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Fez, Morocco


Fez, Morocco

Keyvan Tabari

Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2017. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.

abstract: Fez has the reputation of being one of the oldest well-preserved cities in the world, with the largest shopping center of the medieval Islamic world still mostly intact. This attracts visitors from all over. They are promised exotic scenes of ancient souqs where craftsmen hand make goods not found elsewhere. In that pursuit, the visitor loses his way in the thousand narrow alleys that crisscross the 540-acre Old Medina, cramped with people, donkeys, motorcycles and pushcarts in what is the largest pedestrianized urban space ever created. Such confusion is expected, but Fez has much more to discover. It has also been renowned as an exceptionally influential religious and intellectual center. I went inquisitively.

Lay of the Land

From the South Tower [1] in Fez one had a commanding view of the Medina. This was, indeed, the purpose of this Borj (Tower), as well as the other one, the North Tower [2], on the opposite hills . They were built in the late 16th century by Sultan Ahmed al-Mansour, of Morocco’s Saadi Dynasty, who was himself born and died (1549-1603) in Fez, in order to monitor the populace of his hometown whose loyalty he could not trust.  My purpose today in the overlook of the South Tower was to connect in the panoramic view of Fez spread below me, the history and geography of the town which had grown to be the home to nearly 200,000 people. This was, after all, the most important city in Morocco. At age 1228 years, Fez is the oldest city in the country; it has also been its political capital all along, with a few short exceptions. It is Morocco’s most venerable religious center; and it has also had the most influence in the intellectual and artistic life of the country.

Amidst the jumble of buildings below, I could detect the path of the Fez River running through the heart of the Medina. The river twisted in the fertile valley which is irrigated by water from the High Atlas Mountains. It was on the east bank of this river, prized as Jawhar (Jewel) River, that in 789 CE Idriss I, the first king of Morocco, founded Madinat Fas (the town of Fez).   Fa’s [3] is Arabic for pick axe, a gold and silver version of which, according to the legends, Idriss used to draw the lines of the city. Two years later, his son, Idriss II, built another settlement on the opposite bank of the river which he named Al-‘Aliya.

These settlements grew into two autonomous walled sites. Al-‘Aliya became the capital of the Idrisids in 808.  Refugees expelled from Andalusia in 817-818 settled in Madinat Fas; while (following a rebellion in 824) Arab families banned from al-Qayrawan [4] a town in present-day Tunisia, settled in al-‘Aliya. They would eventually give their names, respectively, to the districts of ‘Adwat Al-Andalus and ‘Adwat al-Qarawiyyin in today’s Fez. The minaret of the Al-Anadlus mosque which I could now see from the South Tower in the foreground marked the area of Madinat Fas. In the background, I found the green pyramidal roof and minaret of the ‘Adwat al-Qarawiyyin’s Mosque and University.

Al-Aliya was the far more widely used name for Fez until 1070 when it was combined with the area previously known as Fas. Henceforth, Fas was used for the combined two urban sites. This is the Medina of Fez which was designated by UNESCO in 1981 as a world heritage site. It is called Fes el Bali [[Note 5], meaning Old Fes as it dates to the 9th century.  To this Medina, a smaller extension was added beginning in 1276 by the Marinid rulers of Morocco which is called Fes el-Jdid (New Fes). In addition to these two parts of the Medina, Fez has a third main district, named Ville Nouvelle (New Town), which was created by the French beginning in 1916 [6].

Ville Nouvelle is the reason Fez’s Medina (Fes el-Bali and Fes el-Jdid) has been preserved. Located in the southwest of the Medina, this is where urban growth has been concentrated because it was easier and cheaper than destroying the old city.  The residents of Fez have considered Ville Nouvelle a much more desirable place to live. Of the 1.1 million inhabitants of this second largest city in Morocco, only about 110,000 live in the Medina.

This is, indeed, a drastic reduction from the estimated 200,000 population of Fes el-Bali alone in its heyday, between 1170 and 1180, when it was the largest city in the world under the Almohad Dynasty. Large sections of the walls which the Almohads built around that city, to replace the ones destroyed in 1154 by the fleeing Almoravid Dynasty, still stand. Access to Fes el-Bali is possible only through its walls’ 12 gates. We took the gate  which was close to the Royal Palace.

The 80 hectare grounds of the Royal Palace (dar el-makhzen) cover nearly half of the area of Fes el-Jdid. They were not open to the public. The “monumental” entrance to the Palace , however, indicated the “splendor” inside, as a sign said. Built in the 1960s during the reign of Hassan II, who took pride as a connoisseur and patron of Moroccan art, it meant to reveal “all the magnificence of Fassi craftsmanship.” The sign called attention especially to “the carved decorative arches… the white marble columns with stylized capitals, bronze gilded frames, and elegant composition of Zellige [mosaic].”

The Palace is a favorite of Hassan II’s successor, the current king, Mohammad VI, whose wife Selma is a commoner from Fez. Ironically, an earlier king of this same Alaouite Dynasty, Moulay Ismail, changed Morocco’s capital from Fez to Meknes in the 17th century because he did not trust the loyalty of the population.  Such mistrust was not unprecedented; it was the reason for building Fes el-Jdid by Merenid sultan Yusuf Yaqoub in the 13th century. To further isolate himself from his subjects, the sultan surrounded himself with Syrian mercenary guards.


Yusuf Yaqoub was also especially kind to the Jewish population of Fez, personally intervening to save them when attacked by fanatic mobs in 1275. In fact, most Merinids rulers (1244-1465) were friendly toward the Jews. Some even appointed them to such high positions as the steward of the household and counselor.  In the 14th century Fes el-Jdid became a refuge for Jews who fled Spain due to persecution following the Spanish Reconquista. They created a Jewish quarter on a site known as al-mallah  [7], meaning the saline area. In return for the protection from the Merinid rulers, they supported them during conflict.

When the last ruler of the Marinid dynasty appointed too many Jews to high offices, he angered the Muslims in Fez who staged the 1465 revolt in which many from the Jewish community were killed.  A group of Jews fled to Spain. They returned, however, after the Edict of the Expulsion (of Ferdinand and Isabella) drove the Jews out. These became a unique bridge between the natives of Fez and the new Jewish arrivals from Spain (“Sephardim”). The Ibn Danan family was an outstanding representative of that returnee group. They had long been among the financial and intellectual elite of Fez; they even had their own synagogue.

Our local guide said there were about 200 Jews or 70 families still remaining in Fez, but none lived in the Mellah. “They are all in the Ville Nouvelle. They are very rich, own McDonalds, etc.” Some of the old houses of the Mellah’s Jews were still there. With open balconies overlooking the streets, they were easily distinguishable from buildings in Muslim styles.

There is still also an Ibn Danan Synagogue [8], established in the 17th century by a wealthy merchant from the famous family. A reminder of several Jewish temples that once existed in Fez, this was one was a modest synagogue. The building showed the influence of Islamic Moroccan design. There was a carved wood ark holding scrolls, known as a tevah, framed in stucco decorations with patterned tiled borders. Four visitors were holding the scrolls. A visibly happy woman told me that she was a Jew who used to live in Casablanca. Most visitors were from abroad. The local guide said there were “800,000 Moroccan Jews living abroad, most of them in Israel.” In our times, the Jews emigrated from Morocco in three waves, he explained: “in1948, after Israel was established; in 1958, after the French left; and in1967, after the Six Day War between Israel and Arab countries.”   There are “some 3,000 Jews left and most of them are in Casablanca and Marrakesh.” He added that Fez, and Morocco in general, are favorite places for those Moroccan Jews to visit, “especially, as the number of places the Israeli tourists can go is declining.”

The government of Morocco welcomes the return of Moroccan Jews, and not just as tourists. “Our kings have used their expertise even in the most sensitive positions,” Saeed told me. He was a Moroccan lawyer I befriended in Fez. “In many ways, they are as Moroccan as they are Jewish; and common culture is important.” As though to emphasize, Saeed asked: “Did you notice that the seats in the Synagogue are painted with geometric patterns common in Islamic art?”  He then pointed: “Look at this.” We were now standing just outside the Synagogue before a metallic Hand of Fatima. “This is also an example of what we share with Jews,” Saeed said. “We believe that sign, Hand of Fatima, provides a defense against the evil eye.” Many cultures throughout history have used that image as sign of protection but, according to Saeed “its path into the Sephardic Jewish culture went through its use in Islam.” The sign is equally commonly known as the Hamsa, literally meaning five, both in Arabic [9] and Hebrew [10]. Saeed said “in Islam it refers to five persons – the Prophet Mohammad, his daughter Fatima, her husband and their two sons- and draws its aura of protective value from a Hadith or binding tradition. For the Jews, as hamesh, it came to represent the five books of the Torah.” Saeed paused and reflected for a few seconds and now said: “Don’t get me wrong. Islam owes quite a lot to Judaism. Do you know that Moses is mentioned in the Koran 71 times and Mohammad only 4 times?”


Postcards, hanging haphazardly on a shop’s rusting metal display case, were among today’s offerings in the most ancient market of Fez. This, Qissariat  [11] el Kifah, was founded in 809 almost immediately after Al-‘Aliya (Fes el Bali) was built. Over time, other markets, souqs [12], emerged around it. By the 16th century they constituted the largest shopping center in the Muslim world of the Middle Ages. Shops were arranged around patios with trees and fountains.  Each souq specialized in a different product: women’s robes (Souq El Haik), burnous or djellaba (Souq Selham), torbouch fez and chochia (Souq Tribaa), second hand products (Souq El Bali) and wool bags (Souk Tellis). Auctions (dlala) of goods in bulk took place daily. Early in the 20th century, there were 700 auctioneers, organized into guilds based on their souqs. An amin (trusted man) settled disputes.

We could still find a bewildering array of goods around Qissariat el Kifah: traditional clothing and embroidered shoes, gold and silver jewelry, silk fabric and bobbins of multicolored silk. There were much more elsewhere in Fes el Bali, which has some 72,000 shops. As I also learned, some 20,000 people worked in the Medina. There were two main groups of markets here.  Food markets are usually staffed by farmers from the surrounding rural areas and operate during daylight hours; non-food markets sell goods made by artisans in town. The latter usually made and offered their products in their place of residence. The old guild system has survived. Each type of craft mostly congregated into one or a few souqs, which were courtyards on the narrow streets.

Fes el Bali has two main streets, running parallel to each other and named according to their slope, Talaa Al-Kabira (Big Hill) and Talaa Al-Saqhira (Small Hill). They are crisscrossed with smaller streets, often without names, collectively known as qissaria. It is estimated that there are about 9,400 such alleys in Fes el-Bali, an area of less than two square kilometers.  Food stalls, storerooms and artisan studios line these streets. We wandered on these crowded roads, sharing them with donkeys , motorcycles and wheel-barrels which constituted means of transport.

We passed Souq Attarine (Perfumers) and Souq Najjarine (Woodworkers) and came to Souq Seffarine (Metalworkers). From the balcony of a café here, as we sipped the traditional mint tea drink of Fez, we looked down and noted the rhythmic hammer- music of copper beaters, shaping pots and pans. Craft in Fez is usually learned through apprenticeship with a maalem (master). Often both the tools and the techniques and the tools are handed down from father to son. While most artisans in the Medina are men, in some fields women are engaged even as masters. This was especially noticeable, for example, in making embroideries on fabric used for clothing. Indeed, many masters (maalems) of Moroccan textiles are women. They too mostly work in small stores, but we also visited a rather spacious showroom where women and men produced silk from the agave plant and offered their exquisite designs on varied merchandise from scarves to bed covers.

The congestion in Medina hampers the introduction of new technology even if it was desired. One industry, pottery, recently moved to the outskirts to allow the use of modern technology. Traditionally, the apprenticeship to become a ceramic master took 10 years. In a new pottery factory, I spotted the sign of efforts to increase productivity with the help of a U.S. Government agency, The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). In one workshop, a framed “Certificate of Participation” on the wall indicated attendance of the workers in an MCC program to that end.

Traditions established in handicraft works permeate even manufacturing in Fez. It too is labor intensive. The example I examined was the manufacturing of leather in the tanneries. We were told that there were about 70 tanneries in Fez.  Many are in the Chaouwara Tanneries. They each have a terrace which overlooks the tanning pits constructed to traditional designs.  Our host on the terrace was one of the owners who said his shop had been in his family for generations.  Tanning leather in Morocco goes back several millennia,” he said, “and little has changed.” Tanneries are still organized according to ancient guild principles, he continued, “with workers typically born into the job.” He offered us sprigs of mint to hold to our nose so as to take the edge off the rank odor arising from the pits. “Pigeon waste is the source of smell,” our host said.  That and cow urine and ash are the major components in processing the skins. He said “indigo, saffron and poppy are added later for color.”

The showroom below the terrace was stuffed with of all types of leather products in a variety of colors: handbags; ottomans, gloves, slippers, jackets. Our host picked out a jacket and with his lighter showed us how “fire does not burn this leather because it had no chemical.” He added “it is water proof because the skin is so tight that pores are filled, and it is soft because it is treated with baby oil.”  His somewhat theatrical presentation persuaded more than one in our group to buy.

I was impressed by his command of English. He waived his hand, “We need to in this business.” Then he volunteered that, in addition, he spoke French, Arabic, German, and was now learning Japanese and Chinese to serve other international customers. I asked where he learned these languages. “In classes offered in the city,” he replied.  Indeed, some walls in the Medina, I noticed, were plastered with advertisement for these classes.


The boy who skipped his school today looked at me with an impish smile. He was wearing a Nike T-shirt and a baseball cap that said “New York.” He told me that he wanted to be a police man when he grew up. We were in the courtyard of the Souq Seffarine. Behind us was the Medersa Seffarine, the oldest (religious) school (Madrasah) [13] in Morocco. It was founded in 1271 by the Merinid rulers who re-established Fez as capital in 1250.

This and six other Madrasahs which were founded by 1357 were means for the Merenid Dynasty to impose teachings which confirmed their claim of legitimacy. As such they were an organ of power used by the Merinids in Morocco.  They symbolized the Merinids’ attachment to Islamic Sunni orthodoxy. Indeed, the respect for the theologians who taught in these institutions is reflected in the name given to the largest Merinid Madrasah in Fez, the Misbahiya, in honor of it first teacher, Mesbah El Yaslouti.

The buildings of Madrasahs in Fez are the hallmark of the Merinid architecture, a blending of Andalusian and Almohad traditions. They are adorned with elaborate tilework (zellij) [14] and carved plaster, cedar  mashrabiyyas (lattice screen) and massive brass doors, best exemplified in Fez’s Madrasah Bou Inania, named after the Sultan who established it. The Seffarine Madrasah is an example of the design of the Madrasahs: rooms for students are arranged around a lavishly decorated courtyard with a pool in the middle; a wooden dome covers the prayer room which houses the prayer niche (mihrab) [15]. It has a minaret with a green ceramic band at the top.

The mosque in the Madrasahs often served as the main mosque for the residents of their district and also as a setting for official ceremonies. With the addition of associated charitable services like a guesthouse, and administering trusts of endowed properties (waqf) [16] which supported the Madrasah’s upkeep, to their primary role as religious schools, the Madrasahs functioned as important centers of community life. Equally important, with their fine libraries and their connection to Fez’s venerable university of al-Qarawiyyin [ 17] [18], the Marinid Madrasahs made Fez a renowned intellectual center.

The evidence was visible even today. This corner of Fez bounded by the Seffarine and Misbahiya Madrasahs and the Qarawiyyin Library boasts several bookstores. On the counter of one I noted general and text books on Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics, Electrical Sciences and Spanish Language. In addition to these volumes in Arabic, there were several books in French: Prende Informatique (Learn Computer Sciences); Victor Hugo’s novel Le Dernier Jour d’un condamné (The last day of a prisoner), Jean Anouilh’s play Antigone, a marked, used copy of the novel by contemporary Moroccan writer Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine, Il Etait Une Fois Un Vieux Couple Heureux (Translated in English as Once Upon A Time A Happy Old Couple) .

Another bookstore displayed some paperback books, including guide books to Casablanca and Meknes, and The New English Verbs Conjugations, All Levels, but it billed itself as the “Authentic Arabic Heritage Library,” and as such it had several shelves full of well-bound hardcover books in Arabic. The serious salesperson behind the counter frowned when I asked if he had the Muqaddimah (Prolegomena) by the 14th century Arab historian, Ibn Khaldun, before he produced a brand new volume in Arabic from behind his counter. The sign in the hotel next door where the Moroccan visitors stayed advertised that the Heritage Library would “buy” as well as “sell” books.


The real repository of the documentary heritage of Morocco stood just a few steps away. The Qarawiyyin Library [19] is one of oldest public libraries in the country. It too was founded by the Merenid Sultan Abou ‘Inane in the 14th century; and it was further enriched by the Saadian Sultans with rare manuscripts in the 16th century. Among its exceptional collections are manuscripts of works by Ibn Khaldoun and the 12 century Andalusian polymath Ibn Rushd (Averroes), as well as the earliest collection of hadith which are narratives of traditions traced to the Prophet and as such a source of law and moral guidance in Islam, second only to the Qur’an.

The intellectual and religious heart of Fez has always been the complex of mosque and university called al-Qarawiyyin. UNESCO and Guinness World Records recognize it as the world’s oldest continually operating educational institution in the world. Its name refers to the people from al-Qayrawan  [20], a city in present- day Tunisia, who following a rebellion took refuge in Fez during the reign of Idriss II.

Thirty-five years later, a woman among them funded the establishment of the mosque which was named after their community, as was customary. It was also common for a major mosque to become a center for teaching Islamic knowledge. We now stood at al-Qarawiyyin mosque’s old Bab al-Ward (Rose Gate) –named after the Prophet’s favorite  flower- and read, on a crude sign , that woman’s name, Fatima Al-Fihria [21] , and the year she established the mosque, 245 Hijri (859 CE).

“Her sister, Mariam, established the Al-Andalus mosque in Fez,” our local guide said. Both were following a precedent set by wealthy Muslim women before them. The sisters were daughters of a rich merchant and when he died, they used their inheritance for pious work that would benefit the community so as to receive the blessings of God.

From the 10th century, al- Qarawiyyin mosque developed into a university as well. As the sign at its main entrance said, from a rather small mosque, al- Qarawiyyin has been “consolidated, restored, expanded, and decorated many times” by the different dynasties that have ruled Morocco. I could see the mosque’s white minaret from the outside, as I followed Saeed into its spacious courtyard with arches and an ablution pool at one corner. Another visitor was taking pictures of his children as they made funny faces .

In its prime, this place hosted the greatest scholars. It boasts a list of those who studied and taught here that includes giants of the Middle Ages: “philosophers like Avempace and Averroes, historians like Ibn Khaldoun, doctors-philosophers like Maimonides, geographers like Al Idrissi, and mystics like Ibn Hirzihim, Abou Madyane, and Abdeslam Ben Machich, among others.” Al- Qarawiyyin is still a center of Islamic spirituality. As well as being the “first multidisciplinary university in the world,” al-Qaraouiyine has been the home of the ulema (scholars of Islam) who were especially influential throughout history as they were “respected and consulted by the rulers of Morocco.”

It was this dual role that I was curious to explore, as I stood on the hallowed grounds of al-Qaraouiyine. The prayer hall of the mosque served two purposes. This carpeted spacious room can accommodate up to 20,000 people at prayer. There was a raised platform of carved wood in the front area with a short staircase leading to the seat at the top which is covered by a small dome. This was the minbar [22], the platform from which sermons or speeches are given. It was located on the right of the mihrab, a semicircular niche in the wall which marked the direction of the qiblah [23], in Mecca, which the prayer should face. There was a stack of the Qur’ans on one corner of the hall.

A few feet from the minbar, I noticed a wooden chair, elevated by three steps. Its seat was worn out. This is where the teachers at the university sit to lecture, Saeed said. The students sit on the floor around the teacher’s dais in a halqah (semicircle). There was another such dais, this one with a blackboard still next to it. I examined the writing on the board. It was the text of a business letter in French. That was the topic of the lesson, as indicated on the top. Above it, in Arabic, was the invocation of God’s name which is common to beginning any action in Islam.

Saeed said the teaching method here is “traditional.” The teacher gives exercises, asks questions and explains difficult points. Students range between the ages of 13 and 30, and study towards high school-level diplomas and university-level bachelor’s degree. In 1963, Qaraouiyine was incorporated into Morocco’s modern state university system. Now lessons in non-Islamic subjects are offered but education here still concentrates on the Islamic religious and legal sciences, especially the Maliki version, Saeed told me.  One of the four major schools of religious laws within Sunni Islam, the Maliki is distinguished because it considers the consensus of the people of the city of Medina in ancient Arabia to be a valid source of Islamic law, in addition to the Qur’an and hadith.

As we were leaving the prayer hall of al-Qaraouiyine, I noticed a bulletin board on which several sheets in Arabic were posted. On one, the schedule of classes for the academic year 2016/2017 was announced. Many of the subjects were in Islamic studies: fiqh (Law), tafsir (Jurisprudence), hadith (Narratives of Tradition). But there were also classes in History, French, English, Introduction to Humanities. On another paper on the bulletin board, the full names of 29 students, their fields of concentration, and their principal teachers were listed .  Saeed commented that students at al-Qaraouiyine come from all over Morocco and West Africa; all are male and Muslim.

Those notices were on the stationary of the Moroccan Ministry of Charitable Trust and Islamic Affairs, the office of education at Qaraouiyine.  It was the same Ministry that announced an opening of several positions on the same bulletin board. One such announcement (`elan), by the Ministry’s department of Religious Affairs, was about the employment opportunity as the Imam of the Fez’s Tareq ibn Ziad Mosque. It enumerated the required qualifications of the applicants. They had to be not older than 45, a Moroccan protector of the Book of God, entitled to civil rights, with good physical conditions and moral reputation and adequate education. Another notice was for the position of Al-Khitaba (Speaker) [24] in Al-Ziqah Mosque, requiring all of the same qualifications except the Moroccan protector of the Book of God.

By controlling the appointment of imams and speakers of the mosques, the Moroccan government curbs Islamic dissidents, Saeed told me later, as we passed by the local office of the Ministry of Charitable Trust and Islamic Affairs. I had asked to see the house of a product of al-Qaraouiyine who virtually wrote the book on instability in Muslim lands, while setting the standards for scholars as participant-observers: Ibn Khaldun [25]. In 1352, after the fall of the Tunisian ruler in whose Chancellery he began his political career, Ibn Khaldun followed his teacher, Al-Abili of Tlemcen, to Fez.  There he joined the circle of scholars gathered by the Merenid Sultan Abu ‘Inan. As Ibn Khaldun wrote later: “I devoted myself to reflection and to study, and to sitting at the feet of the great teachers, those of the Maghrib as well as those of Spain who were residing temporarily in Fez, and I benefited greatly from their teaching” [26]. The Sultan appointed him to a position in his court, but Ibn Khaldun schemed against him and, when caught, he was put in prison. Released upon Abu ‘Inan’s death, and reinstated in his office, Ibn Khaldun schemed against his new ruler.  The success of that plot earned Ibn Khaldun his first ministerial position in the new administration. This was just the first phase of Ibn Khaldun’s adventurous life which he continued to unfurl with equal drama for years, involving rulers of several different countries of North Africa.


Saeed promised to have a guide take me to Ibn Khaldun’s residence in Fez later. For now, he accommodated my other request which was to see the Mausoleum of Idriss II.

Credited with having re-founded the city of Fez, twenty years after his father had done so, Idriss II has gained in the lore of the Moroccans the image of a person with almost magical attributes.  He is said to have been an amazing learner: “At the age of four, Idris apparently could read, at five write, at eight he knew the Koran by heart, and by then is said to have mastered the wisdom of all the outstanding savants [27].”

His reputed great physical strength and profound Islamic faith enhanced the veneration for Idriss II. He is like the patron saint of the city of Fez. In Morocco they establish a shrine (Zawiya ) [28] to saints who are called marabout [29]. Being near a marabout is believed to confer barak (a state of grace). Accordingly, visiting the Mausoleum of Idriss II, which is a shrine to him, was considered beneficial for a stranger.

More significant, this shrine was said to bestow favors to women wishing to facilitate childbirth. So it was that when I entered the Mausoleum, I found women sitting on the edge of its beautifully tiled courtyard with a fountain in the center of it. This was in contrast to the al-Qarawiyyin Mosque where no woman was present. The air of calm generally found in a zawiya was accentuated in the Mausoleum by men walking quietly in white djellaba [30], the casual yet formal Moroccan attire.  Saeed was uncharacteristically reticent when I raised the subject of intercession by the marabout in this shrine.  His quiet was broken, however, when a man approached us with a pitcher to offer us “blessed water.” Saeed protested, and then turned to me: “That is just tap water. Such things are superstitions.” His faith in the supernatural did not extend to accepting the possibility of intercession by saints. As in Christianity where the North African St. Augustine first articulated the doctrine, intercession by saints is controversial in Islam. The Prophet Mohammad is, of course, called the Messenger (rasul) of Allah. Was there a role for saints in contact with God? Saeed changed the subject. Rather than theology, he spoke now of history.  “You know,” he said, “Idriss II died in the year 828, probably in Volubilis, and in 1308, a corpse was found on this spot in Fez which people said was his.” Around that putative tomb a shrine was built. In its current form, the Mausoleum dates from the 18th century. The refurbishing of it has continued, at least until 2014 as the sign outside indicates.


When I told Jack where I had been, he was excited. He had just arrived in Fez as the leader of a Sufi group from Los Angeles. In Arab countries, zawiya was the word used for a Sufi lodge. Jack was not clear about what his group intended to do in Fez, but he said that in his circle of Sufi friends Fez was a major pilgrimage destination. We were in a riad (guesthouse) which we shared as our residence. According to the owner, this was originally a 17th century mansion of a royal court official which had been refurbished. The refurbishing, which began in 2003, took nine years. The result was splendors of painted cedar ceilings, ironwork balconies and archways dripping with stucco. The main arcaded courtyard garden, paved with zellij and filled with songbirds twittering in fruit trees had a pool in the center, large enough for the two bold women fellow- guests from New York to take a dip at night. My bedroom was “the best,” the owner said confidentially so as not “to cause complaints by others.” Indeed, for a night I felt like a royalty .

I liked the inner courtyard with a fountain surrounded by bhou (seating nooks). It was here that several centuries ago, the original owner, I was told, would sit with his guests and while away idle hours, gossiping. As I looked up the inscriptions on the top of the opposite wall caught my attention. In Arabic, it seemed to be couplets in rhyme. I wondered if they were from a classic Arabic ode, qasida [31]. Jack volunteered that it was a poem by Rumi, but the Persian poet who has been hugely popularized in the U.S., rarely wrote in Arabic and his influence in the Arab world was never extensive. I found Saeed’s suggestion more persuasive. “It may be from Kalilah wa Dimnah [32],” he said. The book he was referring to, was indeed very popular in the Arab lands at  the time of the construction of this mansion. It is based on a translation into Arabic in 750 CE, by Persian scholar Abdullah Ibn al-Muqaffa,  of a work that began as the Panchatantra, a 3rd century  Indian collection of interrelated animal fables in verse and prose. Coincidentally, the stories of that book were used extensively by Rumi, in his masterwork, Masnavi.

The Guide

Mr. Madani, the guide Saeed had sent, asked why I wanted to see Ibn Khaldun’s residence. I told him about the link that Ibn Khaldun created between the eastern and western parts of the Muslim world in 1401. He was with the Egyptian ruler, Faraj in a military campaign against the Turco-Mongol conqueror Timur, Tamerlane [33] , who had besieged Damascus. As Ibn Khaldun later wrote in his autobiography, for seven weeks he went over the city walls and negotiated with Timur. In the process, Timur asked him in details about the conditions in the Maghreb (Western Islamic lands) and received a long-written report.  On his return to Egypt [34], Ibn Khaldun, composed and sent an equally detailed report on the history of the Mongols and a character study of Timur to the Merenid rulers in Fez.

Mr. Madani, whose name was related to the word medina, was famous as a guide who knew where everything was in the Medina. “I have not had any tourists interested in Ibn Khaldun’s residence, for some time,” he warned, “but we will find it.”  He took me to Talaa Al-Kabira Street. We looked around for a while. Mr. Madani said he “did not know exactly which house” it was. We stopped and asked a shopkeeper who pointed to a house a few doors away. We came to a small house which had no identifying sign .  “The new owner does not want any tourist to visit,” Mr. Madani said, as I poked inside the short dark hall that led to the entrance door.

As we went back, less than two blocks away on the same street, I noticed a sign which said: “Chez Maimonides – La Cuisine Marocaine Restaurant”.  I entered into the alley next to it and saw another sign on the wall. It was in French, “Maimounite Moise BenMaimoune,” and in Arabic “Dar (house)” of Musa bin Maymun.”  The guide confirmed that, this was said to be where Moses Maimonides once lived.

Considered the greatest Jewish philosopher of the medieval period, Maimonides died in Cairo where he had served many years in the service of the Muslim Sultan of Egypt, like Ibn Khaldun some two hundred years after him. Similarly, the University of al-Qarawiyyin also claims him as one of its illustrious attendees.  Maimonides, born in Cordoba, was probably in Fez for six years in the 1160s, and studied the disciplines of the time, among them medicine which became his main profession in Egypt.

I asked Mr. Madani why there was a marker for Maimonides’ house and not for Ibn Khaldun’s. The guide said because of “800,000 Moroccan Jews in Israel!”   A minute later, Mr. Madani asked me: “What do you think of the riad you are staying at?”  When I told him it was fine and glittering, he said “You should see the riad a few doors from yours.” From our roof-top patio, I had noticed the glamorous restaurant on the top floor of that riad which boasted even one more star than ours from guidebooks. Mr. Madani said: “The owner of that riad was my neighbor; they lived in the same building. Then he went to Haifa for several years. He has a car rental business. He now owns two riads, and lives in the Ville Nouvelle.” Mr. Madani added, “And I am still in the same position.” He followed up, reflectively, “But I hate business.”

His tone had grown grave. I asked if he liked the tourist business. He said he was a guide for five months out of the year, which is the “tourist season.” The rest of the time, he taught “economic subjects” in a private high school, where the language of instruction was French.  “I know several languages,” he said, not boasting so much as to protest his fate. I looked at him more attentively. He appeared older. The many wrinkles in his face seemed to have multiplied.  The eyebrows looked sagging. Even his djellaba did not seem neat and crisp now. To me, he looked not so much resentful as trapped.

The Time of Tangerine

Her arms were long and expressive as she talked.  “We still go to the Medina to visit relatives and to shop,” she said to guests in the Ville Nouvelle house which was now her residence.  If the exaggerated movement of her arms looked to me as a metaphor for flight out of the Medina of Fez, I was still thinking about Mr. Madani. Was the car business a metaphor for escape from the Medina which is the largest pedestrianized urban space in the world?

Only seventeen and still in school, our host acted as a joyfully liberated person. Her mother, who did not speak English but understood some, let her be the spokesperson for the family. “He is a baby,” the girl referred to her brother who was responsible for her father’s absence. “My brother broke his leg in an accident and called my father. At 32, he is old enough to be engaged to marry soon but could not take care of himself.”  She laughed as her mother smiled tolerantly.

This was my chance to see a Fez family at home. The father’s business, they explained, was selling antique Moroccan furniture in France, and bringing back French goods. We sat on the soft sofa chair that extended, uninterruptedly, from one end to the other end of the large living room. The mother wore a djellaba as an over-robe. The daughter wore western clothes. To her the traditional djellaba was like the Hijab. Indeed, some believe the now unisex djellaba is the same as jilbab (mentioned in the Qur’an), the name given to women’s religious dress in Islam. “My mom complains about many things I do,” she said “but at least I keep my room ‘sort of’ clean.” We moved to the dining room which was furnished with the same kind of extended sofa chair. The mother served a dinner of soup and lamb tajine, over ripe white grapes.

In the front yard of the house before the large gate to the street, there were two parked cars and a dog, but the attraction was a tangerine tree with brilliant green leaves. This was the time of tangerine in Fez, with the sweet citrus fruit in abundance. In the pleasant twilight of the October evening, the men of Fez were in the coffee houses whiling away the time, and the women sat on the edge of the old town’s walls observing the Ville Nouvelle before them.


Fez did not disappoint us. The fellow-traveler who playfully “cat walked” her new red leather jacket in our riad testified to the joy of shopping in Fez. The vibrant mosaics, intricate ironworks, and dripping stuccos that adorned the refurbished riad were proof of the masterful craftsmanship of the artisans of Fez. Still, they were mere introduction to the authentic original treasures that lay outside in the venerable buildings of the Medina, such as the Madrasahs. Those schools, in turn, were reminders of the great institutions of learning which have long existed in Fez. That they were located in mosques punctuated the importance of Fez in the development of the religion which has played a dominant a role in politics and history of North Africa. In these so many ways, Fez is, indeed, a unique place to discover Morocco itself.



  1. الجنوب برج
  2. الشمال برج
  3. فأس

4- القيروان‎‎

  1. البالي فاس
  3. ملاح, מלאח
  4. معبد ابن دنان‎; בית הכנסת אבן דאנן‎‎
  5. خمسة‎‎ or khamsah
  6. חַמְסָה or hamesh
  7. قيساريه
  8. سوق
  9. مدرسة. Also spelled Medersa, Madrasa
  10. الزليج
  11. محراب
  12. وقف
  13. القرويين
  14. Also spelled Al Quaraouiyine, Al-Karaouine
  15. خزانة
  16. The word al-Qayrawan (القيروان‎‎) is the Arabic corruption of the Persian karvan (کاروان) or “caravan”, meaning “military/civilian camp,” which it was originally, when founded in 670 by the Arab general Uqba ibn Nafi during his campaign for the conquest of the North Africa [“Location and origin of the name of Kairouan”. Retrieved 2010-04-12; قيروان” “. Dehkhoda Dictionary; شماره 219. ص 75 بطه دو سویه زبان فارسی–عربی». ماهنامه کیهان فرهنگی. دی 1383، را >> , all as  cited in <;
  17. فاطمة الفهرية
  18. منبر
  19. قبلة‎‎‎
  20. الخطابه
  21. ابن خلدون
  22. Al-ta’rif bi Ibn Khaldun. p. 59, quoted in <;
  23. Historian Rom Landau, quoted in <;
  24. زاوية
  25. مَربوط‎‎
  26. جلابة
  27. قصيدة
  28. كليلة ودمنة
  29. تيمور لنگ
  30. He spent the next five years in Cairo completing his autobiography and his history of the world and acting as teacher and judge, dying there in 1406.