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Fez - the Queen of North African Cities
By Habeeb Salloum
Fez! In you is gathered all the beauties of the world. How many are the blessings and riches that you bestow on your inhabitants.
So said a Moroccan poet, who went on to describe this historic and intellectual heart of Morocco as the "Queen of Cities" and "Jewel of North Africa."
Fez, declared by UNESCO as a world heritage site, is the oldest of Morocco's four Imperial Cities -- the others being Meknes, Marrakesh and Rabat. Its cornerstone was laid in the first part of the 9th century by Idriss II, descendant of the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. At its founding, it is said that Idriss lifted up his hands saying, "O God! Might this town be one of science and learning and might it be the place where Your Book (Koran) be recited and Your Commandants respected."
His prayer must have been heard, for from its inception it became known as the "City of Islam" and the leading center of culture and religious learning in North and West Africa. In the subsequent centuries -- especially under the Almoravide, the Almohade, and above all the Merinid Dynasties -- mosques, madrasas (schools), palaces and Moorish Andalusian style homes
and public buildings were steadily added. Many of these, weathered with age, still stand.
Modern Fez, with one million inhabitants, is divided into three sections: Fez el-Bali, the original city; Fez Jedid, constructed in the 13th century by the Merinids; and Ville Nouvelle, with broad avenues and modern buildings, built after the French occupation in 1912. Each of these areas has its own distinct character, but Fez el-Bali, or as it is commonly called el-Medina, is the mecca for visitors to this historic city.
Inside its ancient walls the largest Medina in the Arab world has been preserved, almost intact. No vehicles are allowed to enter within its ramparts. As in the Middle Ages, donkeys and humans do all the transport and labor through its 186 miles (300 km) of streets,. No other urban center in the world has so well maintained its original character.
Plunging into a cauldron of activity, a visitor is soon seduced by the Fez el-Bali's charms. Little workshops, with craftsmen at their trade, seem to leap from the Arabian. Nights. Out of Medina's quarter million inhabitants, at least 30,000 are artisans. Each souk has its own trade and everywhere one can see fathers teaching their vocation to their sons.
All along the winding narrow streets, the mouth-watering aroma of fresh baked bread, carried on the heads of women and children, intermingle with the smells of freshly roasted peanuts, chickpeas, and food being offered in tiny restaurants. Visitors make their way through narrow alleyways toward the heart of the Medina, navigating through a thicket of humans and loaded donkeys. The shout from the donkey drivers, "Balak!" (Beware!) is never-ending. At times, one has to leap into doorways to avoid a collision. Amazingly, in spite of the masses of humanity, the streets are empty of refuse and are cleaned twice daily.
The heart of the city is a kaleidoscope of colors, noise, sights and smells. Every turn of a street hides a surprise. The pyramids of heavenly smelling spices and all types of olives and peppers, are soon replaced by craftsmen making and selling huge copper and iron pots for cooking couscous and tajine -- two of Morocco's popular dishes. Nearby, men dye silk, cotton and woollen threads with innumerable colors. A short distance away are the foul smelling tanneries, where the tanners produce the famous Moroccan leather from which so many of tourist appealing
articles are made. When visitors become tired of the crush of people, they can stop for a drink at one of the exquisitely tiled fountains or explore the historic monuments. Among the most gratifying are: Qarawiyin, Morocco's holiest mosque and home of the world's first university where a pope once studied; Al-Andalus Mosque, the second largest religious monument in the city; Place Najarine, the site of the most beautifully tiled fountain in Fez; the Mausoleum of Idriss II, which non-Muslims can only see from the outside; Madrasa Bou Inania, the best preserved Qur'anic school in Morocco; Madrasas El-Najarine and El-Attarine, masterpieces of Merinid art; and an endless number of magnificent ancient homes.
Called by some "the wonderful city of Islam" and "the most brilliant center of intellectual radiance in the world," Fez, more than any other urban center, tantalizes then hypnotizes its guests. Without doubt, visitors will not have savored Morocco unless they see Fez.
Habeeb Salloum, who lives in Canada, writes on Arab Culture and Arts
This article appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 2, No. 7 (May 1996)