Marrakesh may currently be the queen bee of Moroccan tourism, and the foreign diplomats might place their embassies in Rabat, but the citizens of Fès go to bed every night, as they have done for centuries, knowing that their city is the real centre of Morocco. The oldest of the imperial cities, Fès measures the symbolic heartbeat of the country.
Founded shortly after the Arabs exploded across North Africa and Spain, Fès quickly became the country's religious and cultural centre, shaped by each of the great dynasties and by its population's roots in Muslim Spain and the Arab east. The fertile countryside allowed the city to grow quickly, and nurture a reputation for culture and learning. Any Fassi will be quick to point out that the city created the world's first university, centuries before Oxford and Cambridge were a twinkle in anyone's eye. With learning came Islamic orthodoxy. Green - the colour of Islam - is also the colour of Fès, endlessly repeated on its tiles and doors.
Such authority means that the city's allegiance, or at least submission, has always been essential to whoever held Morocco's throne. Even when it was not the official capital, Fès never really ceased to be considered the northern capital. The city continues to act as a barometer of popular sentiment: Morocco's independence movement was born here, and when there are strikes or protests, they are always at their most vociferous in Fès.
The medina of Fès el-Bali (Old Fès) is the largest living Islamic medieval city in the world. Nothing quite prepares you for your first visit, which can truly be an assault on the senses. Its narrow winding alleys and covered bazaars are crammed with shops, restaurants, workshops, mosques, medersas (theological colleges) and extensive dye pits and tanneries, a riot of sights, sounds and smells. Donkeys and mules remain the main mode of transport and, but for the mobile phones and satellite dishes on the skyline, you could be forgiven for wondering which century you've accidentally slipped into.
For the short-term visitor, Fès is difficult to come to grips with. The medina can be totally bewildering. Though the amount of hassle is far less than it once was, the constant attention of unofficial guides, small boys, touts and shopkeepers does not help. It is a veiled, self-contained city where life moves to centuries-old traditions - a city that doesn't easily bare its soul. With time, visitors begin to glimpse behind the anonymous walls and appreciate the rich culture and spirituality that is Fès.
Last updated: Aug 24, 2009
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