Fes el-Bali, the Old Fes, has conserved its architectural heritage through the centuries, avoiding to alter its urban layout made of winding and narrow streets to suit the needs of motor-vehicles. The outcome is an exceptionally preserved urban centre, included in the UNESCO World Heritage List, and still possessing a lively and dynamic character.
The Museo del Camminare has tried to investigate the reasons of this successful story.Read More
After the Almoravids conquered Fes in the late 11th century, they unified it by building a strong defensive wall around its two settlements – the first nucleus founded by King Idris I on the eastern bank of the Fes River in 789 AD, and the community established a few decades later on the opposite bank by his son Idris II. It was the birth of the present-day walled Medina of Fes, former capital of Morocco, and the country’s cultural and spiritual centre, which hosts the world’s oldest existing and continually operating learning institution: the University of al-Qarawiyyin established in 859 AD. And, as is most relevant here, the Medina is also the second largest pedestrian city in the world.
With an area of about 3.75km sq. and a population of around 70,600 residents,1 Fes el Bali is almost completely car-free, second to Venice for extension, but first for population. No motor vehicle is allowed to pass through its gates, as the old city’s layout of very narrow streets has never suffered any alteration to provide for the movement of motor-vehicles with the exception of the stretch of Boulevard Ahmed Ben Mohammed Alaoui leading to Place R’cif – the gateway to the Andalous District –, and the street leading to Place Lalla Yeddouna, the two river-side feeder streets envisioned by the 1978 Master Plan.
Apart from these exceptions, the Municipality of Fes imposes a complete ban on motor-vehicles inside the Medina, unfortunately broken, occasionally, by some mopeds. There are no limitations, instead, for animal- and hand-carts. Pedestrians generally keep to the right, though it is not as a strict behaviour as in Venice. Street-sweepers regularly clean the streets and waste collection is carried out door-to-door by the means of donkey-drawn carts. Each quarter of the Old Fes has a small hospital that is responsible for emergencies in the area, in which stretchers are used to immediate transfer of patients.
The exceptional conservation of the Medina’s medieval Arab structure made of winding alleyways, fondouks, madrasas, historic houses and palaces has thus entailed the continuity through the centuries of a sustainable and eco-friendly way of living which has non-motorised transportation of people and goods as a key feature.
That preservation of urban architecture and pedestrian mobility has secured the Medina of Fes the enormous cultural value of its historical heritage, which makes the old city one of the largest and best conserved towns of the Arab-Muslim world. UNESCO inscribed it in the World Heritage List in 1981 and, since then, has been contributing to the difficult and expensive task of its restoration, together with national and other international institutions. Out of the Medina's 13,385 buildings, 11,6001 are historic and 41 percent of these were decaying in the early 2010s. The Medina's treasure also includes 143 mosques, 7 madrasas, and 64 fountains.2
The cultural heritage of the Medina has turned it into a world-renowned sightseeing destination, and the economic implications of tourism are not only positive in terms of inhabitants’ livelihoods, but also through the restoration of historic buildings to be used as hotels, guest-houses, shops, and restaurants. Particularly, the restoration as guest houses of traditional riads is a process that began in the late 1990s and has been considered a positive experience not only in terms of urban heritage, but also for the social impact due to the large engagement of local people.3
Particularly interesting in the case of Old Fes is the traditional coexistence between its car-free character and handcrafts, which remain one of the most relevant economic sector of the area. According to 2015 municipal statistics, more than 75 percent of people living in the Old Fes earned their living from craftsmanship, directly or indirectly.4 The leather & textile, and metalworking sectors traditionally play the major role – respectively accounting to 55 percent and 23 percent of the artisanal sector of the whole city of Fes –, followed by pottery, basketry, and other minor activities.5.
In most of these cases, the thousands of artisans operating in the Old Fes rely on non-motorised transportation of goods to and from their production units, either for the supply of raw materials or the export of their output. Donkey and donkey carts are best suited for the winding and narrow alleyways of the Medina and, together with hand carts are the most popular, cheap, efficient and eco-friendly methods to commute goods to and from the pedestrian area. A fourth-generation textile artisan, member of the Bougueddach Collective [photo above centre], explained in 2019 that he never had any problem working in the carless Medina, as donkeys were well fulfilling his needs of freight transportation. The same opinion was expressed by one of the owners of the iconic Chaouara Tanneries [photo above left], the largest in town and one of the oldest in the world. The recent relocation of some artisanal production units to the new district of Aïn Nokbi far outside the Medina has alleviated the high pollution that affects Old Fes and, particularly the Fes River – renamed River of Trash (Boukhrareb) in the 20th century –, though it has highlighted, on the other hand, the economic advantages of working in the Medina, in which goods can be moved by donkeys at a cost ten times lower than from the Medina to Aïn Nokbi.6
As in the case of Venice, visitors usually find Fes el Bali labyrinthine – a city in which it is easy to get lost, but where pedestrians remain the protagonists. Walking in the Medina allows one to be among the people, and enjoy a full-sense experience.
It is no coincidence that the American writer Paul Bowles wrote one of the most beautiful appreciations of urban carlessness while he was in Fes in 1984: ‘Fez is still a relatively relaxed city; there is time for everything. The retention of this classic sense of time can be attributed, in part at least, to the absence of motor vehicles in the Medina. If you live in a city where you never have to run in order to catch something, or jump to avoid being hit by it, you are likely to have preserved a natural physical dignity that is not a concomitant of contemporary life; and if you still have that dignity, you want to go on having it. So you see to it that you have time to do whatever you want to do; it is vulgar to hurry.’7
The lesson that the Medina of Fes teaches us is twofold: it shows how safeguarding carlessness is crucial to the conservation and promotion of urban heritage, and, on the other hand, it demonstrates how a historic centre can be lively and dynamic while preserving its car-free character.
The map published by the Museo del Camminare suggests an itinerary to appreciate the pedestrian character of the enchanting Medina.
All photos: © Museo del Camminare
1. Haut-Commissariat aut Plan, Annuaire Statistique Régional Fès Meknès, Direction Régionale de Fès Meknès, 2017, p. 37.
2. Radoine, Hassan, ‘Conservation-Based Cultural, Environmental, and Economic Development: The Case of the Walled City of Fez’, in Luigi Fusco Girard (ed.), The Human Sustainable City: Challenges and Perspectives from the Habitat Agenda, Burlington, Ashgate, 2003.
3. El Bouaaichi, Amina, ‘Urban Heritage in Action in the Historic City of Fez: Guest Houses Rehabilitation Models’, ARCC Conference Repository, 2014, URL: https://doi.org/10.17831/rep:arcc%y349
4. Bensaoud, Reda, ‘Fès: Le tiers des habitants de la ville vit de l’artisanat’, Maroc Hebdo, 5 January 2016, URL:https://www.maroc-hebdo.press.ma/fes-le-tiers-des-habitants-de-la-ville-vit-de-lartisanat
6. Ouazzani Touhami, Naoual; Ferguene, Améziane; Jaidi, Larbi, ‘Le redéploiement spatial de la production: une voie de relance de l’artisanat traditionnel au Maroc?’, Érudit, 59, 167, 2015, URL: https://id.erudit.org/iderudit/1036353ar
7. Bowles, Paul, ‘Fez: Behind the Walls, in Paul Bowles, Travels. Collected Writings, 1950-1993, New York, HarperCollins, 2010, digital edition.
© Museo del Camminare 2020, licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 4.0