History of Fez
Idriss II inherited his father's kingdom in the 8th century. At that time it centered around the Christian city of Volubilis and the Jewish city of Sefrou. Idriss desired to found a distinctly Muslim city. Tradition holds that in 799, as a group began to dig the foundation of this new city, they unearthed a golden axe, Fas in Arabic. According to the thought at that time, human sacrifice was needed at each gate of the city to ensure that the city would be protected by spirits, and Persian exiles were buried alive at each gate of this new city Fez.
The city grew dramatically in the 9th century with 8000 refugees coming to Fez from Andalusian Spain and settled on the right bank of the river. A few years later a new wave of refugees came from Kairouan and settled on the left bank of the river. These two clans built separate walls around their cities and often bickered over water rights. Fassi Andalusians were known for their beautiful women and strong, brave men, but also had the reputation of being intellectually slow. The Kairouans were seen as the intellectuals.
In the 10th century, Fez fell to the control of the Fatimid Empire from Tunisia and in 930 the Ommayad Caliphate of Cordoba ruled the city for the next century.
In 1075, the Almoravid Youssef Ben Tachfine captured Fes. In the early Almoravid dynasty, Marrakech was the political capital and Fez was the commercial center of the empire. The city of Fez was united by the Almoravids, walls were broken down, river disputes stopped and water irrigation methods were introduced to allow the city to continue to grow.
In the 12th century the Almohads captured Fez by damming off the river, which created a great backlog, then suddenly releasing the water which destroyed the guardian walls around the city. The walls were later rebuilt.
At this time the Qarouyine was one of the two greatest universities of North Africa. Koranic interpretation, the Hadith, Arabic language and Islamic law were the focus of study.
The Merenids captured the city in 1248 under Abou Yahya. The inhabitants of Fes, although subdued, created enough worry in the mind of Abou Yahya and his successor Aboy Yusuf Yacoub that Yacoub built Fez Jdid, a new area of Fez from which he lived.
The Merenids lost control of Fez in 1465, after the leader Abdul Haqq began to implement a new taxation system, and appointed a Jewish financier to help him implement it. A popular revolt ensued and Abdul Haqq was seized, dragged through the city streets and had his throat slit like a sacrificial ram. The newly purified community was ruled by an imam for seven years.
In 1472 Mohammed al-Shaykh overthrew Fez and inaugurated the Wattasid dynasty. In 1549 Saadians took over Fez and sought to liberate all of Morocco from Christian influence and the Ottoman Turks. For the next several hundred years Fez was successively captured and overthrown in the power struggle for unification and control of Morocco.
Fez is divided into three basic parts: Fes El Bali (The Old Medina), Fes El Jdid (New Fez, but really hundreds of years old) and the Ville Nouvelle (the New City).
Fes El Bali: This is the section of the city that most tourist come for. Fes El Bali is the oldest fully functioning medieval city in the world. It is also carless. That means no cars enter into the walls of the city AKA you are going to walk a lot. And it is hilly. Hilly, but worth it. Most of the historical monuments, riads, pensions and touristy shops are here.
Fes Jdid: This section of the city contains the Jewish Quarter, known as the Mellah and the Royal Palace. The Royal Palace here is not open to the public. The Mellah has a few old synangogues and cemetaries dedicated to the Jews.
Ville Nouvelle: This is the part of the city built by the French. It is laid out in French colonial style which has been overhauled in the last few years. Most of the restaurants and mid-ranged hotels are here. It is about a 30 minute walk from here to the medina, or about a 20 dirham cab ride depending on where you are.
Some Historical Sites:
1. Fes itself. The Medina is a UNESCO World Heritage site. We highly recommend a guided tour to learn tons of facts you would have never known. The Travel Source is an American owned travel company in Fez and has great Moroccan tour guides that speak excellent English and are not pushy about getting you to buy things.
3. The Old Mosques- The mosques are closed to non-Muslims, but you can get a glimpse from the outside of many, and the architecture is really stunning. The most prominent mosque is the Kairaouine.
4. The Tanneries- In Fez, the way they process leather is definitely worthy to be seen. -
Resources for Fez
Travel Source- American owned travel agency in Fes, arranges great tours of the medina with English speaking guides.
Fez, from Bab to Bab by Hammad Berrada- hands down the best map of the Fez medina exists in this book, available at the American Language Center and details walks through the Fez medina from Bab to Bab (door to door).
Fez (Lonely Planet Encounter) by Virginia Maxwell and Helen Ranger. Available on Amazon. You can check out Helen Ranger's blog on Fez as well.
Marrakesh, Fez, Rabat by Barnaby Rogerson. Available on Amazon. Excellent writer with a grasp of Moroccan and North African history that stands above his peers.