A medina is a walled city, very exotic for a visitor, and it’s easy to forget that medieval here isn’t just an adjective. In Fez, this means that many buildings are hundreds of years old, maybe their foundations really are a thousand years old. I find that close to unimaginable.
When Fez was founded, the ideal medina house, called a dar, or riad, was a tower 12-40 feet square (about 3.5-12 m), and about three stories tall. This was completely closed to the outside with only a small door.
There were no windows at all, no balconies, no porches. The interior of the tower consisted of narrow rooms around the sides of the tower and an unroofed central courtyard open to the sun, also the rain. Rooms open to the central courtyard received lots of light, but very little if they were walled off for privacy. Narrow stairs led to the second or third stories, and there was a terrace on the roof around the central opening. Today, houses have that footprint, with small windows added. A portion of the roof is usually the laundry and the rest for family life, though a tent can be set up to provide a rooftop sleeping area.
Living in such a house today requires adapting to the footprint. The central patio has to be rainproof if not covered, so rugs can only go in the alcoves around the sides. Our riad has roofed the central courtyard and added a chandelier. There is lots of natural light.
Bedrooms must adapt to the long, narrow shape and can be dark, though in larger houses the bed is at one end and a comfortable sitting area is at the other end of the room.
A roof terrace can be wonderful and usually has a view over the surrounding neighborhood.
The downside is the flights of narrow stairs that must be climbed to get there. If you plan to have tea or dine on the roof, you must carry trays to the roof from the ground floor kitchen. That shows my prejudice because we eat our meals at home. Not everyone would think about whether to eat in the dining room or on the roof–they’d pick a restaurant!
Upgrades have been made over the last thousand years. The central air shaft is usually surrounded by a railing or otherwise protected. A cover is often used to keep out rain, converting the ground floor into a living area. On the other hand, such coverings, even pale canvas, dim the interior light and close a vent for the kitchen–important for cooks. Keeping in mind that plumbing and sewers are all additions of the 20th century, there is still a need for ventilation after it rains or any time there are sewer troubles.
A medina tower is therefore short on sunlight in the rooms and iffy on fire safety, but safe from attack by barbarians. It’s a wonderful experience.