The most ancient of the Imperial Capitals, and the most complete medieval city of the Arab world, FES is a place that stimulates your senses, with haunting and beautiful sounds, infinite visual details and unfiltered odours. More than any other city in Morocco, it seems to exist suspended in time somewhere between the Middle Ages and the modern world. As with other Moroccan Cities, it has a French-built Ville Nouvelle-familiar and modern in appearance and urban life -but some 200,000 of Fes's half-million inhabitants continue to live in the extraordinary medina-city of Fes El Bali - which owes little to the West besides its electricity and its tourists.
As a spectacle, this is unmissable, and it's difficult to imagine a city whose external forms (all you can really hope to penetrate) could be so constant a source of interest. But stay in Fes a few days and it's equally hard to avoid the paradox of the place. Like much of "traditional" Morocco, the city was "saved" and then re-created by the french -under the auspices of General lyautey, the Protectorate's first Resident-General. Lyautey took the philanthropic and startling move of declaring the city a historical monument; philanthropic because he was certainly saving Fes El bali from destruction (albeit from less benevolent Frenchmen), and startling because until then many Moroccans were under the impression that Fes was still a living city - the Imperial Capital of the Moroccan empire rather than a preservable part of the nation's heritage. In fact, this paternalistic protection conveniently helped to disguise the dismantling of the old culture. By building a new European city nearby -the Ville Nouvelle -and then transferring Fes's economic and political functions to Rabat and the west coast, lyautey ensured the city's eclipse along with its preservation.
to appreciate the significance of this demise, you only have to look at the Arab chronicles or old histories of Morocco, every one of which takes Fes as its central focus. The city had dominated Moroccan trade, culture and religious life -and usually its politics, too -since the end of the tenth century. It was closely and symbolically linked with the birth of an "Arabic" Moroccan state due to their mutual foundation by Moulay Idriss I, and was regarded, after Mecca and Medina, as one of the holiest cities of the Islamic world. Medieval European travellers wrote of it with a mixture awe and respect -as a "citadel of fanaticism" and yet the most advanced seat of learning in mathematics, philosophy and medicine.
The decline of the city notwithstanding, Fassis - the people of Fes -have a reputation throughout Morocco a successful and sophisticated. Just as the city is situated at the centre of the country, so are its inhabitants placed at the heart of government,and most government ministries are headed by Fassis. what is undeniable is that they have the most developed Moroccan city culture, with an intellectual tradition,and their own cuisine (sadly not at its best in the modern city restaurants), dress and way of life.
the development of Fes
when the city's founder, Moulay Idriss I, died in 792, Fes was little more than a village on the east bank of the river. It was his son, Idriss II, who really began the city's development, at the beginning of the ninth century, by making it his capital and allowing in refugees from Andalucian Cordoba and from Kairouan in Tunisia -at the time, the two most important cities of western Islam. The impact on Fes of these refugees was immediate and lasting: they established separate, walled towns (still distinct quarters today) on either riverbank, and provided the superior craftsmanship and mercantile experience for Fes's industrial and commercial growth. It was at this time, too, that the city gained its intellectual reputation. The tenth-century Pope Silvester II studied here at the Kairouine University, and from this source he is said to have introduced Arabic mathematics to Europe.
the seat of government - and impetus of patronage - shifted south to Marrakesh under the Berber dynasties of the Almoravides (1068-1145) and Almohads (1145-1250). But with the conquest of Fes by the Merenids in 1248, and their subsequent consolidation of power across Morocco, the city regained its pre-eminence and moved into something of a "golden age", Alongside the old Medina, the Merenids built a massive royal city - Fes El Djedid, literally "Fes the New" - which reflected both the wealth and confidence of their rule. They enlarged and decorated the Kairaouine mosque, added a network of fondouks (inns) for the burgeoning commercial activity, and greatly developed the Kairaouine university - building the series of magnificent medersas, or colleges, to accommodate its students. Once again this expansion was based on an influx of refugees, this time from the Spanish reconquest of Andalucia, and it helped to establish the city's reputation as "the Baghdad of the West".
it is essentially Merenid Fes which you witness today in the form of the city and its monuments. From the fall of the dynasty in the mid-sixteenth century, there was decline as both Fes and Morocco itself became isolated from the main currents of Western culture. The new rulers - the saadians -in any case preferred Marrakesh, and although Fes re-emerged as the capital under the Alaouites, it had begun to lose its international stature. Moulay Ismail, whose hatred of the Fassis was legendary, almost managed to tax the city out of existence, and the principal building concerns of his successors lay in restoring and enlarging the vast domains of the royal palace.
Under French colonial rule , there were positive achievements in the preservation of the old city and relative prosperity of the Ville Nouvelle, but little actual progress. As a thoroughly conservative and bourgeois