Fez: City of Islam

A GEODE of amethyst, brimful of thousands of tightly packed crystals and surrounded by a silver-green rim: this was Fez, the Old City of Fez, in the twilight. As we came downhill towards it, the hollow in which it lies grew visibly larger; the countless crystals, uniform in themselves, but irregularly grown into one another, now came more clearly into view; one side of them was light, while the other side, the one facing the prevailing wind, had become darkened and weather-beaten. Between them and the silver green girdle of olive trees, the wall of the Old City with its towers could be seen. Towards the city gate now facing us-Bab al-Gissa-the small donkey caravans made their way as of old, and from out of the gate into the evening wind and towards the expanse of green, came men and children in Moroccan dress; for it was spring, and the hills round about were covered with yellow and blue flowers.

Fez_IdrisIn the heart of the city, in the lowest point of the hollow, one could make out the tent-shaped roof of green glazed files that covers the dome of the tomb -of the holy Idris, the founder of Fez; nearby was a minaret. Not far away were the equally green roofs of the old Quranic college of al-Qarawiyyin. The nearer We came to the city, the more minarets rose to Heaven, clear-cut, square, 'at-topped towers, similar to the Romanesque city towers of Italy. There must have been hundreds of them. These reveal the position of the larger mosques; even more smaller mosques are hidden from sight in the confusion of the high, grey-white and, at this moment, reddish cubes of houses. A city full of sanctuaries: the European travelers who first visited it at the beginning of the century spoke either of a 'citadel of fanaticism', or marveled at it as a place of perpetual prayer.
I asked myself whether the Old City might have inwardly changed during twenty-five years that I had been away from it. It still looked the same as before: ancient, weather-beaten, withdrawn inside its walls. Only a few groups of white houses outside in the open ground where no one had previously dared to settle, and a few miserable huts which had crept into deserted lime-pits, showed that the army of the poor had now burst outside the protection of the old walls.

Fez_City_ViewOn our left, towards the East, the hollow in which Fez lies opened up towards the plain of the river Sabu: a wide, flat valley on whose horizon a still snow-covered branch of the Middle Atlas, the Bu Iblan, soared. To the West, on a somewhat higher level, began the plain on which lie the medieval Sultan's city, Fas Jadid 'New Fez', and further away, the modem town built by the French.

The city was getting nearer, and at the same time it loomed up within my own mind, rising out of the darkness of memory, with all of its thousand faces pressing upon me questioningly; for Fez had once been familiar to me, well known and yet full of inexhaustible secrets. In it I had experienced another world and another age, a world of the Middle Ages such as perhaps now no longer existed, an austere and yet enticing world, outwardly poor but inwardly rich. It was a city that had had to yield to foreign rule and that had accepted in silence the arrival of a new order dominated by the power of machines, yet inwardly it remained true to itself; for at the time I first knew it, men who had spent their youth in an unaltered traditional world were still the heads of families. For many of them, the spirit which had once created the Mosque at Cordoba and the Alhambra at Granada was nearer and more real than all the innovations that European rule had brought with it. Since then, however, a new generation had arisen, one which from its earliest childhood must have been blinded by the glare of European might and which in large measure had attended French schools and thus henceforth bore within it the sting of an almost insuperable contradiction. For how could there be any reconciliation between the inherited traditional life which, despite all its frugalities, carried within it the treasure of an eternal meaning, and the modern European world which, as it so palpably demonstrates, is a force entirely orientated towards this world, towards possessions and enjoyments, and in every way contemptuous of the sacred? These splendid men of the now dying generation whom I had once known had indeed been conquered outwardly, but inwardly they had remained free; the younger generation, on the other hand, had won an outward victory when Morocco gained political independence some years ago, but now ran the grave risk of succumbing inwardly. It was thus not without some anxiety that I returned to the familiar city, for nothing could be more painful than the sight of a people robbed of its best inheritance, in exchange for money, haste and dissipation.

Fez_TannaryIn front of the city gate there was still the neglected cemetery with its irregular crop of graves between mule tracks and flowering thistles, where children were playing on white slabs and, here and there, men sat silently waiting for sunset and the call to prayer.

Just then the last pink glow on the towers disappeared. The sun had completely set and now only the green-gold of the sky shed a mild, non-shadow-forming light, in which everything seemed to float as if weightless and somehow glowing in itself. At that moment the long-drawn-out call to the sunset prayer rang out from the minarets. Lights appeared in the towers. But the city was silent; only a few cries, like suddenly broken-off laments, reached our ears. The wind which had suddenly arisen and which, high above us in the town, blew from mountain to valley, interrupted the sound. But the people who were waiting had heard the call. One could see both individuals and groups spread out their prayer mats and turn towards the south-east, the direction of Mecca. Others hurried through the city gate to reach a mosque, and it was with the latter that we ourselves entered the city.

Fez_MosqueWe were immediately enveloped in the half-light of the narrow streets which descended steeply from the various gates into the hollow where the great sanctuaries lie surrounded by the bazaars or commercial streets (aswaq; sing. suq). In the streets all that can be seen of the houses are the high walls, darkened with age, and almost entirely without windows. The only open doors are those of the fanadiq (sing. funduq) or caravanserais, where peasants and Bedouins visiting the town leave their steeds and beasts of burden, in open spaces surrounding a courtyard, and where, on the upper storey, they can hire a room to pass the night or store their wares. Otherwise the street is like a deep, half-dark ravine which turns unexpectedly, sometimes here, sometimes there, often covered in by bridges from one building to another and only wide enough to allow two mules to squeeze past each other. Everywhere the cry Balek! Balek! ('Take care! Take care!') rings out. Thus do the mule drivers and the porters with heavy loads on their heads make their way through the crowd. Only further down do the shops begin, where the traveler on arrival may find his necessities; there too are the saddlers, the basket-makers and the cook-shop-owners, the latter preparing hearty meals on little charcoal fires. We proceeded past them into the street of the spice-dealers (Suq al-Attarin), which runs through the entire town center, and in which one shop lies hard against the next, a row of simple plain boxes, with shuttered doors in front, just as in Europe in the Middle Ages, and with no more space than will allow the merchant to sit down amongst his piled-up wares.

Nothing stirs the memory more than smells; nothing so effectively brings back the past. Here indeed was Fez: the scent of cedar wood and fresh olives, the dry, dusty smell of heaped-up corn, the pungent smell of freshly tanned leather, and finally, in the Suq al-Attarin, the medley of all the perfumes of the Orient-for here are on sale all the spices that once were brought by merchants from India to Europe as the most precious of merchandise. And every now and again one would suddenly become aware of the sweet smell of sandalwood incense, wafted from the inside of one of the mosques.

Equally unmistakable are the sounds; I could find my way blindfold by the clatter of hooves on the steep pavings; by the monotonous cry of the beggars who squat in the dead corners of the streets; and by the silvery sound of the little bells, with which the water-carriers announce their presence when, wending their way through the suqs, they offer water to the thirsty.

Fez_Palace_DoorBut now I paid attention only to the faces, which here and there loomed up in the glimmer of the newly lit lamps; I thought perhaps to recognize an old friend or acquaintance. But I saw only the features of familiar racial types: sometimes grave and worthy figures, sometimes the sly and slightly scornful townsman, but no known face. There were also youths, dressed more or less in the European manner, with the mark of a new age on theft foreheads, and sometimes staring defiantly and inquisitively at the foreigner.

To the right of the spice market, just beside the Sepulchral Mosque of Idris II, the holy founder of Fez, there is a duster of narrow passages lined with booths. Here all kinds of clothing are on sale: colored leather shoes, ladies' dresses in silk brocade embroidered in gold and silver. Near the mosque there are also decorated liturgical candles, frankincense and perfumed oils; for perfumes belong to the sunna, the sacred Tradition, according to the saying of the Prophet Muhammad slw: 'Three things from your world have been made worthy of my love: women, perfumes, and the solace of my eyes in prayer.'

Around the Sepulchral Mosque of the holy Idris there is a narrow alley, made inaccessible to horses and mules by means of beams. This constitutes the limits of the hurm, the sacratum, within which formerly no one might be pursued. Only a short time before the French withdrawal was this rule broken for the first time-in the revolt against the French-imposed Sultan Ben Arafa.

We walked along the arabesque-decorated outer walls of the sanctuary, past the little window, covered with an iron grille, which opens on to the tomb, and reached another brightly lit street which brought us into the vicinity of the great mosque and college of al-Qarawiyyin. In the streets surrounding it the advocates and notaries have their little offices and the booksellers and bookbinders have their shops-just like their Christian colleagues of old in the shade of the great cathedrals. As we passed by, we stole a glance through several of the many doors of the mosque and gazed into the illuminated forest of pillars, from which the rhythmical chanting of Quranic suras could be heard.

Then through the district of the copper-smiths, where the hammers were already at rest and only here and there a busy craftsman still polished and examined a vessel in the light of his hanging lamp; soon we reached the bridges in the hollow of the town and ascended from there to the gate on the other side, the Bab al-Futuh. As we looked back we saw the Old City lying beneath us like a shimmering seam of quartz. I now knew that the face of Fez, the old once-familiar and yet foreign Fez, was unaltered. But did its soul live on as formerly?

Fez_Madrassa3On one of the following evenings we were invited home by a Moroccan friend, to a house which, like all Moorish houses, opened only onto an inner courtyard, entirely white, where roses grew in profusion and an orange tree sparkled festively with blossoms and fruits. The room on the ground floor, where the guests sat in threes and fours on low divans, opened onto this courtyard. Amongst all the men present, there was also a small dark-skinned Arab boy, whose thin face was as if transfigured by an inward fire as well as by a child-like smile. The master of the house told us he was the best singer of spiritual songs in the whole country. After the meal he invited him to sing to us. The boy shut his eyes and began, softly at first, and then gradually more loudly, to render a qasida, a symbolical love-song. And some of the guests who had gathered near him and had drawn back the hoods of their jellabas sang the refrain-, which contained the shahada (the attestation of Divine Unity) in a harsh, ancient Andalusian style. The Arabic verses of the poem grew faster and faster, in a quick, intense tempo, while the answering refrain surged forth in widely extending waves. All of a sudden the volume of the chorus, which until then had only 'answered' the singer, flowed on without interruption and branched into several parallel rhythms, above which the voice of the leading singer continued at a higher pitch, like a heavenly exultation above a song of war.

It was miraculous how the many strands of the melody never came together in those accords which allow the flow of feeling to rest as if on a broad couch and which promise to human longing an all too easy, all too human consolation; the melody never turned into a worldly 'space', its different strands never came together as if reconciled; they continued endlessly, circling undiminishingly around a silent center, which became ever more clearly audible, as a timeless presence, an other-worldly 'space', without yesterday or tomorrow, a crystalline 'now', in which all impatience is extinguished.

This was Fez, unalterable, indestructible Fez.

'Titus Burckhardt is an authority whose works are a constant source of inspiration... the publication of this book in English is like the unearthing of a great treasure.' Martin Lings.

Excerpt taken from "FEZ City of Islam"  (Chapter 1 "Fez") TITUS BURCKHARDT-The Islamic Texts Society CAMBRIDGE - 1992


(Book-175 pages, English-photographs included)

Fez, City of Islam, documents the history of a people and its religion - Maghrib. The book relates the teachings, parables and miracles of many centuries and demonstrates not only the arts and crafts of Islamic civilization, but also its sciences and administrative skills.


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Older Comments:
a wonderful book about the muslim medieval city of Fez written many many decades ago. I read this book in the early 90's (it was a wedding gift) and shortly after visited that great historical city. the book does full justice to this deeply spiritual city. a must have on your bookshelf.

when somebody describe a place nothing better than the sensiteve things of smells, sounds and colours. Keep going!

beautiful ...wish i could read the book