The ancient capital of al-Maghrib al-Aqá¹£ the ancient name of Morocco, Fez or Fes is more than just another Arab city. Home to one of the oldest universities in the world, Fez was an under-rated tourist destination with Marrakesh being synonymous with Moroccan tourism. But this burgeoning, eclectic town is alluring visitors with its dramatic Medina which is often compared to the ancient wall of Jerusalem. The untouched, non-touristy, rustic charm of Fez is what makes it one of the most sought-after destinations.
So whats to see in Fez some may ask! The fact that the city doesn't try too hard to be unique, the UNESCO world heritage structures crowding its Medinas and the consistent old-world effect it thaws onto the souls of the visitors might be the reason why Fez is righteously named as the Athens of the East or the Mecca of the West. It was founded by Idris I in 789.
The most undeniably wonderful fact about Fez is that it is one of the world's largest car-free urban areas. So make sure you are ready to explore it the old-school way; with a map and on foot. The city unfolds itself as you walk around, the walls narrate a tale and the air sings songs of its glorious past.
The hub of ancient era in Fez is the Medina of Fez-el-Bali. This old town area is a structured maze with narrow lanes and covered Bazaars that are bubbling with the aromas of Moroccan food, bustling craft workshops and an array of diverse people walking around.
Kairaouine (Qaraouyine) Mosque & University is the spiritual enclave of Fez. Dating back to 857, this religious institution was established by Fatima al-Fihri, the daughter of a wealthy refugee from the holy city of Kairouan in Tunisia. Although non-Muslims arent allowed to enter, the huge green pyramidal roof and minaret can be well observed from outside.
Bou Inania Madersa is one of the top highlights of Fez. This ancient Islamic college that goes way back to the 14th century exhibits fine Islamic architecture. Wooden walls carved to perfection with geometric patterns, calligraphy in Arabic and a towering Minaret are some of the enticing features of this structure.
Photo by Salah Ghrissi
Medersa el-Attarine is another beautiful piece of restoration in the Medina with superb zellij (tile work), carved plaster and cedar wood. The Onyx columns bordering the Minaret and the splendid courtyard take the visitors back into the time.
Fez offers unusual experiences without asking for it; a tour through Chaouwara Tanneries is one of those. A leather tanning neighbourhood that uses its traditional pits to colour the leather garments gives a sudden dash of smell to your senses and colour to your eyes. It is one of the best places to shop for leather in Morocco, so if you are looking for some, here's a good deal. A little tip is to carry a mint leaf if your stomach is susceptible of leather smell!
Fez being one of the important trading towns in ancient times saw a lot of visitors and travellers that needed a place to dwell at the end of the day. Like most of the Islamic towns, Fez had caravanserais- hostels with basic amenities. Nejjarine Museum of Wooden Arts & Crafts is one such place where visitors can observe a caravanserai. A stunning building which is now restored, has artefacts of craftsmens tools, chunky prayer beads and Berber locks, chests and musical instruments presented just as it would be in the olden times.
For art enthusiasts, the Batha Museum displays the findings from the citys ruined structures including fine woodcarvings, zellij and sculpted plaster artefacts. Housed in a 19th-century summer place, the museum also boasts Fassi embroidery, colourful Berber carpets, antique instruments and Ceramic collection dating back to the 14th century. Blue pottery and cobalt glazing are the forte of Fez ceramics and many of the specimens can be observed here. Set amidst Andalucian-style garden, there are Sufi culture festivals and sacred music concerts held here time to time.
The melancholic lining to the citys majestic past is presented by the Jewish Cemetery in the Mellah (Jewish Quarter) where a white sea of tombs flashes in the sight. Tombs of Rabbis (Jewish Gurus) are enclosed and the one of the oldest belongs to Rabbi Vidal Hasserfaty, who died in 1600. The tomb with green lining is of Martyr Solicia- a 14 year old Jewish girl who refused to convert to Islam and had her throat slit. At the end of the alley stands the Habarim Synagogue which also hosts a simple Jewish museum.
Moulay Idriss II shrine and the al-Tijani mosque are some of the other prominent buildings worth observing even from outside as they cannot be entered by non-Muslims.
The Fez Medina has some out of the ordinary experiences- be it getting a shave from a local barber, a coffee at the roof-top restaurant, a dish of freshly prepared delicacies like Tajines, Pastilla and Meschwi or the bizarre twisted root and twig things offered in the Berber Pharmacy (high in Estrogen, not for light-hearted). Although the locals are very warm, beware of fake guides, touts and hustlers.
Fez offers variety of accommodation, but staying in Villas or the Riads give the tourists the closest understanding of what the ancient life of the locals would have been like. Opt for the ones located right in the Medina and live like a royal even on a mid-range budget!
Ancient Roman site of Volubilis, historic town of Moulay Idriss, Azrou in the nearby Atlas Mountain and Mekenes are some day-trips that can be taken from Fez.
The city that still dwells in its past, sings glories of its majestic reign and struggles to develop at the same time- Fez is an unusual twist from the elite, well-manicured sojourns one seeks for. Visit this striking city and watch it unfold- Fez is definitely an off-beat destination worth your time!
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