A stroll through Fes’s medina is like being catapulted back in time; whole lambs roast in pits buried in the ground; pigeon poop and natural dyes fill the vats of the leather tanneries; and market healers sell magical talismans for fertility and fortune.

Fes el-Bali, the old city of Fes, is a maze of over 9,000 alleyways too narrow for cars; this is perhaps the world’s largest car-free urban zone. It’s also an outstanding example of an almost untouched medieval town.
Aerial view of Fes medina
Aerial view of Fes medina
© Big Stock
Streets of Fes
Man working at tannery
Tannery worker

The dense concentration of civic, religious, and military monuments reflects the intellectual vitality of the city created during the first centuries of the Islamisation of Morocco. Madrasas, mosques, and fondouks (inns used by travelling merchants) abound, many of them extraordinary examples of the architecture of the medieval period. One of our favourites is the Madrasa Bou Inania with its gorgeous cedar mashrabiyas (a type of projecting window), ornate zellige (mosaic tile work), and beautifully carved plasterwork.

Madrasa Bou Inania

 Bou Inania Madrasa
Another favourite is the Qarawiyine university, the oldest existing and continually operating educational institution in the world founded by Fatima al-Fihri in 859AD. The original buildings belong to the North African mosque tradition, but later expansions included elements of Moorish design such as floral patterns and elaborate fountains brought Muslim and Jewish refugees expulsed from the Iberian Peninsula in the 15th century. The university’s prestigious library was recently restored by Toronto-based architect Aziza Chaouni.

Al-Qarawiyyin Mosque

 Al-Qarawiyyin Mosque
Residential architecture in Fes el-Bali remains a reflection of medieval Islamic society. High windowless walls protect building interiors from prying eyes. Patios similarly feature high walls designed to preserve privacy. Venture inside and you are treated to a spectacular visual feast.

Ceramic souvenirs on the street

Ceramic souvenirs on the street
The medina today is faded and crumbling but also grand and proud. Its inhabitants too have retained some of the magic and the mystery of the medieval. We walk past men wearing the djellaba (the traditional long hooded coat), and in the souks, we buy talismans to protect us from the unseen world of the djinns.

Turn your own clock way back and join us on our upcoming tour to Morocco!

Morocco: A Cultural Exploration
November 4 - 14, 2021   |  Learn more
Shifting Boundaries: Literature of Morocco
October 27 - November 8, 2021   |   Learn more