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The Mysteries of Fez

I wasn't looking for trouble, love-induced or any other kind. As I left Tangier I kept thinking of the old story, perhaps apocryphal, that the writer Jane Bowles had been poisoned to death there by her love-struck housekeeper. Tangier is a place for trouble. Fez, on the contrary, has always been a mysterious hillside fortress of scholarly intrigue and religious refuge. A journey of introspection, the seeking of sanctuary with the possibility of an intellectual intrigue, seemed fairly irresistible. Surely I was headed for the right place.

I drove 3 1/2 hours south through the low, cultivated foothills of Morocco's Rif Mountains, past the remains of the encampments of Caesar's legionnaires, and the ruins of Roman villas and baths in the small town of Volubilis, where the wheat fields have been under cultivation for nearly 2,000 years. In roadside markets rough herdsmen and veiled women bargained fiercely with the sellers of mint or sheep or imitations of American running shoes. The markets are not meant for foreign passersby: there are no tourist goods, and no tourists. I went into a crowded encampment, and as I picked my way past the canvas tents and dark ponies, the villagers stared at me as if I were the first foreigner they had ever seen—perhaps I was.

The fields gave way to small settlements, and then suddenly across the plain, through the dust and heat, I saw the city. Once known as "the well-guarded," Fez sits in the lap of two bare, low hills and spills beyond its ramparts onto the wide and fertile plain that stretches south to the mountains of the Middle Atlas.

It is an ancient and noble city, established in a.d. 789 by Idriss I, an Arab chieftain fleeing from the caliph of Baghdad. A descendant of the prophet Mohammed through his daughter Fatima, Idriss I founded a dynasty that became the first Arab kingdom in Morocco. Fez quickly grew into a religious and civic center that embraced the tribes of the surrounding mountains; today, Arabic is used in both formal and everyday speech, while Berber is heard among the farmers in the market.

By A.D. 859, only 70 years after the founding of the mountain refuge, the great Karaouyine Mosque was constructed, as well as the simple and lovely mosque built in the Andalous quarter, home to thousands of Islamic refugees who made the journey from Spain. Since its origin, then, Fez was a place of learning and religious study, attracting to its cloistered mosques and shaded courtyards clerical leaders, intellectuals, and artists. Now a city of some 600,000 residents, Fez still attracts the pilgrim, and I was eager to join the long line of travelers who have sojourned there to look and to study. Although I did not pray in the tradition of some of my predecessors, I fell willingly into a state of reverie, and reverence.

I passed along the broad avenue of the nouvelle ville—a colonial town that rose outside the walls of Fez in 1916, during the time of the French protectorate—then through the carved and ornamented city gate, the Bab Bou Jeloud, built in 1913 in a traditional style, with a pattern of terra-cotta arabesques in tiles of blue (the color of Fez) and green (the color of Islam). I circled the old city, up through large olive groves on the low brown hills that embrace the town, past the scant ruins of the Merinide tombs standing like chipped sentinels, the big Saadian fortress (now a museum of weapons), and the ancient caves of the the country's nomadic first inhabitants.

The silence of the city was puzzling, until I remembered that no cars or trucks and few motor scooters can enter the covered medina of Fez el-Bali. Here and there, the green of trees escaped from enclosed and hidden gardens, and everywhere I could see the green-tiled square minarets of the mosques from which the muezzins call people to prayer.

Overexcited, nervous, I walked down the hill into the medina and, as I had hoped, was drawn immediately and without recourse (except to turn and flee, in the wild hope that I would remember the way I had come) into the Middle Ages. I was both seduced and alarmed by the exoticism, the loss of all ties to the greater and more familiar world that lay beyond the souks, the ramparts, the hills, the desert.

The mystery of Fez, the sense of exclusion and strangeness, is not the result only of custom and religion but of the very architecture. Each small neighborhood within the medina has five requisites: a communal oven, a mosque, a Koranic school, a fountain, and a hammam, or public bath. These neighborhoods, which were built first as forts to withstand the incessant raiding of the local tribesmen and incursive Europeans, are designed to reveal nothing of an interior life. The high stucco walls of the houses and shops are windowless, seamless; it is impossible to know where one house begins and another ends. The only indications that something lies behind the walls are the carved wooden doors studded with big iron nails and bolts, the hinges a rendering of the five fingers of Fatima, and an occasional trailing grapevine or leaf of red pomegranate making its desultory way through a rotting trellis. If one is lucky enough to be invited inside, or even to be passing as a door is pulled open (the doors have two knockers, one at a man's height and one high up for horsemen), it is as if paradise were suddenly revealed: blue-and-white-tiled courtyards with pink oleander and pale plumbago around a small fountain; rich carpets and the rare blue-and-red embroidered Fez cloth thrown over a second-floor railing to air; the sky blue and fresh, filling the secret place with light. And then the heavy cedar door is pulled to, and paradise disappears.

The maze of narrow, damp, rush-covered alleys is as dark as a tomb and managed only by crouching, arms flung wide to feel the way. A file of patient donkeys brushed past, and I flattened myself against a stone wall to avoid their straw panniers loaded with dates and grain and empty soda bottles. The glass bottles jostled against one another, louder than the more romantic sound of the animals' hooves on worn cobblestone. Speaking in French, a stranger walking behind me remarked that many of the town's residents cannot find their way though the labyrinthine lanes, and I nodded solemnly, remembering what Colette had written about Fez: "Between the closed doors, the too-high walls, along the stifling streets where my outstretched arms touch both walls, we return in imagination to those recent times when the blameless traveller who ventured into the half-roofed alleys below the risked an encounter with a well-placed blade."

Old women, squatting against a wooden door marked with a rusted image of the hand of Fatima to guard against the evil eye, pressed me to buy yellow and red powders, and tiny stems of gray-green herbs bound with raffia to cure all that troubles a lover. Young boisterous men in the souk filled my hands with dates of all sizes and softness, and spiced peanuts and figs, whispering convincingly that their fruit, and no one else's, was truly an aphrodisiac. There was nothing intellectual or religious about these inducements—and for a moment it was tempting to abandon all logic and canon. My basket was soon full of fruits and powders and magic potions.

The plaintive song of the muezzin drew me deeper into the medina. No matter how circuitously, all roads lead to the great Kairoyuine Mosque. It is said that the mosque was founded by a noblewoman fleeing persecution, or by one of two rich sisters who were jealous rivals. Like the poisoning of Jane Bowles, it is difficult to know the truth, and unimportant.

One of the oldest universities in the Muslim world, the Kairoyuine was a center for the halaqat, or groups of scholars and religious men who gathered during the 10th century to study the thousands of manuscripts and scrolls and rare books in its library. It is the most magnificent of the Fez mosques, with an enormous carved and painted cedarwood gate and a carved wood canopy. Because I am not a Muslim, I was not allowed inside, but I could see a section of the white stucco walls with their wainscoting of finely woven straw panels. There are, I have read, 270 pillars of marble in the great courtyard, and a water basin or fountain for the ritual ablutions required of Muslims five times a day.

I watched quietly as the men splashed their bare feet and ankles by dipping their right hand into the large fountain. The voice of the imam, invisible to those of us standing in the dark alleyway, murmured the noon prayer. I longed to see more, but stepped back, happy at least to be allowed inside the beautiful little Attarine Medersa, or Koranic school, nearby.

The four walls of the medersa courtyard are sheets of unrelieved stuccowork, not whimsical but exact and formal, and blue-and-white mosaic tile. Verses from the Koran are incised in continuous friezes, but to an eye that cannot read Arabic, the pattern of cedarwood and marblelike stucco filigree and arabesques that represent the 114 suras, or chapters, of the Koran are dizzying in their intricacy. Although it was primarily the study of the Koran, regulating religious custom as well as law and social order, that drew the learned to Fez, lectures were also given in astronomy, medicine, mathematics, and, not least, angels and jinni. Young students from throughout the Islamic world lived in the small damp cells on the second-floor gallery overlooking the tiled courtyard with its fluted white marble basin. It was named the School of Spices, after the neighborhood of the spice souk where it was built in 1323 a.d. Although Fez was founded on a river, the Oued el Jawahir, or River of Pearls, only a few small and dirty streams of which struggle across the city, and although the lanes themselves sometimes feel and always smell damp, the only water in sight is in the small fountains in the mosques and in these friezes of bas-relief verses from the sacred book of a desert people.


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