19 January 2014

The spirituality of Fes

Where does one start to describe Fes? A phrase often bandied around is that Fes is 'the spiritual and cultural capital of Morocco'...but what does this mean? I'll start by exploring 'the spiritual'....

The spiritual part is accounted for by the presence in the heart of the old town of the mausoleum of the city's founder, the most venerated place of pilgrimage in all of Morocco, the Moulay Idriss Zaouia. Only Muslims are allowed entry to the mausoleum but interested tourists like ourselves are welcome to take a peek through the outer doors to admire the lush decoration within. The floor is covered by several brightly-covered patterned carpets strewn across each other to allow for the barefooted prayer sessions undertaken by Muslims. There are beautifully carved and painted wooden porches around the outside of the room and zellij tiling adorns the walls alongside intricate stucco workmanship. As I admire the craftsmanship, I notice a man who appears to be sleeping in the corner of the room. At this moment, this is a place of peace and tranquility, a haven from the crowds outside who throng the narrow alleyways. I feel I am spying on a private moment...so quickly take my leave.

In prayer or sleeping?

Detailed decor

Outside the zaouia (shrine) are several stands where fruit, vegetables and nuts are being sold, predominantly to those people entering this shrine. Alongside these stands are several others which sell ornate candles, incense and beads, presumably to be used in worship at the shrine. I wasn't aware that Muslims used these items in their worship. I have learnt something new today.

Candles on sale

Moving on from here, we make our way to the Kairaouine Mosque and university. It is said that all roads in Fes lead to this spectacular place which is not only a Muslim place of worship but also claims to house the oldest university in the world. It was founded in 859 by Lalla Fatima el Fihrya who was a very pious woman from Kairouan in Tunisia who emigrated to Fes. At that time the mosque was only a small prayer hall which she had built in memory of her father, not the sprawling 16,000 square metres it is today! Apparently, the building can now accommodate as many as 20,000 people - Today is Friday, the Muslim holy day, and I reckon this is quite true. As we peek through one of its 14 doorways, men come and go continually, each one carrying out his ablutions ritualistically before entering the heart of the building. All ages enter here, from young boys to elderly gentlemen.

Men come and go


Within the same complex, there is a separate prayer hall for women. I am amazed that nobody seems phased by us sightseers who want to catch a glimpse of the local peoples' authentic day-to-day spiritual life.


The women's prayer hall

Deep in prayer

The university here was in the past considered to be a great seat of learning with a wonderful reputation. In the 14th century it attracted over 8000 students, one of whom even became a future pope, namely Pope Sylvester II (999-1003).

Two other sites of spiritual interest in Fes are the Madrassa el Attarine and Madrassa Bou Inania. In days gone by these buildings would have housed many young people who would come here to concentrate on their religious studies away from life's distractions. They were usually built very close to mosques so as to establish close links between studies and practice of religion. Once again, the decor is very elaborate and one can see how many expert craftsmen and how many hours it must have taken to complete such buildings, a real labour of love.

The minaret

Courtyard of Bou Inania Madrassa

Stucco and Zellij

Sunlight in the courtyard

Intricate craftsmanship

As we are just about to leave the madrassa, a young Moroccan couple enter the courtyard and begin to look around. They are clothed in modern dress and I'm interested to see how they interact with this environment. After a quick look around at the architecture, the man enters the prayer hall and soon seems lost in prayer, the young woman takes to her mobile phone as she waits for him....maybe a sign of the times? 

Youth of today

In my opinion, from the snapshot I have gained of the spiritual life of Fes, I conclude that spirituality is still alive and kicking here. Both men and women attend the mosque in large numbers, the buildings are preserved beautifully....But the prevailing evidence of spirituality for me is in the welcome of the people and the genuine helpfulness that is offered to strangers. Marhaba, welcome, is always on their lips....

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