Fez is Morocco's oldest imperial city, making it home to some of Morocco's historical mosques and madrassas. Here 4 of some of the most fascinating sites in Fez and the stories behind them.
- Chouara Tannery
Fez is famed for its tanneries and for good reason. The rows and rows of symmetrical holes filled with dye are mesmerizing and make for an amazing photo.
To access the view, one must pass through one of the shops selling leather goods made at the tannery to get to a viewing terrace. It is recommended you keep your wits about you while passing through as to not get scammed, because this is a highly touristic area.
The shopkeepers will beckon you in to view their terrace, and you must always ask what it costs before agreeing so you are not shocked when you are asked for an exorbitant fee on your way out.
The jackets, handbags, and shoes in the shops are made on site from the softest leather in various colors and styles. If something catches your eye, however, be aware you will have to haggle to get a good price.
TripAdvisor reviews are full of stories of pushy shopkeepers and spending traps, but you should not let this discourage you as the visit is truly worth it.
When I went myself, I was mostly left in peace and I stood admiring the view for quite a while. My father, a photographer, even paid a small fee to be able to go to the bottom and balance himself around the pits of dye, attempting to get the best shot.
I did give the shopkeeper a tip of MAD 20 on my way out. If you are truly concerned, hiring a guide in Fez is a good idea.
- University of Al Quaraouiyine
Most people, when asked where the oldest university still operating is, would guess Oxford or Cambridge in the UK. The correct answer, however, is the University of Al Quaraouiyine in Fez, founded in A.D. 861, 200 years before either Oxford or Cambridge.
The tale of how this university was founded is a fascinating one. The story starts when Fatima al-Fihri and her family migrated from Karaouine, Tunisia, to Fez. Her father found success as a merchant in the city and Fatima married.
The al-Fihri family had made a happy life for themselves in Morocco. However, her husband, father, and brother all died in a short period of time, leaving just Fatima and her sister behind.
They left the two women with a sizeable inheritance though, and Fatima, a devout Muslim, decided to give back to the community.
Fatima noticed that the mosques of Fez were not large enough to accommodate the city’s growing population, so she took it upon herself to build a grand mosque, with a madrassa (school) attached. When construction began during Ramadan in A.D. 859, she vowed to fast until her dream was realized.
She could not have imagined how long her legacy would last. To this day, students aged 13-30 attend the school to gain both high school-level diplomas and university degrees. Before attending the school, students must have memorized the whole Qur’an as well as several other texts.
Although the university is not open for non-Muslims to visit, many go just to look through the giant gate at the entrance, which offers a good look into the world’s oldest university.
- Medersa Bou Inania
For a perfect example of Merenid-dynasty architecture at its most elaborate, Medersa Bou Inania is the place to go. The medersa (school) was built in the mid-14th century by Sultan Abou Inan, who was infamous for murdering his father and having hundreds of children.
It is believed that the religious leaders of Al-Quaraouiyine mosque encouraged him to build the medersa to redeem his sins.
This might explain why he built the medersa to be so extraordinary; perhaps he felt he had a lot to atone for. The site was built to be both a school and a place for religious congregation, and even though it is no longer an operating school, it is still used for religious purposes. It is one of the few religious sites in Morocco open to non-Muslims.
The marble-paved courtyard of the merdersa is full of intricate details no matter where you look. Upon entering, you immediately see a beautiful running fountain with water fresh from the Fez river. Carved wood and stucco abound here, as well as cedar columns. Fez is famed for its artisans, after all.
On either side of the courtyard, you will find classrooms and an oratory at the end. Climbing the stairs to the upper floors is well worth it for a view of the spectacular courtyard from above. One of the most beautiful elements of the Medersa Bou Inania is its minaret tiled with green zellige.
- Merenid Tombs
Very little is known about these ancient tombs that loom over Fez, except that they were most likely built during the Merenid Dynasty’s reign in the 14th century. Who was buried here and why remains a mystery.
Although the tombs lie in ruins today and lack the well-preserved and intricate beauty of some of the other sites on this list, they are still well worth the visit. The tombs are one of the most popular tourist destinations, with added thanks to the panoramic views of Fez the site offers.
Ancient Fez, called Fez el Bali, was built in a bowl, and the Merenid Tombs offer a perfect vantage point to look down upon the city. Fez’s 365 minarets dotted all over the city are in perfect view, and the most iconic ones can be spotted by a keen eye.