The Architecture of Fes

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Just off the street, in the madrasa Bou Inania, a Fassi rests his feet

After viewing the Islamic Architecture post in Bravo, the other side of the mountains, I thought I would put up a few pictures of my own. I have pictures of mosques and madrasas from many places in Spain, the Maghreb, Turkey, Iran, and even some sub-Saharan places.

I thought at first of a single post, but I have too many pictures, so I have chosen to start with some monuments in Fes. I worked in Fes, and lived close by in Sefrou, so I had ample opportunity to visit the medina. My first visit to Fes was in the winter of 1968, nearly 50 years ago. Please forgive all the underexposed Kodachrome. This was long before digital photography, and the film had an ISO of 50, so the darker places of the medina were difficult to photograph.

Fes is a bit overwhelming at first. The medina seems to be a maze or labyrinth, but if you stay on a main street and follow it down, you will eventually reach the center, no matter where you start. Getting back out can be more of a problem. On the side of the city, outside the walls, are the Merinid Tombs.

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From the Merinid Tombs one has a vast panorama that stretches far to the south.
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In the foreground is a cemetery and parts of the old city wall. In the distance in the right corner, mountains hide Sefrou

Tourists often start at the Bab Boujloud.

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Bab Boujloud is one of the major gates in the wall of the medina.

The madrasas of Fes are small gems of local architecture. As with most Islamic Architecture, it is a geometric and highly stylized decoration.

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Typical mosaic

Atlas cedar is the only strong wood widely available in Morocco, and its use, because of its structural properties, requires heavy beams. The madrasas feature it, both in framing and in details such as windows and screens.

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Kids meeting to talk
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Roofs of religious buildings are usually sloped, and covered with green tile.

Courtyards were marble. Walls were made of carved plaster and tiles.

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Abulutions before prayer in the Bou Inania madrasa
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Carved plaster medallion

The madrasas both date from the age of the Merinids, a dynasty that gave its name to the famous Spanish sheep. They made Fes their capital and the 14th century was a golden age for Fes. But the dynasty did not last long.

Ibn Khaldun was a contemporary of Abu Inan, and lived at intervals in Fes. His work, the Muqaddimah is often considered the first true historical or sociological treatise. In it he asks why dynasties rise and fall in an age when contemporary historians contented themselves with lists of rulers and events.

Should you like to know more about the city of Fes, read Fes in the Age of the Marinids, by Roger LeTourneau. Sjoberg used it as an archetypical medieval city in his book, The Preindustrial City. While Fes’s madrasas date from the 14th century, Fes’s two great mosques date from earlier times, but are not nearly as interesting, though the Qarawiyyin boasts one of the oldest universities in the world.

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One entrance of the Qarawiyyin
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The Andalusian Mosque

The Bou Inania is the larger of the madrasas, and was one of only a very few religious buildings in use that nonbelievers were allowed to enter, though that general rule does not always apply to sanctuaries of saints.

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Bejgha outside the prayer hall.
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Prayer in the courtyard
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Prayer in the attached mosque

Saints in Morocco were a class of people, usually men, who during their lives were known for piety, and who accumulated baraka, a holiness that could be transmitted and carry beneficial effects. The king, whose dynasty claims descent from the family of the prophet Muhammed, also is thought by many to have baraka. Saint worship is everywhere. I plan a post about it as I attended many moussems in northern Morocco.

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Qarawiyyin Mosque

More sophisticated and conservative religious scholars do not think saint worship has a place in true Islam. In Saudi Arabia, among the people I met, there were two views of Moroccans. One was that they practiced black magic, and two, they were so French that they could not speak Arabic correctly. Of course, the Moroccans have their own sometimes pejorative views of the Saudis, and many deplore the folk religion of their own country. On the other hand, superstitions die hard and it is always better to be careful than to be sorry. I am not a Muslim, but I learned not to pour hot water into a drain, lest the jinn who lived there be offended, and still am careful about this at home in America!

The Bou Inania was a religious school, and the rooms around the courtyard on the first floor were sleeping quarters for students. They are no longer used for this, but the madrasa has a mosque that is in use. You may think of a mosque as simply a place of prayer, but the mosque also serves as a quiet refuge from the noise and bustle of the city, a place to rest one’s feet, talk with friends, or even catch a nap in the sun on cold winter days. I tried to capture this in my photography.

Both madrasas were in need of repair and rehabilitation and hopefully they are in better shape today.

 

The Attarine madrasa is named, I think, because of its location near the perfume suq. It is the smaller of Fes’s madrasas, but shares the same architectural features as the Bou Inania.

Attarine Madrasa. Fes.

There is no prayer hall, as the madrasa is located close to the Qarawiyyin Mosque so perhaps one was not needed.

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Artisan carving plaster at el Attarin madrasa

If you would like to know more about Fes in the medieval period, you may also want to read the historical novel, Leo Africanus. Written in French by the Lebanese novelist, Amin Maalouf, there is a good English language translation. Our local book club read it a few years back.

Leo Africanus was a Muslim captured by Spanish pirates and enslaved. He was presented as a gift to the Pope, converted to Christianity, and while in Rome wrote an important work of geography, Description of Africa. The fictional rendition of his life takes him from his native Granada to Fes, and describes his everyday life there as well as his adventures elsewhere. It takes place late in Merinid times.

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Qarawiyyin Mosque, summer

Author: Dave

Retired. Formerly school librarian, social studies teacher, and urban planner.

4 thoughts on “The Architecture of Fes”

  1. Beautiful photos of beautiful architecture and a fascinating read. The first Maranid tomb in the photo almost looks as if it is floating in the air…do you know if it is still standing? I have only ever been to Marrakech but would love to visit Fes someday. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. What a great question! I searched Wikipedia and a few more websites and their images and could not find a picture of that domed tomb, that had, if I remember correctly, had three legs or feet or whatever. It may have fallen down. The Merind tombs seem to be treated like other cemetery tombs, and no special efforts have been made to preserve them. They are not part of the heritage of the ruling dynasty, nor grand enough to be primary tourist sites like the Saadian tombs in Marrakech. It is sad because there are not that many Merinid sites. I put up these old slides, forgetting that I left Morocco 40 years ago. Few things last forever. More on the Merinids in a future post.

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