Fez: Culture, Tradition, and a Disputed Past

Sitting lower than the surrounding hills, the medina of Fez glistens its paths in chaotic patterns that only someone born there would begin to navigate. As one of the last remaining, medieval cities in operation in the world, UNESCO rightfully decided to make the entire medina a heritage site. Their decision was based on the need to protect what many feel represents the heart of Moroccan culture, tradition, and history.

Fez is claimed to be Morocco’s first capital city, but who founded it exactly is still under heavy scholastic debate. And, just as Moulay Idriss is venerated in the hills that surround Volubilis, so is Idriss II in his own village, which is considered by many to be the father of Fez. The city’s past actually rests on its name. Fez can be translated to mean “the axe” – the translation based on the lore that a golden axe was found in the foothills around the town just as the town was being settled.

By 800, the construction and settlement of Fez began. Within only ten years, the town had grown substantially and became a major stopover point for travelers moving in between West Africa and Al-Andalusia, what is currently Southern Spain. Additionally, some of the first settlers of Fez were from Al-Andalusia and flooded the eastern banks of the Fez River. Arab settlers also moved in and took the western half of the river, which became what is now called the Kairaouine region of the city.

For over 200 years, Fez prospered unlike any other city in North Africa. Houses were constructed – a period without war that allowed the city to root itself deep into the land. Following this prosperity, however, came a true downfall to what had become one of the most important cities in the medieval world. War broke out and chaos reined the streets of the now famous medina for well over 50 years. Around 1065, however, the Almoravids came into the city and calmed down the civil and political dissidence that plagued the city. They remained in the area for over 50 years and destroyed much of the medina wall that had been built in order that people would not be ‘separated’ simply because of religious or cultural differences.

Although Marrakesh had become the new capital of Morocco, Fez still had the limelight for its mosques and universities. The most influential, well-learned scholars studied in Fez and the city gained a reputation as the epicenter of study from Europe to West Africa. Two hundred years later, Fez had grown substantially and had already established itself as one of the empire’s greatest attributes. The Merenids came and brought with them their knowledge of how schools should run, namely mdrassas or koranic schools.

Around this time, those of Jewish decent were given protection under the new sultan Abu Yacoub. Being able to sell their wares and goods to those travelers passing by, they thrived under the sultan’s protection and many families continued to move into the mellah, or Jewish quarter. And, while Marrakesh still thrived as one of the south’s greatest cities, Fez remained equally important in the north. By the 1900s, Spain and France began the process of forming a protectorate over the cities, splitting the country according to their own whims. Fez, however, was always at the forefront of dissidents who were known to staunchly protect their own rights. Even when Morocco gained its independence from these other nations, Fez had always been a force with which each government had to reckon.