Fes is One of the Imperial Cities of Morocco
Morocco is a little larger than California and home to about 35 million people. Morocco is a constitutional monarchy and more than 98% of the Moroccan population is Muslim. Morocco is located in North Africa and it borders on the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. Because of this, Morocco is often marketed to northern European countries as a low cost sun and sand destination. That’s too bad as Morocco is much more than just a place for some sun on the beach.
Morocco has fertile green coasts, numerous diving opportunities, high mountain ranges and vast deserts areas. Phoenicia, Carthage, Rome, Spain and France have all left marks on Morocco over the past 2000 years making it a treasure trove of unique sights and sounds.
The Moroccan cities of Fes, Marrakesh, Meknes, and Rabat are known as the Imperial Cities as they have all been the capital of Morocco at some point in history. Rabat is the modern capital.
Moulay Idriss, a direct descendant of Mohammed, founded Fes (Fez) as the Moroccan capital in the 9th century. The prime attraction is Fes el Bali, or more commonly the medina, the old medieval walled city. The medina, with it’s small streets and myriad alleyways, is still home to more than half of the city’s population. Filled with small neighbourhood markets or souqs, and horse or donkey drawn carts, and a teaming multitude of citizens. the medina, can be overwhelming to the foreign visitor. Fortunately, government approved guides are available.
Morocco has a relatively healthy economy but a significant portion of the population is poor by Western standards so you can expect some pressure to spend your money. Like most tourist destinations you can expect that your Moroccan guide will try to direct you to places you can spend your money. It is best that you set out your expectations up front. First negotiation the price for your guide and make clear what time frame that will cover. Next, make it clear what you want to see in that time. You will still be brought face to face with merchants hoping to make a sale but they will, at least, be selling things you are interested in.
In a Moroccan medina’s souq, most sales will be done via haggling, the practice of negotiating a price. The merchant will offer you goods for a certain amount of money that is above what he expects to get. You are expected to counter offer with a much lower but not insulting amount. About half the original price is a good starting point. From there you will work your way to some price between sixty and seventy percent of the original offer. Remember that the merchant is trying to make a living and if seventy percent of the opening price is too much for your taste give him a firm but polite “No thanks, I’m not interested” so you don’t waste his time.
In Fes there are many souqs specializing in many products. There is an instrument makers’ souq, a woodworkers’ souq, a carpet makers’ souq, a ceramic makers’ souq and the kissaria, or covered market where jewellery and fine fabrics are sold. There is also a coppersmith’s square and the tanners quarter. Fes’s ceramic makers are renowned for their signature cobalt blue and white pottery and the carpet makers produce amazing hand knotted carpets.
The medina’s Bab Boujlloud Gate or Blue Gate is a good starting point for an exploration of Fes’s old city. While there are many lovely mosques in the Fes medina they are off limits to non Muslims. Still, there are many other wonderful buildings to see.
The Medersa Bou Inania is a short walk from the Bab Boujlloud Gate. The medina has many Medersas, or religious colleges but the Medersa Bou Inania is a rare active religious facility that is open to the public and it is a true masterwork of architecture. The floors are marble and onyx and the supporting beams are made of intricately carved cedar. The ceilings are hand sculpted and the walls are hand crafted stucco covered in Arabic cursive writing and complex geometric designs. The Medersa’s roof is covered in brilliant cobalt blue tiles and there is a striking blue tiled tower. Bou Inania’s minaret is considered one of the most beautiful anywhere but it is still in daily use and can only be viewed from the outside.
The Dar Batha Palace was built in the late 19th century and now houses a museum of traditional Fes arts including carved cedar, carpets, fine fabrics, sculpted plaster, jewelry, mathematical instruments, and Fes cobalt blue ceramics. Each June the museum also hosts a number of concerts offered by the Festival of World Sacred Music.
Not far from the Dar Batha Palace is the Moqri Palace, a structure of heart stopping architecture and almost unbelievable tile work and sometimes, also home to Festival of World Sacred Music shows.
The Zaouia Moulay Idriss is a shrine to, and the tomb of Moulay Idriss, the founder of Fes and one of Morocco’s most important historical figures. It is built on the spot where Moulay Idriss decided to found the new Moroccan capital of Fes. It is said that a visit to the shrine brings good luck to strangers visiting Morocco and helps ensure the fertility of women visitors.
When visiting the medina in Fes be sure to plan on at least two days. Then there is still Fes el Jedid, or the new city. New means the thirteenth century. Fes el Jedid is home to the Mellah, or Jewish quarter.
The city of Fes in Morocco is rare chance to see the living history of the west and the east side by side.