History of Fes, the historic capital of Morocco

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History of Fes, the first capital of the Kingdom of Morocco and the place where all the stories of this magnificent country cross

The two cities, the birth of Fes

The city of Fes was born in 789 by the hand of Idris I, progenitor of the dynasty of the Idrisids, the first royal house of Morocco, which wanted a different place, but not far from Volubilis, the ancient Roman center of power, with the prospect of making it its new capital and which therefore established the new settlement on the south-eastern bank of the Jawhar River (today called Oued Fes). His son, Idris II, understood his father’s intentions, but decided to found his own new capital, Al ‘Aliya, on the opposite bank of the same river, moving his entire court here.

Qarawiyyin Mosque

This will lead to an incredible exploit, also favored by the arrival of many Arabs from Andalusia and Tunisia (especially from Kairouan), who will soon contribute to making it a real “Arab island” in a predominantly Amazigh/Berber context. Specifically, the Andalusians will settle mainly in Madinat Fas, while the Tunisians in Al Aliya. The latter are responsible for the Qarawiyyin Mosque, or “the mosque of those of Kairouan”, which became famous for being the site of the first “university” in history founded by Fatima al-Fihri. Curiously, as if to continue this story of duality, Fatima’s sister, Mariam, will instead found the Andalusian Mosque; obviously the former will rise in Al Aliya, while the latter in Madinat Fas.

The union of the cities, the Almoravids and the Almohads

With the death of Idris II, the 2 cities will end up at the center of some disputes within the dynasty, inevitably starting a period of decline. With the political weakening of the house, this territory will end up at the center of bitter disputes between the Umayyads and the Fatimids, with the result that the Amazigh of the Zenata Confederation will reign. It must however be said that under this dominion the city will see the construction of important architectural works still present today such as, for example, various hammams and the basis of the current city water system.

The 2 cities of the Idrisids

In 1070, after a conflict that lasted 7 years, the two cities were finally conquered by Yusuf ibn Tashfin, thus passing to a new power that arrived from the South: the Almoravids. The first provision of the new lord was to definitively reunite Madinat Fas and Al Aliya, finally giving Fes the form we know it today. While transferring the capital to the newborn Marrakech, the Almoravids held this place in immense consideration, going to build new mosques and expand the older ones, thus making it one of the greatest centers in the world of Sunni-Malikite law.

Fes under the Almoravids and Almohads

Between 1145 and 1146 the city was conquered by the Almohads at the hands of Abd al Mu’min, who ordered the extermination of the Almoravids as they were considered heretics by the new lords. It should be emphasized that, although the beginning was decidedly not the best, under the new dynasty the city continued to grow, going to build and rebuild mosques and walls, but, above all, going to enhance trade more than ever. The 3rd Almohad ruler, Yaqub Mansour, will in fact facilitate the birth of new industries (such as the tannery sector, so famous in Fez) and will enhance the strategic position of the city, transforming it into the meeting point for the goods that from the desert they were ready to go to the Mediterranean or to Europe.

The Marinids and the Golden Age

However, the golden age of Fes will come following the accession to the throne of the Marinides, who took it in 1272, transforming it into the capital of their empire and, consequently, of all of Morocco. However, the new conqueror, Abu Yusuf Ya’qub, did something particular that, once again, will forever change the fabric of the city’s urban planning. In fact, he decided to build a new royal citadel outside the walls of the old Fes, giving life to a new settlement that would later be called Fes El Jdid, “The new Fes”. The choice was made for various reasons, the main one of which is linked to the need of the Marinids to build a new and imposing royal palace, which would have been almost impossible within the ancient historic center and this both for purely urban reasons and for the difficulty in protecting the sovereigns.

Fez under the Marinids

It goes without saying that in a very short time Fes El Jdid became an authentic jewel, with immense walls designed to defend the royal palace, a mosque, still today among the largest in the city, and even the first mellah (Jewish quarter) in Morocco. Originally, in fact, this word did not indicate so much the Jewish world, but rather a “salty area” (probably either a source of salt water or a salt warehouse), effectively present just south of Fes El Jdid, where a large part of of Jewish citizens. Another element of incredible value will be the construction of the Al-Mosara gardens, unfortunately disappeared today, and as many as 7 prestigious madrasas within about 80 years, attracting scholars from all over the then “Islamic world”.

Wattasids, Ottomans and Sa’adians

In 1465, following internal tensions and an increasingly lively and violent European threat, the Merinids will be overthrown by the Wattasids, whose short reign is mainly remembered for being one of the weakest and most conciliatory towards the Europeans. This aspect is particularly evident above all if one observes the role played by a new dynasty: the Sa’adians. The latter, originally from southern Morocco, had conquered Marrakesh in 1524 (which from that moment will become their capital), then starting a victorious anti-European war of independence which will guarantee them the support of the whole country.

The Mellah of Fes

In 1549 Mohammed al Shaykh, the first Saadian ruler, conquered Fes, but it was then that the Ottomans made their brief appearance; the Sublime Porte had recently conquered Algeria and it was preparing to further expand his empire both for the desire for new lands and for the fear that the new domains would be taken away from him by the Sa’adians. To do so, he supported the Wattasid claims, restoring them to the throne in 1554; however, the new reign lasted just a few months before being defeated again by Mohammed Shaykh. In 1558 the Ottomans then decided to poison him, but his son, Abdallah al-Ghalib, then decided to implement their alliance with the Spanish, definitively unleashing the wrath of Constantinople.

Miguel de Cervantes at the court of Hassan Pasha

The decisive battle took place that same year in Wadi Laban, about 50 km north of Fes, and involved Abdallah al Ghalib himself against the army commanded by Hassan Pasha, the son of Khayr ad-Din Barbarossa. Contrary to what is thought, however, there was no real winner, as the Ottoman army was warned of the imminent landing of the Spaniards at Mostaganem, which led it to deploy a large part of its troops there and obtain thus one of the greatest Ottoman victories ever against the Spanish army. Just 2 years later Abdallah al Ghalib will try to conquer Tlemcen, in today’s Algeria, but was definitively rejected by the Turkish forces, even paying a tribute to the ruler of Constantinople. However, it must be said that, unlike the rest of North Africa, Morocco maintained its autonomy, forever blocking any Ottoman ambitions over the country.

The Battle of the Three Kings

With the death of Abdallah al Ghalib there will be an intense succession struggle between his brother, Abd al-Malik, and his son, Abu Abdullah, with the former even turning to the Ottomans to consolidate his position. The latter, happy to support the new ruler in an anti-Iberian key, gave him their approval, as well as several troops sent to them from Algiers. At that point Abu Abdallah will turn to the Portuguese sovereign, who not only fully supported him, but decided to fight alongside him in the Battle of Ksar el Kebir, also known as “The Battle of the Three Kings”.

The Battle of Ksar el Kebir

During that clash all 3 sovereigns died, but the army of Abd al-Malik will have the upper hand, who will then appoint his brother, Ahmad Mansour, new Sa’adian sultan; on the contrary, the Portuguese will be those who will suffer the most defeat, since, with the death of King Sebastião I, the country will face a dynastic crisis that will lead it to merge with the kingdom of Spain. It should be emphasized that, although Abd al-Malik actually received troops and Ottoman consent, it cannot in any way be a victory ascribed to the Sublime Porte but only to the Moroccan army.

The Sa’adian Sultanate in Fes

The new ruler once again revolutionized the urban plan of Fez, this time not so much with the construction of new mosques (although the Qarawiyyin was enlarged), but with the construction of new forts. Indeed, Ahmad al-Mansour decided to build 7 new fortresses around the city, in order to ensure easy control of the town. Unfortunately, given that Sa’adian attention was mostly focused on their capital, Marrakech, it will be at that time that the Al-Mosara gardens will be definitively abandoned.

Ahmad al-Mansour

With the death of Ahmad al-Mansour in 1603, the sultanate fell into total and absolute anarchy, with Fes and Marrakesh constantly challenging each other for 24 years; between the two cities, to suffer most from the consequences of this civil war will certainly be the first which, according to some sources, accumulated so much tension as to even cause micro-clashes between the various parts of the inhabited center and its surroundings.

The arrival of the ‘Alawis

In 1641 Mohammed al-Hajj al-Dila’i will conquer Fes and in 1659 will definitively put an end to the sultanate, leaving a power vacuum that will be filled by a new dynasty: the ‘Alawids, the house that still reigns over Morocco today. In 1666 Mulay Rashid conquered the city, giving life, after so many years, to a period of city urbanization; specifically, the following are attributable to him: the Kasbah Cherarda and the Kasbah An-Nouar and the Madrasa Cherratine. After yet another succession struggle, the throne passed to Rashid’s brother, Moulay Ismail, who, while restoring the ancient Zawiya of Idris II, moved his capital to Meknes, just 60km away; it should be emphasized that Meknes will remain the capital of Morocco only under Moulay Ismail.

Madrasa Cherratine

With the death of the latter there will once again be a long period of chaos linked to succession struggles, which will finally see an end with the rise to power of Mohammed III, who will stabilize the country; from this period onwards, while officially Fez remains the capital, he will have to partially share his power with Marrakesh. Until the 20th century, the biggest change to the city was made by Hasan I who reunited Fes el-Bali and Fes el-Jdid for the first time.

European penetration and independence

Following the Algeciras Conference, which de facto gave control of all Moroccan public services to France and Spain, a very strong discontent was created in the country, so much so that the then ruler Abdelaziz suffered a real coup d’état by the brother, Abdelhafid. This sultan is particularly important for the country’s history as he was the last to rule Morocco before the Treaty of Fes (signed by himself), with which the country definitively became a French protectorate. Another important consequence derived from this “agreement” is that from now on the city will never again be the capital, being replaced by Rabat, which is more easily controllable by the French.

Treaty of Fes

The new French governor Hubert Lyautey proved to be particularly fond of Moroccan culture and for this reason prevented any urbanization plan involving the medina, having the whole new city built outside the historic centre. In reality, this measure can also be seen as an attempt at induced stagnation towards the more historic areas of the city, but it must be said that many wealthy Moroccans decided to move to new neighborhoods and this, although it still favors the association between innovation and Europeanisation, it was certainly less traumatic than what happened in Algeria or other former French colonies. With the introduction of the Dahir of 1930, Fes began to distinguish itself as one of the centers of Moroccan independence, a phenomenon consolidated by the fact that even at the time the university of Qarawiyyin was among the most important in the country.


With the independence of 1956, Morocco finally returned to being an autonomous state, but the fate of the city did not improve particularly, so much so that the population will begin to grow only in 1971. Furthermore, due to French urban interventions, the trend will consolidate of the bourgeoisie of Fes to move to the more modern and attractive Casablanca and Rabat. Due to its profound university history, the city of Fes will also be one of the epicenters of the “Moroccan Years of Lead”, in which there will be an incredible contrast between the population (especially the student population) and King Hassan II; since 1981 the historic center of Fez is a Unesco heritage site.

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