Mosques, Medersas & Mausoleums
A mosque, jama or masjid, is the Muslim place of worship. A medersa is a theological school, some also offering courses in laguages and science. The mausoleums (zawiya or zaouia) in Fez are the burial places and shrines of sultans and holy men, and may also include a mosque. As non-Muslims are not permitted to enter mosques, the best you can do is try and catch a glimpse of the interiors - which, in Fez, are always spectacular - through an entrance door, or walk around the periphery to admire the building from the outside. The decorations common to virtually every religious building in Fez, and many ryads (private houses) as well, are zellij, mosaics made of glazed tiles, plaster work carved into intricate patterns and mashrabiyya, lattice screens fashioned from cedar.
Muslims pray facing towards Mecca five times a day: near dawn (fajr), exactly at noon (dhuhr), in the afternoon (asr), just after sunset (maghrib) and around nightfall (isha’a), with a special service involving a sermon on Fridays at noon. The exact times of the prayers vary with the movement of the sun. Both men and women are permitted to pray in mosques, albeit sometimes in separate areas; except on Fridays, however, women tend to do their praying at home.
Sights marked with a * are not to be missed.
■ The recently restored 14C Medersa Bou Inania* [A-2] is generally considered the most spectacular of Fes’ theological schools thanks to its extravagant decorations. Legend has it that the sultan who commissioned it, Abou Inan, threw the ledgers detailing the costs of the construction into the river on the grounds that ‘a thing of beauty is beyond reckoning.’ Bou Inania is the only active religious building that non-Muslims can enter: presumably this is felt to be safe because a beautiful marble courtyard and small canal, once fed by a spring, divide the medersa from its mosque. There are beautiful entrances to the complex on Tala’a Kibera and Tala’a Seghira, both of which have been painstakingly restored. According to local expert David Amster, the medersa’s walls are made of medluk, a composition of ‘extremely fine sand, lime, egg white and sabon beldi (a soft soap made from olive by-products).’
■ Ain Khaïl Mosque [B-1/2] dates from the 11C and is notable for its octagonal minaret which is built right over the street. Unfortunately it’s in very bad condition and has been closed since part of the prayer-hall collapsed afew years ago killing 12 worshippers.
■ 18C Bab Guissa Medersa [C-1], near the gate of the same name, was built by the Alaouite sultan Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdallah for students coming from the north. The teaching area and 20-odd dormitory rooms are still in use.
■ 14C Chrabliyine (or Cherableeyeen) Mosque [B-2] on Taala Kibera is notable for its pretty green-tiled minaret (marred by an ugly speaker system) and the mashrabiya decorating its attendant medersa. Chrabliyine means ‘slipper-makers.’
■ The Lihoudi area was once largely Jewish and perhaps this explains the lack of a minaret on the El-Makoudi Mosque [C-1]. Instead it has a lovely fountain at the top of the street decorated with carved medluk and delicate zellij.
■ Tucked behind the Attarine Medersa, Si Ahmed Tijani Mosque and Zawiya [C-1] is the burial place of one of Fes’ saints. Si Ahmed Tijani was a descendant of the prophet and founder of a sect known as Tariqa Tijania (‘The Way’). Followers from many sub-Saharan countries come here as pilgrims.
■ The Moulay Idriss Zawiya* [C-2] is easily the most important monument in Fez and the mausoleum (zawiya) of Moulay Idriss II, son of the founder of Fez and its patron saint, is one of Morocco’s most popular pilgrimage destinations. The mausoleum has two main doors; the wooden beams outside them were used to prevent mules and non-Muslims from entering. Non-Muslims are still not allowed in - and nor, presumably are mules - but from the women’s entrance you can see the tomb surrounded by devotees bearing incense and candles, and - somewhat incongruously - also a collection of 19C clocks shipped here by Fassi merchants in Manchester, England. Walk around the building for a look at its carved and painted exterior, with rich zellij and tons of intricate plaster work. There are also two mzaras (wall niches) where those short of time can pay their spiritual respects; a brass money slot welcomes contributions of the more material sort. The police were forbidden entry to this complex with the result that it became known sanctuary for outlaws.
■ There is a Fassi saying that all roads in Fez lead to the Karaouine (or Qaraouiyine, Qarawiyyin) Mosque* [C-2], which they probably do if you forgive a bend or two. Morocco’s oldest mosque was built by Fatima Al-Fihria, one of two wealthy sisters from Kairouan, Tunisia, who spent their inheritances on Fes’ faithful. In the 12C, the Almoravid rulers expanded the Karaouine to make it the largest mosque in Africa, accommodating 20,000 worshippers, and so it remained until the construction of the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca in 1980. The structure boasts yet another record: the university it has housed since 859AD is the oldest in the world, predating that of Bologna (founded in 1088), and Oxford (founded in 1167). While the academic curriculum here retained its religious focus for centuries after its European counterparts had diversified theirs, it did come to include the natural sciences; maths, physics, chemistry and foreign languages were introduced in the mid-1900s. In 1975 the university of Karaouine returned to its theological roots when most departments were moved to a new university campus to the south of the city. The university’s famous library, which already boasted 32,000 volumes in 1613, remained here, however, and has just been restored.
Zellijs, mashrabiya and plaster work cover most of the Karaouine’s 3,000 square metres (just short of an acre).
It’s difficult to see any of this, not only because non-Muslims aren’t allowed in but also because the building is completely hidden behind shops. There are, however, many entrances - 14, to be exact - through which one can catch a glimpse of the interior and the activities therein. From the main entrance, with a bit of jiggling, you can see the pavilions to the far right which were inspired by the Court of the Lions in the Alhambra in Granada. There is a beautiful set of 12C doors on the side of the mosque near Seffarine Square.
■ The small but very lovely Attarine Medersa [C-2] was built in 1323 by the Merinid sultan, Abu Said Othman, as an annex to the Kairaouine Mosque and a residence for talibs or students from the coastal areas. Halls for teaching and a small prayer room, ormasjid, are arrayed around an elegant and beautifully tiled central courtyard with a (now defunct) white marble fountain, the whole lot covered in decorations considered the finest in Fez, matched by a beautiful bronze door.
■ The yet-to-be-restored 12C Seffarine Medersa* [C-2] is the oldest of the Merinid medersas in Fez and in its prayer hall contains what is believed be the oldest mihrab (prayer niche) in the city. It is recognizable by its studded cedar door and also features a minaret with colourful zellij and a pool, or sahrij, in its courtyard.
■ The mosque of the Andalusian quarter, Al-Andalous* [D-2], is beautiful and one of the two most important mosques in Fez. Like the Karaouine it was built by a woman, Meryem - the sister, in fact, of the woman who built the Karaouine - with contributions from the community and a minaret supplied by the Caliph of Cordoba in 956. In the early 13C the Almohads completely rehauled the structure and gave it the magnificent entrance on its north-eastern side, designed and built by artisans from Granada and decorated with zellijs, plaster work and a great carved cornice.
■ The newly-restored 14C Es Sahrija Medersa [D-2] owes its name to the large rectangular pool, sahrij, in its courtyard. It was built by the Merinid sultan Abou al-Hassan as a theological school for the Al-Andalous mosque and features gorgeous mashrabiya, some of the oldest zellij in the country and decorative plaster work. The layout was intended to inspire students as they entered, passing through an ornate entryway, past the sahrij (reflecting pool) and the mihrab (niche indicating direction of Mecca) to the prayer room opposite.
■ A river once ran through the courtyard of the 18C Al-Oued Mosque [D-2] (‘River Mosque’), now replaced by fruit trees.
■ Sidi Ali Bou Ghaleb [D-2/3] is a Moroccan saint who, during his terrestrial life, was a surgeon and a barber - not an unusual combination in his time. Now the patron saint of the latter, the annual two-day moussem (festival) at his mausoleum is renowned.