Fes, or Fez, is one of the oldest cities in Africa and the cultural and spiritual center of the Kingdom of Morocco. It was founded in the 8th century in a region rich in natural spring waters along a major trade route between the Mediterranean and sub-Saharan Africa. These natural springs are tapped at magnificently tiled fountains outside mosques and palaces in the old town -- the Medina or Fes-el-Bali, which remains a medieval sprawl of narrow alleys, spice markets and over-loaded donkeys. The wide boulevards of the new city, Fes-Jdid, offer spacious modernity and lead to the Middle Atlas Mountains outside the city. This region is home to the Amazigh Berbers, the indigenous people of North Africa.
The walled city of Sefrou lies 20 miles south of Fes along the old caravan road to sub-Saharan Africa. Sefrou’s hinterland is full of lush fruit orchards. The city lies along the River Aggai at an elevation of nearly 3,000 feet making it 20 degrees F cooler than Fes, a relief during hot weather in June when Sefrou holds its week-long annual cherry festival. The town was a thriving center of Jewish Berber culture until most Jewish Moroccans left the country in the 1950s as a result of Middle East political tensions. The Em Habanim school and synagogue still stand in the cramped alleys of the Mellah, the old Jewish quarter. A bridge across the river links the Mellah and the Muslim part of the old town, the Medina, and the Grand Mosque. Local legend says that the biblical prophet Daniel is buried in the Kef El Mumen cave just outside the city.
The Berber town of Azrou, 55 miles south of Fez, is the market center for the Middle Atlas region. Ochre-colored mud-brick Berber villages hang from mountainsides along the road to the city. Cedar forests that are home to Barbary Macaque monkeys climb the mountains behind the villages and outside the city. Paths through the forest lead beyond the tree line where Berber families live in traditional tents in the open country. Here, natural springs and crystal water streams are plentiful. Azrou means rock in the Berber language. The city is named after a rock outcrop next to which stands its main mosque. The city’s foremost attraction is its weekly market that is famed for the multicolored Berber carpets for sale.
Today a Roman archaeological site, Volubilis was founded in the 3rd century as a western outpost of the Roman Empire. The original settlement dates from the Neolithic period over 10,000 B.C. Located 35 miles west of Fes, Volubilis has the best-preserved Roman ruins in North Western Africa. The Temple of Jupiter stands in the middle of the town. Mosaics on the floors of houses belonging to high-ranking Romans depict Neptune, the king of the sea, riding his sea horse, and war goddess Diana with her nymphs. Like many Roman cities, buildings in Volubilis had external facades of marble. Today, this marble decorates 18th-century buildings in Meknes.
Surrounded by agricultural land, Meknes lies 37 miles west of Fes. Its landmark is the Bab el Mansour city gate that opens into the city square. Once a walkway for pedestrian and donkey traffic, today this gate is open only for special occasions but side entrances around the city wall permit entrance to the square. Meknes was Morocco’s capital city between 1672 and 1727 during the reign of Moulay Ismail, who expanded the Kingdom of Morocco to embrace today’s Algeria and Western Sahara. His spectacular tomb and mausoleum is Meknes’ foremost attraction.
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