The Old City of Fez | An Architectural Legacy of Intellect and Art

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The bluest of all blues. That’s the hue that comes to mind’s eye when I dream of Morocco. The blue of the ocean that gently torments and teases the shore. The blue of the precious lapis lazuli that emerges from beneath the earth to reflect the cosmic wonders of the night sky.

The Old Medina of Fez

Fez–also known as Fes–is a city in northern inland Morocco. The second largest city in Morocco after Casablanca, the Holy City is home to a population of 1.22 million. Located to the northeast of the Atlas Mountains, Fez is situated at a crossroads which connects the important cities of different regions. Surrounded by hills, the old city is centred around the Fez River which flows from west to east. The word Fez is derived from the Arabic word فأس Faʾs which means pickaxe. Legends say Idris I of Morocco used a silver and gold pickaxe to create the lines of the medina.

From its inception, the Holy City was populated by learned people and theologians. Fes-el-Bali, the oldest walled part of Fez, abounds in subtle, refined palaces and grand homes that display the most sophisticated decorations in all of Morocco. The old city presets itself as a maze of tangled little streets that go off in all directions. The climate subsists by way of brutal winters and scorching summers.

Kairaouine Mosque

The University of Al-Karaouine, also known as Qarawiyyin Mosque, remains the beating heart of the city, setting the pulse throughout the bustling mercantile district. In accordance with the Islamic paradigm of city planning, the district was organised by trade. Spice merchants, coppersmiths, carpenters, tailors, weavers and tanners all formed their own small islands within the city–each with its own sounds, rhythms and scents.

The Qarawiyyin Mosque is located near the Suq al-‘Attarin Spice Market of Fez al-Bali. It is one of the world’s oldest universities and among the largest mosques in Africa. The mosque was founded by Fatima al-Fahri, the daughter of a wealthy Qayrawani immigrant. Fatima al-Fihri used her inheritance to fund the construction of the mosque for her community. Her intention: to give back to the city that had welcomed her family. They immigrated when she was young from the Tunisian city of Kairouan–the namesake of the mosque and madrasa.

The courtyard of Qarawiyyin Mosque, Image by Momed Salhi

In the tenth century, the mosque became the congregational mosque of the quarter of al-Qarawiyyin. Surrounded by madrasas, the mosque was a major intellectual centre in the medieval Mediterranean. It is considered the oldest scholastic foundation ever established and its hallways once boasted distinguished teachers and students. Its prestigious academic reputation may have transcended religious divisions with records suggesting that Gerbert of Auvergne (930-1003 CE), who would become Pope Sylvester II, was once a student at al-Qarawiyyin.

The university library is home to a number of precious manuscripts including historic copies of the Quran. In eras gone by, religious education was not separated from secular education and the University of Al-Karaouine is a reminder of the flourishing spiritual context in which university education developed, evolved and even prospered.

A document from the Qarawiyyin’s library–1207 CE. Some scholars clim it is the world’s oldest surviving medical degree.

Zellij

Houses in Fes are covered with zellij. From the floors to the wooden panelling, a master craftsman knows all the traditional combinations as well as how to set them in different-sized areas. The zellij used for floors quietly boast a modest elegance that is far less intricate than that which graces the lower walls.

Zellij is an art form that features heavily in Moroccan architecture. The striking tile work is created using geometric tiles that are set in a plaster base to form wonderfully intricate patterns. The combinations for Moroccan tile patterns are endless and include squares, triangles, stars, diamonds, polygons and crosses. They are all fitted together in arithmetical fashion to form orderly and precise mosaics. It is a symphony of mathematics and art which successfully produces a visual masterpiece.

Like all ancient art forms, the creation of zellij requires the use of traditional methods with no shortcuts. Zellij begins its journey as a humble square of burnt soil–with the most suitable soil for the craft supplied from Fez–the city where zellij graces the courtyards and city walls.

Chipping tiles into little shapes for use in mosaics — Fez, Morocco. Image by Dan Lundberg.

In an era of on-demand technologies and quick fixes, it’s an exquisite experience to marvel at the historical traditions which continue on in the footsteps of their forebears. A certain heart is created in a home and in a business when it is adorned with artefacts imbued with passion, care, culture and heritage.

May the striking decor and intellectual heritage that defines the architectural legacy of Morocco live on in our homes, our cities and also our hearts.

By Dipa Sanatani

CEO at Sanatanco | The Leading Global Publication and Communications Consultancy for Writers, Readers and Thinkers

4 comments

  1. Sounds wonderful. I can’t wait to visit when the muted madness of the lockdown ends. Who would have thought that we would be imprisoned in our home and only capable of travelling vicariously?

  2. Like you, I dream of visiting faraway places that I have only ever known in my imagination.

  3. Each country has its own architectural heritage, but Moroccan architecture has a charm that is irreplaceable. Glad to hear that the culture has been preserved and even continued.

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