Medina of Fez

The interior of Zaouia Moulay Idriss II, where commemorates Idris II, the founder of Fez.

The historic city of Fez consists of Fes el-Bali, the original city founded by the Idrisid dynasty on both shores of the Oued Fes (River of Fez) in the late 8th and early 9th centuries, and the smaller Fez el-Jdid, founded on higher ground to the west in the 13th century. It is distinct from Fez’s now much larger Ville Nouvelle (new city) originally founded by the French. Fes el-Bali is the site of the famous Qarawiyyin University and the Mausoleum of Moulay Idris II, the most important religious and cultural sites, while Fez el-Jdid is the site of the enormous Royal Palace, still used by the King of Morocco today. These two historic cities are linked together and are usually referred to together as the medina of Fez, though this term is sometimes applied more restrictively to Fes el-Bali only. Fez is becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination and many non-Moroccans are now restoring traditional houses (riads and dars) as second homes in the medina. Fez is also considered the cultural and spiritual capital of Morocco. In 1981, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) proclaimed Medina of Fez a World Cultural Heritage site, as “[they] include a considerable number of religious, civil and military monuments that brought about a multi-cultural society. This architecture is characterised by construction techniques and decoration developed over a period of more than ten centuries, and where local knowledge and skills are interwoven with diverse outside inspiration (Andalousian, Oriental and African). The Medina of Fez is considered as one of the most extensive and best conserved historic towns of the Arab-Muslim world.


The city has traditionally retained the influential position as a religious capital in the region, exemplified by the Madrasa of Al Quaraouiyine which was established in 859 by Fatima al-Fihri originally as a mosque. The madrasa is the oldest existing, continually operating and the first degree awarding educational institution in the world according to UNESCO and Guinness World Records. During the Marinid rule, Fez was designated as the political and religious capital of the empire, partly due to the Sultan Abu Yaqub Yusuf’s intention to mitigate the tension between the ulamas in the old city. This had led to the great attention by the government to the construction of the madrasas following the Maliki orthodoxy, which resulted in the unprecedented prosperity of the city’s religious institutions. The first madrasa built during the Marinid era was Saffarin Madrasa in Fes el Bali by Abu Yaqub Yusuf. Sultan Abu al-Hassan was the most prolific patron of the madrasa construction, completing the Al-Attarine, Mesbahiyya and Sahrij Madrasa in Fez alone, and several other madrasas as well in other cities such as Salé and Meknes. His son Abu Inan Faris built the famed Bou Inania Madrasa, and by the time of his death, every major city in the Marinid Empire had at least one madrasa. The additional library was established as well for the Madrasa of Al Quaraouiyine in 1349, which stores a large selection of valuable manuscripts dating back to the medieval era. The largest madrasa in the medina is Shiratin Madrasa commissioned by the Alaouite sultan Al-Rashid in 1670, which is the only non-Marinid foundation besides the Madrasa of Al Quaraouiyine.

City walls of Fez. The bastion on the right is Kasbah Cherarda.

The entire medina of Fez was heavily fortified with crenelated walls which equip heavy watchtowers and gates, a pattern of urban planning which can be seen in Salé and Chellah as well. City walls were placed into the current positions during the 11th century, under the Almoravid rule. During this period, the two divided cities of Fez were united under the single enclosure. The structures of Almoravid era were later destroyed and subsequently rebuilt by the Almohad dynasty in the 12th century. These fortifications were completed and formed into the current shape under the Marinid rule during the 12th to 16th centuries, along with the founding of Fes Jdid. The gates of Fez are adjacent to these city walls, and guarded by the military detachments and shut at night.[39] During its development in the 9th century, Fes el Bali was enclosed by the eight main gates. After the foundation of Fes Jdid by the Marinids in the 13th century on the outside of these gates, new walls and three new gates such as Bab al-Amer were established as perimeters between these two medinas. The construction of the new gates employed the Christian labor.Additional gates were constructed during the Alaouite era, most notably Bab Bou Jeloud in 1913. Other remaining gates of Fez today include Bab el-Seba, Bab Semmarine, Bab al-Fetouh, Bab Mahrouk and Bab Chorfa.

Forts and Kasbahs

Along with the city walls and gates, several forts were constructed as defensive perimeters of the medina during the different time periods. The military watchtowers built in its early days during the Idrisid era were relatively small. However, the city rapidly developed as the military garrison center of the region during the Almoravid era, in which the military operations were commanded and carried out to other North African regions and Southern Europe to the north, and Senegal river to the south. Subsequently, it led to the construction of numerous forts, kasbahs, and towers against the foreign invasions. Kasbah in the context of Maghrebi region is the traditional military structure for fortification, military preparation, and command and control. Some of them were occupied as well by the citizens, certain tribal groups, and merchants. Throughout the history, 13 kasbahs were constructed surrounding the old city. The most prominent among them is Kasbah An-Nouar, which dates back to the Almohad era, located at the western or north-western tip of Fes el-Bali. Today, the kasbah is a residential district much like the rest of the medina. The kasbah is equipped with the Friday Mosque and Bab Chorfa entrance gate. Other kasbahs including Kasbah Cherarda located on the outskirts of Fes el Bali. It was first established during the Saadi era in the 16th century and later refurbished by the Alaouite Sultan Mulai al-Rashid as a fortress. Kasbah Dar Debibagh is a relatively new kasbah built in 1729 during the Alaouite era at 2km from the city wall in a strategic position.To the north, there is Borj Nord which dates back to the Saadi era and among the largest defensive structures in the city, now refurbished as a military museum.


Since the inception of the city, tanning industry has been continually operating in the same fashion as it did in the early centuries. Today, the tanning industry in the city is considered one of the main tourist attractions. There are three tanneries in the city, largest among them is Chouara Tannery near the Saffarin Madrasa along the river, built in the 11th century. The tanneries are packed with the round stone wells filled with dye or white liquids for softening the hides. The leather goods produced in the tanneries are exported around the world.

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