during the reign of the Marinid Sultan Abu Inan Faris. Unlike Madrasa el-Attarine, Bou Inania was designed to serve as both a religious school and a mosque. It is famous for its intricate decoration, including carved stucco and tile work, as well as its horseshoe arches and intricate muqarnas (decorative plasterwork).
For visitors interested in historical and cultural tourism, both Madrasa el-Attarine and Madrasa Bou Inania offer a wealth of information and beauty to explore. However, if you have to choose one to visit, it might depend on personal preferences. If you are interested in intricate decoration, Madrasa Bou Inania might be the better choice, while if you are interested in unique architecture, Madrasa el-Attarine might be the better choice. Both are well-preserved examples of Moroccan Islamic architecture and offer a fascinating glimpse into the country’s rich cultural and religious history.
Bab Boujeloud, also known as Blue Gate, is one of the medieval entrances to Fes, the most beautiful of a total of 15 gates. It looks older but it was built in 1913 to replace the original from the 12th century. The triple arch of the gate, in Moorish style, is one of the most photographed elements in the city.
Highlights of Bab Boujeloud
- Color: Bab Boujloud is known for its bright blue color, which is a unique feature compared to other gates in Morocco.
- History: Bab Boujloud was built in the 14th century and has been an important landmark in Fez for centuries. It is one of the oldest gates in the city and has played a role in the history and culture of Morocco.
- Architecture: Bab Boujloud is a beautiful example of traditional Moroccan architecture, with intricate tile work, arches, and carvings. The gate is a testament to the skill and creativity of Moroccan artisans.
- Location: Bab Boujloud is located in the heart of Fez and is one of the main entrances to the old city. Visitors to Fez often walk through Bab Boujloud as they explore the narrow streets and historic buildings of the city.
- Cultural significance: Bab Boujloud is not only a beautiful and historic landmark, but it also holds cultural and spiritual significance for the people of Morocco. The gate is considered to be a symbol of the city and is revered by locals as an important part of their heritage.
Fes el Bali vs Fes el Jedid
To compare the different parts of Fes and comprehend its history a bit better, head to the other districts. Fes el Jedid was built during the 13th century once the Merenids realized that Fes el Bali was not big enough to accommodate every person in the city. This is where we find the Jewish quarter (described above), as well as the grand Royal Palace, used even today by the King of Morocco. The rhythm in Fes el Jedid is much more tranquil. As for Ville Nouvelle, it is the city’s modern center, developed by the French during the 20th century. Enjoy the fresh air that flows through the wide tree-lined avenues and relax at a café.
The World’s largest car-free urban area
The Medina of Fes is an example of a sustainable urban environment as it is the largest car-free urban area. This has a significant impact on the environment in terms of air quality and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Some numbers to illustrate this point:
- Air pollution: Cars are a major source of air pollution, particularly in urban areas. By being car-free, the Medina of Fes eliminates a significant portion of the air pollution that would otherwise be present in a traditional urban environment.
- Greenhouse gas emissions: The transportation sector is responsible for a significant portion of global greenhouse gas emissions. By eliminating cars from the Medina of Fes, it reduces its carbon footprint and contributes to the fight against climate change.
- Noise pollution: Cars also contribute to noise pollution, which can have negative impacts on both human health and the environment. The car-free nature of the Medina of Fes helps to reduce noise pollution and create a more peaceful and tranquil environment.
Overall, the car-free nature of the Medina of Fes provides numerous environmental benefits and serves as a model for other urban areas looking to promote sustainable development.
2-Day Itinerary in Fes
Welcome to the beautiful city of Fez, Morocco! This itinerary, organized by Infinite Morocco, offers a glimpse into the rich history, culture, and traditions of this ancient city. From the visit to the Royal Palace to the exploration of the lively Fez el-Bali, the itinerary promises an action-packed day of learning and discovery.
Your day 1 Fez itinerary starts with a visit to the Royal Palace and a stroll to the world’s oldest university, followed by a traditional Moroccan lunch and visits to the Moulay Idriss Mausoleum and the tanneries of Fez. The day concludes with a relaxing hammam experience and a dinner with traditional Moroccan music and dance performances.
Your day 2 Fez itinerary, you will explore the Boujloud Palace, the Fez Mellah, the Museum of Moroccan Judaism, and the potters’ quarter. The day will end with a scenic drive to the nearby hills and a farewell dinner sampling traditional Moroccan cuisine. Remember, this itinerary is flexible and can be adjusted to suit your personal preferences and interests. With Infinite Morocco, you can be sure to experience the best of Fez!
Day 1 in Fez
- 8:00am: Start the day with a visit to the Royal Palace (Dar Batha Museum) to see the traditional Moroccan architecture and learn about the country’s history.
- 10:00am: Walk to the famous Al Quaraouiyine University, the oldest operating university in the world, founded in 859 AD.
- 11:00am: Explore the lively Fez el-Bali, the oldest part of the city and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Walk through the narrow alleyways and visit the Bou Inania Madrasa, a 14th-century Islamic school.
- 12:30pm: Stop for a traditional Moroccan lunch at a local restaurant.
- 2:00pm: Visit the Moulay Idriss Mausoleum, dedicated to the city’s founder, Moulay Idriss II.
- 3:00pm: Explore the tanneries of Fez, where leather goods are produced using traditional methods.
- 4:00pm: Visit the Nejjarine Museum of Wooden Arts and Crafts to see the traditional woodworking of Morocco.
- 6:00pm: End the day with a relaxing hammam (Turkish bath) experience at a traditional bathhouse.
- 8:00pm: Have dinner at a local restaurant and enjoy the traditional Moroccan music and dance performances.
Day 2 in Fez
- 9:00am: Start the day with a visit to the Boujloud Palace, a beautiful 19th-century palace with intricate tile work and ornate stucco.
- 10:00am: Walk to the Fez Mellah, the historic Jewish quarter of the city, and see the 17th-century Synagogue Slat al-Fassiyin.
- 11:00am: Visit the Museum of Moroccan Judaism to learn about the country’s rich Jewish history.
- 12:30pm: Stop for lunch at a local restaurant.
- 2:00pm: Explore the potters’ quarter and see the traditional pottery being made by hand.
- 3:00pm: Visit the Al-Attarine Madrasa, a 14th-century Islamic school, to see its stunning tile work and ornate decoration.
- 4:00pm: Take a scenic drive to the nearby hills to see the stunning views of Fez and the surrounding countryside.
- 6:00pm: Return to the city and enjoy a farewell dinner at a local restaurant, sampling traditional Moroccan cuisine.
- Note: The itinerary is flexible and can be adjusted according to personal preferences and interests.