View of Fes Medina

Rent a House or Small Riad in the Medina of Fez, Morocco
Fes, Maroc

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Dar Bennis


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A Typical House in Fes

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Introduction to Domestic Architecture in the Fez Medina

A Typical House in Fez:

Dar:  a house with a courtyard, often with two salons (beit, pl. biyout) downstairs facing each other, a fountain (saqaiya) made of zellij (zellige) mosaic on one wall, and a bartal (room without doors, open to the courtyard, for entertaining guests) opposite the fountain, which was originally spring-fed. Sometimes there is a marble fountain (khassa), instead of a saqaiya, in the center of the courtyard.

The front door (bab-i-dar) consists of a large door, rarely used, and a smaller door inside the larger one for everyday use. There are two iron door-knockers (kharsa), one high up for those on horseback and a lower one for those on foot. There is a stylized hand of Fatima, to guard against the "evil eye", and an indirect entrance, so that strangers couldn't see inside the house. The bab-i-dar is decorated with simple linear or geometric carving and large round nails that attach the planks to the inner door frame. There is always one or two sets of inner doors at the entrance for security & privacy.

The salons around the courtyard (wust-i-dar) are narrow and with very high ceilings, sometimes carved and painted. These salons, with low embroidered cushions all around the edge (these days the wool-filled cushions/mattresses are on wooden platforms), are multi-purpose: living room, dining room, bedroom. In most houses there would be few or no windows onto the street, and in older houses there would be no windows in the salons at all, only two large doors with smaller doors within them (bab b-dfaf). These doors would usually be carved and painted with geometric and floral designs. In the summer the large doors would be kept open and there would be embroidered or crocheted curtains for privacy; in the winter the doors would be closed and the smaller doors would be used. When there are windows in the salons, there are decorative iron grills and painted wooden shutters, and often semi-circular stained-glass windows above the larger windows. In more recent houses the large salon windows have glass, often clear glass surrounded by green, blue, red, and yellow stained glass (jej iraqi).

On the ground floor is a kitchen (dwireeya, the diminutive of the diminutive of dar), and a squat toilet next to it, sometimes even inside the kitchen. Very strange by Western standards, but probably done to simplify plumbing. The kitchen was a very simple affair: a small stove to hold coals, sometimes a simple wall fountain (saqaiya), and an open skylight (mnkash) for air and exhaust, but no furniture except a low table; no countertops, no refrigerator, and usually no oven, since baked goods were taken to the local bakery (furn).

Some houses have a well, and until recently spring water would flow constantly from the fountain in the courtyard and into the toilet. Even in the 12th century most Fez houses had running water flowing through terracotta pipes.  Sadly, much of the traditional water system has been damaged, but many houses still have the original drainage pipes.  Because some houses don't have water, or because it's expensive, some people still get water from public fountains. A very large house would have a hammam, or traditional bath. Most people, however, go once a week to the public hammam, even if they now have a shower at home.  But in general hot water is still extremely rare in medina houses.

There would normally be a second floor with two or more salons above those on the first floor, and several small rooms with low ceilings in-between the main floors for storage of grain, olives, and oil in large ceramic jars. Sometimes there's a small room with a discreet window, from which women could look when there were male strangers in the house. There is normally an upstairs kitchen and toilet, since the family would live downstairs in the summer and upstairs in the winter; or sometimes part of the extended family would live downstairs and another part upstairs.

There is usually one or two sets of very narrow stairs leading to the upper rooms and terrace. The stairs are covered with zellij, but on the front edge of each stair is a cedar beam for traction. In older houses there is a balcony on one to four sides of the courtyard, but starting in the 19th century this was sometimes omitted to provide more light. The balcony (darbouz) would originally be made of an intricate wooden screen (masharabbi), but in the 19th century this was usually replaced with decorative ironwork. Older houses also had masharabbi with beautiful geometric patterns on the windows looking into the courtyard, but now this is extremely rare. The balcony and skylight structure (halka) are supported by crossbeams, or by two to twelve columns. In most houses the skylight is covered with an iron grill, for security against thieves and to keep children from falling in.

On the roof level is a terrace and sometimes another large salon, the menzeh, for entertaining special guests. This would be the most beautiful room in the house, with a beautiful carved and painted ceiling, stained-glass windows made of carved plaster, and windows looking out onto the mountains or medina. From the terrace there is often a panoramic view, but in older houses there would be high walls to provide privacy, since this was the domain only of women until very recently. Women still use the terrace mainly for drying grain, wool, and clothing. It's rare for people to sit on the terrace, although on the hottest days of summer it's very common for the family to sleep on the roof.

Other kinds of Houses:

Dwira: a small house (the diminutive of dar), often with only one salon downstairs and one upstairs and a small courtyard and usually no pillars. Dar Bennis is an example of a dwira.

Riad: a house with a garden in the center, usually with orange and lemon trees (the Arabic word riad means garden). The garden is sometimes in the center of the house, and sometimes the house is U-shaped with the garden on the fourth side. Many riads have salons only on one level, to provide more light for the garden.

Massreiya: a guest house, often very ornate, attached to a larger house. On the ground floor there would usually be a stable or shop, above which are storage rooms, and then the massreiya on the top floors. The massreiya was for male guests, who would not normally be allowed to sleep in the main house, or sometimes for the eldest son and his friends, and later for his family. The term "massreiya" means "Egyptian", probably because the Moroccan idea of an Egyptian house was that the main rooms were on the top floors, as opposed to a normal Moroccan house, which is centered around a courtyard on the ground floor.

Kasr: a palace or very large house. Good examples in Fez are the Batha Museum (the sultan's palace in the late-19th century), Kasr Mnebbi on Talaa Sghira near Dar Bennis, Palais Mokri, and the Glaoui Palace in Ziat.

Traditional Building Materials and Decoration

The walls of houses in Fez are made of lime (jeer), sand, (raml), and bricks (liyajoor beldi). Cement was never used in traditional building. The lime and sand mixture needs to cure for some time to be strong (it used to be that you would prepare the lime and sand before going on pilgrimage to Mecca, and it would be ready when you got back), which is part of the reason many people no longer want to use these materials. The advantage of using lime is that the walls "breathe", which makes the houses cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. In addition, cracks in walls made with lime are said to be able to "heal" themselves in time.

The outer walls of houses were finished with medluk, made of extremely fine sand, lime (jeer), egg white, and sabon beldi (traditional soft soap made from olive by-products). Medluk develops a beautiful marbled effect over time. Simple geometric patterns are sometimes pressed or carved into the medluk. In Marrakech this mixture is called tadlakt, which is slightly finer and shinier due to the difference in the sand and lime from the two cities. These days tadlakt is often colored and has become very fashionable on interior walls. Good examples of new medluk are the inner walls of the Nejjarine Museum, and the outside walls of Dar Adiyel and the Bou Inania Medersa. The bathrooms in many recent maison d'hotes in Fez are done in tadlakt.

The support beams for all ceilings, as well as doors and windows, are made of cedar (ilerz). Cedar planks are placed on the beams and then around 40 cm. of sand and rubble is added for insulation, then a sand and lime mixture is added, and then zellij mosaic tile on top. Sometimes a second set of beams is added below the roof, to which a carved and painted ceiling is attached. There is a space between the two sets of beams to provide extra insulation. All interior floors and the rooftop have a slight slope that leads into a drain. The drain pipes in older houses are made of ceramic cylinders joined together.

There are several kinds of traditional zellij (zellige) tile. The simplest kind is a thick terracotta tile cut before firing that can be square, octagonal, or long rectangles. Sometimes the natural unglazed tiles are used on terraces and modest rooms, and sometimes some smaller glazed squares are added in between for color. Green and white glazed rectangular tiles, bejmat, arranged in a zigzag pattern, are the norm in kitchens.

The other main kind of zellij in Fez are made from thin 10 cm. square tiles that are cut into smaller pieces with a chisel and then assembled into various patterns, sometimes very complex. In the North, in Tetouan and Tangier, the same shapes are made by cutting the pieces before firing and glazing, which results in a more three-dimensional surface and larger gaps between the pieces. Good Fez zellij is flat and has very small pieces with almost invisible gaps in-between. The main traditional colors used are black, white, green, blue, and yellow-ochre. The most common pattern is a colored square, surrounded by black squares, surrounded by colored squares, etc., with white in-between. There is always an alternation between dark colors (green and blue) and light (yellow).

Another technique common in Fez is where the glaze is carved away, giving a contrast between the terracotta color and the color of the glaze that remains. This technique is useful for Arabic calligraphy and curved floral designs.

Zellij is used on the floors of all rooms, and on the borders on the walls around the room. In older houses the border was 10-20 cm., but in the 19th century the fashion was to have much higher zellij on the walls in the main salons. These larger panels were made by arranging the tiles upside-down on a flat surface, pouring the sand-lime (now cement) mixture on top, and then lifting the panel and installing it on the wall. On both sides of the entrance of each salon are decorative zellij panels, sometimes with a band of calligraphy (poetry or a verse of the Koran) on the top of the panels. On the floor of the entrance is first a panel matching those on the side-walls, and then a large ornate square on the floor, as if to greet the guest. The rest of the room would have more modest zellij, often covered with cushions and carpets. In luxurious houses there are often marble squares in the courtyard and the entrances of salons, with bands of colored zellij in-between the marble.

The interior walls of the house are covered with simple plaster (gyps), which was not painted. Again this allows the walls to "breathe", and helps to keep the house cool and dry in the summer. Every few years a new thin layer of plaster would be added, and when it got too thick, all the plaster would be removed and a new layer added. Carved decorative plaster is used above and around doors and windows, and below the ceiling. The plaster is applied to the wall, a design is incised, and then is carved in situ. Natural colors, similar to those used in the zellij and wood, were applied to highlight the designs or calligraphy, but much of the surface was left unpainted. A date (in the Islamic calendar) is often found in the center of the plaster panel above one salon door, but this is the date of the completion of that plaster, and almost never the date of the construction of the house. It's common to have a six-hundred-year-old house with zellij, plaster and wood that's less than two-hundred years old, since some elements of a house would be changed or replaced every one to two hundred years.

Older Fez houses were very colorful and cheerful, with color on most of the doors, windows, ceilings, carved plaster, and floors. It was only in the late 19th and early 20th century that it became fashionable to leave carved wood and plaster unpainted, probably in imitation of very old houses, where most of the pigment was gone or faded due to the sun and rain.

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2010 David Amster