THE MOST IMPERIAL CITY OF THEM ALL - Fez
The first capital of the kingdom in 808 under Idriss II, and then twice again, in the XIIIth century under the Merinides and in the XIXth century during the reign of Moulay Abdallah, Fez, the spiritual and cultural centre of Morocco, is a city of multiple facets and quite unmatched in its splendour. Apart from the European town built after the First World War, there are two distinctly different areas of the city; Fez el Jédid ("the New") and Fez el Bali ("the Old").
In Fez el Bali there are also two distinctly different districts. ln 818, several
hundred Moslem families settled on the right batik of Wadi Fez, after having
been expelled from Andalusia by the Christian armies. SeveD years later, 300
Kerouan families established their homes on the opposite batik. The Andalousian
Arabs brought with them their artand the experience of a civilisation at the
very peak of its glory.
The Andalousian quarter is particularly impressive for its splendour and its profusion of fine buildings. As if the palaces were competing with one another, each with their sculpted woodwork, engraved bronze, polychrome carving, moucharabies, columns and sculpted plasterwork.
A few steps away, the mighty do or of the Andalousian Mosque invites the faithful to prayer. Easily identified by its green and white minaret, the el Sahri medersa (1321) seems to be literally overflowing with luxurious decoration. AIl the medersas (Koranic schools) bouse a courtya-rd paved in marble or onyx that can be glimpsed through the open do ors as a sanctuary of light. The voices of chanting children drift clown from an open window. A sensitive ear will be able to discern in them the vibrations that link a whole people to its culture, the earth to the sky and matter to the spirit.
It was the Kerouan people who were responsible for the imposing and splendid El Qaraouiyîn masque with its scintillating roof of emerald tiles. It is the oldest centre of learning in the western world, predating even Oxford and the Sorbonne and now one of the main intellectual centres of North Africa. Its library, one of the largest in the world, contains over 30 000 books including a superb lXth century Koran.
Founded in 857 it continued to grow until 1317, and now stands as a monument to faith, a dream of stone and deep religious conviction.
When the Merinides came to power in the XIIIth century, they found Fez el Bali
tao small to contain the palaces that would be worthy of their magnificence.
So they built them outside the city walls, adding gardens, masques, Koranic
schools and souks... Which is how New Fez, or Fez el Jédid, was barn.
The great Rue des Merinides and the Place des Alaouites make up the nerve centre
of this district. Dar el-Makhzen, the royal palace with the golden doors, opens
onto the esplanade where begins the Rue Bou Khessissat with its bouses of wood
and wrought iron.
A few hundred metTes away, the Jewish cemetery with its immaculate tombs stands as a haven of silence in the midst of the Mellah, the Jewish quarter.
The Grande Rue des Merinides, bustling with life and lined with metalworkers' shops, crosses this XVth century enclave from one side to the other. The Little Mechouar with its ramparts leads to the Moulay Abdallah quarter and then on to Gld Mechouar and its gardens, where the gentle rustling of the leaves seems to be whispering the long and passionate history of this quarter to those who stroll beneath. Formerly used for Royal Parades, it leads on to the Bab Al Makina, now open to the public, where you can find some of the finest carpet weavers in the country.
To the south of Fez el Jédid stretches the modern city with its many broad avenues, and in particular the Avenue Hassan II, distinguished by the patterns of light playing through the leaves overhead onto the ornamentals pools beneath..
A walk around Fez is so enchanting that it is certainly worth enjoying at different times of the clay; at dawn, as the light climbs up the flanks of the hills, and 3t dusk, when the sun floods the cascades of roofs and cupolas with ochre-red light. An Imperial vision, engraved forever on the memory as an open invitation to return.
Looking out over the gentle slope of its roofs from the Merinides tomb, who
could ever think there was so much going on clown there in Fez? The best way
to experience it is to make your way through the streets at a leisurely pace,
following the flow of bustling activity as the fancy takes you. Soft, fluffy
waal, a glass of scalding tea, the smell of the herbs and spic es in the spice-
merchants' souk, the dazzling coloured hanks of yarn suspended in the dyers'
souk, the succulent kebabs and honeycakes, the ceaseless sound of voices everywhere
and the dull thud of craftsmen' s' tools coming from ail quarters... Wandering
through this labyrinth of narrow streets, staircases, passages, arches and cul
de sacs, is to become a part of the fascinating authenticity of a world that
bas been jealously preserved.