Saturday, November 26, 2011

Fes. فاس

When I mentioned to my friends that I was planning to Morocco, all of them replied that I had to go Marrakesh. I think that's because it's the city that most people would associate with Morocco but for me, my eyes could not get over the images I had seen of Fes. The medina with its alleyways so narrow that donkeys are the main form of transportation, souks overflowing with all sorts of ware from colorful leather babouches to canisters topped high with spices, men hunching over vats of dies in the tanneries that Fes is famous for, and the beautiful Moroccan tiles which seem to be used to adorn every surface. Fes has been that magical place that I associate with Morocco. So no surprise that we'll be spending time here.


Fes is divided into three parts.  Fes el Bali which was originally founded as the capital of the Idrisid Dynasty in between 789 and 808 AD and is the area that is otherwise referred to as the medina.  The ares was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1981.  There's a second, smaller medina - Fes Jdid which was founded by the Merenid Dynasty in 1276.  Fes Jdid lies just outside the walls of Fes el Bali.  Lastly, there's Fes Nouvelle which is the newest part of town.   

"Which way to go? " I wanted to stay within the medina and in a riad.  Luck would have it that I not only found a riad but I managed to book the entire riad for just the four of us!  But before I made the booking, I was curious where the riad was located within the medina because I wanted to make sure the riad was indeed centrally located.  So, I went to Google Maps and entered in the address and what I got back was a view of the maze that are the streets in the medina.  Not good.  So I decided to see if I could find a map.  Back to Google and one search after another, only one map kept popping up along with advice that the best map can be found in a book titled, Fez from Bab to Bab (Hammad Berrada), which you can only buy when you're in Fes.  I managed to get an electronic copy but I don't know it's the whole map so we'll try and pick a copy of the book.  I did manage to find the street our riad is on - it's very close to the Karaouine Mosque and the perfume souk - right in the heart of the medina.....can't get much more centrally located than that!

Fes Medina Map

But, just in case we can't get a hold of the book, I also had Aaron download a walking tour map onto his iPhone. Hey, if you can't go old style with a map, go high-tech with an app :-)  I'm also thinking of bringing along a compass just to help us get reoriented when needed.

Photo from Travels with Sheila
"Follow the star "
According to most references I've read, there are some basic landmarks that you can use to navigate your way around the medina,  following a network of paths marked by signs perched on walls. These signs have a 8-point star shape which will guide you between the main places in the medina. If you are lost you only have to find one of these signs and follow it in any direction until you arrive to a map or a known place.

The part of Fes that lies within the boundary of the medina is known as Fes el-Bali.  It's a walled city and there are several babs or gates leading inside.  The main gate is known as Bab Boujloud ("boo-juh-lood) which translates to "Blue Gate" in English.

Two main streets start at Bab Boujloud and lead into the center of the medina.  One is Tala'a Kbira, which runs from Bab Boujloud to the Karaouiyne mosque in the heart of the medina where our riad is located.  The other is Tala'a Sghira also begins at Bab Boujloud and eventually merges back with Tala'a Kbira.

Maps, compass, iPhone app.  Even if none of it works, I'll happy to just get lost in the maze and take in the sights, sounds and smells of the medina!

I know we'll enjoy wandering and checking out the shops but there are some key landmarks that we need to see as well.

"Kairaouine Mosque"
The Karaouine Mosque in Morocco (also known as Al-Qarawiyyin Mosque) was founded in 859 by Fatima Al-Fihri, the daughter of Mohammed Al-Fihri who was a wealthy merchant at the time. The family was part of a group of migrants who had made the decision to move from Kairouan in Tunisia to Fes in Morocco in the early 9th century. Both Fatima and her sister were well educated and inherited a large amount of money from their father after his death.  Fatima decided to spend her inheritance on building a mosque that was suitable for the community that she loved. Over time, the mosque grew from being simply a place of worship to a place for religious education and political discussion. Over the subsequent decades the syllabus taught at the university continued to grow and grow and in 1957, King Mohammed V introduced the further subjects of chemistry, physics, math and foreign languages.  As an institution of higher learning, Kairaouine has been in existence for so long that Guinness Book of World Records named the university as the ‘oldest existing educational institution in the world’.

The size of the mosque has expanded over successive dynasties and it is now considered to be the largest mosque in North Africa, holding as many as 20,000 worshipers.

It's said that the interior of the mosque features several white arches and columns with decorative plasterwork, wood carvings, tiles and courtyards.  It's suppose to be absolutely beautiful and I would have loved to be able to see it but unfortunately, unless you're a Muslim, you won't be able to go inside so that rules out a visit for all for of us.  Maybe we can find a way to peek inside.  If not, we'll admire its exterior and if possible, make our way inside the University.

"Going to school"
Medersas are religious schools and there are two worth visiting in Fes el-Bali. The Medersa Bou Inania was built in the 1300's and has some beautiful examples of Merenid plasterwork and woodwork.  Medersa el-Attarine is also filled with examples of excellent Merenid craftsmanship and offers fantastic views of the old city from its rooftop.

The medersas of Fes often served multiple functions in addition to their primary role as teaching institutions. With their fine libraries and their connection to the University of Karaouine, the medersas made Fes a celebrated intellectual center.

"Medersa Bou Inania"
Bou Inania Medersa (also known as Bu 'Inaniyya Medersa) is perhaps the most celebrated of the many medersas founded by the Merenids.

Bou Inania was founded by the Merenid Sultan Abu Inan Faris and the name of the medersa comes from the first part of the Sultan's name "Abou Inan"

Ever since its inception, the medersa has simultaneously functioned as both an educational institute and as a congregational mosque.  Its multiple functions are accommodated in a symmetrical plan in which student rooms, the prayer hall, and flanking domed halls surround a large courtyard. In the courtyard there is a portico with a still functioning mosque, separated from the rest of the courtyard by a small moat.

Bou Inania is said to be the finest example of Islamic architecture that a non-Muslim can see in Fes.  It's wooden walls are elaborately carved with geometric patterns and Arabic calligraphy, and it is the only medersa that has a minaret.  The minaret announced the function of the medersa as a mosque.

Located opposite Bou Inania is Dar al-Magana which houses a weight powered water clock.   The clock served to announce call to prayer for all the mosques in Fes el-Bali.

Dar al-Magana was also built by Sultan Abu Inan Faris.

When I first came across reference to a clock, I wanted to see what it looked like.  I Googled and no image of what I think of as a clock came back.

It's definitely not what you think of as a clock and how it works sounds complex when you read about it.  I think it's one of those things that is more obvious seen than read about.

The clock at Dar al-Magana consists of 12 windows and platforms that house 12 brass bowls. The motion of the clock was presumably maintained by a kind of small cart which ran from left to right behind the twelve windows. At one end,the cart was attached to a rope with a hanging weight; at the other end to a rope with a weight that floated on the surface of a water reservoir that was drained at a regular pace. Each hour one of the windows opened; at the same time a metal ball was dropped into one of the twelve brass bowls. The rafters sticking out of the building above the doors supported a small roof to shield the doors and bowls.

"Medersa el-Attarine"
el-Attarine Medersa was built by the Merenid ultan Abu Said Uthman II. The medersa takes its name from the Souk al-Attarine, the spice and perfume market that is located nearby.  el-Attarine also happens to be located stone's throw from our riad so no excuse to not pay it a visit!

The central focal point of the el-Attarine is located in its rectangular shaped court yard area.  Around the courtyard, there are tile murals forming the word “Allah” in calligraphy that are breathtaking works of art in and of themselves.

In addition to the tile art pieces, the walls of the building feature carved stucco. All of the doorways are framed with similar carved wood pieces. There are also wooden archways with marble columns featured in random placement throughout the building.

"Bab Boujloud "
 There are a lot of gates leading into Fes el-Bali but none are more famous than Bab Boujloud
Although this is one of the most famous gates in the medina of Fes, it is a rather young monument dating back to just 1913. The gate marks the end of Fes Jdid and the beginning of Fes el-Bali. One of unique features of Bab Boujloud is that the color of mosaics are different on both sides of the gate. On the side facing Fes Jdid, the tiles are blue which is the color of Fes. On the side that faces Fes el-Bali, the tiles are green, the color of Islam.

"Zaouia Moulay Idriss II"
 Zaouia Moulay Idriss II is a zaouia (shrine) that is dedicated to and houses the tomb of Moulay Idriss II, who ruled Morocco from 807 to 828 and founded the city of Fes for the second time in 810.

The zaouia was originally built by the Merenids in the 15th century.  Over centuries the building has been  renovated multiple times and almost completely replaced in the 18th century by Moulay Ismail in a style typical of the Alaouite Dynasty.  Moulay Idriss II is the patron saint of the city of Fes, and it is believed that visiting his zaouia is beneficial for visitors the city, boys before being circumcised and women wanting to facilitate childbirth.  I believe that the zaouia is open to non-Muslims but the tomb room is not.

 "Wandering outside the walls"
While there's plenty to see and do in Fes el-Bali, there are two places that we need to see outside the walls.  One is the Mellah and other are the Merenid Tombs.

Photo by Panchaud Marc
"The Mellah"The Mellah is the old Jewish quarter of Fes and you can tell the architecture differs from the rest of the medina. Houses with balconies and windows overlooking the streets are very un-Muslim like. The Jewish cemetery is quite eye-popping here with white tombstones heading down the side of a hill as far as the eye can see, some are teetering right over the edge.

In reading up for this trip, I was surprised to learn about the long history of Jews in Morocco.

 In Moroccan cities, Jews lived in the Mellah, a neighborhood surrounded by walls that separated them from violence they faced from the Arabic population. At night the gates were closed to prevent anyone from getting out.

In the 8th century, Moulay Idris II, finding that the Jews were very handy at their work, built a wall around a neighborhood of the city near his castle, to protect them.  While the Mellah started out as a privileged neighborhood, it ended up a real jailhouse in the centuries that followed; lodging was small, life conditions were very difficult and as the Jewish population grew, the Mellah became overcrowded.  I wonder if Jews still live there today and what the conditions are like.

Photo from Atlas Obscura
"The Merenid Tombs"
 Built in the 14th century, the Merenid Tombs were once the sumptuous resting places of the Merenid Dynasty but after years at the mercy of conquests and looters, they lack most of their original decorative charm.  Today, the tombs themselves aren't much to look at but from their location, you have excellent panoramic views over all three parts of Fes as well as the olive tree lined hills surrounding the city.  It will be nice place to spend a bit of time away from the hustle and bustle of the medina.

Unfortunately, the area is littered with trash and for some reason, there are plenty of animal bones strewn about.  Not exactly a place to linger so we won't be picnicking here.  But, there is a Sofitel hotel nearby that offers mint tea and a place to sit to admire the views from.  I'm thinking that's where we'll head :-)

I can't believe I'll finally be spending time in Fes.  Truly a dream come true for me!