At a time when much of Europe was still intellectually asleep, Fes el Bali (Old Fes) was the “Athens of Africa.” Today this walled city within Fes, Morocco, is the world’s largest automobile free urban area, with 9,000 twisting streets so narrow in places that loaded donkeys cannot easily pass.
Idris I founded the city of Fes el Bali in 789 AD as the capital of his new Islamic Empire. The University of Al-Karaouine, now the world’s oldest university, was established in the city in 859. By the twelfth century, Fes el Bali had become an international center of Islamic learning and culture. Its population of 200,000 made it the largest city in the world. When Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher and physician, left Cordoba, Spain, in about 1160 because of growing tension between Jews and Muslims, he settled in Fes el Bali to continue his studies.
For Fes el Bali’s 150,000 current residents, life is not much different than it was hundreds of years ago, although electricity makes some tasks easier. Merchants in small shops still sell everything from fresh camel and goat meat on hooks to fruit and fish stacked high on tables to pottery and clothing made by hand. Two hundred mosques still call residents to prayer. One popular shop sells rugs woven by Berbers in the nearby mountains and another sells high-end antiques in a 14th century mansion.
Tanneries producing leather using processes unchanged since the twelfth century have become symbols of Fes el Bali. Employees hand visitors mint sprigs to hold under their noses as they observe huge vats where hides, gathered daily from local slaughter houses, are tanned and colored. The mint can’t overcome the stench of the tanning agent, made from pigeon droppings and said to be the secret to the suppleness of the brightly colored leather goods sold in tannery shops.
Major construction projects are changing the face of Morocco. Fes el Bali, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, is protected against the rush of the twenty first c