Last Updated: 2020-08-25
Although a map is usually thought of as a labyrinth, with the sole objective of taking us from point A to point B, there is another, deeper approach far from this very pragmatic idea. Maps can be a work of art and the most trustworthy portrait of a population throughout its history.
Because behind every property line and every bend in the road there are testimonies of past lives and conflicts of interest.
This article will explain the three main reasons that influenced the design of Fez el-Jdid.
A New Medina
Fes el Jdid came into being with the advent of a new dynasty in the middle of the 13th century. Upon arrival, the new rulers’ main project was to expand the original medina, which was basically an impossible task as its was completely built up all the way up to the city walls.
Although it was necessary to expand the city, they had to preserve its essence and origin so that the locals did not speculate that they intended to transform its reality. Their only possible solution was to create a new medina with features similar to the first one right next door.
The first consequence is a new Arab quarter that inherited the winding alleyways of the old medina, with Rue Fez el-Jdid being the street that underpins everything. However, there are no exotic handicrafts done here like in Fez el-Bali and its more focused on the daily needs of the local people.
Fes el jedid is also the place where the new power established itself with a huge Royal Palace with numerous rooms.
There is an esplanade leading up to the 7 access doors, representing both the days of the week and the levels of the monarchy. The elaborate ceiling of bronze overlaid on to solid wood, framed in a mosaic of green and blue colored tiles, dialogues well with the main access door to Fez el-Bali, the Bab Bou Jeloud.
This façade is the only part of the more than 200 acres that encompass the palace that we can enjoy. For the pedestrian it is a single suggestive image, while on the map it is, paradoxically, by far the most remarkable element of both medinas. It is an involuntary urban metaphor for political power in Morocco, discreet but always present.
The Jewish Quarter, originally located in the old medina, was relocated to Fes el Jedid where it became a defining part of the new center of city life. The oldest in Morocco, this mellah ended up serving as a model for subsequent Jewish communities, to the point that the name itself became synonymous with a Jewish neighborhood. The most reliable theory is that prior to the construction of the new neighborhood, the products treated with salt―“mellah” in Arabic―were stored there.
It was thanks to the Muslims that the Jews prospered in the Iberian Peninsula, and Morocco was one of the main countries where they fled to after they were expelled from Spain and Portugal. But coexistence was not without friction with the Muslim population, as unfortunately continues to happen in any country with the arrival of a foreign culture.
Frictions led the Sephardic community, first in Fez and then almost systematically in the rest of the country, to settle alongside the royal palace to enjoy its political protection and assuring their own physical security with defensive walls. They accepted this golden cage because they felt it was the safest and most pragmatic option.
Compared to Muslim buildings, where privacy is number one, these buildings are exposed to the street, with wrought iron and wooden balconies. The most renowned jewelers are located here, since they promoted the trade of precious metals. But the mellah is not merely another Moroccan community with hints of Jewish inhabitants. From its layout and flow to the architecture of each and every home, it has a profoundly unique personality.
Like the Ibn Danan Synagogue, one of the most important in the country and a perfect example of what identifies these places of worship, with a congregation space that revolves around the teachings of the Torah, guarded in the ark located in front of the pulpit.
Witness to the influence of Judaism on Islam, female worshipers also had a separate place for prayer on a higher floor, in order to avoid unseemly situations during prostrations. It also has an underground mikveh, water containers to bathe in, a clear precursor to Islam’s ablution room.
Finally, in front of the synagogue, we turn our gaze to the hills surrounding Fez and see the Jewish cemetery, where those who left their mark on the city rest. There are hundreds of tombs and mausoleums surrounding the mellah at its farthest end and creating a singular landscape that reminds us that, although they are nearly all gone from Morocco, the Jews are an indispensable part of understanding the complex urban layout of the oldest imperial city.
Coordinates: 34°03′N 4°59′W (see location)
Size: 300 Acres (120 hectares) approx.
Construction year: 1276
Hours: Open 24 hours (Mon-Sun). Saturdays are not recommended as all shops and monuments are closed. A visit before or after lunchtime is preferable, as there are few places to eat lunch in this area.
Entrance fee: Free
Where to eat: In this medina there are only cafes where you can have a snack or stop to rest, as most of the restaurants are located in the old medina of Fez El Bali
If you want to know more about the city, check out our visit Fez guide.