Last Updated: 2020-08-10
Spectacular and chaotic, different and chaotic, authentic… and chaotic. There are multiple adjectives to define it, but chaos is always part of the description. This is a complete mistake. Confusion seeks order and stability, but this place has remained practically unchanged for centuries.
The faux-pas we commit when we say that the Medina of Fez is chaotic has to do with being bombarded with something so complex that we do not know how to process it. It is a design so fascinating and endless that every time we visit it we see a new facet of the gem, but we never see it all.
The following is nothing more than a humble attempt to scratch the surface of one of the most intriguing microcosms in the world.
What is a Medina?
Despite the fact that literally medina (in Arabic مدينة or madīna) means city, the word is used in English to refer to the old town of Islamic cities usually with a defensive wall and a maze-like layout. Although these labyrinths serve a defensive purpose (to make it difficult for any invaders to get their bearings), its deepest purpose is to put the individual Muslim above any earthly hierarchy.
Because in Islam each person, each family and, therefore, each home, is of ultimate value and must be protected at all costs. So, this view of the uniqueness of each life is reflected in the way the streets and alleys flow, never cookie-cutter houses set out in plain straight lines.
However, reducing it to a structure of only two elements and with little planning would be incorrect. Just as there are five pillars of Islam, there are also five foundations for every Islamic community. Every neighborhood should have a mosque, a madrasah, a communal oven, a fountain and a hammam, so that religion, education, food, water and hygiene are guaranteed.
The Medina of Fez
Describing the medina of Fez means talking about the history of the oldest capital in the country: founded more than 1,200 years ago on the right bank of the river that now runs through it, soon after it would spread to the other shore. This city underwent multiple changes in government, numerous transformations, especially the reconstruction of the walls, and grew until it reached more than 300 neighborhoods and 9000 alleys.
And although this is the original one, known as Fez el-Bali, 500 years later another one was built right next to it, called Fez el-Jdid, where all the political power was soon concentrated. Later, the entire Jewish community moved from the old medina to the new one, which grew exponentially as a result of the fall of the kingdom of Al-Andalus in Spain.
The latter is noticeably different from the previous one, with a clearer layout and the imposing presence of the Royal Palace―although its bronze doors protect it from the curious―and, above all, the Jewish streets crowded with balconies, which would be an unthinkable option in Muslim architecture.
Focusing on the case at hand, Fez el-Bali has the most outstanding buildings, such as the Mausoleum of Mulay Idrís II, founder of the city, and the Al Karaouine Mosque, both not open to non-Muslims. Or the madrasahs, the most relevant for their unique beauty and elegance being Bou Inania and Attarine.
Even so, thinking that the medina of Fez is just a collection of significant places, would be like standing at the gates of a place that, above all, represents a philosophy of life, one that admits few concessions to modernity and none to the prying eyes of outsiders.
Because although its uniqueness and its designation as a World Heritage Site has managed to attract numerous curious people, for every street entrepreneur looking to make a dirham or two from tourists, there are three local workers with their donkeys transporting leather, fruit or clusters of propane tanks who’ll yell, “balak”, so we let them pass.
It is a space designed primarily by and for its inhabitants and only secondarily for travelers who know how to understand it.
An Intense Experience
Once you cross the main access point, Bab Bou Jeloud, you can see that this place is not, strictly speaking, “pretty”. If you’re expecting something out of Arabian Nights, you will be in for an unpleasant surprise.
The medina does not make an attempt at refined beauty because it simply cannot afford it and does not need it. It moves ever forward in an endless swirl oblivious to the outside world, proud and unapologetic of its harshness. As proof of this, here is a shortlist of the unending sensory storm you will experience there:
The noise of the rhythmic hammering and the metallic hiss of machines in Seffarine Square straightening and polishing the locals’ kitchen instruments and keeping the near-extinct tradition of maintaining things and fixing them if they are broken rather than just throwing them away.
The kaleidoscope of the souk, where the color of fruits, sweets and olives competes with the sounds of chickens and rabbits, waiting to be freshly butchered in the back room of the premises on request.
The intense odor emanating from the Chowara Tannery, potent even at a distance of several stories high on one of the surrounding terraces. This perfume mainly comes from the mixture of lime, excrement, ash and urine in the vats used to cure the leather.
The harsh aesthetic of the Nejjarine Square wedding thrones, the meticulousness and repetitiveness of the copper carving and the interweaving looms… all conspire in the sometimes uncomfortable but always authentic environment of the medina to wear out the typical visitor in the span of a few hours of wandering through a complex space in permanent darkness.
However, the most overwhelming experience occurs when the call to prayer begins and the songs of the muezzins follow one another, in the form of a polyphonic melody that winds from alley to alley and into the listener’s heart, whether religious or not.
This is when the mosques become the focal point, the faithful come and, with a little luck, leave the door ajar. Immediately, the heathens appear, perhaps not very respectful but understandably curious, and observe the obvious: that they, like us, are only looking for direction in their lives.
Everything described is nothing more than the superficial impression of a place that asks not to be judged, valued, or even understood, but that wants to simply to feel and experience it. For this reason, those who enter the medina of Fez must always choose between two simple options: either get lost or let yourself get lost in it.
Coordinates: 34°03′N 4°58′W (see location)
Size: 540 Acres (220 hectares) approx.
Construction year: 809
Hours: Open 24 hours (Mon-Sun). Friday is not recommended since most stores are closed. It is preferable to visit first thing in the morning to avoid crowds of tourists.
Entrance fee: Free
Where to eat: Throughout the medina there are many scattered restaurants, but most are around the Bab Bou Jeloud. Tourist food is an average of 90 dirhams per person. The most traditional dish in Fez is the milk pastela (fried flaky pastries with cream between the layers) and is usually served as a dessert at weddings and other celebrations.
All images in the gallery published under a CC 2.0 license. Click on each image to enlarge it and find out who the photographer is.
If you want to know more about the city, check out our Fez tourism guide.