The city of Fez is located in northern Morocco at the axes of two main communication routes that connected the Atlantic to the central Magrib and the Straights of Gibraltar to the Africa. Fez was probably founded in the late eighth-century by the Idrisids, eventually developing through the merging of two separate cities on opposite banks of the Wadi Fez river. The two cities spent almost a century under the rule of the Umayyads of al-Andalus, before a succession of Berber dynasties conquered it. The Almoravid conquest of the city in the late eleventh-century was a pivotal moment, when the previously autonomous cities were united into one, spurring new development in the form of a fortress, new urban quarters, and water infrastructure. Upon the Almohad conquest of the city in 1145 the form of the city was changed again - the Almohads razed much of the Almoravid fortifications before constructing new walls and gates in the thirteenth-century, which to a large degree have survived.
Conquered again in the thirteenth-century by the Marinids, Fez became the capital city of the dynasty. Always second in importance to Marrakech, which had been the capital of both the Almoravids and Almohads, Fez developed into a major intellectual and commercial center under the Marinids. Beginning in 674/1276 the Marinids constructed Fes al-Jadid ("New Fes"), a new administrative citadel surrounded by a double wall, west of the old walled city, which then was known as Fes al-Bali ("Ancient Fes"). The Marinids embellished their populous capital with the numerous madrasas for which it is famous and constructed estates in the countryside around the city.
Fez remained under Marinid rule until it was conquered by the Sa'di dynasty in the sixteenth-century, and then again by the 'Alawi dynasty in 1666. In the late nineteenth-century Fes al-Jadid and Fes al-Bali were united with new walls.
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Le Tourneau, Roger. Fez in the age of the Marinides. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. c. 1961.
Le Tourneau, Roger. Fes avant le protectorat : etude economique et sociale d'une ville de l'occident musulman. Rabat : Editions La Porte. 1987
Revault, J., L. Golvin and A. Amahane. 1985-89. Les Palais et demeures de Fes. 2 vols Paris. 1985-1989.
The al-Attarin Madrasa was commissioned by the Marinid Sultan Uthman II b. Ya'qub, Abu Sa'id (r. 1310-31) in 1323/723 AH and completed in 1325/725 AH. It is located in the spiritual centre of Fez, near the Qarawiyyin Mosque. The madrasa's location at the entrance to the spice and perfume market gives al-Attarine, the madrasa of the perfumers, its name.
The Marinid Sultans were prolific patrons of madrasas, which served to promote Sunni teachings during their reign, perhaps meant to counterbalance thriving local Sufi practices. The al-Attarin madrasa, like the other Marinid madrasas of Fez, is celebrated for its rich decorative programme, concentrated in the rectangular arcaded courtyard. The courtyard opens onto a square prayer hall, and is luxuriously ornamented with glazed tile (zellij) dados and pavement, intricate carved stucco ornament on walls and piers, carved and painted wooden arches and cornices, and marble columns. The al-Attarin Madrasa, and the other Marinid madrasas, illustrate the translation of a palatial language of materials and decorations into a religious setting. Though the carved stucco and glazed tile revetment clearly evoke the Nasrid palace of Alhambra in Spain, their highly delicate, almost lace-like, treatment and tendency to ever-smaller scale is unique to the Marinid foundations in Morocco.
The contrast between sumptuous ornament in the courtyard and the spartan accommodations for the students at the al-Attarin and the other Marinid madrasas may reflect the multiple functions of these buildings. The madrasas often served as mosques for their respective quarters and as settings for official ceremonies. With the addition of associated charitable functions like guesthouses and waqfs, or endowed properties which supported the madrasa's upkeep, to their primary role as religious schools, the madrasas functioned as important centers of community life. The courtyard, as the most public of the spaces within the madrasa, was therefore the focus of the ornament that would highlight the generous image of the madrasa's founder.
Hillenbrand, Robert. Islamic Architecture. NY: Columbia UP, 1994. 240-251.