Historic Preservation

The medina of Fes, 1968. Sefrou is just beyond the distant hills on the right.

A few weeks ago, the New York Times published an article about preservation, or more accurately, the lack of preservation for the Casbah of Algiers. I did a quick lookup and found that the Times had printed a very similar article in 2006. Sadly, efforts to preserve the oldest part of Algiers do not seem to have progressed much in the interval. Both the French and the post-colonial Algerian government seem to have neglected the casbah, and today it has become a decaying slum, a breeding ground for fundamentalists, and a major headache. However, there is nothing unique about this.

Historic preservation in the Middle East and North Africa is everywhere a problem, and has been for a long while. In Morocco, major monuments and archeological sites began to receive serious concern when the French turned Morocco into a colony under the guise of a protectorate. Eager to promote an image of Morocco that was more Pan-Mediterranean and more closely connected to France, archeological sites such as Volubilis were excavated and restored.

Triumphal arch. Volubilis, March 1968. Note the absence of visitors. Nothing gives a better sense of the ruins than to have them to yourself.

The last independent sultans of Morocco had far more important things to worry about than old ruins. When Morocco achieved independence in 1956, its new government realized the value of its national patrimony for its citizens and for a tourism industry that constituted a major source of income for the economy.

Marshall Lyautey, the French Resident-General of the new Protectorate, is credited with the establishment of French rule and its early administration. One of his first and most far reaching decisions was to plan new towns, les villes nouvelles, alongside the existing cities, which became known as medinas, the Arabic word for city.

Fes, 1970, in the ville nouvelle. The Zanzi Bar, my favorite café, was just down the street on the left.
Fes, 1970. The main post office.
Fes, 1970. Most villes nouvelles featured large boulevards, a pleasant place to walk, and an easy way to move troops.

This policy afforded many advantages for the new European population and the French administration, but it resulted in the preservation of the old cities of Morocco intact at the cost of their slowly being left behind and crumbling. Although  the French added water, sanitation and electricity to the medinas, the new cities became the choice of the Moroccan elites and Europeans, while the old towns, under the additional burden of a burgeoning population and migration from the countryside, slowly became slums.

Fes, 1970. Early morning at the Boujouloud Gate, from which two major streets descend into the heart of the city.
Fes, 1970. A less touristic view of the medina terraces.

My boss, Si Abdullah Jaï, who ran the provincial offices of the Ministry of Agriculture in the nineteen sixties, asked me to take some photographs of his old house deep in the medina of Fes. No one lived there any longer and he wanted to sell it. He thought that his large traditional family house might have value in the tourism industry. He was right.

The medinas of Morocco have always been a prime tourist attraction, affording a view of traditional life and its urban forms. None more than Fes, taken as one of the models of the archetypal preindustrial urban form by the urban geographer Gideon Sjoberg. Still walled today, Fes and other medinas are labyrinths.

Fes today. Notice the winding streets. The large road leading into the medina accommodates tourism buses and trucks. It was not there in 1969. Courtesy of Google Earth.
The Sefrou medina, though much smaller than that of Fes, manifests the same pattern of cul-de-sacs and winding streets. Traditional Islamic law did not prevent individuals from encroaching on the public way. Over time, streets became narrower, more irregular, and sometimes had structures built over them.

After passing through gates, its narrow streets wind down into the valley that it occupies before climbing out again. Along the way, many streets branch into dead ends, and encroachment on the public way, a common practice in old Muslim cities, has occasionally resulted in streets so narrow in places that a loaded donkey can barely pass.

Sefrou, 1969. Notice the narrowness of the street and the construction over it.
Fès, 1971. The main street leading down from the Boujouloud Gate, and a busy commercial area.
Fès, 1970. Notice the canyon like street, and the rooms built over it.

The medina of Fès, closed to most motorized vehicles during my time in Morocco, was finally opened by a road that pierces the southern wall and takes cars and buses, notably tourism buses, to the bottom of the valley at the newly constructed Place R’cif, saving tourists the arduous and confusing hike once required to sightsee in the medina.

Fès, 1971. The tanneries, a major tourist attraction, are deep in the center of the medina.

To service tourism a hotel industry has grown up in Fès and other Moroccan medinas, based on the concept of the riad. The riad, usually an old medina building renovated for foreign tourists, offers an accommodation that purports to be traditional, with decorative features to charm tourists. Located in the medinas, riads are close to the major attractions, are accessed by streets that provide local color, and are modestly priced, especially in comparison to large luxury hotels.

Riads, which take their name from the Arabic word for garden, did exist as the homes of a few very wealthy Moroccans in precolonial Morocco, and sometimes, where space was available, did feature sizable gardens. Today, they often reflect the traditional urban courtyard house adapted to tourism. I would not be surprised if Si Jaï’s house, which had huge rooms and a large courtyard, though no garden, is today a tourist establishment.

You would be unlikely to find Moroccans staying in a riad. The Moroccan equivalent of a riad is a slum tenement. The same building holding a riad could easily be subdivided and rented by room to poor Moroccans, without the expense of any renovation. Many medina buildings have, in fact, become tenements in this fashion.

Medinas were also the closest thing to traditional urban life that existed during my days in Morocco, and, I, like many volunteers, was pleased to be able to live in one. We saw the medina as both authentic and romantic, conveniently ignoring the inherent contradictions. My house, described elsewhere in the blog, was on a major street, not in a cul-de-sac, and shopkeepers occupied the ground floor frontage of the house, and that of many of the houses that faced the main streets.

The shop directly opposite the door of my house in Sefrou, and the sons of a couple of the shop keepers. The shops are built into the ground floor of houses.

In the early colonial era, Sefrou still reflected its most traditional form. Today all the land inside the walls, which formerly would have been gardens, is built up. My house was built abutting the city wall, something that would have been a defensive liability when the walls really served to keep people out.

In the mid-twentieth century, a disastrous flood on the Oued Aggaï, which flows through and divides the city, caused significant damages, and forced a deeping of the river bed to avoid reoccurrences. The picturesque sight of Jewish and Muslim women washing their clothes vanished overnight. And the large Jewish quarter, the Mellah, no longer provides a home to Jews, who were numerous in precolonial times.

I seldom entered or left my house without exchanging greetings with neighbors, and bought as much produce as possible from neighboring shopkeepers. From the front room of the house, one could hear and see the bustle in the street below, but the house offered privacy and quiet in its courtyard and other rooms.

Residents, myself included, lived on the first floor, above the shops. The only wall with windows faced the street, and on this day, a procession was passing under the window.

The terrace was a place to do chores, admire the view, especially Bouiblane to the southeast, or simply relax in privacy and get some sun. In the summer the terrace was hot in the middle of the day, but always cool at night. In the winter, one could escape the indoor clamminess, and warm oneself in the sun, when it came out. Ironically, neither Clifford Geertz and his wife nor any of his students, lived in the Sefrou medina, despite writing an important urban anthropology book about Morocco. With young children, a more convenient home worked better for the Geertz family, just as it would have for an upper class Moroccan one.

In the medina, there was overcrowding and poverty, and many Sefrouis, and not necessarily the richest, were fleeing the medinas to the new quarters outside the walls such as Habouna and Derb el Miter and Seti Messaouda, where homes were newer, more easily accessible by car, and less quirky. The newer quarters also had lots for sale.

Sefrou, 1973. A view of a new part of Seti Messaouda quarter, outside the city wall (seen in the background). The houses are larger, and more regular. Along major streets such as this one, the ground floor is reserved for commercial uses.

Today Sefrou has more than doubled in size. Urban growth has swallowed much of the surrounding agricultural land and new quarters have grown up the hillsides around the town. The rapid expansion reminds me of Orange County, California, where roads and housing have replaced the fruit groves that once gave the county its name.

As quickly as locals are leaving, country folk and the poor continue to move into the medina. Overcrowding, poverty, and lack of services and investment, public or private, are quickly turning the Sefrou medina into a slum. This is no new phenomenon. In the sixties it was clearly visible in Fes and other large cities as well as Sefrou, but the population explosion and rising urbanization has accelerated the trend.

In large, modern Moroccan cities such as Casablanca, there was no real medina. Before the Protectorate, Casablanca, without a real port, was not much of a city. The French changed that, building an artificial harbor, and Casablanca grew to be the commercial colossus of the country.

The center of Casablanca, 1968.

With no medina to provide inexpensive housing, urban migrants squatted in makeshift, unregulated settlements called bidonvilles, after the tin cans used in their construction. Elsewhere in the world, this type of settlement is known by various other terms such as favela or shanty town.

The medinas of the traditional centers, being abandoned, provided an economic opportunity for owners to divide old structures into multiple units, often sharing common toilets and courtyard, just as the riad idea offers tourism operators a cheap and attractive method to house wealthy foreigners, desirous of a more “authentic” experience. Housing has co-evolved into trendy riads and seedy tenements, gentrification and decay side by side.

Fès, 1969. An example of multiple families sharing an older house.

The problem for the government of Morocco, and a formidable one, is to address the urban decay, and to preserve the character of the medina, in a time when much of the urban life has moved outside into the growing villes nouvelles or the newer quarters. When the French arrived, Sefrou consisted of nothing but the medina and a small agglomeration called el Qelaa. Now both are almost lost on the city map, surrounded by newer construction.

It is relatively easy to preserve a monument such as the Tour Hassan in Rabat. Dealing with a centuries old city that is turning into a slum is of quite greater magnitude, and, not the least, because there are four major medinas in the royal capital cities of Marrakech, Rabat, Meknes, and Fes, not to mention those in middle-sized cities such as Salé or Tetouan-Oujda, nor in many smaller towns such as Sefrou or Chauen.

A major street in the Rabat medina, 1973. Built on level ground, the streets are more regular.
The Salé medina, looking south across terraces toward the Tour Hassan, and the Bou Regreg River.
This monumental gate, in Meknes, is an entrance to the medina today. 1968.
In Meknes, the French artist Delacroix pained the sultan in the 19th century.

Across the roof tops of houses in the Meknes medina, looking at the ville nouvelle, which is separated from the medina by a valley. Note the modern construction. 1973.
The dyers’ street. Marrakesh, 1969.
Built on a mountainside, Chauen has streets that climb and wind. 1976.

The Government of Morocco has done studies of the various medinas. The World Bank has even done a study on how to preserve and develop the medina of Fes, long a favorite haunt of the banker, David Rockefeller.

One thing seems sure in Morocco. Fancy foreign-owned homes and riads cannot coexist forever with tenements, and that the medinas, that today still fascinate foreigners, will become ghettos of an underclass of poor Moroccans, and eventually crumble.

Many countries face the same issues. In Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia, the Saudis seemed to be proud of the efforts they were making in the old city, but I wondered why, with all the Saudi money, the rehabilitation was not already finished. I suspect that there are fewer and fewer Saudis in old Jeddah than foreigners.

The Saudis like to showcase this house, in the old quarter of Jeddah. Anthony Bourdain ate Saudi recipes on this rooftop in an episode of No Reservations.
Views over old Jeddah. December, 2009.

In modern Iran, Reza Shah just punched through the old cities with straight roads, much the way Haussmann had done in Paris. When the power of the state is concentrated, many things are possible, and in authoritarian governments, where the army secures state power, putting down urban revolts is a priority.

Reza Shah punched long avenues through the traditional cities of Iran. This is either Yazd or Kerman, Iran, 1974.
A Google Earth view of Kerman, Iran. Note the new avenues among the more traditional streets.

In Europe, after the sixteenth century, governments began to tear down walls that no longer served defensive purposes, and constructed roads in their place, leaving only toponyms that reflect the old placement of gates. The subway stations in Paris bearing Porte in their name testify to old city gates.

What will be the future of these ancient cities? Perhaps present trends will simply continue unabated. Then, someday, and God forbid it, an earthquake, like that of Agadir, will level one or two of them in a matter of seconds, diverting all investment into the new towns beside them, and leaving vast graveyards. As the recent fire at Notre Dame demonstrates, a monument that has endured for centuries can perish in minutes.

When you visit the medinas of Morocco, keep in mind that what charms you, the Westerner, is not just a survival from the past, but an artifact of modern policy, and, behind the wall of your riad may well be a family of eight, living in a single room, sharing a kitchen and toilet with eight or nine other families.

Author: Dave

Retired. Formerly school librarian, social studies teacher, and urban planner.

4 thoughts on “Historic Preservation”

    1. Well, Pete, thank you. That is a very generous comment. I have a lot more pictures, many better than some of those I used. Yes, I loved living there, and life in the medina was always interesting, but, first and foremost, it was home.


    1. I do, too. I had an old Simca 1000 for a time, and loved the old Deux Chevaux and R-4s with the shift extending out of the dash.


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