Widely regarded as the cultural and spiritual center of its country, Fez contains rich historical threads binding together eighth-century and modern-day Morocco.
By Anna Schaeffer
Rabat – Fez’s 1.1 million inhabitants live at the crossroads of Tangier and Marrakech in a city praised by UNESCO as “one of the most extensive and best conserved historic towns of the Arab-Muslim world.” A World Heritage site and home to both the world’s oldest continuously-operated library and university, Fez is a destination both multifaceted and extraordinary.
Enter through the blue gate, or Bab Bou Jeloud, into the Fez medina: the world’s largest urban pedestrian zone, completely car-free but not without the regular donkey sighting within its walls as artisans transport goods to market. Thousands of men, women, children, and animals wind through its labyrinthine alleys every day between vendors of everything from camel heads to copper saucepans.
An intersection of ‘firsts’
The world’s oldest operating library rests within the medina since its genesis in 859 AD. Twelve centuries ago, Fatima El-Fihri dedicated her inheritance to a three-part project: library, mosque, and university. The Qarawiyyin Library reopened to the public in 2016 after renovation and contains a reading room, ancient religious documents, and thousand-year-old manuscripts
That same school spearheaded by El-Fihri, University of Al Qarawiyyin, stands as the oldest continuously functioning university in the world. A state university since 1963, the institution still welcomes students within its walls to study language and religion.
Colorful and intricate niches compose the medina, replete with leather shoes, caramel-colored dates, woven rugs, or sweet-smelling dried flowers. Certain categories of artisanal goods tend to group together: all the candle vendors along one walkway, pastel candies congregated in another.
Leather shoes, bags, and tools are a common sighting, and the leather often hails from Fez’s celebrated tanneries. Tourists are given a sprig of mint to mask the strong smell as they observe kneading, tanning, and dyeing techniques little changed from medieval days. Housing an all-natural and ancient process, leather tanneries span the centuries between Fez of the eighth century and the Fez of today.
Throughout the market, artisans proudly exhibit their creations in eye-catching displays and are quick to demonstrate the usefulness of argan oil or provide a sample of dried apricot. The combination of sights, sounds, and smells along with its massive size distinguishes Fez from any other medina in Morocco.
Riads, traditional townhouses built around an open courtyard, sometimes date from Fez’s medieval era. The unassuming front doors open to a palatial wood-and-tile home built into the medina’s walls, often four stories high with a rooftop view of the city.
Although families still inhabit a number of these homes, owners have transformed hundreds of riads into distinctive hotels for visitors. Each is unusual and original with its own personality, as remarkable as its one-of-a-kind front door.
Cats roam the rues
Cats and kittens seem to be as natural within the medina walls as a tea vendor. Roaming freely, they provide another unique facet of the huge market.
One kitten benefitted from the tenderness of an older, gruff shopkeeper—the man purchased a triangle of cheese and placed it on the side of the road to keep the tiny animal out of wheelbarrow and foot traffic.
People from every corner of the world
Especially colorful about Fez is its inhabitants: artisans, guests, imams, scholars, tourists, and more. Hailing from every corner of the world, young and old congregate to buy and sell, to worship and study. Within just one day the Medina sees a diversity of individuals, and this, perhaps more than anything else, sets Fez apart.