Fez, Morocco sometimes written as Fes, Morocco was the capital of the country until 1925 and has long been considered the spiritual home of the country. The Fez medina is one of the largest car-free zones in the world and is a UNESCO world heritage site. It’s been dwarfed in recent years by larger and more tourist-oriented Marrakech but offers visitors a different look at Moroccan life.
There are plenty of things to do in Morocco, and Fez is just one of the great destinations you can add to your trip!
HISTORY OF FEZ
Modern day Fez was founded in 789 by Idriss I on the Jawhar River that runs through the city. It is in the north of the country sandwiched between the Rif Mountains and Middle Atlas Mountains. Within 50 years there were two large waves of immigrants that came to form settlements, one on each side of the river. 800 families from Andalusia arrived and settled what is today “Old Fez” while 2000 families banned from Kariouan Tunisia formed New Fez or al-Aliya.
This would later become an issue as the Caliphate of Cordoba and Caliphate of Tunisia contested who ruled the city. By 1070 it was resolved as the Almoravid dynasty united the city both figuratively and literally as they broke down the walls that divided the settlements and united it into one medina.
THE GROWTH OF FEZ
From 1170-1180 Fez grew to become one of the largest cities in the world and the city walls that were put up during this time still form the outline of Fez el Bali today. From 1271 to 1357 huge strides were made especially in education as seven madrasas (schools) were built in Fez and it became a center of Islamic education.
Many people visit Fez to see the Jewish quarter. The mellah was built in 1438 near the royal palace and exists today.
Other dynasties would follow; the Marinid, Wattasid, Saadians and nearly the Ottoman Empire. From 1649 Fez was an important trading post on the Barbary Coast and was the only source of “fezzes” the signature red, tassled hats until the 19th century. The red color comes from a berry that grows outside the city. In 1790 it became independent and by 1795 control returned to the kingdom of Morocco where it was the capital until 1925. It was the 1912 Treaty of Fez that made Morocco a protectorate under French control.
In the 20th century a new area of Fez grew out of the French protectorate, the Ville Nouvelle. In 1981 UNESCO designated the medina of Fez as a world heritage sight and the famous World Sacred Music Festival began in 1994.
In its heyday, Fez attracted scholars and philosophers, mathematicians and lawyers, astronomers and theologians. Craftsmen built them houses and palaces, kings endowed mosques and medersas (religious schools), and merchants offered exotic wares from the silk roads and sub-Saharan trade routes. Although Fez lost its influence at the beginning of the 19th century, it remains a supremely self-confident city whose cultural and spiritual lineage beguiles visitors. Something of the medieval remains in the world’s largest car-free urban area: donkeys cart goods down the warren of alleyways, and while there are still ruinous pockets, government efforts to restore the city are showing results.
Some 90,000 people still live in the Fez medina. It can seem like it’s in a state of perpetual pandemonium; some visitors fall instantly in love, and others recoil in horror. But its charms are many. Seemingly blind alleys lead to squares with exquisite fountains and streets bursting with aromatic food stands, rooftops unveil a sea of minarets, and stooped doorways reveal tireless artisans.