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Fez, the cultural and spiritual capital

Updated: Oct 11, 2022

Fez - Home to one of the magnificent medieval monument that attest to time honored-civilization, Fez is now Morocco´s spiritual capital, a tourist attraction and Morocco´s third most populous city.

Fes (or Fez), it seems, is frozen in time. Andalusian and African architecture is coupled with old school handicraft trades. The city has one of the best conserved historic towns of the Arab-Muslim world... and that´s just for starters.

Typical street in the old city in Fez, Morocco

You don´t always have to go off the beaten path to experience Moroccan culture at its barest and truest form. The title of "cultural and spiritual centre" of Morocco wasn´t just slapped on to appease tourists. It truly reflects the traditional lifestyle that persists throughout Fez. Here

is how:

Get lost in a medieval labyrinth, Medina

The oldest walled part of the city, Fes El-Bali, is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Enter through the archways of the stunning Bab Boujloud (Blue Gate) and you´ll get a sense of what lies ahead in the 19th century medina.

Bab Bou Jeloud gate (or Blue Gate) in Fes el Bali medina, Morocco

The Medina is one of the world´s largest urban car-free zones. As you venture through one of the gates into the Medina you seem to step back in time. Much of it is as it was probably a century ago. In Medina, mules, donkeys and pedestrians flow steadily through the streets. As you wander the streets hear porters yelling balak, it´s your cue to stick close to the wall.

Streetscape in Medina of Fes, Morocco
People walking in the street of the open-air market Medina in Fez, Morocco
Colorful painted street in the medina, the old city of Fes

Navigating the Medina is adventure on its own and is definitely the biggest highlight of the city. Inside the Medina, there are two most awe-inspiring madrasas (Islamic colleges): Madrasa al-Attarine and Bou Inania Madrasa. Stop at either (or both!) and admire the intricate carvings and beautiful design. The latter is one of the few religious buildings that non-Muslims can enter.

The Al-Attarine Madrasa is a madrasa in Fez medina in Morocco, near the Al-Qarawiyyin Fez Mosque

More stunning tile-works has the impressive University of Al Quaraouiyine.

Oldest University in the world - University of Al Quaraouiyine

Recognized by the Guinness World Records as the oldest existing educational institution in the world, it is also a UNESCO site. Its kaleidoscopic patterns are absolutely mesmerizing! The architecture and beautifully decorated facades will blow you away.

Entrance to the inner courtyard with fountain, university and mosque Al-Qarawiyyin, or Al-Karaouine, Fez

The university is still running today with students coming from Central Asia, West Africa and various parts of Morocco. It is still very traditional as students gather in semi-circles around a Sheik (a leader in the Muslim community), and all students must have memorized the complete Quran.

The rhythm of artisans: Tanneries, coppersmiths & weavers

The charm of the old medina is found in the people who maintain the century-old rhythms of handicraft industries and methods of past generations.

One of the most vital experiences in the medina, and equally as pungent, is the 11th century Chouara Tannery. It´s the city´s largest tannery and it is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In this tannerry, cows, sheeps, goat and camel hides are brought to be preserved and dyed (then turned into jackets, handbags, wallets and more).

Tanneries, Medina of Fez Morocco

There is no denying that the smell of the tannery is far from sweet and flowery. Thankfully, the local guides know the best rooftop vantage point to appreciate the labor-intensive process.

The "Athens" of Africa

Situated at the top of the hill overlooking Fes is the Merenid Tombs, which hold the remains of the Royals members dating back to the 13th century. A few giant tombs that sit on the hill above Fez, these sepulchers are quite the mystery. They´re said to contain official documents, but no one really knows for sure.

The old Merinid tombs are on a hill above Fes, Morocco

Although the tombs are not that impressive due to poor care and looting, the view you are rewarded with is quite special. They offer a fantastic view of the city just before sundown.

Sunset light over Fes el Bali, Morocco

You can find the stillness above the walls hauntingly beautiful. Outside the old Medina, beside the Royal Palace with its hefty brass doors, is Fes Mellah, the Jewish quarter. The extremely well-preserved walled quarter has a gold souk (market) - the first of its kind in Morocco.

Mellah, or Jewish Quarter in Fez

It is so intriguing to know what makes the Jewish quarter so distinct. The large windows and open balconies lining the street here are a contrast to typical Moroccan raids, which favor more privacy with their discreet windows and intimate courtyards.

Fez is for foodies

After-dark activities carry out onto the winding streets and this is a nightlife centering around mint tea, hookah and Moroccan cuisine. The Jemaa el-Fnaa square in Marrakech gets a lot of attention for its foodie scene, but Fes has its own special offerings.

The food scene in Fes is a perfect compliment to its walkability. We´d recommend heading out on a food crawl through the labyrinth streets. Try brochettes (meat skewers), smoked over a charcoal and finish with some sweet pastries. Also, fuel up on freshly squeeze orange juice - it´s magic.

Curious facts you probably didn´t know about Fez:

1. There are no cars. Most of the Fez medina, which contains close to 10,000 streets, is completely car-free, though you might see the occasional motorbike zooming through a crowd of people. The entire medina is a UNESCO World Heritage Site — rightly so.

2. It has one of the oldest water clocks in the world

What’s a water clock, you ask? It’s an intricate clock where water flows from one end to the other and calculates time. Along with sun dials, water clocks are the oldest form of time keeping in the world. Fez just happens to have one, the Dar al-Magana, which was built in 1357. The clock mechanism inside is currently being reconstructed.

3. The Chouara Tannery is almost 1,000 years old

This tannery has been in existence for almost a millenium, and is known for producing high-quality leather goods that are sold throughout the country. Everything here is done manually, and the tanning process hasn’t changed since medieval times.

4. It used to be the only source of ‘Fez’ hats

Yes, the popular Fez hats actually come from Fez, and up until the 19th century, it was the only place they were produced. The hats began getting popular and were eventually produced in Turkey and France as well. Until this day, it’s said that the best quality hats come directly from Fez.

5. It’s one of Morocco’s imperial cities

Morocco has four historic capitals, and Fez just happens to be one of them. The city was founded all the way back in the year 789 AD (the oldest of the imperial cities) and was the capital of the Idrisid, Marinid, Wattasid and Alaouite dynasties. The other imperial cities are Marrakech, Meknes, and Rabat.

6. It has the second-oldest university in the world

If you thought Oxford University was old, think again. The University of al-Qarawiyyin in Fez was founded in 859 and has been continually handing out degrees for over 1,100 years! It was also once the largest mosque in Africa, but has since been surpassed.

7. There was once a large Jewish community

While most Jews are now gone, the community thrived in the 15th century in an area called Mellah. The population slowly declined over the centuries, and after 1948 when Israel was founded, most left. Today, you can still visit Mellah and see some of the remnants of the past. There is an all-white Jewish cemetery in the area as well, which is rather striking when contrasted with the architecture of the city.

8. The Ville Nouvelle was founded by a Frenchman

Known as the “Maker of Morocco,” Frenchman Louis Hubert Lyautey helped to create the Ville Nouvelle, the modern section of Fez, during the French occupation of Morocco in World War I. The Lycee Lyautey in Casablanca is named after him as well.

9. Every neighborhood has a mosque

It’s required in Fez for every neighborhood to have a mosque, along with a bakery, a school, and more. Because of this, Fez has a whopping number of mosques (over 300), which can be seen from different vantage points throughout the city.

10. It’s home to one of the largest stockpiles of weapons in the world

No, we aren’t talking about missiles or fighter jets. Fez is an important showcase for Morocco’s historic weaponry, including shields, swords, daggers, Berber weapons, helmets, precious armor, and more. Over 8,000 pieces are on site at the Musee des Armes, where visitors can browse through intricate pieces on display in 16 different rooms.

Do you want to feel all the charm of this city with us? Soy Erasmus invites you to visit the stunning Fez on Morocco trip. More information about the trip you can find here.

Video of the trip:

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