A short history of Fez The oldest of Morocco’s four imperial capitals and the most intact medieval city in the Arab world, Fez thrills all the senses: a torrent of haunting and exquisite sounds, countless visual details, and unfiltered scents.
It has the French-built Ville Nouvelle of other Moroccan cities – familiar and contemporary in looks and urban life – but a quarter or so of Fez’s one-million-plus inhabitants continue to live in the extraordinary Medina-city of Fez el Bali, which owes little to the West besides electricity and tourists.
The old town in particular seems to be suspended in time between the Middle Ages and the modern era more than any other Moroccan city.
When the city’s founder, Moulay Idriss I, died in 791 AD, Fez was little more than a village on the east bank of the Oued Boukhrareb.
It was his son, Idriss II, who really began the city’s development, at the beginning of the ninth century, by making it his capital and allowing in refugees from Andalusian Cordoba and from Kairouan in Tunisia – at the time, the two most important cities of western Islam.
The impact of these refugees on Fez was immediate and lasting: they established separate, walled towns on either riverbank (still distinct quarters today), and provided superior craftsmanship and mercantile experience for Fez’s industrial and commercial growth.
It was at this time, too, that the city gained its intellectual reputation – the tenth-century Pope Sylvester II studied here at the Kairaouine University, technically the world’s first, where he is said to have learned the Arabic mathematics that he introduced to Europe.
The seat of government – and impetus of patronage – shifted south to Marrakesh under the Berber dynasties of the Almoravids (1062–1145) and Almohads (1145–1248). But with the conquest of Fez by the Merenids in 1248, and their subsequent consolidation of power across Morocco, the city regained its pre-eminence and moved into something of a “golden age”. Alongside the old Medina, the Merenids built a massive royal city – Fez el Jedid or New Fez – which reflected both the wealth and confidence of their rule. Continued expansion, once again facilitated by an influx of refugees, this time from the Spanish reconquest of Andalusia, helped to establish the city’s reputation as “the Baghdad of the West”
After the collapse of the Merenids, Fez became more isolated under the Saadians and Alaouites, and French colonial control gave the city little more than a provincial existence.
Mohammed V kept Rabat as the French capital, despite the crucial role the Fassis played in the fight for independence (a time period vividly described in Paul Bowles’ book The Spider’s House), dooming the city to further decline.
If UNESCO had not inscribed it on their World Heritage list in 1981, it seems likely that much of the old city would have been threatened by extensive physical collapse.