“Welcome to one of the oldest cities in the world…”
That’s how our guide introduced us to Fes – Morocco’s third largest city and its spiritual, cultural and intellectual heart. Founded in 808AD, Fes is one of the four imperial cities of Morocco and home to the oldest university in the world. The city’s medina is 1,200 years old and contains enough history and mystery to keep us entertained for weeks! Unfortunately we only have 3 days here though, so we got stuck straight into it today with a trip through Fes el Jdid (translation = New Fes).
Our day started nice and early in Chefchaouen with a traditional Moroccan breakfast of orange juice squeezed on demand, fresh baked breads, home made fruit preserves, local honey, olive tapande, soft sheep’s cheese and freshly churned butter. In addition we ordered 2 qahwa nus-nus (translation = coffee served half/half, meaning half espresso and half milk). How can you go wrong after a start like that?! The next 3 hours passed quickly with the drive back through the Rif Mountains revealing one scenic vista after another. The highlight of the trip back was a photo stop we made overlooking Douar Nzala Lake. The visibility across the valley was so great that we could see the Rif Mountains reflected on its surface and water birds paddling through the water.
Upon arriving in Fes we had a quick lunch and then headed straight out to explore “New Fes” (only in a city as old as this would the “new” part of town date from the 1200’s!). This part of Fes was built during the 13th and 14th centuries, under the Merinid Dynasty. During these years Fes was the capital of Morocco* and the principal monuments in the medina of Fes el Jdid (i.e. madrasas, palaces, residences, mosques and fountains) date from this period.
*Over the past 1,200 years Fes has been the nation’s capital half a dozen times, taking the title from Meknes in 808AD then jostling with Marrakech for the honour on a number of occasions and eventually, in 1912, losing that title to Rabat.
Fes was founded in 790AD by Idris I, a grandson of Prophet Mohammed, who travelled to Morocco from Iraq after the massacre of his tribe in 787AD. Idris found refuge here, married into the dominant Berber tribe and soon rose to power as a war lord, establishing Morocco’s first ruling dynasty: the Idriad Dynasty. Idris I called his new home Al Maghrib (translation = land in the West), which is what Moroccans still call their country. Under Idris I, the Kingdom of Morocco was created, becoming the 3rd Muslim state after Andalusia (modern-day Spain/Portugal) and the Caliphate of Baghdad (centred around modern-day Iraq). It was Idris I that drew up plans for a new capital called Fes. Morocco’s first king did not live to see his plan come to fruition, but under his son Idris II, Fes became the first capital of Morocco. It soon grew to become the only city in North Africa large enough and prestigious enough to compete with the powerful Eastern cities of Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo and Jerusalem.
The city reached its peak in the 13th and 14th centuries when the ruling Merenid Dynasty of the time invested heavily in expanding the city’s infrastructure and built a whole new section of the city: Fes el Jdid or New Fes. Unlike Fez el Bali (translation = Old Fes), whose development and growth was organic, Fez el Jdid was a planned city, built by the Merenids in 1276 as their seat of government. Travelling through this Western part of Fes today we saw the royal palace that was originally built more than 800 years ago, but only from the outside as this still functions as a royal residence whenever the current king and his family visit Fes*.
*The royal family spends a fair bit of time in Fes as the king’s wife (a computer engineer) is from Fes. They were not in residence today however so we didn’t get to say g’day.
We also saw the mellah (translation = Jewish quarter), which was built in New Fes during the 15th century as Spanish Jews escaped the Reconquista. A maze of tiny alley ways and lanes, the Jewish quarter of Fes is still home to some 1,000 Moroccan Jews. Many of the inhabitants left during the 20th century, moving to Israel, USA and Canada, so today the area is mostly inhabited by Muslim Moroccans and is really just an extension of main medina. It was still interesting to spend some time weaving through the alleys and lanes of the 550 year old town.
Our guide also took us for a stroll through the Boujeloud Gardens. This 80 acre park was once part of the royal palace but was converted into a public space in the 1970s. The gradens were a wonderful oasis of quiet after the narrow alleys, chaos and noise of the mellah!
Finally we went to see the madrasa Bou Inania. This school, built in 1351, functioned both as an educational institute and as a mosque until the 1960s when it was closed and reopened as a museum. It was built by the Marinids to help educate the children of the medina and, over the centuries, became one of the most important religious institutions in Morocco. The intricate zellij tiling, stucco, and wood carvings were beautiful and a testament to skills of the medieval Moroccan craftsmen that made them.
Our sightseeing done for the day we followed our guide down a set of twisting, turning lanes to our hotel, which is STUNNING! It’s a boutique, 5 star guesthouse housed within the walls of a 1,100 year old riad. It has been beautifully restored and converted and has the most beautiful roof top lounge. We happily spent the last few hours of our sunny day up on the roof, watching life in the medina below and around us unfold. Fes really is fabulous – chaotic, crazy and completely befuddling with its maze of tiny streets – but completely captivating!