Fes: Where History Meets Spirituality

Fes: Where History Meets Spirituality

Fes, or Fez, is one of the oldest and most fascinating cities in Morocco. It is often called the spiritual heart of the country, as it has been a center of learning, culture, and religion for centuries. Fes is home to many historical monuments, mosques, madrasas, and souks that reflect the rich and diverse heritage of the city. In this article, we will explore some of the highlights of Fes, especially the ancient medina of Fes el-Bali, the stunning Bou Inania Madrasa, and the spiritual significance of Fes for Morocco and the world.

Fes el-Bali: The Old City

Fes el-Bali, or the Old City, is the oldest and most authentic part of Fes. It was founded in the 8th century by the Idrisid dynasty, the first Islamic rulers of Morocco. Fes el-Bali is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the largest and best-preserved medieval cities in the world. It is also one of the most densely populated urban areas in the world, with over 150,000 inhabitants living in an area of about 2.8 square kilometers.

Fes el-Bali is a labyrinth of narrow streets, alleys, and dead ends that can be confusing and overwhelming for visitors. However, it is also a treasure trove of architectural and artistic wonders that showcase the craftsmanship and creativity of Moroccan artisans. Some of the most notable attractions in Fes el-Bali include:

  • The Qarawiyyin Mosque and University: This is one of the oldest and most prestigious religious institutions in Morocco and the Islamic world. It was founded in 859 by Fatima al-Fihri, a wealthy woman who donated her inheritance to build a mosque and a school. The Qarawiyyin Mosque is a masterpiece of Moroccan architecture, with a spacious courtyard, a magnificent minaret, and a richly decorated prayer hall. The Qarawiyyin University is considered to be the oldest continuously operating university in the world by UNESCO and Guinness World Records. It has produced many famous scholars, such as Ibn Khaldun, Maimonides, and Leo Africanus.
  • The Bou Inania Madrasa: This is one of the most beautiful and impressive madrasas in Morocco. A madrasa is a school that teaches Islamic law and theology. The Bou Inania Madrasa was built in 1350-1355 by Sultan Abu Inan Faris, who wanted to create a monument that would rival his predecessors’ achievements. The Bou Inania Madrasa is unique in Morocco because it also functions as a congregational mosque, where the Friday sermon is delivered. The madrasa is adorned with exquisite woodcarving, stucco work, tile work, and calligraphy that display the finest examples of Marinid art.
  • The Tanneries: One of the most iconic sights in Fes el-Bali is the tanneries, where leather is processed using traditional methods that date back to medieval times. The tanneries are located near the banks of the Oued Fes (Fes River), where animal skins are soaked, cleaned, dyed, and dried in large vats filled with natural substances such as lime, salt, pigeon droppings, and plant extracts. The tanneries produce a variety of leather goods that are sold in the nearby souks or markets. The tanneries are also a source of income for many families who work there as tanners or leather workers.
  • The Souks: Fes el-Bali is famous for its souks or markets that sell everything from spices and textiles to pottery and jewelry. The souks are divided into different sections according to the type of product or craft that they specialize in. For example, there is the Souk el-Attarine (Perfume Market), where one can find fragrant oils, incense, and cosmetics; the Souk el-Henna (Henna Market), where one can buy henna paste for body art or hair dye; and the Souk Seffarine (Copper Market), where one can see copper smiths hammering and shaping metal into pots, trays, lamps, and other items. The souks are also a place where one can experience the vibrant culture and atmosphere of Fes el-Bali, with its sounds, smells, colors, and people.

Bou Inania Madrasa: A Jewel of Marinid Architecture

As mentioned earlier, the Bou Inania Madrasa is one of the most remarkable monuments in Fes el-Bali. It was built by Sultan Abu Inan Faris as part of his ambitious plan to embellish Fes with grandiose buildings that would reflect his power and glory. He named it after himself (Bou Inania means “belonging to Inan”), but it is also known as Madrasa al-Muttawakkiliya (the Madrasa of al-Mutawakkil), after his regnal title.

The Bou Inania Madrasa is a complex that consists of a mosque, a school, a library, a dormitory, and a fountain. It covers an area of about 3,000 square meters and has two main entrances: one on the east side facing the Talaa Kebira street, and one on the west side facing the R’cif square. The east entrance is more elaborate and ornate, with a horseshoe arch decorated with carved wood, stucco, and tile work. Above the arch is a large window with a wooden lattice that allows light and air to enter the madrasa. The west entrance is simpler and more austere, with a rectangular door and a small window.

The interior of the Bou Inania Madrasa is divided into two parts: the mosque and the school. The mosque occupies the northern part of the complex and has a rectangular courtyard surrounded by arcades. The courtyard has a marble fountain in the center for ablutions and a sundial on the wall for prayer times. The prayer hall is located on the eastern side of the courtyard and has a mihrab (niche indicating the direction of Mecca) that is richly decorated with carved wood, stucco, tile work, and calligraphy. The minbar (pulpit) is also made of carved wood and has intricate geometric patterns. The ceiling of the prayer hall is covered with cedar wood panels that have star-shaped openings for ventilation. The minaret of the mosque is one of the tallest and most visible in Fes el-Bali. It is 40 meters high and has four levels that are decorated with different motifs: plain brickwork on the first level, green tile work on the second level, white stucco work on the third level, and blue tile work on the fourth level.

The school occupies the southern part of the complex and has a smaller courtyard that is also surrounded by arcades. The courtyard has a smaller fountain in the center and a bronze basin on one side that was used for washing hands before meals. The classrooms are located on the eastern and western sides of the courtyard and have wooden benches and desks for students. The library is located on the southern side of the courtyard and has wooden shelves for books and manuscripts. The dormitory is located on the upper floor of the complex and has 16 cells for students and teachers. Each cell has a window that overlooks either the mosque or the school courtyard.

The Bou Inania Madrasa is renowned for its exquisite decoration that covers almost every surface of the complex. The decoration consists of four main elements: woodcarving, stucco work, tile work, and calligraphy. Woodcarving is used for doors, windows, ceilings, arches, columns, and furniture. The woodcarving features floral, geometric, and arabesque motifs that are finely executed and polished. Stucco work is used for walls, niches, domes, and vaults. The stucco work features intricate patterns that are molded or carved into plaster. Tile work is used for floors, walls, arches, columns, fountains, and minarets. The tile work features colorful glazed tiles that are cut into different shapes and arranged into geometric or floral designs. Calligraphy is used for inscriptions, verses, prayers, and names that are written in Arabic script. The calligraphy features different styles such as Kufic, Maghrebi, Thuluth, Naskh, and Muhaqqaq.

The decoration of the Bou Inania Madrasa reflects not only the artistic skill and aesthetic taste of its builders but also their religious devotion and spiritual vision. The decoration expresses the Islamic belief in tawhid (the unity of God), as it uses geometric forms that symbolize harmony, order, balance, and infinity. The decoration also expresses the Islamic belief in shahada (the testimony of faith), as it uses verses from the Quran and other sacred texts that affirm God’s existence, power, mercy, and guidance. The decoration also expresses the Islamic belief in salat (the ritual prayer), as it uses sundials, mihrabs, minbars, and minarets that indicate time and direction for worship. The decoration also expresses the Islamic belief in zakat (the almsgiving), as it uses fountains, basins, benches, desks, shelves, and cells that provide facilities for learning, living, and sharing.

The Spiritual Significance of Fes

The spiritual significance of Fes is related to its history, culture, and architecture as one of the oldest and most influential cities in the Islamic world. Fes was founded by the Idrisid dynasty, who brought Islam to Morocco in the 8th century. Fes became a center of learning, culture, and religion under the Almoravids, Almohads, and Marinids, who built many mosques, madrasas, and monuments that reflect the Islamic faith and art. Fes also has a strong connection to Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam, as it was the birthplace or residence of many famous Sufi saints and scholars, such as Ibn Arabi, Ibn al-Khatib, Abu Madyan, and Moulay Idris II. Fes is also known for its fez hat, which is a symbol of the womb and the universe in some esoteric interpretations.

Some of the highlights of the spiritual significance of Fes are:

  • The Qarawiyyin Mosque and University: This is one of the oldest and most prestigious religious institutions in Morocco and the Islamic world. It was founded in 859 by Fatima al-Fihri, a wealthy woman who donated her inheritance to build a mosque and a school. The Qarawiyyin Mosque is a masterpiece of Moroccan architecture, with a spacious courtyard, a magnificent minaret, and a richly decorated prayer hall. The Qarawiyyin University is considered to be the oldest continuously operating university in the world by UNESCO and Guinness World Records. It has produced many famous scholars, such as Ibn Khaldun, Maimonides, and Leo Africanus.
  • The Bou Inania Madrasa: This is one of the most beautiful and impressive madrasas in Morocco. A madrasa is a school that teaches Islamic law and theology. The Bou Inania Madrasa was built in 1350-1355 by Sultan Abu Inan Faris, who wanted to create a monument that would rival his predecessors’ achievements. The Bou Inania Madrasa is unique in Morocco because it also functions as a congregational mosque, where the Friday sermon is delivered. The madrasa is adorned with exquisite woodcarving, stucco work, tile work, and calligraphy that display the finest examples of Marinid art.
  • The Fez Hat: The fez hat is a brimless red felt hat in the shape of a truncated cone that originated in Fes in the 19th century. It was adopted by many Muslim countries as a symbol of modernity and reform. However, some also associate the fez hat with a deeper spiritual meaning. According to some sources, the fez hat represents the womb and the universe, as it has a nipple shape on top that symbolizes the navel and 360 strands on the tassel that symbolize 360 degrees of knowledge. The fez hat also represents the seen and unseen aspects of reality, as it has an inner circle that represents the spiritual side and an outer circle that represents the physical side.

Fes is a city that has a rich and diverse spiritual heritage that can be seen in its monuments, traditions, and symbols. It is a city that has influenced and inspired many generations of Muslims and non-Muslims alike with its wisdom, beauty, and spirituality.

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