Travel to Fes once in your life and you’ll want to come back a second time
Writing about Fes isn’t easy; where do you begin and end when it comes to a city that dates back to the 9th century with vast literature already available on it — one that isn’t a stranger to tourists or travel guides, and was once considered the epicentre of Islamic civilisation.
Why I’m writing this, however, is simple: to make everyone with an itch to travel to go to Fes — a time capsule functioning as a modern city — at least once.
Most travel guides say one to two days are enough for Fes, once referred to as the Athens of Africa and still considered the cultural and spiritual capital of Morocco. I would recommend at least three to four days if your itinerary allows.
Morocco planning 101: Applying for Morocco’s visa from Pakistan is a smooth process (see this link). For currency, Euro is ideal, followed by US dollar and British Pound, and the destination itself is still relatively economical with our plunging rupee as it lets you customise your trip according to your budget when it comes to food, stay and shopping. A bulk of the total is spent on the flight from Pakistan, plus travelling to other cities if you book private cars. With the right planning, trains are an excellent option to get from one city to the other.
Entering the city
Most major airlines fly to Casablanca and for Fes, if you’re as ambitious as us, you can take a car direct from the airport and reach the city in 4-5 hours. Since we were three people, we asked our hotel in Fes to arrange the car — not only is that reliable, especially if you’re travelling late in the night as we were, but you can trust that the driver will know how to navigate through the labyrinths that are the medinas — the old or historical districts of a town or city, typically from the middle ages and typically walled, found in many North African countries.
And navigate he did. Suitcases in toe, we followed him through neon-lit alleys a little before midnight, with the smell of leather heavy in the air and scarce locals giving us a curious look or two. An extremely unassuming entrance led us into our hotel, Dar Seffarine, and even in our exhausted state after 25 hours of travel (two flights, an airport layover and a car ride) we were struck by the grandeur and detailed ornamentation of its architecture.
The high-ceiling central courtyard is an opulent introduction to the complexity of Moorish style: giant cedar doors with geometric patterns, floors with zellij (mosaic tile work), carved columns and horseshoe arches — if I go into any more description, as much as it deserves, the article will become only about this 600-year-old dar (house).
Youssef, the young man who checked us in and became our go-to for everything over the next two days, told us it was renovated recently with an aim to keep as much of the true design as possible.
Three special mentions about Dar Seffarine: the food, made by a young lady Khadijah and her mother, was so good that it ranks as one of the best we had during our entire nine-day vacation; the rooftop terraces with a panoramic view of the old quarters; and a collection of antique djellabas (the D is silent) — a loose-fitting woollen cloak with a baggy hood that has a pointy end and traditional embroidery — that guests could borrow.
The dar is deep inside the famous medina of Fes, a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1981, that is said to contain more than 10,000 historic sites within its walls.
The old quarters are built over a cluster of hills and divided into two parts: Fes el Bali (the oldest section), where we stayed and spent a bulk of our time, and Fes el Jdid (New Fes).
Fes el Bali further has two quarters: Karaouine, also written as Qarawiyyin, and Andalusian (the names denoting the refugees from Kairouan in present-day Tunisia and Cordoba in Spain). Initially functioning as two separate cities with Fes River in between serving as a boundary, they were made one in the 11th century under the Berber/Amazigh (indigenous inhabitants) Muslim Almoravid dynasty. A number of restored original bridges let you cross the river that unfortunately is now not only a dumping ground for trash but also chemical waste from the city’s tanneries.
Fes el Jdid was formed by the Marinid Sultanate (a Berber Muslim empire) after its conquest of the city in 1248 and became home to Fes’s Jewish community.
Often, however, when people refer to the medina, they only mean Fes el Bali as it has to its name the mosques, the mausoleums, the madrassahs, the souks (markets) and the university whose reputation precedes them. But historical structures, as grandiose as they are, don’t make a city what it is; they give you a glimpse into its past while the soul of a place carries on in its people, the Fassis in this case.
The Fassis of the medina
Having visited the mad and magical medina of Marrakech and the homey and harmonious one in Tunis that dates back to 698, I was curious to meet the people of the fabled mediaeval city of Fes.
Youssef told us that many of the original inhabitants have moved to other cities with more economic opportunities while people from smaller towns had moved to Fes to make the most of the tourist influx. Outside the medina lies Fes’s Ville Nouvelle (New Town) with the look and feel of a modern-day city, developed around 1916 by the French, which is where the young and affluent Moroccans, and the small expat community resides. It is also the city’s administrative hub.
“I live in the New Town, as do most people my age,” said Youssef, who appeared to be in his mid-late twenties. “The medina has a lot of rich history […] and too many people! The thriving and hip present is in the New Town.”
Most residents come to the medina for shopping or a night out with friends and family, he added. For a city that has deeply spiritual roots, Fes has no qualms about alcohol, as is evident by the number of rooftop bars in the old quarters.
The rooftops, however, are a different world from the serpentine alleys of the medina (estimated to be 9,400) that are free of cars but filled with people — Moroccans and tourists — either selling or buying meat, spices, garments, perfumes, silverware and whatnot; rushing somewhere or asking for directions; sitting at tea shops chatting with each other; or shouting “barak!” as they demand you to make way for the donkey carts.
“It’s good that more people are coming to Fes but that makes the medina more for them than for us,” Youssef said with a chuckle.
Talking to Youssef as he brought us breakfast and afterwards, over our second or third cup of caffeine became a daily ritual, after which, it was off into the alleys where whether you intend to spend money or not, you will find yourself stopping at the shops.
While indulging in Fes’s most exquisite offering, its hand-painted pottery, we met Mohammed Idrissi, who not only gave us helpful tips for our visit but also became our one-stop solution to the shopping conundrum.
I say conundrum because you’ll come across shop after shop in Fes el Bali where every inch of the floor and walls are covered with ceramic platters, glasses, bowls, tagines, pots, pitchers, vases and more in striking colours, featuring an array of geometric patterns and motifs. To put it mildly, you may be overwhelmed by the variety and insistence of the shopkeepers to buy from them. Amidst this, Idrissi, who had two shops that he showed us, appeared like our own personal shopper.
We browsed his collection on day one and came back on day two to spend a chunk of our money. “Cities in Morocco adopted their own colours; red for Marrakech, white for Tangier, and green (the colour of Islam) for Fes; but the pottery in the city is known for its blue,” he told us, going into detail of how and where they are made and the distinction between the qualities and the makes.
Idrissi lived in the medina and generously invited us to visit his home for a meal but due to time constraints, settled on serving us Moroccan tea at the end of our shopping spree. If you need to find him or his shops, ask about Maristan Sidi Frej or look for the Henna Souk, easily identifiable with a fig tree in its centre.
Maristan means a healing hospital and the one in Fes built around 1286 focused primarily on people with mental health issues and those excluded from society. Some books say it may have served as a model for Europe’s psychiatric hospitals. After a fire burnt it to the ground in the 1940s, the site was repurposed for a funduq-type building (an inn for merchants and travellers as well as a venue for commercial activities) and today, it is lined with shops. You can see the tallest minaret in the city up close from its rooftop, which Idrissi animatedly gave us a tour of.
I found the Fassis to be a curious-minded lot but not intruding. Many asked where I was from or came up to inquire about the djellaba I had borrowed from Dar Sefarrine due to its antique design that was hard to come by in the markets now (or so they told me) — but unlike my first time in Marrakech’s medina, I didn’t feel trepidation when approached by a local.
You can choose to engage for as long you want or smile politely and keep walking.
Not getting scammed 101: Yes, Morocco’s main cities have plenty of swindlers hoping to make some money off tourists’ gullibility but that doesn’t mean you don’t talk to locals; just be smart about who you engage with. If someone comes up to you and says they can take you to a place with ‘amazing views’ for ‘absolutely no money’, don’t fall for it. That’s not to say we didn’t follow people for directions or go with shopkeepers who took us to another area in the market — but you have to assess the person before you and be mindful of where you’re going. Some are not dissuaded by a brisk shake of the head, so it’s okay to loudly say no.
In my experience of the country over two visits, for every scammer, you’ll find two nice Moroccans who will go out of their way to help you; like the elderly man who, when we looked visibly lost after Google Maps could only get us so far (it is no match for the routes of the medinas), left his shop to walk us all the way to the door of the restaurant to make our dinner reservation, or the shopkeeper who broke his sandwich in parts to share with us when we asked him where we could buy one from. Both of them didn’t speak English and my Arabic was very limited — but hand gestures and good intentions go a long way.
A scent of leather, donkeys and orange blossom
“To lose oneself in the crowd, to be pulled along by it … not knowing where to or for how long … to see beauty where it is least likely to appear”
— American author Paul Bowles on Fes el Bali
Walking through the medina is an experience in itself; the air carries the scent of orange blossom and spices mixed with the slight stench of leather and donkeys that will pass no matter how crowded the narrow lanes. According to one Moroccan mythology, the orange tree symbolises paradise and love, its white flowers purity, and its fruit fertility. It’s no surprise then that it’s used in perfumes, food, at religious ceremonies and for beauty care.
The sounds in the old quarters range from shopkeepers calling out to you and each other, to azaans from the mosques enveloping the alleys. Juices can be found in abundance as well as street food (you must try the Briouat — more on the food here). Most importantly, getting lost is a given, if not a rite of passage, to exploring the bustling old quarters.
The key is to factor in getting lost instead of worrying about it. Because when you do, you’ll come across the bits that aren’t found in travel guides; beautiful doors and unique door knockers that will hold you to the spot, dilapidated homes that give an indication of their grand past, and intricately tiled public saqayyas (fountains) — estimated to be around 80 in Fes at the beginning of the 13th century — in the most random of corners. As many times as you get lost and then find your way, I exaggerate not, you’ll get a rush of having accomplished something.
How to get lost 101: If it’s your first time in a medina, you may take the help of local guides who are identifiable by their badges — better yet, ask the hotel where you’re staying to hook you up. Half the allure of this old city, however, is wandering it on your own. Be a little mindful of the routes you take, assisted by the signs you spot for the main landmarks, ask people for directions (safe bets are older men and women, shopkeepers you’ve already bought something from or a worker at one of the tourist sites) and you should be okay. Youssef had told us that if ever hopelessly lost, especially after a late dinner, we could call him and he would send someone to help us navigate our way back for 20-30 Moroccan dirhams (less than Rs1,000). Though we didn’t have to make that call, it was reassuring to have that option. The same service is offered at some restaurants where for a pre-decided fee, someone will walk you back to where you need to be.
The shops, as I mentioned earlier, sell pretty much everything you can imagine and the leather goods are hard to miss — not just because of their bright colours but because you can smell them before you lay eyes on them. The reason being there are three tanneries in the city, among which the Chouara Tannery is the largest and reputed to be the oldest in the world. We had been forewarned that there would be people trying to sell mint to ward off the smell as well as persistent shopkeepers touting ‘the most authentic leather’. But any place that’s a must-see on every city guide can never be where you find the ‘best price’.
I wasn’t too keen on visiting the tannery but it turned out to be somewhat of an unusual live show; multiple terraces offer sweeping views of leather hides being washed and dyed below. Rows of containers, some with whitish liquid (made up of lime, pigeon droppings, ashes and cow urine, thus the odour) and others with yellow, red, blue, green and black dyes (more chemical now than natural) line the ground as men donning heavy-duty gloves and boots work among them. Finished hides hang on the terraces, gleaming under the sun, where visitors stand covering their noses with cloth or mint leaves watching the arduous age-old process unfold, like an audience watching a play before them in an amphitheatre.
Haggling 101: The Pakistani in us came in handy in multiple scenarios in a rough-edged country like Morocco but never as much as when haggling; we’ve all seen our mothers do it, Morocco is where you become them. Go for half of what they say, if not even less sometimes, but be prepared that they may not be in the mood to play ball and you may have to walk away. Gauge the person you’re bargaining with and try to get a sense of how far you can go when asking them to reduce the price. Or throw in something else for a bundle discount — it works!
Fes has a number of noteworthy museums but time was not on our side so we made do with one, the Nejjarine Museum of Wooden Arts & Crafts. Originally an 18th century funduq, it is now a three-storey wooden crafts museum with a namesake public fountain outside that deserves to be appreciated on its own.
The fountain, commissioned by an Alaouite (Arab dynasty and current reigning monarchs) sultan in the 19th century, with its characteristic canopy of carved wood provides free water to residents and visitors alike to this day.
An ode to Islamic design
I can’t possibly recap in this article the history of Fes under the Idrisid dynasty, Almoravid dynasty, Almohad rule, Marinid sultanate, Saadi sultanate, Alaouites, and French colonial rule, or the influence of the Muslim and Jewish refugees from Cordoba and Kairouan — but I mention them because you come across traces of these periods throughout the city. (For those interested in diving deep into its complex history, you’ll find books, papers and articles that will do far more justice to it than I could.)
Most walled cities, like our very own Lahore, have multiple gates as entry points but unlike Lahore, the ones in Fes have been preserved to this day. Bab Bou Jeloud, or the Blue Gate of Fes, is referred to as the front gate to the medina but we saw it close to sunset on our second day while exiting to go towards Fes el Jdid. Relatively newer than the other gates — made in 1913 by the French — the side facing Fes el Bali features arabesque design in Fes’s green while the one visible to those entering through it from outside is blue akin to the pottery of the city.
There are two main streets in Fes el Bali running parallel to each other — Tala’a Kbira and Tala’a Seghira; they have Bab Bou Jeloud at one end and both run all the way to the city’s main mosque complex, which at one time was the tomb of Moulay Idris II and another the Al Karaouine mosque.
The routes are dotted with shops and among them are two madrassahs, Bou Inania and Al Attarine, located on opposite ends of the streets but both distinctively beautiful.
We found a small doorway, one of a few, to the Bou Inania Madrassah, which is close to Bab Bou Jeloud, but half an hour before it closes to visitors, the doors had already been locked. Looking at our crestfallen faces, a man running the shop right next to it told us to persistently knock — and knock loudly. As someone eventually opened the door slightly to peer at the noise coming outside, the man pleaded our case and for the next 20 minutes, the entire madrassah was ours.
I can easily say my memories of Fes would not have been the same without those 20 minutes in the quiet of the madrassah with only the sound of birds, being in awe of the elaborate design elements with painstaking attention-to-details that all meshed together. Built between 1351 and 1357, it has the typical features of a madrassah; a courtyard with an ablution fountain in the centre, prayer areas, living quarters, and study rooms. Unlike many such schools, however, it also has a congregational mosque with a beckoning green-tiled minaret.
Although madrassahs existed before Fes’s opulent ones in other parts of the world, notably Iran and Egypt, the Marinids made them integral to their rule and particularly this city — one reason being to establish themselves as protectors and promoters of Sunni Islam. Bou Inania is known as the pinnacle of their architectural endeavours.
Sultan Abu Inan is said to have built the school to rival the famed Karaouine mosque without sparing any cost. The legend goes that when presented with the account books, the sultan quoted an Arab poet: “What is beautiful is not expensive, no matter what the amount of money is — but it is priceless, something that pleases man.”
The Al Attarine (1323-1325) is smaller in comparison but with the similar striking design elements of carved stucco, kufic inscriptions, zellij, and marble columns. It has only one entrance via a door fit into the wooden mashrabiya (latticework) screen, which when seen from inside the courtyard across the fountain is a sight to behold.
The 30 rooms on the second floor for the students, in contrast, are small and simple — telling of the life the aspiring scholars were meant to embrace. The madrassah gets its name from the perfume market nearby but more noticeable about its location is the intentional proximity to the Al Karaouine mosque, library and university that boasts notable graduates from the Muslim world as well as other religions.
How to make room for the unexpected 101: I had wanted to visit Fes for a couple of years now and one of the main reasons was the Al Karaouine University. Founded by an Arab woman Fatima Al Fihri in 859, it is said to be the oldest existing and continually operating educational institution in the world, and an architectural jewel. On our very first day in the city, it was our very first stop, only to be told that it was closed for renovations. After eventually moving past the disappointment of not being able to see what I had been envisioning for years, I took solace in discovering those places that I hadn’t even planned for. I did wistfully look at every door of the complex (there are 14-16 in total) that I passed.
Back to the beginning
Al Karaouine is undoubtedly Fes’s most widely known landmark but it would not have existed without the man who opened the city to migrants from Kairouan, including the Al Fihri family.
A minute-walk away from the famed complex, through unmarked paths, is the zawiya (shrine) of Moulay Idris II, the ‘main’ founder of Fes. It is nestled so inconspicuously amid the busy shops of the souk that you could easily miss it while passing by.
His father Idris bin Abdallah, who declared himself a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), founded the Idrisid Dynasty, which ruled in Morocco from 789 until 921, after fleeing from the Abbasid rulers of Baghdad to Tangier.
After uniting the Berber tribes of the area, he laid the foundation for Fes. But it was his son, Idris II, who established Fes as a religious and cultural centre and made it his capital — an honour given to the city at different times under subsequent rulers up until 1912 when the seat of government shifted to Rabat after bloody riots in the city.
He ruled Morocco from 807 to 828 and almost five centuries after his death, an uncorrupted body was found, deemed to be of Idris II by the clerics of the time, at the site where his tomb stands today.
The structure that includes a mosque and madrassah has been built, rebuilt and beautified over centuries, and is open only to Muslims. While its 18th century minaret next to the green pyramid roof is the tallest in the city and almost always in sight, the entrance to the zawiya is obscure.
We took a couple of wrong turns before finding one of the many doors but it turned out getting inside was even harder as every time we circled back, we were told it was closed for prayer.
Once inside, the reverence for Moulay (an honourific title) Idris II was unmistakable with men, children and women solemnly stepping up to the richly decorated tomb to seek his blessings, while others prayed around it.
The Moorish design elements I’ve already mentioned for the madrassahs were all there in the hall as well as the courtyard but the colours were brighter, most strikingly the red prayer carpets, and a touch of gold was woven into the mix, signifying this was not like all the other religious buildings. Chandeliers hung from the large wooden dome ceiling comprising numerous small wooden pieces in a star-like pattern.
Moulay Idris II’s resting place is one of the holiest sites in Morocco, visited by people from all over the region, particularly on special occasions. And while little is known in history to establish him as a religious figure, his legacy as the patron saint of Fes is undisputed.
Centuries later, the titles emir and sultan have been replaced by king but the concept of sharifian dynasty — leadership to be held by the descendants of the Prophet (PBUH) — continues with today’s Morocco running under Mohammad VI since 1999.
We left Fes for the blue city of Chefchaouen after one final look at the city from atop the hillside where the ruins of the Marinid royal family’s necropolis stand, one of the many reminders of bygone Muslim powers.
The landscape of Fes as seen from that windy spot appeared to be pieces of puzzles put together in a haphazard way, making it seem unreal that just moments ago, we had navigated these narrow passages that make up an urban city but also make pages of history come alive.
Amidst the sand-toned city sprawled before us, the green roofs and white minaret of the Al Karaouine stood out, a testament to how Fes has survived and also thrived under its many rulers.
Personally, the symbolic green seemed to hold a promise that I would return one day, I would walk through the historic Al Karaouine that beckoned me to the city in the first place, and that I would still find myself intrigued by Fes and the Fassis.
This is a 4-part series on the author’s travels to Morocco.
Header Image: A view of Fes el Bali from Dar Seffarine’s rooftop. — Photo by author
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