Fez is the second largest city in Morocco, behind Casablanca. Fez has different sections, including “Old Fez” (Fez el Bali) from the 9th Century and “New Fez” (Fez el Djedid) from the 13th Century! Yes, you read that right – “New Fez” was founded in 1276!
Fes el Bali, Old Fez, is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. Inside the walled city, there is a maze of winding streets filled with vendors and merchants. University of Al-Karaouine, the world’s oldest existing (and still operating!) university is within Fes el Bali.
Fez is still the most intact, least modernized medina in the Arab world and one of the largest car-free urban spaces on the planet…
We approached the medina at the famous Blue Gate or Bab Bou Jeloud. Outside the medina, the city is absolutely bustling with motorbikes, cars, and buses. Once you cross the threshold of the large gate, however, the medina is limited to pedestrians. Some refer to the streets of the Fes medina as a labyrinth because it is so easy to get lost. Our guide navigated the winding streets quite easily, but I would never be able to find my way!
Despite the medina being free of cars, you have to keep your eyes peeled at all times. There are tons of people, carts, sometimes donkeys to watch out for! Our guide warned me beforehand that if I heard “balac!” to jump out of the way immediately. Sure enough, I nearly got ran over at least once! (The below picture is a stationary donkey, as this was the only one I managed to take a picture of!)
The medina is chock-full of souks! There was endless supply of all types of merchandise and vendors at work. Some areas had overhangs or roofs, while the rest was open-aired. Each area had a theme – metal and copper work, souks with clothing, spices, leather, carpets and more. Everywhere you go, you will see craftsmen at work. I saw a young gentleman carving Arabic writing into stone, coppersmiths shaping pots, and of course cooks making fresh food.
As in other Moroccan cities, you will hear the call to prayer throughout the day. The difference in Fez is that instead of hearing one call to prayer, you will hear several calls to prayer simultaneously! There are a lot of mosques in the Medina, and they each broadcast their own prayer. The entrances to the mosques are elaborate and beautiful. Non-muslims cannot enter the mosques, but there are plenty of open entrances that provide peeks at beautiful courtyards and a glimpse at the stunning architecture. There are also beautiful murals throughout the city. The tile murals below are both water fountains!
Chouara Tannery is one of the oldest tanneries in the world, dating back to the 11th century! The lighter liquids are to clean and soften the hides, while the darker liquids are to dye the hides. They have retained their old methods of production, which involves all manual labor and no machinery.
Our tour guide lead us to the entrance to a leather shop that overlooks the Chouara Tannery. He waited for us at the exit, which seemed weird to me until I smelled the tannery!! The scent is very strong. In order to see the tannery, you have to go through several rooms of leather goods for sale. Smart marketing! It’s fascinating to see the workers soaking various hides, if you can ignore the smell long enough to witness some of the process.