I have to admit that what I really wanted to get from my Moroccan trip was a good sense of the country’s traditions and way of life. Although Marrakech is appealing I really wanted to spend the majority of time in Fes (or Fez, I am still very confused about the spelling). Fes was the medieval capital of Morocco and it was founded by Idris I in 789. It has the best preserved old town in the Arab world, with its intricate medina of Fes el-Bali. There are no cars allowed in the medina so the transport of goods if made by donkeys, mules and handcarts.
Some people might say that you may lost in the medina. I will simply say that is a given. I was definitely lost multiple times and trying to recreate a particular route was never possible. I am not saying that you won’t succeed where I failed, but simply I could not follow the map routes. Funny enough I did not get angry because I could not find the places I was looking for. Instead I was simply smiling, enjoying my time cause it felt like I went back in time.
So, every day I would start exploring the medina from the Bab Boujloud Gate (or the Blue Gate). Built in the 1913 during the French occupation of Morocco this gate is the heart of the Fes medina. Its beautiful mosaic tiles (which turn from blue on the outside and green on the inside) and its grand archway have transformed it into a landmark. Be sure to have at least once breakfast close by just to have the opportunity to observe the kids going to school, women going to the hammam and shopping in the souks and men just laughing.
Fes is mostly known for being the home of the world’s oldest university. For the last 1200 years Al-Qarawiyyin Mosque (or al-Karaouine) has been one of the most important educational centers in the Islamic world. This mosque and university was founded by Fatima Fihriyya in the 9th century. She was from a town from today’s Tunisia and, together with her family, she emigrated to Morocco in the 800s. She eventually married but due to some unfortunate events her father, brother and husband passed away. Left off with a big inheritance Fatima and her sister decided to invest into their community. So they build the Al-Qarawiyyin mosque and university.
Although non Muslims cannot enter and visit it, this should not stop you from grabbing a peek of this magnificent edifice. I do believe that its library is opened to the public but it was closed on weekends, when I wanted to visit it.
Be sure to stop by the Zaouia Moulay Idriss II which is a shrine and religious complex dedicated to and tomb of Moulay Idriss II (son of Idris I ), who ruled Morocco in the 9th century and founded the city of Fes for the second time in 810. This complex is also opened only to the Muslim public but you can see a bit inside. Plus, there are sooooo many entrances it will be difficult not peek inside for a bit.
Also, the minaret is visible from every corner. So, you cannot escape it whatever you would do.
The only way to find these 2 mosques is to wander in the souks of Fes. It is normal to feel overwhelmed in these narrow and maze-like streets, especially since following a map is practically impossible, but only here you will be able to experience the exciting sounds, inciting aromas and beautiful smiles on the vendors faces when they are presenting their products. It is unlikely that you won’t buy anything from them.
I was fascinated by the ornate lamps, tea sets, candelabras, musical instruments, metal and wooden picture frames, shisha pipes, complex woven baskets, carpets, plates, vases, eye catching gems, henna tattoo tools, beautiful jewellery, aromatic soaps and products made out of argan oil. So, yeah, basically everything is more interesting in Fes. And, of course, do not forget to bargain. It is all in the experience.
The souks will start leading you to the world renowned Chaouwara tanneries which are one of the city’s most iconic sights. From any terrase surrounding it you can observe the process of producing high quality leather by employing methods that have not changed a lot since medieval times. The last time these tanneries were restored was in the 13th century. What you see today has lasted for more than 7 centuries.
The smell is powerfull so be sure to have a scarf or some mint leaves. Someone will definitely come up to you offering explanations on how the dying process of the leather takes place waiting for a tip or a sale of his own leather products. Firstly the leather is soaked for two to three days in a mixture of cow urine, water, and salt in order to make it more flexible and destroy any remainings of hair or fat. After this the leather is soaked in a mixture of water and pigeon poop in order to make it more malleable so that it could absorb the dye. After this they are places in dying pits containing natura vegetable dyes like poppy flower (red), indigo (blue), henna (orange), cedar wood (brown), mint (green), and saffron (yellow). In the end they are taken out to dry under the sun. The entire process is more complicated and takes a long period of time. What you can see from the terraces surrounding Chaouwara is just a tiny bit from the whole process.
Trying to find my way back to my hotel I stumbled upon one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen – the Medersa Bou Inania. Funnily enough, the man behind this amazing place was the Sultan Abou Inan who built the mosque and the adjacent school in order to wash away his sins ( which included killing his father, brutally murdering his rivals and fathering over 300 children). Nevertheless, Bou Inania remains a remarkable example of Merenid architecture and is, even today, active as a religious building and (yey!) it is opened to any visitor.
Although you cannot visit everything, you will still be allowed to enter into its courtyard, which is the main part of the building. This entire place has the most beautiful handcrafted ornaments and carvings, with geometrical designs and artistic calligraphy, marble floors and turquoise zellij tiles. The wood you see is cedar and it is just impressive. Bou Inania is definitely a must visit in Fes.
Just like I stumbled upon Medersa Bou Inania I found by accident so many more amazing places in Fes, which I will tell you all about in the next post.