The medina of Fez

The medina of Fez – crafting a future for the past

Genevieve Darles

Viewed from the high part of the city, the medina of Fez unfolds as a dense, undulating expanse of little white houses from which a number of more imposing buildings emerge. To visit the medina is to venture into a labyrinth of alleys bustling with activity, a realm of pedestrians, donkeys, commerce and craftsmanship, whose ground-plan has not changed for centuries. The stroller on the lookout for historical remains will find many examples of fine architecture – madrasahs, mosques, fountains – amid the mass of dwellings. The hand of the past still makes an imprint on the daily life of the community.

Founded in 808 A.D. (192 of the Hegira) by Idris II, Fez grew up at the crossroads of communication joining the Mediterranean to black Africa and the eastern Maghreb to the Atlantic. In the ninth century the Andalusians expelled from Cordoba by the Ummayads settled on the right bank of wadi Fez, and migrants from Kairouan in Tunisia made their homes on the left bank. Fez-el-Bali came into being as a result of the union of the two communities in 1069.

Qarawiyin university, the world’s oldest, was founded in Fez in 859 by a woman, Fatima el Fihri al Kairouani. Celebrated madrasahs (Qur’anic schools) developed around it at the time of the Marinids, the Berber dynasty which established its rule over Morocco during the thirteenth-fifteenth centuries. The city’s intellectual, artistic and religious influence soon reached beyond North Africa. Students came from all over the country, but also from the Orient, Africa and Spain to work under illustrious teachers. Among those who studied in Fez were the historian Ibn Khaldun, the mathematician Ibn Al-Yasamin, the physician Ibn Rushd (Averroes), and many linguists.

An ambitious scheme

A centre of Islam, the city was flourishing economically by the end of the thirteenth century. The Marinids made it their capital and ordered Fez-el-Jedid, the white city, to be built to the west of Fez-el-Bali, the historic city. In the following centuries, the new city continued to expand and welcomed an influx of new inhabitants, mainly of rural origin.

Under the French protectorate (1912-1956), the medina was neglected and priority was given to developing a modern city. In 1980 it was the home of over 60 per cent of the city’s population and their economic activities. But road access was inadequate, and the district was slowly going downhill. With its 143 mosques, seven madrasahs and 64 monumental fountains, Fez was a threatened masterpiece.

Then UNESCO placed Fez on the World Heritage List. After five years’ study, Morocco and UNESCO finalized plans for complete rehabilitation of the old city, including its monuments, dwellings, urban amenities (roads, drainage, lighting, etc.) and economic life. The project really took off in 1989. After a general feasibility study, the Moroccan state set up Ader-Fes, a body responsible for carrying out and co-ordinating the rescue programmes. Around fifty monuments – the oldest and most significant from a historical or architectural viewpoint – are involved. The estimated total cost of rehabilitation is around $600 million and the first restoration work is being done step by step, as donor commitments are received.

Ader-Fes is using the best local craftsmen, the maalem, keepers of the city’s traditional skills, to reconstitute the original architecture of the buildings using time-honoured techniques. It is also setting up a training institute in traditional building crafts and a rehabilitation and restoration laboratory. On the ground the work is proceeding slowly, however. The streets of the medina are so narrow that all the materials have to be brought in by donkeys. The general need for protracted and meticulous work is well illustrated by the case of Mesbahiya madrasah, of which only a few terraces and ceilings and a handful of decorative elements have survived. The foundations of the madrasah have now been stabilized and the next step is to reconstitute the architectural details in all their refinement.

A pragmatic approach

The cultural context also plays an important role in the success of this gigantic enterprise. “People here do not venerate art for art’s sake”, says Abdellatif el Hajjami, director-general of Ader-Fes. “They attach more importance to a hammam than to a monument. If restoration is to be accepted, a new social function must be found for the monuments.” This approach lies behind the renovation of the Najjarin funduk (which housed a livestock market in the eighteenth century) and the nearby carpenters’ souk which has been transformed into a woodwork museum and will house a library for specialists and a restoration laboratory.

Restoration of the Observatory Tower of the great Qarawiyin mosque, built in 1348 and destroyed by fire a few decades ago, is being carried out in the same spirit. When the work is finished it will house an astrolabe museum. Bou Inaniya madrasah, which was built in 1356 by the Marinid Sultan Abou Inan, is also being renovated. A building of outstanding decorative refinement, Bou Inaniya is a place of living memory (it is still a Friday mosque). It contains the world’s oldest hydraulic clock.

One of the most recent safeguard operations has focused on Dar Adyel palace, built in seventeenth-eighteenth century style. This sumptuous dwelling is far more spacious than other contemporary buildings of its kind and has original architectural features. It belonged to the Governor of Fez in the seventeenth century and later became the property of leading citizens of Fez. When its structure has been consolidated, its decorative elements of carved or incised plasterwork, its woodwork and small coloured tiles known as zellij will have to be reconstituted. When restoration is complete, Dar Adyel palace will, as in the past, be the home of a conservatory of Andalusian music.

In all, a dozen historical monuments are currently being rehabilitated, but equally critical work is also being done on housing, mains, and roads. The success of repairs to the drainage system will largely hinge on the transfer of the most polluting activities – tanneries, oilworks, copperware factories – to Ain Nokbi, a new craftsmen’s district outside the medina which is equipped to handle their wastes.

Before rehabilitation work began, the medina had an overpopulation problem caused by demographic growth and an influx of population from the countryside. Deserted by the better-off, the old city was caught in a downward spiral of poverty. There were growing deficiencies in the public services. This situation has now been halted.

Emergency measures have been taken on over 200 buildings that were on the verge of collapse. Ader-Fes also intends to renovate a number of dwellings of historic value (there are over 10,000 of these in the medina out of a total 13,385 buildings) with help from the municipality and the people concerned. It has carried out a massive computerized survey in which the address, architectural type, cultural value, number of households and physical condition of each building is recorded.

The thorny problem of roads and streets remains to be solved. There was some support for a plan for a road through the medina, but the proposal had a hostile reception internationally. Today the idea is to make two or three inroads, each a few hundred metres long, so that the old city will become more accessible to emergency services and its business premises will be less isolated. Although rehabilitation operations are still far from complete, the medina has already recovered some of its unique radiance and charm.

COPYRIGHT 1996 UNESCO

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning