Fez, Morocco – Journey to the Middle Ages

Those who prefer to skip historical introductions in travel guides may travel to Fez unprepared and still return home filled with history(s). There is hardly a major city in the world that allows the traveler to participate so directly in its past. Even today, the alleys of the old city have the same course as 1,000 years ago.

Gassen wie vor 1.000 Jahren, aber die Menschen, die die Stadt mit Leben füllen, leben in der Gegenwart / © Foto: Georg Berg
Alleys like 1,000 years ago, but the people who fill the city with life live in the present / © Photo: Georg Berg

But the people who fill the city with life live in the present. With cell phones to their ears, they stay out of the way of donkeys, which are still the main means of transportation.

Auf den Dächern von Fès sind eine Unzahl von Satellitenschüsseln zu sehen - Altertum trifft Gegenwart / © Foto: Georg Berg
A myriad of satellite dishes can be seen on the roofs of Fez – antiquity meets the present / © Photo: Georg Berg

On the rooftops a myriad of satellite dishes. Strangers are approached in a friendly manner about how they are doing and whether they might want to buy something. Copper, brass and goldsmiths, woodturners, tailors, carpet dealers, bag makers, carpenters and butchers, fish, spice and vegetable dealers – all have their own quarter.

Fischhandel anders als wir ihn kennen / © Foto: Georg Berg
Fish trade different from what we know / © Photo: Georg Berg

Each with its own mosque, fountain, a hammam and a bakery. Market criers try to drown out the hammering of the metal workers. Everywhere is lively until the call of the muezzin is heard. Then it gets a little quieter. Some hang cloths in front of the displays or close their stores and head for prayer in one of the 400 mosques. And that up to seven times a day.

Zum Gebet geht es in eine der 400 Moscheen. Und das bis zu sieben mal am Tag / © Foto: Georg Berg
For prayer they go to one of the 400 mosques. And that up to seven times a day / © Photo: Georg Berg

The city of Fez is the oldest of the four Moroccan royal cities and the third largest city in the country. It is considered the spiritual and religious capital of Morocco and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The history of modern Morocco begins with the founding of the first Islamic empire by Idris, a descendant of the Prophet Mohamed. Fez is the city of handicrafts and rich in evidence of Andalusian-Moorish art.

Alte Handwerkskunst findet man in ganz Fes / © Foto: Georg Berg
Ancient handicrafts can be found throughout Fès / © Photo: Georg Berg

Donkey and petit cab in Fès

The history of Fès, a city of 1.5 million inhabitants, began at the end of the 8th century and is still evident in the city’s districts, which could not be more different. The oldest part is the medina Fès al-Bali, still surrounded by a city wall. Here 285,000 people live in small houses and the narrow streets offer only space for pedestrians, donkeys and small carts. All goods, all building materials, garbage collection and even sick people are transported this way.

In Fés wird fast alles durch die engen Gassen transportiert / © Foto: Georg Berg
In Fés almost everything is transported through the narrow streets / © Photo: Georg Berg

All other parts of the city can be reached by car. The small red cabs are especially cheap. A long ride across Fès costs hardly more than 5 euros. Unusual for European tourists is that the cabs are preferably used to capacity with three passengers, who share the cost of the ride. If there is still a seat available, the driver stops for another passenger and takes him along if he wants to go in the same direction.

Besonders günstig fährt man in Fès mit den kleinen roten Taxis / © Foto: Georg Berg
The small red cabs are particularly cheap in Fez / © Photo: Georg Berg

Behind high walls a hidden palace Fès el Jedid, the name means “White Fès” or “New Fès”, was built as a fortress in the 13th century. It is also home to the Mellah, the once Jewish quarter. The royal palace is hidden behind high walls on a huge area. Guards, white in summer and red in winter, stand at the gates and should not be photographed. Morocco was governed from here until the establishment of the French Protectorate in 1912.

Bis zur Einrichtung des französischen Protektorats im Jahre 1912 wurde Marokko von Fès aus regiert / © Foto: Georg Berg
Until the establishment of the French protectorate in 1912, Morocco was governed from Fez / © Photo: Georg Berg

French influence

Later, further outside, the Nouvelle Ville was built for French officials and their families, with modern houses. With the departure of the French from the country in 1956, the population structure in the medina changed indirectly. The rich families moved from their old palaces to the new town, where there were suddenly many free modern apartments. Professional opportunities also lured members of the traditional extended family away from Fez. The end of the multigenerational home had arrived in Morocco. The uprooted rural population settled in the palatial riads. Where previously several generations of one family had lived, up to 20 rural families who had moved to the city from the surrounding countryside shared the habitable space, depending on the number of rooms. ORIENTation in the truest sense of the word.

In den letzen Jahren sind ehemalige Patrizierhäuser zu luxuriösen Unterkünften umgebaut worden  / © Foto: Georg Berg
In recent years, former patrician houses have been converted into luxurious accommodation / © Photo: Georg Berg

In recent years, these former patrician houses have been converted by hoteliers into luxurious accommodations. A stay of several days in one of these palaces offers several advantages to enterprising tourists. Unlike the large hotels of the periphery, the traveler soon feels at home in the Oriental Middle Ages, without having to forgo the comforts of a private retreat. Everyday life in the historic old town is within visitors’ grasp, and initial orientation difficulties can be overcome by taking more and more excursions.

Starting at Bab Boujeloud in Fez

The old city stretches over hilly terrain. Knowing which district of the old city is up or down can help with orientation. A hill to the north, where the Merinid tombs are located as a historical site, offers the best overview.

Ein Hügel im Norden der Stadt Fès, auf dem als historische Sehenswürdigkeit die Meriniden-Gräber liegen, bietet den besten Überblick / © Foto: Georg Berg
A hill in the north of the city of Fez, where the Merinid tombs are located as a historical sight, offers the best overview / © Photo: Georg Berg
Die Altstadt von Fes erstreckt sich auf hügeligem Gebiet. Zu wissen, welcher Bezirk der Altstadt oben oder unten ist, kann bei der Orientierung helfen. Im Vordergrund die bekannte Stadtmauer / © Foto: Georg Berg
The old city of Fès stretches over hilly terrain. Knowing which district of the old city is up or down can help with orientation. In the foreground the famous city wall / © Photo: Georg Berg

If you plan to spend only a single day in Fez, be sure to explore the old city with a licensed guide. Of the city gates, all of which have the Arabic translation Bab in their names, Bab Boujeloud is the best place to start.

Von den Stadttoren von Fès, die alle die arabische Übersetzung Bab im Namen führen, ist das Bab Boujeloud der beste Startpunkt / © Foto: Georg Berg
Of the city gates of Fez, which all have the Arabic translation Bab in their names, the Bab Boujeloud is the best starting point / © Photo: Georg Berg

In front of here, two main roads lead to the center. However, the Talaa Kebira and the Talaa Seghira are both so narrow that even for pedestrians there is at most only one lane for “oncoming traffic” in most places. A good guide will point out the basic rules in the medina and will be responsive to his clients; he will not be set on specific destinations and will prevent you from getting lost. And most importantly, being accompanied by an official guide shows the other unlicensed “guides” that they don’t even need to try their hand at being old town touts.

Baalak, baalak – “make yourself thin!”

If you hear the call “baalak” a heavily loaded donkey is on its way and its driver doesn’t give a second warning. Locals quickly squeeze between the merchants’ displays to make room. Experienced Fassis, as the people of Fez call themselves, enjoy a speedy progress by threading themselves at tail length behind such a swift beast of burden. Since all paths must be made on foot, alleys clogged by tourists are a similar nuisance to the locals as clogged highways are to us.

Da alle Wege zu Fuß gemacht werden müssen, sind von Touristen verstopfte Gassen, für die Einwohner von Fès so ärgerlich wie für uns verstopfte Autobahnen / © Foto: Georg Berg
Since all paths have to be made on foot, alleys clogged by tourists, are as much of a nuisance to the people of Fez as clogged highways are to us / © Photo: Georg Berg

In the Talȃa Seghira, a small entrance magically attracts passersby. In the displays lie finely chiseled utensils made of brass. In this manufactory, the father of the reigning king commissioned from Ahmed Guernani the brass work with which the wooden gates of the wall around the royal palace were decorated between 1961 and 1968.

Mit Messingarbeiten sind die hölzernen Tore der Mauer um den Königspalast zwischen 1961 und 1968 verziert worden / © Foto: Georg Berg
Brass work was used to decorate the wooden gates of the wall around the Royal Palace between 1961 and 1968 / © Photo: Georg Berg

Today, his son Abdelgabar sits in a small corner of the store, working on a brass plate. He hammers each ornament into the metal with a small chisel. “Stencils are only used by apprentices” his brother explains in English, showing the difference on two plates.

Jedes Ornament schlägt der Meister mit einem kleinen Meißel in das Metall / © Foto: Georg Berg
The master hammers each ornament into the metal with a small chisel / © Photo: Georg Berg

Haggling is not just about pushing the price down

In every store and with every merchant it is also possible to talk about prices. Traditionally, however, haggling means more to people than just reducing the price. One comes into the conversation, inquires about the personal circumstances and rather incidentally the prospective buyer can inquire sometimes about one of the offered goods. Compliments are better received than when disadvantages are emphasized. Tourists should rather not open the negotiation with an object, which they want to buy finally. If the price of the presumably more expensive sample object does not move, it may well be that the “undecided” buyer will be offered a cheaper alternative. And with that, a deal can then be struck, with both sides smiling.

In Marokko lässt sich bei jedem Händler auch über Preise reden. Traditionell bedeutet den Menschen das Feilschen aber mehr, als nur den Preis zu reduzieren / © Foto: Georg Berg
In Morocco, it is also possible to talk about prices with any merchant. Traditionally, however, haggling means more to the people than just reducing the price / © Photo: Georg Berg

Closed tourist attractions in Fez

Along the way, the guide points out the city’s districts, divided by craft, and has to point out the important monuments that are otherwise easy to miss, because they are all also located along narrow streets and surrounded by stalls. Looking up, we see the Karaouiyine Mosque covered with green tiles, which is also the oldest university in Morocco. The later Pope Silvester II studied mathematics here. Today, only Muslims are allowed to enter it. So is the city’s largest sanctuary, the tomb of the city’s founder, the Zaouia Moulay Idris.

Magnificent buildings in Fez

One of the few monuments whose inner courtyard can at least be visited is the Medersa Bou Inania. The courtyard of this religious college, built between 1350 and 1357, is an impressive example of Moorish craftsmanship. With the typical Moroccan zellij called enameled terracotta tiles are laid in the Girik technique small-scale mosaics. Calligraphy and arabesques carved into the stucco adorn the walls. Minarets in Morocco almost all have a square ground plan. Few are octagonal and the slender shape have only mosques that are not financed by the state but rather by foreign foundations. They are very rare.

Mit den typischen marokkanischen Zellij genannten emaillierten Terrakotta-Kacheln sind in der Girik-Technik kleinteilige Mosaike gelegt / © Foto: Georg Berg
With the typical Moroccan Zellij called enameled terracotta tiles are laid in the Girik technique small-scale mosaics / © Photo: Georg Berg

Colorful leather goods in Fès

What would a tour of Fès be without a look at the famous tanners’ quarter? “Tannerie, Tannerie,” young men shout, offering a special tour despite having an official guide. Here is the one spot in the entire city where tourists clearly outnumber tourists. Through one-way alleys so narrow that no oncoming traffic is possible, stairs climb higher and higher until you finally reach a balcony from which countless photographers press the shutter. Some hold mint twigs against the stench in front of nose and lens. It’s a pity that the sun only adequately illuminates the courtyard with the color pools in the morning.

Im ersten Arbeitsschritt weichen die Tierfelle in einem der wabenartig angeordneten Becken zunächst fünf Tage in einer Salzlösung auf / © Foto: Georg Berg
In the first step, the animal skins soak in a salt solution in one of the honeycomb-like basins for five days / © Photo: Georg Berg

In the first step, the animal skins soak in a salt solution for five days in one of the honeycomb-like basins. Another basin is filled with a lime solution. After ten days, the hair roots are dissolved and fur residues can be combed out as “dead wool”. This is not a waste product but is used as pillow and mattress filling. The leather then enters another basin, where it is tumbled several times a day with the tanners’ legs in a solution of dew endings.

The way back leads through the sales rooms of the leather cooperative. In it the tanners have united to prevent dumping prices and import leather, which was not processed after the natural methods usual in Fès.

Verkaufsraum einer Lederkooperative von Fès. In ihr haben sich die Gerber zusammengeschlossen, um Dumpingpreise und Importleder zu verhindern / © Foto: Georg Berg
Salesroom of a leather cooperative in Fez. The tanners have joined forces to prevent dumping prices and imported leather / © Photo: Georg Berg

On the edge of the tanners’ quarter, leather is processed into bags, shoes and clothing.

Am Rand des Gerberviertels von Fès wird das Leder zu Taschen, Schuhen und Kleidungsstücken weiterverarbeitet / © Foto: Georg Berg
On the outskirts of the tanners’ quarter in Fez, leather is processed into bags, shoes and garments / © Photo: Georg Berg

Booking a hotel or riad in Fès?

There are two types of accommodations in Fès. The big star hotels are located outside the city. The category rating in Morocco is not comparable to the Hotelstars Union criteria. Thus, a hotel with five Moroccan stars is equivalent to the internationally comparable comfort class of three-star superior. The hotels have many rooms and the majority of guests are group travelers who rarely spend more than one night in the same accommodation.

Travel tips Morocco, Fez

Climate: It is a good idea to visit Morocco in the low season. The climate is most pleasant from March to June and then again in October and November. In summer, the temperature is often higher than 40°C.

Telephoning: Data roaming and mobile phone calls with German contracts are expensive. 1 MB of data costs over 15 euros. For the money you can buy a prepaid card in Morocco, which covers 500 MB of data traffic. By the way, the numerous mobile phone masts occasionally disguise themselves as palm trees.

In Marokko tarnen sich einige Mobilfunkmasten gelegentlich als Palmen / © Foto: Georg Berg
In Morocco, some mobile phone masts occasionally disguise themselves as palm trees / © Photo: Georg Berg

Money: The currency in Morocco is the Dirham (MAD). Conversion is easy, as 10 dirhams are roughly equivalent to 1 euro. The most common bills are 20 dirhams. Merchants often cannot give change on larger bills.
Documents: A passport valid for at least three months is required for entry.

Security: There is a lot of police in the country, uniformed but also in plain clothes. This means occasional controls, but on the other hand also few crimes against foreigners. Of course, one should not leave any valuables unattended in Morocco.

Panorama der Stadt Fès durch kunsthandwerkliches Schmiedeeisengitter / © Foto: Georg Berg
Panorama of the city of Fez through artisan wrought iron grille / © Photo: Georg Berg

Wall calendar with photos by Georg Berg in bookstores (also online) in different sizes available: Fès – Morocco as in the Middle Ages / also as family planner (*)

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This research trip was supported by the Moroccan Tourist Office

(*) This post contains advertising links (also called affiliate or commission links) that lead to Amazon.de.

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