Walking through the narrow streets of Fes, I became quite aware of the space and architecture around me – every step led to a turn, every turn led to a surprise. Each day, depending on the position of the sun, I experienced the architectural landscape of Fes in a uniquely different way. Even though my sojourn in this medieval city was brief, it was just long enough to develop a relationship with its historical topography.
Founded in 789 AD by Idris I, Fes grew into a buzzing hub of Maghrebian, Berber and Islamic thought and culture. The Karaouine mosque-university complex built in 859 AD, marks the center of the city, and is one of the oldest functioning universities in the world. Over the centuries, madrassas, shrines, homes and artist complexes expanded out from this center point and became renowned throughout North Africa. Today, in the old city of Fes, all vehicles stop at the city gates. The souks and shops line the tiny streets of Fes with families still living in traditional dwellings; and while its international significance may have lessened, the city retains its status as Morocco’s intellectual, cultural and spiritual centre.
Shrine of Moulay Idriss II. Fes, Morocco.
'Being' in a city like Fes, one cannot help but think about how one consciously or unconsciously ‘lives’ the essence of the society that gave structure to the city. During my stay, I visited homes, gardens, shops, courtyards and places of worship; each time entering spaces through short, unassuming doors that opened inwards, unconsciously directing me to bend down, duck my head and enter from the right side of my body, often by lifting the right leg to step over thresholds. Every time I did so, I thought about how hundreds of thousands of people before me, over the past twelve centuries, entered these places in the same deliberately designed manner.
Streets of Fes, Morocco.
In Islamic architectural tradition, 'being' in a three-dimensional space is as much an act of humility as interacting with another person or one’s relationship with God; in essence – every act is an extension of another. During our stay in Fes, our classes were held in a beautifully restored traditional Moroccan ‘dar’ (house). Dar Seffarine is a great example of a house built on Islamic architectural principles, and having spent an entire week there we got the opportunity to learn from its owner Aala the significance of the layout of the house.
Entrance to Dar Seffarine.
Traditionally, the exterior of Moroccan homes are often left unadorned, which is why when you walk through the streets of Fes, you can easily get lost, as the streets and buildings look very similar to each other. The typical house built in medieval Islamic societies is oriented inwards, primarily to preserve the privacy of the family, but also to show humility towards one's neighbours. A transitory space between the main door and the central courtyard signifies the movement from the outside world to the inner dimensions of the house. As you enter through the exterior doors, your line of sight is limited so that it is only when you step over the inner threshold and lift your head that you see the magnificence of the home. Almost always you will find the central courtyard, the hub of daily life, to your right, in accordance with the Islamic principle of beginning all things with your right side. The rooms of the house are generally arranged around this courtyard, which, open to the sky above, aims to connect the house with the heavens and provide ventilation. A fountain in the center of the courtyard creates an ambiance of tranquility and helps to cool the home during hot summer afternoons. In most traditional Moroccan dars, the first room to the left of the entrance is typically the salon for guests. Beyond the salon, most homes only had two or three other rooms while in larger families there was sometimes a second floor flanked by highly adorned verandas and balconies.
Courtyard of Dar Seffarine; Art of Islamic Pattern class in progress.
The flow of movement between the entrance, courtyard, rooms and staircases has always been purposeful, in many ways echoing the principles of mindfully following a particular tradition. While each region in the Muslim world has unique domestic characteristics, the simplicity of the design of these homes in Fes was fascinating to experience. Unfortunately, many examples of such traditional spaces in many medieval Islamic cities around the world have been destroyed or radically remodelled, erasing traces of the past. Aala and Kate at Dar Seffarine have done an incredible service to human history by preserving their home and the principles from which it was created. Homes like theirs, and the thousands of other preserved buildings in Fes reminded me about what it meant to create and live with purpose and intent, and appreciate the beauty that emerge from design rooted in tradition.
Morning of Eid Al-Adha; Gate to Square Rcif. Fez, Morocco.
Thank you for a wonderful trip to the teams of The Art of Islamic Pattern & Dar Seffarine!