Fez - the quintessential Moroccan city

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Leaving out Fez in your Morocco itinerary is like skipping pyramids in the Egypt tour! Fez is a town of great religious importance and a center of cultural renaissance in the medieval period. Even if you are not a history buff, the sensuous shock of Fez is unique and is unmatched to any other Moroccan city and must not be missed!

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A brief history of Fez 

Fez is the oldest imperial city in Morocco. Fez was established in 789 by Idris I, the founder of the Idrisid dynasty, and is regarded as the architect of the first Moroccan state. After the fall of Idrisids, the city experienced rise and fall of economic growth until Almoravids came into power in the 11th century and built the old town of Fez, Fes el-Bali. Many of Fez's historical landmarks are from the 13th and 14th centuries when the city reached its pinnacle during the Marinid dynasty. Due to its religious importance in medieval times, it's often called the "Mecca of the west," evidenced today with numerous mosques, Madrasas, and zawiya. Today, it is the second-largest city in Morocco, a culture capital, and is considered to offer the most authentic Moroccan experience to travelers.

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One day in Fez 

The city of Fez has three main areas: Fes el-Bali, the old town; Fes el-Jedid, developed later to accommodate the city's burgeoning population in the 13th century; and the Ville Nouvelle quarter - the modern urban part of the town.  

Our tour started at the Royal Palace of Fez, Dar el-Makhzen in the Fes el-Jedid area. Built in the 13th century, it’s seven golden gates stand imperially to this day gleaming and welcoming the tourists from all over the world. The interior however is not open to the public. These dazzling brass doors with intricate geometric patterns are adorned with intricate tile works and cedar wood carving. We were lucky to be there early in the morning and managed to get a few shots without photo bombing! 

Few minutes of walk from the Royal palace took us to Mellah - a historical Jews quarter. Jews have a tumultuous history here in Fez. The founder of Fez, Idris I, was a religious fanatic and wanted to convert everyone to Islam. However, his descendants were more tolerant. His son, Sultan Idris II, admitted many Jews from Andalusia with the thought of using their commercial skills to advance the kingdom. Though they paid hefty tax to the king, the Jews prospered under his rule and amassed a considerable amount of wealth. The golden age of the Jewish community lasted from the 9th to 11th centuries. With the establishment of Almoravides and Almohades dynasty, these fanatic Muslim sects returned to the oppressing the Jews. This decline persisted for many centuries. In the 15th century, they were forced to live in the Jewish quarter - today's Mellah. Still, in the early 1900s, more than 20,000 Jews lived in Fez. In the mid-20th century, with the establishment of Israel's Jewish state, most of them emigrated from Morocco. Today, the only couple of hundred of Jews call Fez their home.

Our next destination was Borj Nord, a military fortress built in 1582. Perched on a hill, it offers a sweeping view of the Medina - the sheer mass and intricacies of which were stunning!

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Fes el-Bali, a UNESCO world heritage site, is a well preserved historic town and an excellent example of Moorish and Moroccan architectural styles. The moment we entered this largest urban pedestrian area in the world, I had a feeling that this was an experience of a lifetime. Through a puzzling labyrinth of narrow streets and gloomy dark passages, we entered into the Medina. After few minutes of disorienting walk through the darkness, with the voice of our guide as our only sense of direction, we reached the sprawling souk - the exuberance of which is unmatched with any other Moroccan cities. We were greeted by the cacophony of sound, fusion of aromas, dazzling colors, tourists, and locals thronging on the streets - it was a sensory shock!

At first glance, it felt like a mishmash of random stores. After a few minutes of walk, I realized that they are, in fact, separated by products - from vegetables, fruits, spices, meats to lamps, vase, carpet, silver, pottery, leather - the shops offer pretty much anything and everything. The alleyways of the souk ended up in the Nejjarine square. It was a bustling plaza surrounded by stores selling wood, bronze, and other metal items. Funduq al-Najjariyyin, a traditional Moroccan travelers inn, is a significant presence in the square. We stopped for a few minutes and enjoyed the local artists singing traditional Moroccan song in front of the historical saqayya - the fountain facing the square.

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After a long walk, we reached the world-famous Chouara tannery. We were greeted with a bunch of mint leaves to stave the intense smell of leather processing. This is one of the oldest tanneries in the world, and they still operate things like the early days - skins are cured with cow urine, pigeon feces, and quicklime and then dried under the sun. It was a truly iconic sight!

The next stop was al-Quaraouiyine. This is the oldest continuously operating degree-granting university in the world. The university also serves as a mosque, and non-muslim visitors are not allowed inside. We had to satisfy our curiosity with a glimpse of the ground from the main gate. Next was a brief stop at Zaouia of Moulay Idriss II, a shrine containing the tomb of Sultan Idris II, ruler of Morocco from 807 to 828. This is considered as one of the most sacred shrines in Morocco. Unfortunately, non-Muslims are also not allowed inside the building. A quick peek through the ornamental doors is all we could do.

Another attraction of the old Medina is al-Attarine Madrasa. Built in the 14th century, this was a center of religious learning during the Marinid rule. The Madrasa entrance is lined by stores selling perfumes and spices; thus, it was named al-Attarine Madrasa - "Madrasa of the perfumers." Once we entered the small courtyard of the Madrasa, a stunning example of Islamic architecture, the serenity of the surroundings was quite a contrast to the clamor of the outside souk. The rectangular courtyard is a perfect example of Moroccan craftsmanship - adorned with ornamented walls with graceful Arabic calligraphy and colorful mosaics, tiled floor, and cedarwood carved arches and cornices. The courtyard opens into a prayer hall. Around these are Madrasa students' rooms, the simplicity of which is a stark contradiction to the ornamented courtyard.

We ended our trip at the Bab Bou Jeloud, an ornate city gate at the western entrance of Fes el Bali. The 12th century built triple-arched gate is made up of blue polychrome tiles with geometric patterns. Inside the gate, there is a small square with many roadside restaurants (one of the best Couscous I had) and shops. This was a great place to indulge in local food including tagine and moroccan sweets. While crossing through the gate's arches, don't miss the beautiful view of the minaret of Madrasa Bou Inania, a 14th century built religious center for Muslim intellectuals.

Fez also boasts some prime venues that offer authentic belly dancing. One of the top choices is Palais La Médina. Apart from the cultural and culinary experience, Palais La Médina is famous for its elegant interior design!

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A fun fact

Did Fez hat originate in Fez? Yes! The dye used for the Fez hat's crimson color was first extracted in the city of Fez. But people in the Maghreb region of Morocco, where Fez sits, do not wear Fez hats. They use a similar-looking hat known as Sashiya.

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