The Medina of Fez is reportedly the largest Medina in the world, with a population of around 150,000 and a total of 9,500 streets (this number is repeated a lot, but did someone actually go and count all the individual streets? And if they did, shouldn’t they have maybe drawn up a map in the process?). Because the Medina is so large and the owner of my hostel repeatedly emphasized how easy it is to get lost, I signed up for a tour through the hostel. At 25 euros, it was pricey, but if I could learn a lot from a local, then it’d be worth it.
Sadly, I did not. The guide barely explained anything and led me to shops to “learn about the traditional handicrafts of Fez” (*cough* buy). In the end I still had to turn to Wikipedia, which was much more friendly and informative. So, some information courtesy of the guide and most of it thanks to Wikipedia:
History and Culture of Fez
Fez served as the capital of major Moroccan kingdoms from about the 13th century to 1912, when the French moved the capital of Morocco to Rabat. The Medina is the old city center of Fez, founded by the Idrisid dynasty in the 8th century. Altogether, there is currently a population of 600,000 in the Medina.
The ancient city is most known for 6 traditional handicrafts: carpet, camel blankets, embroidery, artists that restored the king’s palace, cactus work, and the tannery.
The Blue Gate
There are 14 gates total to the Medina of Fez, and the most popular one is the blue gate. Even though it’s called the “blue gate,” it’s actually only blue on one side – the side facing outward. This is because blue is the color of Fez, welcoming visitors into the city. On the inside, the gate is green, the color of Islam.
Right inside the blue gate is the more modern side of the Medina. It’s where the bulk of the restaurants are, and while the old Medina center shuts down on Fridays, this area typically remains open.
A beautiful fountain from the 14th century – that’s about all the information that I could find about it both from the guide and online.
Except I did find a translation: “Nejjarine” means “carpenter,” which makes sense because the building to the left is the carpentry museum.
The Nejjarine (or carpentry) museum used to be an old fondouk from the 18th century. Merchants used to leave their goods and their donkeys on the bottom floor and stay in the rooms above. Over the years, it converted into a repository, and then a police station in the 1940s. Now, fully restored, it serves as a museum of wood arts and crafts (or, alternatively, carpentry).
It costs 20 dirham ($2) to enter the museum, which – surprise, surprise! – wasn’t included in the tour fee. The museum wasn’t the most exciting one I’ve ever been in, due in large part to the fact that my guide simply sat outside while I wandered through it and most of the signage was only in Arabic and French. However, just the building itself is quite magnificent!
On top of the museum there is a rooftop cafe. I heard that it’s free to enter if you say you are going to the cafe, which is what I would recommend doing. The bulk of the experience is walking up through the building anyway, and you catch a few exhibits on your way up.
This mosque and university is the oldest university in the world, founded in Fez in 859 and still in operation to this day. It was started by a woman, too, no less – Fatima Al-Fihri, the daughter of a rich merchant. However, as it is also a mosque and mosques are off-limits to non-Muslims, all that we can do as tourists is peer in through the entryway.
Though I wasn’t able to enter the Kairaouine Mosque, I WAS able to go into the Madrasa al-Attarine across the street. It is also a school, but built in 1323 by the sultan and open to tourists.
One tidbit that I did get from the guide (though I can’t confirm its validity): the fountain in the center is made of marble from Italy. Allegedly, they traded 1kg of sugar for each 1kg of marble for the fountain.
Moulay Idriss II Mausoleum
Moulay Idriss II was the son of Idriss I, the founder of the Idrisid dynasty. He refounded the city of Fez in 810 (not sure why it needed refounding), and became the city’s patron saint. His mausoleum sits at the heart of the Fez Medina. It also houses a mosque, so only Muslims are allowed inside. Just the entrance itself is beautiful, though:
The mausoleum is also an auspicious place for women with fertility issues. On one side of the mausoleum lies this grille. Women who want to get pregnant leave a lock on the grille, and once they become pregnant, they come back to remove the lock. There are only two locks on the grille now, so I guess the women of Fez aren’t having many issues in that area!
I definitely wouldn’t have found this carpet cooperative without the guide, because it was tucked in a passage that looked like it led to someone’s house. In fact, it DID used to be someone’s house – allegedly, it belonged to the teacher who used to teach at the very Madrasa al-Attarine above. When he died, he donated his house to be used as a carpet cooperative that is funded by the government and benefits the 1,300 women who make the carpets by setting fixed prices and making sure that the women get the appropriate cut.
When I looked it up online, a place that looked the same in the photos got a slew of 1-star ratings. People claimed that the salespeople pressured them into buying, never shipped the carpets as promised, and even added an extra “0” to the final credit card charge.
So, even though I sat through the sales presentation where they rolled out carpet after carpet and served me mint tea, I’m glad I didn’t actually buy anything. The visit wasn’t a complete waste, though, since I at least got some knowledge from the carpet salesman who showed me around. Who knows if it’s true at this point, but it sure was more information than I got from my guide, from the entire tour combined.
Things I learned from the carpet salesman:
- Traditional Moroccan houses are designed with two levels and an inner courtyard. In the winter, the family lives upstairs, and in the summer, the family lives downstairs where it’s cooler.
- You should flip the carpet over and use the backside for 3-4 months out of the year. This allows you to see the design clearer on the frontside, and also helps to beat out the dust.
- There are three types of Moroccan carpets: Berber, Arab, and nomadic. Berber carpets have the tattoos of the tribe and the family within the tribe on them. Nomadic carpets have no color, as they are made using undyed sheep’s wool.
Fez is famous for its tanneries, but they are not very easy to get to. The best view of the tanneries is from the rooftops, and the only way to get to the rooftops is through leather shops, which are hidden in obscure alleyways. So the only way to find the leather shops is to be guided by a generous local who will turn around and ask for a little something as a token of thanks.
I was saved the trouble of all that because I had a guide. Who I was paying way too much for a subpar experience, but hey…at least this portion of the tour would have been a subpar experience with or without him.
Upon entering the leather shop that the guide took me to, a salesman handed me a sprig of mint. The mint, he explained, was for the smell, and as soon as I got to the rooftop, I understood. The tanning process involves a healthy amount of ammonium (which they soak the skins in to make them soft enough to dye) and a fair number of other chemicals, so the fresh mint is definitely nice to have.
To the left are vats of ammonium, and to the right are vats of dye.
That concluded my tour of the Medina. After asking if I “wasn’t going to buy ANYTHING? Anything at all?” the guide unhappily took me back to my hostel — and made me pay for a taxi to take us both there.
I learned that there most definitely are terrible tour guides. More importantly, I learned that a single bad encounter can weigh heavily on your view of an entire city. When I think of Fez and look at the pictures that I took of these beautiful locations, I can’t help but feel a bit of residual bitterness. Of all the memories I have of the city, this unfortunately is one of the top ones.
But, determined to make some good memories of the city, I went out afterwards to explore the Medina on my own. As predicted, I did get lost – well and horribly lost – but it was a great adventure. This is what I hope to remember!