History of Fez & Morocco
The word ‘Fes’ comes from the Arabic word fas or pick-axe, referring the silver and golden tool that its founder, Moulay Idriss I, used to map out the shape of his new city. Fassis, or Fez residents, refer to the ir city as ‘Fes’; the accented version of the word - Fès - dates to the period of the French Protectorate in the early 19C, and the version with a ‘z’, Fez, is only used in English. In Turkish the word Fas is used to describe Morocco as a whole.
By the 5th century BC the Phoenician colonies and trading routes had been ceded to the Carthaginians, based in modern Tunis, who added new colonies close to Fez at Tamuda (Tetouan) and Qantara (near Al-Qasr al-Saghir) and expanded their activities inland by paying Berber tribes annual tributes for the right to extract raw materials.
While the Phoenicians had had little interest in territorial gain or control beyond that required to protect their commercial interests, Carthaginian political authority spread to the regions immediately adjoining their colonies.
At the height of the empire, for almost a century, the flow of tributes was reversed: Berbers occupying land claimed by Carthage were obliged to pay taxes, taken as slaves or drafted into its armies; by the 4th century BC, Berbers made up a substantial part of the Carthaginian forces. Even so, the tribes maintained their political hierarchies throughout and evolved by adopting Carthaginian practises in farming, trade, manufacture and weaponry.
Thus by the time Carthage had lost its grasp, in the 2nd century BC, the Berbers had organized themselves into several large kingdoms.
The Roman era
Curiously, their domains in Morocco were delineated and protected not by a wall, as in Britain and elsewhere, but by long, deep ditches, fossata, punctuated by fortresses or watchtowers.
Just as Rome allowed the Berber leaders within its territories to continue to hold sway (as long as their agendas dovetailed), so did it tolerate the local with its own panoply of gods, the dii Mauri or ‘gods of the Moors.’ Judaism and Christianity both had adherents in Morocco by the 2nd century AD in spite of the Romans’ efforts to stamp them out, a policy it upheld until the emperor Constantine (ruled 306 to 337AD) converted to Christianity himself. But by then Rome’s star was setting in Africa and elsewhere.
In 238AD the Roman legions were withdrawn and by the end of the century control had been delegated to a romanized Berber chief, Iulius Matif, who considered himself not a subject of Rome but an ally. Roman colonies everywhere were being attacked by tribes from the east; one of these, the Vandals, arrived to plunder Morocco in 429AD before sacking Rome itself in 455AD. A century later, the emperor Justinian took the throne of the Eastern Roman Empire in Byzantium and tried to reclaim North Africa, succeeding only in establishing a few toeholds in the face of the ever-more powerful Berber tribes. Among the best organized of these were the Birghwata (Roman Baquatae) of the Fez area, who had converted to Judaism.
Arab occupation and the arrival of islam
The empire that developed under the Umayyad rule came to be one of the largest that the world has yet seen, covering 5 million square miles/13 million square kilometres. Mesopotamia, Armenia, Syria, Egypt and Tunisia were all subjugated before their forces arrived in Morocco under the command of Uqba ibn Nafi, to whom Edward Gibbon, in his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, refers as ‘the conqueror of Africa.’ In 1670 he set off from Damascus at the head of 10,000 men, crossed the Egyptian desert and modern Lybia, and established a camp, later a city, at Kairouan, south of present-day Tunis. Gibbon goes on to describe Uqba ibn Nafi’s conquest of Morocco in 682: “[he] plunged into the heart of the country, traversed the wilderness in which his successors erected the splendid capitals of Fez and Morocco [Marrakech], and at length penetrated to the verge of the Atlantic and the great desert.”
The Umayyed organized Morocco as a subsidiary province of Ifriqiya, which included Lybia, Tunisia and part of Algeria and had its capital in Kairouan. Their control over the Moroccan Berbers, however, was nominal. While many tribes converted to Islam over time, each did so on its own terms and according to its own interpretations.
Perhaps one reason for this was the continuing instability of the leadership itself. In 762, not quite a century into their rule, the entire Umayyad family was clubbed to death at a dinner hosted by the rival Abbassid clan, descended from an uncle of Mohammed’s. The Abbassids then settled in to govern the caliphate, to a greater or lesser degree, for the next 800 years from their new capital at Baghdad.
The Moroccan Dynasties
Idriss II took up the reins from his father and built Fez into an economic and cultural powerhouse, thanks largely to trade across the Sahara and immigration from other parts of the Mediterranean. Two groups of immigrants in particular contributed permanently to the fabric of the city. The first was a contingent of 800 Muslim families which arrived here in 818AD from Cordoba, Spain, as refugees from a rebellion. They carved out a new district for themselves on the east bank of the river, an area still known as Adwat al Andalus or the ‘Andalusian Quarter,’ and established themselves as craftsmen and artisans; thanks to them Fez became an important centre for pottery, silk-weaving, leather and metalworking. The second group, arriving in 825, was composed of 2,000 Muslim and Jewish families from Kairouan, Tunisia. Within two decades they had built the mosque that has since become Fes’ largest and established what is conventionally held as the world’s first university.
The Idrissids ruled until 10C when they succumbed to the crossfire between the Caliphate of Cordoba and the Fatimids of Tunisia, both vying for control of Fez. Power went back and forth between the two until a clan of Berbers, theAlmoravids, began a six-year siege of the city and emerged triumphant in 1069-70. The Almoravid sultan, Yussuf bin Tachfin, tore down the divisions separating the city’s various ethnic areas and built a continuous wall around the whole conurbation and its 120,000 inhabitants instead. The royal capital was moved to Marrakech, but Fez was allowed to retain its status as a centre of learning.
The Almoravids were followed by the Almohads in 1147. These, too, were Berbers, and at their peak ruled over a kingdom that spanned northern Africa as far as Libya and a great swath of southern Spain from their capital in Seville. Muslim fundamentalists, they persecuted both Christians and Jews, causing the majority to flee. The Almohads gradually lost all their territories during the first half of the 13C until only Marrakech as left to them. The last Almohad king, confusingly named Idriss II, died there, murdered by a slave, in 1269.
The Almohad’s loss was Fes’ gain for the next two ruling families, the Merinids (1244-1465) and the Wattasids (1465-1554), brought the city into a golden age. It was restored as a royal capital and in 1276, to house the court, sultan Abu Yussuf ordered a new walled city (Fez el Jdid or ‘New Fes’) to be constructed by next to the old one. The building spree continued with dozens of mosques and medersas appearing in Fez, funded by a flourishing trade across North Africa and the Mediterranean for gold, ivory and slaves. The transition between the two dynasties, however, was anything but peaceful and occurred in the midst of, and a direct result of, a severe economic slump. Responsible for the slump were Spain and Portugal who began a series of attacks along the African coast. While the Merenids were busy fending them off, the Wattasids manoeuvred themselves into positions of power in Fez with the intention of seizing the throne. Uncovering the plot, the Merenids slaughtered the entire Wattasid clan save two brothers who escaped and went into hiding. Five years later the Merenid sultan himself was murdered, opening the way for one of the brothers, Abu Abd Allah ach-Chaykh Mohammed ben Yahya, to step into his place.
A particularly grizzly episode occurred in Fez during the Merenid rule. In 1437 a Portuguese expedition set out to try to seize Tangier; among the forces was the Infante Ferdinand of Portugal, son of the Portuguese king.
When the force was captured by the Moroccans, the king sought to secure its release by signing a treaty which ceded the Moroccan port of Ceuta (occupied by the Portuguese since 1415), and allowed the Moroccans to hold Ferdinand as hostage until the terms of the treaty were fulfilled. As time passed and the Portuguese showed little inclination to vacate Ceuta, Ferdinand’s status as a prisoner declined and he was moved from relatively comfortable quarters to a common jail in Fez. The Moroccans gave up in 1443 and hanged Ferdinand, age 41, naked and head down from one of the city gates of Fez. His remains were subsequently stuffed and displayed here for 29 years.
The Wattasids proved incapable of defending Morocco against the Portuguese and allowed them to occupy various ports along the coast. Enter the Saadiens (or Sa’dī) from southern Morocco, who seized Marrakech from under the Wattasids’ noses and repelled the Portuguese, then in 1554 finally ousted the Wattasids themselves.
The Saadiens’ diplomatic prowess, particularly under sultan Ahmad al-Mansur, enabled them to defend Morocco against attacks from the east by the Ottoman Turks, who had already occupied modern Tunisia, Lybia and Algeria, but they were less interested in domestic matters and allowed Fez to fall into poverty and disrepair. This in spite of the fact that the country had acquired a new source of revenue: piracy.
Throughout the 16C and 17C Barbary pirate ships or corsairs, as they became known, plied the waters of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic coast of Europe, attacking ships and raiding coastal settlements. Their main purpose was to capture slaves for the markets in North Africa and the Middle East, although booty was equally welcome. Occasionally, if the prisoners were sufficiently important, the pirates negotiated a rich ransom in exchange for their return, or used them as bargaining chips for political purposes. There were hundreds of Corsair galleys, rowed by slaves, issuing from ports all along the African coast; between them it is estimated that they captured a million people between the 16th and 19th centuries.
Moulay Ismail (ruled 1672-1727) used fear and a vast army of slaves to bring all of Morocco under his control and to repel repeated Ottoman attacks. He gained the support of not a single Berber tribe in the process and the package consequently fell apart immediately after his death. Thirty years of civil war ensued, brought to an end by Mohammed ben Abdallah (aka Mohammed III, ruled 1757-1790) who, more outward-looking than many of his predecessors, forged relations with foreign powers not only in Europe but also overseas: Morocco was the first country to recognize the new United States. These alliances marked the beginning of the end of Barbary piracy, but it wasn’t until the reign of Mohammed’s son, Slimane (or Suleiman, ruled 1792-1822), that the last Corsair sailed.
It was around this time that today’s classic souvenir from the city of Fez, the fez hat (aka the tarboosh), reached its present form and began its rise to popularity. It’s believed to have originated in the Andalusian quarter of Fez, where it was usually black or white and worn with a turban wrapped around it; a red model became fashionable among the students of the university. In 980AD, when the crusades prevented the Moslems of north-west Africa from travelling to Mecca, they came to Fez instead; the hat was adopted as a symbol of the hajji, a person who has completed the hajj or pilgrimage. In 1826, the Ottoman sultan Mahmud II imposed a turban-less red fez as compulsory headgear for his troops. The hat was derided at first - the red colour made the wearer a target and without a brim or turban it provided no protection against the sun or blowing sand - but it gained popularity as a fashion item among the Turkish populace as a whole, eventually becoming an essential component of outdoor wear in Turkey much as rimmed hats were in Europe and America. The city of Fez did very well by this, remaining the world’s only source of fez hats until well into the 19C. It was Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first president of Turkey, who ended the era of the fez, in 1925 banning it outright as part of a broader initiative to Europeanize his country.
During the reign of sultan Abderrahmane (ruled 1822–1859) and in the years that followed, Morocco fell increasingly under the influence of the European powers. Its efforts to support an independence movement in Algeria were curbed by French troops in 1844, and an attempt to reclaim the city of Ceuta from Spain resulted in defeat and the Spaniards’ occupation of further lands. The country’s independence was nonetheless guaranteed at the Conference of Madrid in 1880.
The 20th century onwards
In 1980, Fez became the first Islamic and Arab city to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Since then theAgence pour la Dédensification et la Réhabilitation de la Médina de Fès, or ADER-FES (or Agency for the De-densification and Rehabilitation of the Fez Medina) ADER has been working to restore the city’s key monuments - specifically, 11 medersas, 320 mosques, 270 funduqs, and more than 200 hammams, houses, or public ovens - and, in doing so, has given rise to a new generation of skilled craftsmen.
Today, Morocco, officially the Kingdom of Morocco, is a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament.
The political capital is Rabat, and the largest city is Casablanca. Fez is the ountry’s second largest city, with a population of approximately 1 million, and is capital of the Fès-Boulemane region.