Exploring the Best of Fez
Fez, a city-museum, is one of the most spectacular places in the world that boasts an exotic medieval labyrinth. Its mystique and overwhelming nature have attracted visitors from all over the world. In this article, we will explore the best of Fez and its must-visit attractions.
Fez el-Bali is an ancient medieval city that still retains its authentic charm. It is a maze of over 9,000 narrow alleyways that you can only navigate on foot. The city does not allow cars, so it invites walkers to a never-ending and engaging journey. As you navigate through the alleys filled with crowds, and sometimes even donkeys, you will experience a unique sensory adventure that you will never forget. It is advisable to venture into Fez el-Bali on your own, become lost a few times, and live to tell the tale.
Built-in the 14th century, Attarine Medersa, named after local spice merchants, is a magnificent representation of Moorish architecture. The geometric carved-cedar ornamentation, graceful proportions, and excellent state of preservation make it one of the best attractions in Fez. The former Koranic school was established by Merenid sultan Abou Saïd Othman as a student’s dormitory attached to the Kairaouine Mosque next door.
Bab Boujeloud is a Moorish-style gate that is considered the most beautiful point of entry into Fez el-Bali. It was constructed in 1913 by General Hubert Lyautey, a Moroccan commander under the French protectorate. The gate is covered with blue ceramic tiles painted with flowers and calligraphy on the side facing Fez el-Djedid and is green on the inside, the official color of Islam.
Built in 1582 under the command of Saadian sultan Ahmed el Mansour to guard and control Fez el-Bali, Borj Nord is a former fortress that is now the National Museum of Arms. It is located high above the city, and visitors can enjoy a stunning panoramic view of Fez. The museum boasts a vast collection of weapons, including sabers, swords, shields, and armor from the 19th century. The elaborate Amazigh guns encrusted in enamel, ivory, silver, and precious gems date back to the 17th century and are the highlight of the museum.
Bou Inania Medersa
Bou Inania Medersa is a stunning 14th-century residential college that’s widely considered to be the most beautiful of the Kairaouine University’s medersas. Commissioned by Abou Inan, the first ruler of the Merenid dynasty, this now-nonoperating school boasts intricate decorative artwork that’s a masterpiece of Islamic art. The green-tile roofing, cedar eaves, and upper patio walls are carved with floral and geometrical motifs, while the midlevel walls are decorated with carved stucco. The lower walls are covered with calligraphy and geometric designs made of ceramic tile, and the marble floor is a testament to the craftsmanship of the builders. Despite its age, the cedar carvings are still dazzling and bear witness to the kind of concentration required to memorize the Koran. The courtyard of the medersa features a black belt of ceramic tile inscribed with academic messages and a reminder that this is a place of learning.
Cherratine Medersa is one of Fez’s two Alaouite medersas, constructed in 1670 by Moulay Rachid. This functional medersa was designed to hold over 200 students and is more austere than the Merenid structures. It is interesting to visit the Cherratine Medersa to contrast the intricate craftsmanship and decorative intent of the Merenid structures. The entry doors are beautifully engraved in bronze and lead to the douiras, narrow residential blocks consisting of a honeycomb of small rooms.
The Chouara Tannery is one of the most famous medieval tanneries in the city. It is beautiful for its ancient dyeing vats of reds, yellows, and blues, but also unforgettable for the malodorous smell of the skins of sheep, goat, cow, and camel. Visitors can get a spectacular view over the multicolor vats from the terrace overlooking the dyeing vats. It’s interesting to learn about the process and the finished product at the stores on Rue Chouara, just past Rue Mechatine. One of the shopkeepers will hand you a few sprigs of fresh mint to smother the smell, before explaining what’s going on in the tanneries below.
Fontaine Nejjarine is one of the more beautiful and historic public fountains in Fez el-Bali. This ceramic-tile and cedar-ceiling fountain is one of the first fountains down from Bab Boujeloud. It seems a miniature version of the nearby Nejjarine fondouk, with its geometrically decorated tiles and intricately carved cedar eaves overhead.
The Dar al Glaoui, also known as the Glaoui Palace, is a magnificent late-19th-century structure located in the medina of Fez. Once the second home of the Pasha of Marrakesh, who ruled over most of southern Morocco in his time, the palace has fallen into disrepair since Morocco’s independence from France in 1956. However, the remnants of its former grandeur can still be seen in the exquisite cedarwood doors, intricate stucco, tiled salons, and carved wooden balconies that adorn its patios.
The Glaoui Palace is a large estate comprising 17 buildings and two gardens, with various features such as ornate salons, an enormous kitchen, a Koranic school, garages, stables, a harem, and a hammam. Despite its current state of decay, the palace remains one of the most atmospheric hidden palaces in the medina, with its beauty and grandeur still evident to those who visit.
Located in one of the medina’s most picturesque squares, the Henna Souk is a vibrant and colorful marketplace that offers visitors an array of traditional Moroccan goods. The souk is characterized by a massive, gnarled fig tree in the center and tiny stalls around the edges selling spices, hennas, kohls, and aphrodisiacs.
As you make your way into the Henna Souk, you will also come across several ceramic shops that sell a variety of blue-and-white Fassi pottery. At the square’s end, you will find a plaque dedicated to the Maristan Sidi Frej, a medical center, psychiatric and teaching hospital built by the Merenid ruler Youssef Ibn Yakoub in 1286. The Maristan is a significant historical landmark and was used as a model for the world’s first mental hospital, founded in Valencia, Spain, in 1410. The Maristan continued to operate until 1944.
The Kairaouine Mosque, built in AD 857, is one of the most important mosques in the Western Muslim world. It was once the home of the West’s first university and the world’s foremost center of learning. With approximately 10,760 square feet of space, the Kairaouine Mosque was Morocco’s largest mosque until the construction of Casablanca’s Hassan II Mosque in the early 1990s. One look through the main doorway of the mosque will give you an idea of its immensity. Stand at the entrance door’s left side for a peek through the dozen horseshoe arches into the mihrab, an east-facing alcove used for leading prayer. Lean in and look up to the brightly painted and intricately carved wood ceiling. If you get there just before prayer times, the two huge wooden doors by the entrance will be open, providing a privileged view of the vast interior. For a good view of the courtyard, head to the rooftop of the Attarine Medersa.
Nejjarine Museum of Wooden Arts & Crafts
The Museum Nejjarine des Arts et Métiers du Bois is a 14th-century, three-story Nejjarine fondouk, or inn, that has been converted into a museum. The museum displays Morocco’s various native woods, 18th- and 19th-century woodworking tools, and a series of antique wooden doors and pieces of furniture. Enjoy a mint tea on the rooftop terrace with panoramic views over the medina. Don’t miss the former jail cell on the ground floor or the large set of weighing scales, a reminder of the building’s original functions — commerce on the ground floor and lodging on the levels above.
The Sahrij Medersa is one of the medina’s finest medersas, or Islamic schools. Built by the Merenids in the 14th century, the medersa is named for the sahrij, or pool, on which its patio is centered. The patio is surrounded by rich chocolate-colored cedar wall carvings and some of the oldest zellij mosaic tiling in the country. It’s still a working school, so head up the narrow steps leading to empty rooms over the central patio and you may hear the chanting of Koranic verses.
Zaouia of Moulay Idriss II
The Zaouia of Moulay Idriss II is a significant shrine located in the heart of the Fez medina. Originally built by the Idriss dynasty in the 9th century, the Merenid dynasty later restored it in the 13th century. The zaouia is dedicated to Moulay Idriss II, the city’s founder, who died at the young age of 33. Known for his baraka, or divine protection, the shrine has become a popular pilgrimage site, especially for women seeking fertility and good luck. The wooden beam at the entrance was initially placed there to prevent Jews, Christians, and donkeys from entering the horm, the sacred area surrounding the shrine itself. Historically, Moroccans have enjoyed official sanctuary inside the horm, and they cannot be arrested if sought by the law. Visitors can catch a glimpse of the saint’s tomb at the far right corner of the horm through the doorway. Look for the burning candles, incense, and the tomb’s silk-brocade covering. Note the rough wooden doors themselves, worn smooth over hundreds of years of kissing and caressing for baraka (blessing). Keep in mind that entrance is restricted to Muslims only.