Things to See and Do In and Around Fes
Taking a walk through history
Fez was founded soon after the Arab invasion of North Africa and Spain at the end of the 8th century, making it the oldest of the imperial cities in Morocco. It was founded by Moulay Idriss, the great-grandson of the Prophet Mohammed in a time when Islam split into the Sunni and Shi’ite sects. When the Sunni Umayad Dynasty took control in Damascus, the Shi’ites dispersed and sought refuge in the east the west. Moulay Idriss, a charismatic leader, was among those to move west. He died in 791 and left his son Moulay Idriss II to establish Fes, the new capital. The city started out small but soon, immigrants and refugees started coming in from Andalusia (notably Cordoba), and Kairouan, in Tunisia. These two groups of refugees settled on opposite side of the river, creating the Andalusian quarter and the Karawiyan quarter. Both of these neighborhoods are marked by their mosques that housed the refugees.
Since its foundation, Fes has experienced a long history of transitions between dynasties and protectorates during which the Fez Medina underwent many changes and growth. Today, the Medina of Fes remains one of the largest living medieval cities in the world. We say “living” because it is still very much alive. More than 156,00 people live in the 9,000 streets of the Medina amongst some of the greatest historical monuments and architecture in the world.
As you walk through the Medina of Fes, you will see colored stars that ADER-Fes has installed to mark tourist circuits. Each color corresponds to a different tourist circuit. So you can take a number of walking tours through the Medina, without having to pull out your guide book at every turn! We have listed some of the highlights of the historical monuments in Fes. Non-Muslims cannot enter any of the mausoleums or mosques, so just be prepared to see what you can through the open doors.
Some important terms to know
- Bab: door, or gate
- Borj: watchtower
- Dar: house. In the Medina, it is distinguished from a “riad” because it is a traditional house with a central courtyard that has no garden.
- Fondouq: caravanserie – for travelers who came with their animals to trade.
- Jnane: garden
- Medersa: a theological college that also teaches law, Arabic literature, and grammar.
- Riad (or riyad): a traditional house that is distinguished from a “dar” because it has a courtyard with a garden.
- Souk: an open-air market
- Zaouia: shrine/ mausoleum – people come here to visit, sleep, prepare food, and pray.
- Zelij: geometrically patterned tiling
Sites in the Fes Medina
Bab Boujloud is considered the main entry to the Medina because of its beautiful and impressive door that is blue on one side and green on the other. The door, however, is not the original. It was constructed during the French Protectorate, in 1913. The original is not nearly as impressive, but it still exists to the left of the new one. Take a look at it and notice the similarities in structure between it and other Babs (Guissa, Semmarine…).
Bou Inania Medersa is considered the most spectacular merdersa in Fes. This 14th century structure is different from other medersas in Fez because it also includes a mosque and a water clock. Students came from all over the country to study at this medersa. The medersa has recently been restored as well as the area of the shops around the medersa. To get there, follow the Talaa Kebira about 150 meters from Bab Boujloud. The entrance fee is 10 DH.
The Bou Inania Water Clock is across the street from the medersa. You will notice that there are 12 windows under which there used to be 13 copper bowls (those that remain are now in storage). The inequality of bowls to windows shows that at the time of its use, this water clock measured “unequal hours”. This means that it measured hours by the length of the day, and not in equal 60 minute intervals. Using a complicated system whose details still remain a mystery, the bowls filled up with water at a speed that would change daily. When a bowl filled up, a weight would drop and open up one of the small doors. If one door was open, it was one o’clock. If two were open, it was two o’clock, and so on.
Belghazi Museum has an interesting collection of clothing, ceramics, jewelry, furniture from all over Morocco. This museum is in a large traditional riad, so the Fassi furniture and caftans displayed in the collection give you an idea of what a rich family’s house looked like in the 19th century and how it was decorated. The museum has a beautiful courtyard where you can have a cup of tea or coffee. This is a calm resting place. You should also climb up to the roof and have a look at the view of the Medina. How to get there: The museum is buried in the Medina, but there are signs everywhere which will lead you to it. The entrance fee is 10 DH.
Zaouia Moulay Idriss is where Moulay Idriss II, the founder of Fez is buried (his father, Moulay Idriss, the great-grandson of the Prophet, is buried in the town of Moulay Idriss, located north of Meknes). People from around the country to pay pilgrimage to this zaouia. There are two main doors. Both have a wooden beam in the street leading up to door. These were used to block the passage of mules and non-Muslims. Nowadays, non-Muslims are allowed to pass this threshold but not much further. The first door to the zaouia is off of the Talaa Kebira to the right. From here, you can see the mosque part of the mausoleum. The other door is the main door to the shrine and tomb. You can get a better look through this door. You will see vendors all around the walls of the building selling candles and incense for those who come to pray for the founder of Fes.
Souk El-Henna used to be a mental institution. The open garden has been turned into a market that used to sell henna, but now sells local pottery, a craft that Fez is famous for. Don’t forget to bargain!!
Nejjarine Museum was once a fondouk, or a caravanserai for travelers who came to trade in Fes. Their animals were housed downstairs and the travelers slept upstairs. Nejjarine means “carpenters” and it got its name because of the carpentar’s market that still exists today. The fondouk, the square, and the carpentar’s souk have been restored by the Mohammed Lemrani Foundation and the fondouk was converted to a wood museum. In it, you can find old agricultural tools, doors, musical instruments, household items, etc. This is also a good place for a tea or coffee, whether you decide to drink it in the square by the impressive door, or on the roof of the museum, where you can enjoy a great view of the Medina. The entry to the museum is 20 DH.
Medersa Attarine was built from 1323 to 1325 by the Merinide Sultan, Abu Said Othman. A smaller medersa, but with a stunning architecture of the earlier Merinide period. Medersa Bouanania was modeled in part by Attarine, but the difference .
Mosque/Zaouia Si Ahmed Tijani is where one of the main saints of Fes, a descendant of the prophet, is buried. Si Ahmed Tijani is the founder of the most important brotherhood of Western Africa, called Tariqa Tijania (the Tijani Way), which was spread into sub-Saharan Africa. Followers of this doctrine come from Senegal, Niger, Mali, etc. every year to make a pilgrimage to the zaouia. They often come before their pilgrimage to Mecca, seeking the blessing of Saint Tijani. The mausoleum was also used as a place to heal those injured while fighting the French. To get there, turn left from Medersa Attarine.
Qaraouiyine Mosque is both a mosque and a university. It is the oldest and the most important mosque in Morocco, as well as the oldest university in the world. It was first built in 859 by Fatima al-Fihria for the refugees coming from Kairawan, in Tunisia. It was small at first, but has changed and grown in large proportions over the last 12 centuries of its existence. Right now, it is currently closed for restoration, so you will only be able to see its walls and closed doors. To get there, make the dog leg after Medersa Attarine.
Qaraouiyan Library is the newly-restored library belonging to the mosque. It was enriched by the Saadians, who added on a large special collection. In 1613, there were more than 32,000 volumes in this collection. The library is still in use by students of the Qaraouiyan University.
Seffarine Square is a calm and beautiful square where bronze workers shape large and small cauldrons by hammering the bronze in rhythmic motions. You will know that you are approaching Seffarine when you hear the musical banging that is surprisingly calming. So it this is a pleasant place for a pit stop at the tea shop that is located there. At Seffarine Square, you will also be able to visit the newly-restored Qaraouiyan library and the Medersa Seffarine.
The Tanneries are where leather has been dyed and tanned for centuries using the manual labor of men who stomp on the leather in large clay basins of dye (even in the cold winter weather!). You might have a mix of emotions when you see this. The tanneries are interesting and beautiful, but also pretty disturbing and smelly!
The Andalusian Quarter There are many bridges that cross from the banks of the Karaouiyan Quarter to the Andalusian Quarter. During the first three centuries of their existence, crossing the river might have been a dangerous operation, as the two quarters were separate walled cities that had an intense rivalry between them. Nowadays, it is hardly as exciting to cross one of the many bridges, but it is still worth a trip to the Andalusian Quarter, which is much calmer, more modest, and far less touristy than the Karaouiyan Quarter. You will not find many guides, hustlers, or tourist shops in the Andalusian Quarter; a nice contrast from its neighbor.
Andalusia Mosque is a stunning mosque. It is the second most important religious edifice in Fez after Qaraouiyan. It was built at the end of the 9th century by Meryem, the sister of Fatima Al-Fihria, the woman who built Qaraouiyan Mosque. It got its name because it is located in the Andalusian quarter and Andalusian immigrants contributed to its construction. For tourists who can only see Qaraouiyan by peaking through its open doors, Andalusia Mosque has more to see from the outside. Its northern door is an impressive and beautifully decorated Almohad door that was added on in the 12th century.
Bab Guissa is a beautiful Almohad door that was rebuilt in the 12th century as an entry for the passengers coming from the north. It is a curved entrance made up a series of semi-circular arches. You will notice this same architecture in many of the original doors around the ramparts of the Medina. This structure served as a…
Dar Batha Museum is an Andalusian-style riad that was built at the end of the 19th century (1874-1894) by Sultan Moulay Hassan I. It used to be used for royalty visiting Fes. It has been a museum since 1913, displaying impressive exhibits of clothing, rugs, jewelry, ceramics, and manuscripts. The architecture of the building reflects the Alaouite period which used Andalusian-style architecture. Visitors will be able to enjoy its beautiful and enormous garden.
Jnane Sbil Gardens, or Boujloud Gardens is a large 12th century garden through which Oued Fes runs. It was used in the 19th century as imperial gardens. In the 20th century, it was opened up to the public. Sbil means “for those who promenade”. After a long tour in through the narrow streets of the Medina, it is nice to find a green, open space. You will be able to enjoy its orange, lemon, pomegranate, and myrtle trees. Also look for the ruins of an old water mill (noria in Arabic). Next to the water mill, is a beautiful and peaceful café/restaurant called La Noria. You have to leave the gardens and walk about 50 meters along the wall to get to it.
Glaoui Palace, located in Ziat, is a 19th century palace of the Glaoui family, the rulers of the south who worked with the French Protectorate. The family was chased out of the country after independence in 1956, leaving their palaces behind to fall into ruin, as is the case for their Fes palace. The caretaker of this palace is a man named Abdou, a member of the family and artist who also displays his artwork in the palace. He lets tourists in, but you must call ahead and be sure to leave a donation after the visit. Abdou’s phone number is 067 366 828
Fes Jdid and the Jewish Quarter
The Royal Palace, the huge and impressive entrance has been recently renovated and now stands on the road from the Ville Nouvelle to Fes Jdid.
Bab Semmarine, is a large Almohad door that leads to Fez Jdid. It was constructed in the 13th century, four centuries after the foundation of the Medina. The door used to be curved and adored with domes on the inside, similar to Bab Guissa. However, it was modified to accommodate pedestrians, so now it goes directly through to the main street on the other side.
The Mellah (the Jewish quarter) is right next door to the Royal Palace. The Jews were transferred here under the Merinides and received protection from the sultan. Notice the difference between the architecture in the Mellah and in the Medina. Along the main road, you will see wooden balconies looking out into the streets, something that you don’t see in the Medina. The area used to be affluent, but over time, it took on the same meaning as the word “ghetto” in Europe. Douglas Porch wrote in his book, The Conquest of Morocco of the conditions in which the Jews in Fes lived in the beginning of the 20th century: “They were forbidden to go on horseback and required to walk barefoot through the filthy streets of the Medina and to remove the dead animals that lay in the streets”. Despite these conditions, Jews saw the Mellah as a haven for safety, since Muslims seldom entered its walls.
Idn Danan Synagogue is a newly restored 17th century synagogue, built by the descendants of the Danan Rabbis. World Monument Watch has declared it among the 100 world monuments to be safeguarded.
Events in Fez
The Fes Festival is Fes’ annual music festival that hosts musicians from around the world who perform spiritual music. It is a unique musical encounter between the religions of the world. In 2005, Ravi Shankar and Kadem Saher were among many other talented and reputable performers to appear at the festival. This year (2006), the festival is hosting 18 different performers from around the world. Among them: Salif Keita from Mali, Abida Parveen from Pakistan, Saber Rebai from Tunisia, Za Ondekova, Japanese drumers and dancers, and many other artists from Argentina, Pakistan, Syria, Tibet, Morocco, France, Spain, Algeria, Italy, Iran, Mali, Southern India, and Azerbaijan. This festival is always held in the beginning of June and attracts large numbers of tourists, so it is necessary to reserve accommodation months in advance. For more information on the festival, see the web site http://www.fesfestival.com. For help booking a room in a traditional riad or dar, see http://www.fez-riads.com .
Places Around Fes
Moulay Yaacoub is a spa village/medicinal center 20 km northeast of Fez. This is a popular spot for both Moroccans and foreigners to bathe in the medicinal thermal baths. There are two tiers of baths: the older and cheaper ones cost 15 Dh for a 30 minute hot bath, and the newer, more upscale ones cost 90 DH for a simple dip in the pool. The only upside to the more expensive pool is that it is mixed, so male/female couples can bathe together.
Ifrane (65 km from Fes) is a beautiful mountain town that was created in 1929 by the French. It looks so European that you feel like you have left Morocco and entered into a Swiss mountain town. Other than being the home of the American university, Al-Akhwayan, it is a nice place to spend the day. It is a good escape during the summer because the climate is much cooler. In the winter, you will be likely to find snow there (something that you will not find in Fes). There are many nice restaurants and cafes, surrounded by nice, green parks and views of the mountains.
Azrou is a calm and charming Berber town located 16 km away from Ifrane (81 km from Fes). Also located in the mountains, the Azrou is surrounded by stunning cedar forests, great for a walking or driving tour. The Barbary monkeys are one popular stop when driving into the mountains. Azrou is best known for its rugs, however. You can get some beautiful Berber rugs here for much cheaper than you will find in Fez. A good time to go is for the Tuesday souk, where there is an section for people who come from all around the area to sell their rugs. If you can’t go on Tuesday, or you don’t find what you want at the souk, the best rug shop in town at Dar Neghrassi, on Rue des Tapis in the Medina of Azrou.
Ain Leuh and the Source of Oum Errabia, south of Azrou, Ain Leuh is a small typical Middle-Atlas Berber village. South of this village is the Oum Errabia Source, a network of 17 sources that mix both fresh water and salt water. Berber women come from around the mountain area to wash their rugs here, and tourists come to enjoy the nature. There are nice little huts right along the waterfall where you can have a cup of tea and stick your feet in the cool water.
Sefrou (28 km south of Fes) is a very ancient walled city that actually predates Fes as a city. A place for a nice day-trip, since it is close to Fes and much less touristy. The high point in the year for Sefrou is in the end of June, when the city holds its annual Cherry Festival. The Sefrou Medina and the Mellah are interesting to visit.
Meknes is Fez’s neighboring and more minor imperial city. It is a city full of interesting monuments, fewer hassles, and cheaper shopping than you will find in Fez. The monuments in Meknes are mostly dominated by the creations of the Sultan Moulay Ismail, whose reign (1672-1727) transformed Meknes from a provincial center to a spectacular capital with over 50 palaces and and 45 km of exterior walls. However, rhe Sultan is also marked in history as the one of the most brutal rulers of his time. He started his rule by displaying in Fez the 400 heads of captured chiefs. Moulay Ismail’s tyranny is still evident in the large underground prison that tourists can visit.
Volibulous is an ancient Roman city, the most remote of the Roman bases. Before becoming a Roman base, it was the western capital of a Berber kingdom that stretched into northern Algerian and Tunisia. Direct Roman rule from this city lasted for a little over two centuries, but the presence had quite an impact on the region. Latin was still spoken in the 7th century by the local population of Berbers, Greeks, Syrians, and Jews.
Moulay Idriss is a small town right next door to Volibulous that takes its name from its founder, Moulay Idriss (the Elder), the great-grandson of the Prophet Mohammed and Morocco’s most venerated saint. His tomb and zaouia lie in the middle of the town, which makes it a destination for constant pilgrimage by Moroccans. For Non-Muslims, however, there is much less to see since they cannot enter the zaouia. But it is a beautiful village to walk through and to soak up its spirituality. The summer moussem in the end of August and the Prophet’s birthday (Aid Mawlid) are other interesting times to visit.