Fès History

Morocco's Islamic history can be said to start in Fès, and much of the country's later history took place there. Not all Moroccan sultans estab­lished their capital in Fès, but its spiritual power has always been such that rulers preferred to have the Fassi (its inhabitants) with them rather than against them. Its medina is the nearest a modern visitor can get to a medieval Arab town, with its labyrinth of little streets and dark cul-de-sacs. The richness of its Islamic monuments is incomparable and the fas­cination of its age-old markets and craft workshops immediate. It is the oldest of the Imperial Towns.

Beginnings. Fès lies in a hollow in the middle of the fertile Sais Plain, just to the north of the Middle Atlas Mountains. It is on the easy east-west route by which invaders reached Morocco from Algeria and moved on across the plains to the Atlantic.  Fès and Marrakech, the two most important cities of Old Morocco, lie in the center of the country, built to guard ancient trade routes through the Atlas Mountains.It is also well placed for communication with Tangier and the Mediterranean.  

Fès was founded by Idriss I, who made it his capital in 789 a.d. His son, Idriss II, increased the size of the first settlement and offered home and welcome to thousands of Arab Moslems from Spain and other North African countries. Refugees fleeing from Andalusia founded the Andalusian district of the town in 818, while those from Kairouan (Qayrawin) in Tunisia, in 825, built another district to which they also gave their name. These new populations, who evicted the local Berbers, were wealthy merchants, craftsmen, and intellectuals with a rich cultural tradition, used to city life. Progressively the town was endowed with a university, the Qarawiyin, mosques, and libraries, and be­came the religious and cultural center of the country. With all this rich­ness, it was not surprising that it was coveted by foreign Islamic dynasties. It was ruled by Tunisian Fatimid governors until 953, before they were pushed out for a short time by the Idrissids, who were back again shortly thereafter, and then replaced by the Spanish Umayads in 985. In the be­ginning of the llth century, they too disappeared, and Fès, independent again, became bigger and richer through its varied crafts and trading con­tacts, with an important and industrious Jewish community. However, the Almoravid sultan, Yusef ben Tachfin, put an end to this in 1069 when he besieged and captured the city. He knocked down the ramparts that divided Fès in two and surrounded the town with one single rampart and exterior fortress, but preferred to use Marrakech as his capital.

Commerce and culture. In the middle of the 12th century, Fès came under Almohad rule, new silk weaving, leather, and metalworking tech­niques were introduced by refugees from Andalusia, and trade prospered as never before. Although no longer the political capital, Fès was widely recognized as an unparalleled religious and cultural center. Under the Merinids, who made Fès their capital in 1250, it reached its golden age— splendid new palaces were constructed, religious schools established, and business boomed. Merchants traded with China, India, East Africa, and the Middle East, sold wheat, leather, and rugs to Europe, and imported cloth and industrial products from England. The status of Fès as the country's spiritual and cultural capital was maintained. More Moslems and Jews expelled from Spain settled there in 1492.  The ups and downs of history after the decline of the Merinids led Fès to be occupied by the Saadian dynasty in 1549. After a brief early period, when the Saadian Abd el-Malik kept Fès as the capital city, for most of the Saadian reign Fès lost its cap­ital status in favor of Marrakech. Episodes of plague, famine, and civil wars at the beginning of the 17th century enormously reduced the pop­ulation until, in 1666, the new Alaouite sultan, Mulay Rashid, established order in the country and made Fès his capital. Business looked up and the town prospered again, even if his successor, Mulay Ismail, preferred to settle in neighboring Meknes. The cairn was broken by a long period of dis­order after the death of Mulay Ismail in 1727, before peace and prosperity started to return when Mohammed III took control in 1757. After the death of sultan Hassan I in 1894, the troubled period that marked the reign of his successors, Mulay Abd el-Aziz and Mulay Abd el-Hafid, forced the latter, who had deposed his brother, to call in French forces to quell a violent revolt in Fès. In March 1912, Mulay Hafid signed the Treaty of Fès, initiating a French Protectorate over the country. As was his custom, the French General Lyautey left the old town untouched and had a new, sepa­rate modern town built, slightly higher than the original Fès, but practi­cally touching it. The visitor should not be surprised by the names Fès el-Jdid (the New Fès) and Fès el-Bali (the Old Fès)—both are in the old town. During the struggle for independence, Fès and the Qarawiyin were the center of resistance, where the intellectual elite of the country, already active before World War II, drew up their political programs and plans. Many ministers in Morocco's first post-independence governments were Fassi

Today, most of the businessmen and traders have deserted Fès for Casablanca.  Their rich dwellings in the medina have become occupied by poor families from the Rif with their numerous children, many often shar­ing the house with several other families. The result is a degradation of the urban tissue in the medina, not designed for such an influx of population, which is today estimated at around 200,000.

The Fès medina was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1976. Its walled medina is one of the most intact and impressive medieval cities in the Islamic world and, taken as a whole, it's the architectural highlight of Morocco. Fez also has a French-planned new city (ville nouvelle), and the contrast between the old and the new sections makes sightseeing all the more fascinating. You truly feel as if you're stepping into the past when you walk through one of the gates to the old medina.

Fès  |  Morocco History