Fez el Bali and the Medina
A ‘medina’ is defined as the old, walled, Arabic section of a North African city, characterized by a labyrinth of narrow, crooked and often covered streets and alleyways. Dating from an era in which hand-carts, donkeys and camels were the only means of transporting goods, a medina is necessarily pedestrian. Tall, strong encircling walls, punctuated by lookout towers and solid gates, discouraged invaders, and the maze-like layout within served to befuddle them entirely.
The 1200-year old walled medina of Fez, with its 9454 cobbled alleyways and 300 mosques, is both the world’s largest living medieval Islamic city and its largest pedestrian zone. A key trading hub in North Africa for centuries and still today an important centre of Islamic faith and scholarship, it boasts a tremendous array of historically and artistically significant buildings and monuments, many gorgeously embellished by generations of artisans. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981.
In the 10C what we now call the medina of Fez was actually comprised of two fortified cities separated by the Oued Fez (‘Fez River’). The western compound was the domain of the Kairouans, immigrants from Tunisia, while the eastern was settled by the Andalous, Spanish Muslims who had fled persecution in their home country. The two were united by bridges and new walls in the 11th and 12th centuries, with the adjacent city of El-Jdid (‘new town’) added in the 13th. Today the medina is home to approximately 100,000 people.
Historically, Fez medina was further divided into many smaller neighbourhoods (hay) demarcated by gates which were locked at night; many of these gates still exist but only one, the Attarine, is still in use. Each of the neighbourhoods contained the five essential facilities: a communal bakery (farran), public baths (hammam), a fountain (skaya), a school (msid) and a mosque (jama or masjid). Many became known for a specific craft, such as carpentry, leather tanning, pottery, ironwork or the manufacture of cosmetics, and these are still made and sold today in the medina’s many souks, or markets. Another feature of the medina are the funduqs, tall buildings with courtyards which provided accommodations for travelling merchants - and their camels and donkeys - as well as trading areas where they sold their wares. Gates, mosques, funduqs and fountains are all effusively decorated with beautiful tiles or zellij, carved and painted plaster work and gorgeously carved cedarwood.
The network of rivers and spring underlying the Medina accounts, to a large degree, for its complicated street plan. For centuries these water courses were diverted to flow into the city’s fountains and hammams, providing water for drinking and bathing, and to carry away its waste. The need to create secure, quiet and private living spaces in such a cramped environment further explains the Medina’s streetscape: the entrances to residences are most often along blind, angled alleyways leading off the main thoroughfares, and the open courtyard at the centre of the traditional Moroccan house eliminates the need for windows facing the street and, indeed, for streets wide enough to allow light to reach them.
The medina is a place to get lost. It won’t be for long as the city is walled and it takes only about 40 minutes to walk from one end to the other. You’ll find people keen to offer directions even before you’ve asked them, and if you become completely disoriented there are always young boys at hand to show you the way for a 5 Dirham tip. The best points of reference are the two main thoroughfares, Tala’a Kebira (‘big slope’) and Tala’a Seghira (‘little slope’), which both run from the main gate, Bab Bou Jloud, to the Karaouine Mosque. Street signs are in Arabic only but at frequent intervals you’ll see the little coloured signs posted by ADER-Fès, the organization responsible for preserving the city’s architecture and heritage, indicating different walking circuits and neighbourhoods (these are described in the small booklet, Fez Guide, which is widely available in the medina).
Note that place names may appear in many forms as they’re transcribed phonetically from the Arab alphabet.
The Bab Boujloud (‘Blue Gate’), for example, appears just as often as Bab Bou Jeloud; zaouias, or mausoleums, might as easily be zawiyas, and funduqs, the old traders’ inns, fundouks.