Fes: A Name with Many Stories

This is a translation of a passage from A History of the Fes Medina from its Founding to the End of the 20th Century: Continuity and Change. Published in 2011 it represents the collective work of 11 Moroccan scholars and is the first history of Fes written by Moroccans.

This section of the text describes some of the popular stories surrounding the naming of Fes.

Fes: One Name with Many Stories

Historical sources report five accounts of how 'Fes' was named.

The first comes from a Christian monk with whom Idriss the Second shared the story of his city's name before its founding. According to this story, there was once an ancient city named 'Sef' that ocuppied the site where 'Fes' was founded. At some point the ancient settlement was completely destroyed.  

When Imam Idriss came to the site, he took the name 'Sef' and ordered his people to reverse it. So they did, and from then on the city was known as 'Fes'. Ibn Abi Zara' added a comment to this story, saying, "This account is more accurate than the other stories about Fes' name, but God knows best."

Astute readers know that Al-Jizna'i, who transmitted the same story from Ibn Abi Zara', considered this account to be the best between three others he selected. Both authors go on to give evidence of the story's veracity. They cite the story of a Jewish man who moved to Fes and when excavating the foundation of his new home found a marble doll buried in the ground. Engraved on its chest were these words: 'In this site stood a hammam for 1000 years until it was destroyed and a shrine built in its place.'

The second story says that around the time of Fes' founding, one Imam Idriss the Second's companions asked him to reveal the name he had chosen for his city. Imam Idriss said he would give it the name of the next person to arrive in his presence. Then a man named 'Faris' arrived and they asked him his named. He responded, but was unable to pronounce the 'r' because he had a lisp. The Imam heard him and told his companions he would name his city by what this man had uttered. And so the city was named 'Fes'.

The third story says that a delegation of Persians came to Idriss the Second from Iraq and were present at the time of the city's founding. While there, a landslide struck their party, killing nearly all of the delegation. In honor of the dead, the city was named 'Fars' after the Arabic word for Persian. Over time the city's resident's changed the name to 'Faris', which is easier to pronounce. Later, they shortened it by dropping the 'r' altogether, and began to use the name 'Fes'.

The fourth story is the most famous. It says that the name 'Fes' is derived from the word 'Fa'as' which means 'axe' because Imam Idriss used an axed made of gold and silver to build the city. He did so with humility towards God in the hope that he would be rewarded with skill and efficiency in his endeavor. For that reason the city was named 'Fes'.

However, some sources consider this story unlikely. In their commentaries they say Imam Idriss would have known that the use of gold in such a way is forbidden in Islam and that he could not have committed such an obvious sin and so publicly.

Lastly, the fifth story, which is equally as or more famous than the fourth, states also that the city's name is derived from the Arabic for 'axe' for the 'axe' that appeared to Imam Idriss to use during the first excavations of his city. Sources don't mention the materials this axe was made of but mention that it was about four hand-lengths long, one hand-length wide and weighed around 30 kilograms.


Of everything these stories illustrate, perhaps the most important are their sources' diverse identities. We know for certain that some of them were Muslim and others were Christian, or Jewish or Pagan. This clearly illustrates the openness to all peoples that has characterized Fes since its founding. Fes became known for its moderation and tolerance, and its people gained distinction for how they coexisted with and respected outsiders regardless of their religion, color, or ideology.