Explore Fès, Morocco: Morocco’s spiritual capital

The soul of the Maghreb lingers in the medieval walled city of the former imperial capital. Paul Bloomfield roams the labyrinthine byways of Fès

The beautiful courtyard of the al-Qarawiyyin Mosque and university, founded in the 850's (Izzet Keribar/Getty Images)

It’s a story that’s all too familiar: Muslims, suffering the brutal aftermath of rebellion, flee around and across the Mediterranean to seek a new life. Such is the tale of Fès’s early years, and here these refugees provided the bedrock of Islamic learning, architecture, commerce and community.

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To see how these factions slotted together, climb to a viewpoint north of the medina (walled city) at dusk, as the muezzins’ calls drift from hundreds of mosques. From among the Merenid tombs scattered like broken teeth across the hillside, gaze into the valley to Fès el-Bali, the oldest part of the city.

The village of Medinat Fès was founded here by Moulay Idriss, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad and founder of the Arab state of Morocco, shortly after his arrival in c787, having fled the Abbasid caliphate of Baghdad. But it was his son, succeeding as Sultan Idriss II in c807, who developed Fès as his capital and the country’s spiritual heart.

And in the heart of his city Idriss II lies today, under the pyramidal roof of his zaouïa (tomb shrine institution). It’s closed to non-Muslims, but wander past its heavy wooden doors and you may glimpse the tiled courtyard and shrine. Idriss II forged the character of the city through two acts of Islamic hospitality. First, around 817, he welcomed hundreds of Andalucian families escaping repressive Umayyad rule in Córdoba; they settled on the east bank of the Oued (river) Fès, forming al-Andalous (the Andalucian quarter). Then, seven years later, he allotted land on the west bank to refugees fleeing persecution in Kairouan (now in Tunisia) – the al-Qarawiyyin district.

Wealthy and pious, in 857 the latter group built the al-Qarawiyyin Mosque and, two years later, its university – reputedly the world’s oldest continuously operating place of higher education. Both are off-limits to non-Muslims, as are most medersas (Islamic colleges) scattered around the medina; an exception is the Medersa Bou Inania, founded in 1351, which boasts glorious Moorish zellij tilework, sculpted wood and alabaster to rival Granada’s Alhambra.

As the Fassi saying goes, all roads lead to the al-Qarawiyyin. A web of alleys spiders in all directions, lined with carved wooden doorways set into blank walls. Behind lie family houses; expensive and difficult to maintain in this congested warren, many have been abandoned and left to decay. A number are being renovated, many refashioned as boutique hotels generally called riads (strictly, a house with an internal garden is a riad; one with a central courtyard is a dar).

Listen for warning shouts of “Barak!” from donkey drivers in the medina’s 9,400 narrow alleyways

Almost entirely car-free, the medina’s reputed 9,400 alleyways are thronged with donkeys – listen for the warning shouts of “Barak!” from their drivers – and studded with funduqs (caravanserais) and souks (bazaars) where jellaba (robe)-clad shoppers barter for textiles, silverware, food, perfumes and spices.

East of the al-Qarawiyyin, the scent of herbs and spices is punctured by the reek of cowhide, pigeon guano and urine from the Chaouwara tanneries. Enter a leather shop overlooking the rainbow-hued vats, hold the proffered sprig of mint to your nose, and you’ll witness a process unchanged for centuries. The tanneries can be overwhelming, as can the whole medina; American author Paul Bowles wrote: “Fès is full of flies and dust… It is quite dirty and very beautiful.”

To escape the melee, head west to the blue-tiled Moorish gate Bab Boujeloud, the western limit of Fès el-Bali. To the south-west spreads Fès el-Jdid, the ‘new’ city, established by Merenid conquerors in the 13th century. Smaller and more ordered, it encompasses the royal palace and the Mellah (Jewish quarter), now home to just a handful of Jews, most having emigrated after Moroccan independence in 1956.

Beyond lies the Ville Nouvelle, developed from 1916 by the French, who moved the administrative capital to Rabat. After that the old city began to decay; a Unesco World Heritage site since 1981, it is being patchily restored. Yet within its crumbling walls, Fès medina remains the most mesmerising and extensive medieval city in the Islamic world.

Fès in eight sites

Bad Boujeloud: ‘Blue Gate’ built by the French in 1913 to replace the medieval city portal

Nejjarine Museum of Wooden Arts & Crafts: Housed in the wonderful restored Nejjarine Funduq (caravanserai)

Chaouwara Tanneries: Kaleidoscopic dyeing vats tinted with poppy seed, indigo and saffron

Medersa Bou Inania: Islamic college founded in 1351, with spectacular zellij tilework and alabaster

Al-Qarawiyyin Mosque and University: Important mosque and adjacent university founded in the 850s

Souk al-Henna: One of the medina’s oldest bazaars, by a 13th-century former psychiatric hospital

Musee dar Batha: Palatial 19th-century Hispano-Moorish house with displays of Fassi ceramics

Ibn Danan Synagogue: 17th-century synagogue in the Mellah (Jewish quarter) that still holds centuries-old gazelle-skin Torah scrolls

Paul Bloomfield is a travel and heritage writer

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This article was taken from issue 15 of BBC World Histories magazine, first published in April 2019