Visiting Fez

Fascinating Fez – Part 2

In addition to those sights mentioned in my first post on Fez, Morocco here are a few others. We enjoyed getting a feel for “real” life in Fez.

Tanneries. One of the highlights of a visit to Fez is a visit to the tanneries. These tanneries are world famous and a real sight to behold. They were the commercial backbone of Fez for hundreds of years. The process hasn’t changed much in all that time, although more sophisticated chemical treatments are used more frequently now rather than the natural dyes used in the past. The workers pass down their knowledge and skills from one generation to the next.

An overlook of Chouwara Tanneries. The white vats in the foreground contain pigeon dung, used to clean the skins.

An overlook of Chouwara Tanneries. The white vats in the foreground contain pigeon dung, used to clean the skins.

If you want to gain a new appreciation for your own job, just observe the workers here for awhile. Although fun to watch, I can’t imagine what life would be like standing in these vats day after day breathing in the strong odors and working in these conditions for a lifetime.

The large Chouwara tannery is located on the southern side of the Medina and while there aren’t signs pointing the way, just ask anyone for directions. There are several viewing areas located above leather goods shops. The proprietors will provide you with mint leaves to alleviate the smells.

A closer look at the Chouwara Tanneries. The workers are constantly moving from vat to vat to keep the skins moving through the process.

A closer look at the Chouwara Tanneries. The workers are constantly moving from vat to vat to keep the skins moving through the process.

Once you have observed the tanning process and workers, you then exit through the huge shops where can buy high quality leather jackets, purses and other leather goods for a pretty reasonable price. Surprisingly, there was no pressure to buy anything. My guess is that with the volume of tourists coming here, the shops do a pretty good business.

We happened by chance upon the Gueliz tannery located in the heart of the Medina. Our book seemed to downplay a visit here but Gueliz was actually a lot of fun and a more intimate experience, since you can walk through the middle of the tanning “factory” and among the workers treating the hides.

The recently skinned sheep hides await the first step in the processing.

The recently skinned sheep hides await the first step in the processing.

A worker in the vats at Gueliz tannery. I am really glad I don't have his job!

A worker in the vats at Gueliz tannery. I am really glad I don’t have his job!

Colored sheep hides laying out to dry. These will be made into shoes, purses and other goods.

Colored sheep hides laying out to dry. These will be made into shoes, purses and other goods.

A worker doing some final processing of the leather before it turns into a product for sale.

A worker doing some final processing of the leather before it turns into a product for sale.

At this tannery there was a Berber side and an Arab side, an arrangement probably dating back among these ethnic groups hundreds of years. We met some Berber families who accompanied their husbands to Fez to work here and were staying at a “hotel” (if you can use that word to describe the living quarters).

The Berber

The Berber “hotel” where families of the tannery’s workers are housed.

Craft shops. On a hillside right behind and above the Gueliz tannery was a craft shop area. When we first entered, we thought it was a slum community and what we found in reality was a beehive of industry – wool, leather, woodworking, and many other crafts. People were everywhere producing and refurbishing many goods.

The craft shops area in Fez.

The craft shops area in Fez.

In the craft shop area - wool, wool everywhere!

In the craft shop area – wool, wool everywhere!

The Jewish Quarter (Mellah). This is an old part of Fez that doesn’t have any sights per se but was fun to wander around, seeing all the old decrepit buildings and signs of a thriving Jewish community.

A view of a main street in the Jewish Quarter, known as Mellah (

A view of a main street in the Jewish Quarter, known as Mellah (“salt” in Arabic).

Fez had a pretty good size Jewish community in the 17th – 19th centuries and there are remnants from this era – some unique architecture, a few Hebrew signs, Stars of David, synagogues and cemetery.

A sign noting this building is a 17th century synagogue.

A sign noting this building is a 17th century synagogue.

Look closely at the decorations on the 2nd story and you'll see a Star of David, and note the year - 1531.

Look closely at the decorations on the 2nd story and you’ll see a Star of David, and note the year – 1531.

It is now an area inhabited by poor Muslim immigrants from the countryside.

Shuttered windows in the Jewish Quarter, which are unique features of this area.

Shuttered windows in the Jewish Quarter, which are unique features of this area.

There are still a few Jewish families here, although most emigrated to Casablanca, France or Israel after Morocco gained its independence from France in 1956.

We had a great hotel in Fez, called Dar Dalila. It was in the Medina, but in a quiet section near the exterior Medina wall. The interior was beautiful and our room was large and comfortable. I highly recommend this location. Nearby was a covered car park since a car is pretty much useless in the Medina.

The reception room in Dar Dalila.

The reception room in Dar Dalila.

Our room in Dar Dalila.

Our room in Dar Dalila.

Fez is definitely one of the highlights of a visit to Morocco and one of the most unique and fascinating places to visit in the world.

Reference: The Rough Guide to Morocco.

Fascinating Fez – Part 1

There’s so much to see in Fez I’m breaking this post into two parts. We arrived in Fez from Meknes (about 43 miles or 69 km). Fez was one of four imperial capitals of Morocco and was regarded as one of the holiest cities in the Islamic world due to its connection with Moulay Idriss who founded the city the late 8th century (see my post here for a little information on him). Travelers have been coming to Fez for a 1,000 years, its reputation as a center of learning religious heritage was known far and wide. Fez is a large city, and like most Moroccan cities it has a newer part (Ville Nouvelle) built by the French during their colonization period and an older section (the walled portion of the old city known as the Medina), which is huge, and is split into two parts (Fez el Bali and Fez el Jedid). Fez’s Medina is called the most complete medieval city in the Arab world. The streets and narrow alleyways wind all over and are intriguing to wander – don’t be surprised if you get a bit lost.

An centuries-old water clock in Fez. It has 12 windows and the outside is being restored, but no one really knows how it functioned.

An centuries-old water clock in Fez. It has 12 windows and the outside is being restored, but no one really knows how it functioned.

There are maps of the Medina available and the locals will help you out too. All kinds of fun things lurk behind almost every corner. We wandered into a small tannery area by accident (I was just peeking through a gate) and got a fascinating tour.

A hidden leather working area near a small tannery run by Berbers in old Fez.

A hidden leather working area near a small tannery run by Berbers in old Fez.

At another point we were taken up on top of a person’s house for a great view over the city.

A view of Moulay Idriss II's tomb from the roof top of a local's home we visited.

A view of Moulay Idriss II’s tomb from the roof top of a local’s home we visited.

The entrance to the tomb of Moulay Idriss II, a holy site in Islamic culture. He was the son of the founder of Fez and lived in the 9th century. He established Fez as a place of refuge for muslims retreating from Spain and other places.

The entrance to the tomb of Moulay Idriss II, a holy site in Islamic culture. He was the son of the founder of Fez and lived in the 9th century. He established Fez as a place of refuge for muslims retreating from Spain and other places.

Here as some of the highlights of Fez (more to come in another post). Walls and Gates. If you love medieval settings as much as I do, Fez will take you back in time. There are huge gates and walls everywhere and I didn’t figure out how they all connect. We wandered outside the walls in a few sections to get a feel for their extensiveness.

One of the main gate towers of Fez, known as Bab Sagma.

One of the main gate towers of Fez, known as Bab Sagma.

The gate known as Bab Boujeloud.

The gate known as Bab Boujeloud.

A market by the walls of Fez.

A market by the walls of Fez.

Merenid Tombs. Just outside the walled city on a hillside are the ruins of the Merenid tombs, former rulers of Fez in the 13th century. While the ruins aren’t much, the views overlooking the old city are terrific. There are 365 mosque minarets in Fez, but we didn’t try to count them.

A view of Fez and its old walls from the Merenid Tombs.

A view of Fez and its old walls from the Merenid Tombs.

Ruins of the Merenid Tombs.

Ruins of the Merenid Tombs.

Medersas. Medersa means “place of study”. These were student colleges and used largely as residence halls, since most teaching would be done in the mosques. Fez was a great center of learning and the architecture of these halls is stunning. We visited two. The layout is similar – a main courtyard, student cells, prayer hall and oratory. Medersa Bou Inania. This is one of the highlights of a visit to Fez. The dark cedar wood, tile work and stucco is beautiful. This building is the city’s only building still in religious use that non-muslims are permitted to enter. It was built in the 14th century.

Detail of the intricate carvings at Medersa Bou Inania.

Detail of the intricate carvings at Medersa Bou Inania.

A view of the courtyard of Medersa Bou Inania.

A view of the courtyard of Medersa Bou Inania.

Medersa el Attarine. This building was completed in 1325 and is also beautiful.

The courtyard of Medersa el Attarine.

The courtyard of Medersa el Attarine.

Another view of the courtyard of Medersa el Attarine showing the tile work.

Another view of the courtyard of Medersa el Attarine showing the tile work.

The narrow alleys of the Medina. As mentioned above, just wandering around the old Medina is fun. There are also a few squares where the locals gather.

The buildings are almost touching in this narrow Fez Medina alleyway.

The buildings are almost touching in this narrow Fez Medina alleyway.

Another alleyway in the Medina.

Another alleyway in the Medina.

A small square in the old Medina - Place en Nejjarine. There is a large museum in the background.

A small square in the old Medina – Place en Nejjarine. There is a large museum in the background.

Another small square, called Place Seffarine with copper pottery being created.

Another small square, called Place Seffarine with copper pottery being created.

In my next post, we’ll explore the tanneries – one of the most interesting sights to behold anywhere in Morocco and also the Jewish Quarter, a dilapidated part of Fez that is pretty much off the tourist radar. For a map of locations visited in Morocco, click here.