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Fes is the medieval capital of Morocco, and represents a learned and glorious period in Islamic civilization. Fes has the best-preserved old city in the Arab world, the sprawling, labyrinthine medina of Fes el-Bali, which is also claimed to be the world’s largest contiguous car-free urban area. It is the second largest city of Morocco, with a population of approximately 1 million.
The ancient medina of Fes el-Bali is a celebrated UNESCO World Heritage Site. The University of Al-Karaouine, founded in 859 C.E., is the oldest continuously functioning university in the world, and can be found within its ancient walls. The city has been called the “Mecca of the West” and the “Athens of Africa”. Fes is one of Morocco’s four “imperial cities,” the others being Rabat, Marrakech and Meknès.
The city is divided into three sections, Fes el-Bali [the old, walled city], Fes-Jdid [new Fes] and the Ville Nouvelle [the French-created, newest section of the city]‘ which is now a commercial center. While we sometimes see the name of the city spelled “Fez” one local explained to me that “Fes” is the city and “Fez” is the hat – and that these two should not be confused.
There were many highlights of my stay, but the standout was the old medina of Fes el-Bali. A local [and I was happy to see] female tour guide explained to me that local guides must study the labyrinth of streets within the medina, which number in the thousands, for a month before they are prepared to guide tours. A short cab ride to a newer part of town, referred to as “Centre Ville” brings you to more modern buildings and such, that is if you have found your way out of the streets of the medina.
The people of the city were all quite nice, and while some spoke English, if you have no Arabic language skills then French is a must. It is, as I found, easy to communicate in French only, with a few Arabic words thrown in here and there.
أراك في مابعد