Travel in Time to Old Fez

By Ross Collins

(Originally published in the Fargo-Moorhead Forum, October 2000)

Time travel must be impossible. Otherwise, physicist Stephen Hawking observed, we'd be constantly plagued by annoying tourists from the future.

You can come close to time travel, however, by visiting Old Fez, Morocco. The medina (old city) was one of the world's great centers of culture at the turn of the last millennium. Apparently the Fassis (residents of Fez) saw little reason to change. Given the compromise of electricity, plumbing and the stray cell phone, this Islamic city of 250,000 people within 9,400 wizened streets on 600 acres owes little to Western invention. The medieval cityscape is basically unchanged since its golden age under the Merenid dynasty. That was nearly eight hundred years ago.

Burrowing through the labyrinth of Fez el-Bali (Old Fez) leaves a tourist with the peculiar sense that, indeed, this must be how a time-traveler from the future might feel. Fez is perhaps the most extensive and best-preserved medieval city in the Islamic world--and nothing really compares in the Western world. Stony narrow cartways teem with humanity, urchins clambering underfoot to ancients hawking from raggy heaps. Sellers squeeze through the throng pulling tired donkeys laden with spices, fruit, or live sheep, pressing you against crumbling walls. Crafts people working in bronze, leather, pottery, bone, wool and wood cram into shops no larger than six feet wide, and deep, spinning yarn around a big toe, banging metal into brass trays of astounding intricacy. Young apprentices buzz about the masters with tools and mint tea. A swarm of adolescent boys tag you: "Hallo! You must need guide in Fez. I you help. This way best places to see. No, this way!" You succeed in putting them off only by using your most insistent French, "Non, Merci. No! Va t'en!" (No, thank you. No! Scram!)

We turn into an inky side street, stabs of sunlight filtering through a twisting of timbers holding up centuries-old fondouks (merchant inns). At the top of the street woodsmoke oozes from a brazier on the cobblestone. Several men have dragged out an old bedspring atop burning splinters from perhaps an old door. On the grill roast four blackened sheep heads, teeth gleaming like Voodoo dolls. Behind them grinning children swing glistening strands of sheep intestines. We recall: today is Aïd al-adha, great feast of sacrifice throughout the Islamic world.

A bit queasy, we wait as the muezzin drones his call to prayer from a loudspeaker attached to a minaret. Then we wiggle into a busy café for a tiny cup of strong sweet coffee. Across the square troops a small gaggle of tourists, probably Dutch, clinging to their guide. A pungent smell of coffee combined with grill smoke and probably animal dung chases past with two men pushing at a cart of two bleating sheep.

Perhaps lost, we pay the café proprietor's kid (or maybe employee) a few dirham to guide us back to Bab Bou Jeloud, the main entrance to the walled city.

Note in travel journal: Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Fargo anymore.

Fez is certainly the one city you don't miss on a trip to the Kingdom of Morocco, and for some is the only reason to visit that country. Western learning owes much to the ancient medersas (schools) of Fes el-Bali. Medieval chroniclers paying a visit to the great outpost of Muslim learning and culture found words failed to portray its indescribable street life--just as words do today. From this great city Fassis scholars introduced astronomy and medicine to the West, translated Plato and Aristotle. Crafts people produced some of Europe's most intricate and beautiful art. For centuries Fez defined civilization and ruled Morocco. Today it still rules the country spiritually if not politically, as it plays out an incredible human drama of life as it must have been many hundreds of years ago.

Most tourists to Fez arrive by train to the new city, and stay in a hotel there. New Fez was built this century under auspices of the French protectorate. With its wide avenues and treesy boulevards it feels French, so offers a good respite from a hot afternoon in the medina. Even today, while no one here seems to think particularly well of the French, that language is most common after Arabic. Americans receive the friendly welcome you'd expect, not only after the Islamic custom of hospitality, but also because Morocco is one of this country's oldest allies. Things to see in Fez include the great mosques and medersas, palaces and dazzling decoration in wood or tile called zellij. But you won't find most of them in Old Fez without a guide. Hire an official one at your hotel, or don't worry. They'll find you. And usually lead you first to the souks (markets) where they make a cut from sales.

But what a wonderful place to shop! We found Fez to be a mecca for brass, wood, pottery and leather crafts. In spite of it being the center of Moroccan craftsmanship, however, its prices tend to be higher than those of surrounding areas, so don't feel pressured to buy (though you will). Hand-knotted carpets are of reasonably good quality, but pricey. Kilims can be a good bargain. Wander around the medina for the best price--some shops sell for three and four times as much as others, and refuse to haggle with tourists.

You might think that such wandering will leave you dangerously lost. Persistent touts whose assistance you refuse encourage this concern, sometimes (especially after you tell them to scram) muttering darkly that "bad things will happen to you on your own...." Considering how the city assaults the senses and intimidates the sensitivities of Westerners, you're normal to worry. But actual crime against foreigners is reportedly low--even pickpocketing, in a city where you're constantly jostled by throngs. We found the tiny side streets usually led back to a main, 12-foot wide thoroughfare sooner or later, and those led up the hill and to a Bab (gate). Where, inevitably, taxis would be waiting.


If you go...

U.S. Citizens need no visas to visit Morocco. The country is easy enough to manage on your own without joining a formal tour. Some knowledge of French will enable you to communicate with nearly everyone in Fez, and in north Morocco generally.

Prices are usually cheap, unless you insist on Western standards, in which case you pay Western prices. Haggling is usually expected. Moroccan food is interesting and well-prepared, but eating is a challenge if you're vegetarian. Observe the usual precautions about water, although you may expect a bout of "El Tourista" regardless. Women who travel alone will probably get intolerably harassed, as is common in Islamic countries. Dress conservatively. Though actual crime against tourists traditionally has been low, according to United States consular directives (, scams, assault and pickpocketing is apparently a growing concern.

Moroccan tourist offices in the United States: Suite 1201, 20 East 46th St., New York, NY 10017; tel 212-557-2520; on the web try the government's site for starters,

Copyright 2004 by Ross F. Collins <>