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Medina of Fez

Medina of Fez
The Medina of Fez is a walled city with madrasas, fondouks, mosques and palaces dating from Marinid rule in the 13th–14th centuries. At that period, Fez replaced Marrakesh as the capital of the kingdom.

The most important monuments in the medina are:
- Bou Inania Madrasa (1351-1356)
- Al-Attarine Madrasa (1323-1325)
- University of Al-Karaouine (859)
- Zaouia Moulay Idriss II (shrine)
- Dar al-Magana, a clockhouse which holds a weight powered water clock (1357)

Year Decision Comments
1981 Inscribed Reasons for inscription



Visit December 2009

The medina of Fez is notoriously difficult to navigate. I got stranded in a residential area at my first approach, but then developed a trick: I shadowed a small group of French with an official guide. When they stopped to hear him talk, I suddenly became very busy taking photos on the spot so that I didn’t have to overtake them. They finally led me to the Bab Boujloud gate, from where I dared to go on alone (guided by the coloured signs of the designated walking routes).

It is tempting to compare this medina to the one in Marrakech. The differences are clear though: the walls of Fez are yellow instead of pinkish, the streets are even narrower in Fez and there are less tourists. On the other side: Fez lacks the single great monuments that Marrakech has, though the Bou Inania Madrasa is well worth the few dirhams entrance fee. Its splendour is hidden behind a wooden door in the middle of the souks.

My route crossed the medina from west to northeast. That way, I ended up at the leather souk with its famous tanneries. The bowls of dye, with workers up to their knees into it, are the trademark of the Fez medina. To watch them, one has to go inside one of the leathershops that have terraces. I followed another group of French inside, and could get in and leave without being hassled into buying something.

The tanneries are the most vivid example of all the crafts that once were common in this medina. They reminded me of my visit earlier this month to the dhobi ghats in Mumbai, where the laundry of thousands is done by men slaving away in water and soap. Both are relics of times that otherwise seem to have long gone.

More photos can be found in the Picture Gallery

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Reviews

Ian Cade (England):
Perhaps the finest place in the world to get a feel for medieval life, Fez is a rather special place to experience; however our particular visit was marred by behaviour that was more in line with in the Middle Ages.

The medina is still a dirty, smelly twisting maze of alleys too narrow for motorised traffic, I don’t mean this as a criticism, it is the kind of ‘authentic’ atmosphere that people seek out and this experience is perhaps Fez’s best quality. Whilst Fez does have some impressive buildings, it is the seemingly endless confusion of lanes filled with various shops, workshops, mosques and houses that leaves the biggest impression.

As with all the medinas I have visited it was exceptionally fun bartering for goods in the souqs or ducking down a gloomy side street to find a courtyard specialising in some hitherto unknown treat. Fondouk Kaat Smen was my favourite, past the stalls specialising in rancid butter was a wonderful little place where we tried a huge array of honeys, each with a distinct flavour imparted by the nectar on which the bees had feasted. Like most visitors, the vast tanneries left a strong impression with the sight of goods being made next to where they are sold being one of the greatest joys. Also, the stench was nowhere near as bad as I feared, but perhaps that was the bonus of being there early in the morning.

There are coloured signs set up around the medina which show four main routes through the medina, so whilst the layout does initially seem exceedingly complex, once you get your bearings on the coloured routes navigation actually becomes simpler (though of course we did still get lost quite a few times). There are a fair few sites worth hunting out: the shady Henna Souq was a nice place to shop away from escape the main thoroughfares, whilst the medrassas (Bou Inania and El Attarin) were gloriously decorated.

We decided to stay in a riad in the Medina and the exceptionally well restored surroundings in the heart of the medina were a delight. But, staying in the Medina contributed to the downside of our stay. We stayed in Fez during Ramadan and were looking forward to venturing out in the evening to enjoy some food with the locals as they celebrated breaking their fast, alas it wasn’t to be. On our first foray out at dusk we only made it about 300 meters from the riad, during which time my wife was made to feel rather unwelcome by the constant stares of the local men. Things got worse when a local youth ran past and punched her. Feeling entirely unwelcome we headed back to our riad; fortunately a kid outside was there to fully round out the dreadful experience by grabbing at her. All in all we were left with an exceptionally unpleasant experience of the vile attitudes shown by some locals to foreign women. It also meant that we became isolated from interaction with locals after sunset. There were other incidents during our stay but nothing as bad as this and, needless to say, when I ventured out for supplies on another night I experienced no problems.

So our experience of Fez was rather mixed to say the least. It was very enjoyable to experience a living city functioning along the same lines as it has done for a thousand years, however the contemptible conduct of some inhabitants put up a barrier to interaction and left me with the worst experience I have had in the last decade of travelling, and I wasn’t even the one receiving the brunt of their behaviour. I’m sure others will not experience this kind of ‘welcome’ and elsewhere in Morocco and North Africa I have never encountered it. However, the immediate unease that we felt led us to believe that it wasn’t just a freak occurrence in this thoroughly medieval city.

[Site 7: Experience 2 (it felt like a 0 on our first night though)]
Date posted: November 2013
Jorge Sanchez (Spain):
Hitchhiking from Marrakesh to Fez I made a stop in Beni Mellal, where the last driver dropped me. Walking to the exit of the town to start again to hitchhike, I stopped in a well to drink water, then a family, seeing me skinny and tired, invited me to stay in their house until I felt better.
I accepted.
They had several children. We ate using our right hands in a common plate. I noticed that there was no meat, the family was very humble. They cooked their own bread in an adobe oven in the kitchen.
In the evening we laid down on the carpets,they did not have beds. The prepare their bread
Touched by their kindness, the next day I went to the market and with my last dirhams I bought a hen and cuscus. Back in the family home we celebrated that day eating the best cuscus with chicken of my life.
The next day I said good bye to the family and headed hitchhiking to Fez, where I arrived in the afternoon.

I had expected more from Marrakesh and less from Fez, and it turned out to be the opposite. Fez was, in my opinion, much more intriguing and exotic, from a traveler point of view, than Marrakesh.
I planned to stay just one day, but when I entered the city from the gate Bab Bou Jeloud, or the Blue Gate, Fez seduced me at once. The old part of the town was composed by streets forming labyrinths; it seemed to me that there were more donkeys than people in that city.
I also visited Meknes in half a day excursion.
The only annoyance was the young people who boarded you constantly offering hashish, souvenirs in shops where they received commission or their services as a “guide”.
Finally I stayed two full days in Fez. The third day I left to Spain after an almost 3 year’s journey around the world.
Date posted: August 2013
stewart ayu (canada):
Fez retains much of it's medieval way of life. I first visited Fez in 1985 and again in 2007. Fez 1985 was somewhat intimidating as the souk was a huge labyrinth and uncharted. Fez 2007 is much more user friendly as there are discreet colour coded directions so that visitors can have a chance of finding what they were looking for! The Medina remains fascinating and Moroccans seem to take great pride in maintaining their traditions down to every detail.

Of the monuments , in old Fez , not to be missed would be the great medieval universities which anyone can enter. The fortunate if you can find it , 'Sarija' madrassa , named after it's mystical reflecting pool , was a gem. The Moroccan people and cuisine contributes greatly to it's charm.
Date posted: March 2009
Paul Tanner (UK):
It is with a degree of shock that I calculate it to be 40 years since I visited Fez. Even now I can remember the “magic” of the labyrinthine Medina of Fes-el-Bali (the old walled city) – by then I already had souks etc in Istanbul, Damascus and Jerusalem “under my belt” but Fez did not pale by comparison so it wasn’t just the “shock of the new”. No doubt it will have become a great deal more touristy and “homogenised” since those days but movies and photos I see indicate that the Souk is as much of a motorised traffic-free “maze” as ever and has retained its wonderful “working” atmosphere. A particular joy were the specialised areas for e.g. Dyeing (see photo), Pottery, Tanning, Metalwork, Carpet and Tile making etc etc. Back in 1965 toursim did not really seem be the raison d'etre for their existance. They were noisy, smelly and, yes even dirty, places making things primarily for locals. I wonder if the area given over to turning old car tyres into sandals etc still operates, or perhaps such transformations only have economic justification in the markets of sub-Saharan Africa now (It was a trade still practiced in Omdurman when I was there earlier this year - 2006)! Morocco may not have achieved European levels of GDP but thankfully has made good strides economically so perhaps some of the recycling trades have been despatched to history and no doubt the shops have their full share of imported Chinese articles! Hopefully, however, the quality of workmanship on locally-produced goods hasn’t been sacrificed.

Morocco, so tolerant and “unextreme” in many respects, still (as far as I know) operates a policy of non-entry to its mosques by non-muslims (An interesting cultural comparison with e.g. Syria). As a result some of the main buildings are likely to be closed to many visitors to this Web site. There are, however, some madrasas which can be visited. But Fez is not really a "city of monuments" – rather a single "monumental city" whose atmosphere is generated by countless examples of vernacular architecture and and a multitude of human activities. It size really is amazing - this is no preserved corner of a modern city. Fez does have a modern quarter but the old Medina is of "full size" in its own right.

In the, too many, years which have passed since I visited Fez I have been lucky enough to visit most of other “medieval” cities of Africa and Asia. Fez has not been surpassed in my memory. However, the old saying “Never go back” makes me reluctant to visit again. Last year I revisited Istanbul’s covered market area and was gravely disappointed by the tourist-based commercialisation. I don’t criticise these developments but I don’t want my memory of Fez to be similarly downgraded! However, anyone who hasn’t already been should definitely go – the atmosphere may (or may not?) have changed but the fabric remains largely in place (though I read of some concerns in that respect for the future) of what is one of the world’s great destinations.

(PS. I have recently been criticised in several places on this site for not recognising the supposed worth of WHS which I have reviewed and of unfairly "criticising" them or damning them with "faint praise". I do not apologise and would reply that reviews should not be uncritical panegyrics and that merely having had a "good time" at a place is not (or should not be) recommendation enough. Most of us are "time poor" when travelling and the decison to visit any WHS carries an "opportunity cost" of not visiting somewhere else perhaps more significant. The "bar" for inscription is supposed to be set at a very high "world class" of its type/subject based on objective criteria - yet many sites struggle to justify this cachet in comparison with other places which those seeking truly world class sites might be better advised to spend their time and money on visiting. In fairness to people deciding whther to visit a site a "review" should identify the potential weaknesses in its justification. However, my opinion is that Fez, whatever changes its atmosphere has undergone in those years since I visited it, fully justifies its place on the list. Its size and "completeness" together with its continuation as a "living city" does not overstretch the word "unique". Indeed I am amazed that this should be its first review on this site.)
Date posted: April 2006


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