Although the layout of the Medina Fez el-Jdid is often thought of as a maze whose sole objective is to take you from point A to point B, there is another, deeper approach that is far more rewarding. An approach to the map as a work of art, the most reliable portrait of a town throughout its history.
This article will explain the three main reasons behind the design of Fez el-Jdid.
The New Medina
Fes el Jdid has its origin with the entry of the new dynasty in the mid-13th century. When they arrived, their main project was based on expanding the original medina, an impossible task as the urban fabric was completely saturated within the limits marked by its walls.
It was necessary to expand the city of Fez – but preserving its essence and origin so that the Phasids did not speculate that it was intended to transform their reality – the only possible solution was to create a new medina with similar features to the previous one and facing it.
The first consequence is a new Arab quarter that inherits the sinuousness of the old medina, with Rue Fez el-Jdid being the street that vertebrates everything. However, it is an area far from the exotic craftsmanship that characterises Fez el-Bali. It’s more oriented towards the daily needs of the local people.
Fes el jedid is also the place where the new power is presented to its citizens, in the form of a Royal Palace with numerous rooms and vast dimensions.
With an esplanade preceding it, the 7 access doors, representing both the days of the week and the levels of the monarchy, display an elaborate bronze coffering on solid wood, framed in a mosaic of green and blue tiles, in line with the main access door to Fes el-Bali, the Bab Bou Jeloud.
And it is only this doorway that is visible out of more than 80 hectares that comprise the palace. It is a paradox that for the pedestrian it is only a suggestive picture, while on the map it is by far the most remarkable element of both medinas. An involuntary urban metaphor of political power in Morocco, discreet but always present.
But above all, Fes el Jedid is where the Jewish quarter, originally located in the old medina, was relocated. Being the oldest in Morocco, it ended up being the patron saint of subsequent ones, to the point that it coined the term with which they will identify. The most solid theory is that before the construction of the new quarter, the products treated with salt , or mellah in Arabic, were stored there.
It was thanks to the Muslims that the Jews prospered on the Iberian Peninsula, and it was to Morocco that they fled after their expulsion. But coexistence was not without friction with the Muslim population, as unfortunately still happens in any country with the arrival of a foreign culture.
In front of the Muslim constructions, jealous of their intimacy, these are shown in the street, with wrought iron and wood balconies. It is also here that most of the renowned jewellery shops are located, as it was these that promoted the trade in precious metals. But the mellah is not only an urban landscape full of nods to its community, but also the setting of places with their own characteristics.
Like the Ibn Danan Synagogue, one of the most important in the country and a perfect example of what identifies these places of worship, with a congregation space that revolves around the teachings of the Torah, guarded in the ark located in front of the pulpit.
Witnessing the influence of Judaism on Islam, the faithful also have their place of prayer segregated on an upper floor, in order to avoid unseemly situations during prostrations. It also has a mikveh on the underground floor, containers of water in which to immerse oneself, a clear precursor to the ablutions room.
Finally, in front of the synagogue and looking out over the hills surrounding Fez, is the Jewish cemetery, where those who left their mark on the city rest. Hundreds of tombs and mausoleums delimit the mellah at its far end and create a singular landscape that reminds us that, although with hardly any human presence, the Jews are an indispensable part of understanding the complex layout of the oldest of the imperial cities.