Fez: The Holy City of Green Domes

This is part of my 2009 travel account to Morocco (along with photos), dedicated to the splendid city of Fez.

A few words about Morocco

اذا كنت فى المغرب فلا تستغرب
If you are in Morocco, nothing should come as a surprise

But it is almost impossible not to be surprised; overwhelmed and challenged in this dream they call Morocco. A feast for the senses at all levels, from the dreamy landscape to the labyrinthine medina, all enjoyed to the rhythm of distant musicians and that of Moroccan mint tea poured slowly and noisily from silver pots following a filling tajine of lamb with prunes and almonds.

From the Andalusi imprint in Chefchaouen to the sacred tranquillity of Volubilis, from the incredible madrasas of Fez to the intricate Mellah (Jewish quarter) of Tangier, and whether stranded in the souqs of Tetouan or contemplating the pilgrims at Moulay Idris, these are all variations on the main splendid theme.

Tetouan is white, Fez is green and so is Meknes, Chefchaouen is the closest thing to flying in a blue dream while Tangier is as colourful as its cosmopolitan past, and I find it very difficult to choose any one place to write about because I adored every place that I saw, or better said, that I experienced.

I decided to write only about Fez, and I excluded Tangier because I spent little time there, Meknes because it is eclipsed by its bigger sister Fez, and Tetouan and Chefchaouen because some beautiful memories are better cherished than penned down.

Fez – I: Introducing the City of a Thousand Labyrinths

How many times can you get lost in one and the same city with a map in your hand and yet be delighted each and every time? How many men in hooded djellaba did we come across within the city gates, and how many exotic souqs left us speechless?
How many pieces of zellij are there in its madrasas, and how many hidden jewels in its twisted alleys?
How many colors in its tanneries, how many minarets dominating its skyline?
How many cities can brag about having the oldest university of the world, and how many claim the honor of being the most intact Islamic medieval city in the world?

One and the same answer to all questions, we are talking about Fez al-Bali (the Old Medina of Fes), designated in its entirety as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Once you plunge into the city, your initial anxiety soon turns into an obligatory and self administered determination to take it easy because no matter what, there is no way on earth that you can see everything. Eventually, you realize that this rule is a prerequisite for enjoying Fez.

As they say, retracing your steps or following the directions in a book is often nothing but an exercise in hilarious futility, because it is the city of a thousand labyrinths.

The journey is about to begin, come as you are and worry not about what to bring with you. In Fez, what you bring does not matter. Come as a pilgrim, and you will leave as a lover. Come with little, you will leave with so much.

Fez – II: The Holy City of Green Domes

What makes a city holy?
What makes one a pilgrim?

Fez, just being itself, being the way it is, makes it holy enough.
The old city has hundreds of mosques, tens of madrasas, functioning funduqs or wikalas, souqs, seqaya or sabils, in addition to many gates, zawyas, maristans, tanneries, to the end of the list. But they all make way to 3 unparalleled protagonists of incredible status and splendor: The Mosque and University of al-Qarawiyyin, the Madrasa Bou-Inania and the Zawiya of Moulay Idris II. They will be introduced in other messages.

These three places alone, along with the Zawia of Sidi al Tijani, have always been reason enough for pilgrims to flock into the city, seeking knowledge as students or seeking blessings as mureeds and devout followers.

Ever since the city was founded by Moulay Idris I in 789, and throughout the dynastic drama that started with the Idrisids and carried on with the Almoravids, the Almohads, the Merenids, the Wattasids, the Alawids and many others, the city never ceased to function as a centre of learning. This is why they say:

إن العلم كان ينبع من صدور أهلها، كما ينبع الماء من حيطانها
Knowledge emanated from the hearts of its people inasmuch as water emanated from its walls

It was here that the Andalusi Faraj al Khazraji used music to heal the mentally challenged in the 1286 Maristan of Sidi Faraj. This very same Maristan, in which Leo Africanus worked for a while as a scribe, also had an endowment for treating wounded birds (in case you were wondering what ‘civilization’ means).

It was here that, for centuries now, people roamed the souqs* of al Najjarin النجارين, al Sallalin السلالين, al Darraqin الدرّاقين, al Saffarin الصفارين, al Sarrajin السرّاجين, al Saqqatin السقاطين, al Tarrafin الطرافين, al Sharabliyin الشرابليين, entering funduqs or wikalas like Funduq Tazi تازى to buy leather products, Funduq Bou Selham بوسلهام to buy musical instruments or Funduq Qaat al Samn قاعة السمن to buy gee, honey and khalee’ خليع, which is dried meat.

Stay tuned in, the real thing is about to begin!

* Najjarin are carpenters, darraqin are horseshoe makers, saffarin are coppersmiths working with brass, sallalin are basket makers, saqqatin are animal accessory makers, tarrafin and sharabliyin are shoemakers for men and women respectively.

Fez – III: al-Qarawiyyin

Whether you enter by Bab al Khilwa or Bab al Hofah, and whether it is Bab Ibn Omar or Bab al Joloud, you will feel it. But even before entering, once you are close, you will feel it. You will feel it in the air, you will sense it in your heartbeat, you are about to enter the al-Qarawiyyin.

We entered by Bab al Ward. How many scholars have walked in and out through this and other gates of the Mosque? How many seekers came to quench their thirst at the Qarawiyyin University?

A succession of names flash across my mind like a string of pearls dazzling the eye.
Ibn Khaldun, the Father of Sociology and author of al Muqaddimah;
Ibn al Khatib and Ibn Zamraq, the poets of the Alhambra;
Ibn Marzuq, the scholar and statesman who also taught in Granada;
Ibn al Wazzan; better known as Leo Africanus, traveler and chronicler;
Musa ibn Maymun; better known as Maimonides, the celebrated Jewish scholar from Cordoba that worked as private physician for Saladin in Cairo;
And, according to some historians, Gerbert d’Aurillac, who later became Pope Sylvester II, introducing the use of the Arabic numeral to Europe …

And if this list does not impress you, then the architecture will. The accommodating open courtyard greats you with Andalusi generosity, which comes as no surprise given its design that mimics the Patio of the Lions at the Alhambra, complete with carved stucco, carved wood and a wealth of zellij or glazed tiles. The Andalusi imprint is evident in the 10th century square minaret funded by the Umayyad Caliph of Cordova, Abd al Rahman III.

But it all started with a great woman and a great exodus. The exodus is a double influx of immigrants and refugees, first from Qayrawan in Tunisia, then later, with the fall of al Andalus in 1492, from Granada too. This gave rise to two ethnic neighborhoods; one is Adawat al Qairawaniyyin عدوة القيروانيين, the other, Adawat al Andalusiyyin عدوة الأندلسيين. This mix lent the city a cultural richness and splendor thanks to the diversity and the variety of crafts and sciences that they mastered.

In 857, Fatima bint Muhammad al Fihri, a pious lady of Qairawani origin, dedicated the wealth that she had inherited from her father to founding a new mosque named al Qarawiyyin, which is a simplification of al Qairawaniyyin. She bought the land, commissioned the building, and fasted till the work was done. Her sister did the same, commissioning another mosque known as al Andalusiyyin Mosque. Soon, al Qarawiyyin turned into the main congregational mosque and eventually a renowned university that ranks first among oldest universities in continuous operation.

The Almoravid Sultan Ali ben Yusuf expanded the mosque to its present size in the 12th century. The courtyard’s blue and white tile floor, marble ablution fountain, and the two fountain pavilions, which recall the Court of the Lions at the Alhambra, were added by the Saadid Sultan Abdullah ibn al-Sheikh in the early 17th century.

I still do not know how I managed to get myself out of this oasis of comfort and tranquility. Just the memory of it is hypnotic, and the endless arcs evoke a sense of infinity that leaves you only as you exit the mosque and wakes up to the smell of a thousand exotic spices.

Fez – IV: At al-Madrasa al Bou-Inania, beauty will liberate you

“What pleases the eye, is priceless.”

This is how the Merinid Sultan Abu al Inan Faris replied when they presented him with the cost of constructing the Madrasa that bears his name, the stunning Madrasa Bou Inania, constructed between 1350 and 1356. Merinid is the name of a medieval dynasty, Banu Merin.

We first experienced this incredible masterpiece of architecture at night as we sneaked into the moonlit courtyard. A hooded man approached us slowly but determinedly. Sheikh Ahmed explained to us, whispering, how Sultan Abu al-Inan constructed this Madrasa using stucco carvers from al-Andalus and marble from Italy, and how the Madrasa housed students from Morocco, Algeria, Senegal, and Bilad Shinqit, an old name for Mauritania.

He told us that Abu al-Inan is only his title, given his position among the cavalry before being a Sultan, and that a river once ran right between the Madrasa and the mosque attached to it. He also explained, sadly, that the Madrasa is now a museum, while students nowadays study at the Qarawiyyin and reside in the Madrasa of Saffarin, the oldest in Fes, built around 1270 by Abu Yusuf Yaqub, the founder of the Merinid Dynasty.

Other incredible madrasas in Fes include al Attarin, now under restoration, and the elegant multistoried Madrasa of Sharratin, built by the Alawids in the 17th century, and thus the only non-Merenid madrasa in Fez.

The Bou-Inania is a dazzling infinity of zellij mosaic, calligraphy bands, stucco work, carved wooden mashrabiya screens, horseshoe arches, ataurique or floral motifs, all presenting a rare tour de force clearly inspired by the Nasrid architecture of Granada, but well harnessed into a religious context.

The minaret, located at one end of the façade, announced the function of the madrasa as a mosque, and its famed water clock regulated the times for prayer for other mosques in the city as well. This water clock was a work of genius, constructed by al-Muallim al Tlemsani, it used water pressure to set in motion metal hammers that would hit metal balls of different sizes, making different sounds announcing different hours of the day.

The madrasas of Fez often served multiple functions in addition to their primary role as teaching institutions. With their fine libraries and their connection to the famous university of al-Qarawiyyin, the Merinid madrasas made the Maghreb, and especially Fez, a celebrated intellectual centre.

Fez – V: Sensual schizophrenia at the Tannerie

The air suddenly changes as you approach “Dar al Dibagha” (House of Tannery), and so does the surrounding as leather-laden donkeys feel at home, roaming the alleys of the neighbourhood.

At any of the terraces surrounding the tanneries and commanding a view of the “real deal”, you experience a sharp sensual schizophrenia: Your eyes are dazzled with all the colours, while your nose survives the brutality of the pungent odour thanks to the green mint they give you on the way to stick up your nose.

Tens of young men and children stand with their pants rolled up, knee-high in countless dye pits. Red, yellow and white are the most prominent, among others. It comes as no surprise finding such an oasis of colours here in Morocco, a country that inspired Henri Matisse among other fauves.

But even Matisse would enjoy it less if he knew why these colours “smell” so bad. Major components used in the tanning process include, ehm, pigeon shit and cow urine, a cheap and readily-available source of potassium. Later on in the process, more “delicate” components are added, like saffron (red-yellow) and indigo (well, indigo!)

Fez – Last: Ode to my beloved Fez

Fez, a timeless treasure where people understand time only in terms of the call to prayer and the hunger pangs that one feels as the smell of lamb tajines, chicken couscous and crispy pastella dominate the atmosphere…

Fez, the holy city where you would contemplate tens of green pyramidal domes and zellij adorned square minarets dominate the skyline as you sip Moroccan tea in a terrace of an old riyad or family house with big patio…

Fez, the imperial city where the mellah or Jewish quarter hides as many secrets in its winding alleys as does Fes al Bali or the old city in its labyrinthine sideways. From the Bou Denan Synagogue to the Andalusiyyin Mosque, one and the same fabric for one and the same mystic city…

Fez, the craftsmanship paradise where the occasional call balak (watch out) is enough to make way for speedy porters and eager donkeys loaded with everything exotic under the sun, marching to the rhythm of copper and bronze hammered at Souq al Saffarin and other equally enchanting markets. It comes as no surprise that one stands speechless at the Najjarin Museum or the Dar al Bathaa Museum, thanks to the incredible collection of rarities like the hadjhouj musical instrument, the lala tuhah makeup box, etc…

Fez, where I turned 33, and where inshaallah one day, I rejoice again in the name of everything beautiful, just like thousands of mureeds or devout followers came as pilgrims or students, and where one day, I will return as a lover and nothing more, because love, like beauty, only seeks to fulfill itself…and with love and beauty I end this series about Fez…enjoy the photos.

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