In AD 789, Idriss I – who founded Morocco’s first imperial dynasty – decided that Oualili (Volubilis) was too small and drew up plans for a grand new capital. He died before the plans were implemented, however, so credit for the founding of Fez is given to his son, Idriss II, who carried out the will of his father. The memory of Idriss II is perpetuated in his zawiya (religious shrine) in the heart of Fez El Bali.
The city started as a modest Berber town, but then 8000 families fleeing Muslim Spain and Portugal settled the east bank of the Oued (River) Fez. They were later joined by Arab families from Kairouan (Qayrawan) in modern-day Tunisia, who took over the west bank, creating the Kairaouine quarter. The heritages of these two peoples formed a solid foundation for future religious, cultural and architectural richness. Idriss II’s heirs split the kingdom, but Fez continued to enjoy peace and prosperity until the 10th century.
Over the next centuries, the fortunes of Fez rose and fell with the dynasties. Civil war and famine – incited by Berber invasions – were relieved only by the rise of the Almoravids. When that dynasty fell from power around 1154, they fled Fez and destroyed the city walls as they went. Only when the succeeding Almohad dynasty was assured of the Fassis’ loyalty were the walls replaced – large sections still date from this period.
Fez continued to be a crucial crossroads, wielding intellectual rather than political influence. With the Kairaouine Mosque and University already well established, it was the centre of learning and culture in an empire stretching from Spain to Senegal. It recovered its political status only much later, with the arrival of the Merenid dynasty around 1250.
During the 19th century, as central power crumbled and European interference increased, the distinction between Marrakesh and Fez diminished, with both effectively serving as capitals of a fragmented country. Fez retained its status as the spiritual capital. It was here, on 30 March 1912, that the treaty introducing the French and Spanish protectorates over Morocco was signed. Less than three weeks later, rioting and virtual revolt against the new masters served as a reminder of the city’s volatility.
The French may have moved the political capital to Rabat, but Fez remains a constituency to be reckoned with. The city’s allegiance, or at least submission, has always been essential to whoever held Morocco’s throne. Morocco’s independence movement was born here, and when there are strikes or protests, they are often at their most vociferous in Fez.
As one of Morocco’s most traditional cities, Fez is generally regarded with a certain amount of awe, perhaps tinged with jealousy, by the rest of the country. Indeed, a disproportionate share of Morocco’s intellectual and economic elite hail from here, and it’s a widely held belief (especially among Fassis) that anyone born in the Fez medina is more religious, cultured, artistic and refined.