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Volume 44, Number 3May/June 1993

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Preserving a City

O Fez! In you are gathered all the beauties of the world. How many are the blessings and riches that you bestow on your inhabitants. The challenge will tax man's capacities and imagination to the full.  —Amadou-Mahtar M'Bow

Written by Josh Martin
Photographed by Nik Wheeler

Fez, Morocco's ancient center of learning and the arts, is now the focus of one of the world's most ambitious preservation and restoration efforts. It is a project which has been marked by sometimes stormy debate, for there are few cities which evoke as much passion as this one.

The restoration is at once a matter of local pride, national prestige and global concern, for the city represents more than an important collection of monuments. It is the world's largest intact medieval city, preserving traditional artistic skills still visible in the leather, clothing, wood and metal goods produced and sold there. It is also the home of renowned institutions for the study of Arabic and of Islamic theology. And it is a political center, one of the five imperial cities in which the king of Morocco, Hassan II, maintains a residence.

To enter Fez is to be taken by surprise. The city emerges from the matte, earth-toned foothills of Morocco's Middle Atlas Mountains, surrounded by countryside that, in the cold of mid-winter, seems devoid of life: There are few trees, grass is close-cropped by herds of sheep, and even the occasional farm house or rural mosque seems plain and uninviting. Then, at a bend in the road, past low hills on either side, the city emerges, flowing along a crest and into a valley where two small rivers meet and then join the Oued Fez. It looks medieval because it is: Ancient forts guard the old city, in which the square towers of great mosques pierce the sky, and the green roofs of palaces glisten under the North African sun amid an undulating sea of white and yellow-brown buildings. Buses, trucks and pack animals surge in and out of gates in a wall whose ramparts have stood intact for centuries. Within, women in fine silk and men in woolen jellabas - the hooded robe that is the national costume - jostle for space on the narrow streets, competing with pack animals piled high and wide with goods of every description.

Fez means different things to different people. To some, it is the site of the Karaouine Mosque, the second-largest in North Africa and neighbor of the oldest university in the world. To others, it is a center of the decorative arts, world-famous for its leather and metal work. Fez conjures up another image for travelers, defining and preserving the essence of a fabled Arab city, where hundreds of minarets testify to the city's religious fervor, and dozens of ancient portals beckon, leading to fun-duqs (hotels) or madrasahs (schools) or palatial merchants' homes.

All of this was threatened with decay and collapse in this century thanks to the pressures of a soaring urban population and to simple neglect. An official of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recently observed that, by the early 1980's, Fez was "in danger of losing the profoundly original quality which makes it one of the purest jewels of Islamic civilization." Careless repair work, declining standards and the ravages of time had marred many of the city's most famous buildings.

The restoration now underway comprises 43 separate projects dealing not only with the preservation of monuments but also with the revitalization of the regional economy, upgrading of infrastructure and the development of institutions to foster and preserve the city's cultural and intellectual life. The scale of the restoration is large by any standards, involving nothing less than the complete rehabilitation and redesign of a city of 700,000 inhabitants; it is expected to cost more than $600 million and require another 20 years to complete. And at the heart of all this activity is a short, 40-year-old bearded man with a quick smile, a sense of urgency, and vision.

Abdellatif El Hajjami is director general of the restoration project, known officially as the Agence pour la Dédensification et la Réhabilitation de la Médina de Fès and more practically as ADER-FES. An architect by profession and a native of Fez, El Hajjami has served in his post since it was created almost 10 years ago.

Using two main offices, one in a restored merchant's home near the Palais Jamaï in Fez El Bali - Old Fez - and the other in a discreet villa in the French-built Ville Nouvelle, El Hajjami frequently works 18-hour days. "To know something like this, you must live with it," he says. His duties go far beyond those of an architect: He directs a staff of 160 workers and artisans, including an engineer, three architects, an archeologist, a geologist, a lawyer and various computer and documentation specialists.

The restoration project has already identified 11 madrasahs, 320 mosques, 270 funduqs and over 200 hammams (public baths), houses or public ovens worthy of preservation. Some structures are famous: The Karaouine Mosque, the Bou Anania madrasah, the Horlogerie (a clepsydra, or water clock), the Nejjarine Fountain and the Funduq Nejjarine are but a few. Others are only known to locals, who feel they nonetheless represent key aspects of the city's cultural heritage.

"We have identified all structures, not just the monuments," says El Hajjami.

Part of what makes this restoration project unique is broad range of artistic styles and epochs represented by the various monuments, structures and even entire quarters being preserved. But then, Fez today isn't just one city; it is three. There is Fez El Bali, the ancient heart, founded almost 1200 years ago. Then there is Fez El Jdid (New Fez), a mere 700 years old. And finally, there is the Ville Nouvelle, built as an administrative center by the French at the beginning of this century.

Although most attention is being paid to the restoration of Fez El Bali, site of the city's most famous monuments, care is being given to the city's two other principal districts. Restorers say they want to preserve the best of each age - and that involves more than physical repairs, for many see the restoration as an opportunity to revitalize a key center of Islamic culture.

"We now have a new enterprising spirit, but what should we do with it?" asks Nourredine Ayouche, a Fez-born merchant based in Casablanca. "We must rebuild the image of Fez. It is a universal city. We must foster anew the creative spirit in a city that has already produced great philosophers, poets, artists and builders."

When defining Fez, Ayouche uses the French idiom: "It is une ville authentique - a real city," he says. "One finds things there which exist nowhere else."

This fact helps explain why the citizens of Fez -Fassis - are so proud of their city. It is a pride that rests on the knowledge that theirs is a unique center of arts, learning and religion. Fassis go about their lives much as they always have, despite the large numbers of tourists and students who come from all over the world to visit and study. They wear their jellabas and sip endless glasses of sweetmint tea as part of their birthright, and until recently were content to smile benignly at the world around them. But by the early 1970's, civic leaders in Fez knew something was wrong. Many cherished monuments were falling apart, and the influx of rural workers - familiar in every developing country - threatened to overwhelm the city's infrastructure. Gradually, with help at the national and international level, they developed a plan that could give Fez a unique facelift, to make up for the neglect of earlier centuries and restore its architectural glories - while enabling its communities of craftsmen to flourish in centuries to come. Their efforts got a boost in 1976, when UNESCO declared safeguarding the city of Fez to be "a duty of all mankind." In 1980, unesco declared Fez a "world heritage city," and the organization's director-general at the time, Amadou-Mahtar M'Bow, called it "a signal example of what men, moved by the same faith and the same ideal, and coming together from different horizons - from Kairouan or from Córdoba, from east or north or south - have been able to achieve in common."

Fez is the first Islamic and Arab city to be designated a World Heritage Site, joining Venice and Havana among others. But, as M'Bow pointed out, the restoration of Fez "is by its nature a campaign without precedent in the activities of UNESCO."

The restoration effort has drawn on the efforts of all levels of Moroccan society, rich and poor, private and public.

Morocco's King Hassan and other members of the royal family have played active roles in promoting it. Not long ago, the king declared that "the historic role of Fez in the consolidation of civilization in Morocco and in spreading the light of faith and knowledge [make] its restoration one of the missions which it is incumbent on us to accomplish.... Our duty is to instill new life into itand to renovate it so that it may find its ancient traditions once again."

Ironically, says Sylvio Mutal, an urban specialist with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the city's present problems may in part be a result of its past success. "The ancient city was not abandoned," he says. "Far from that, it remains an essential center of production; some two-thirds of the inhabitants of the metropolis live there. Rather, what happened could be seen as the over-activation of the center of a fragile city that, in many ways, remains an exemplary model."

The result, says Mutal, is that pressures mounted with which the city could not cope, to the point that precious architectural ensembles became dilapidated, the ecological balance broke down and water supply systems became saturated, and the city's traditional craft industries were threatened.

The restoration plan calls for depopulating the old city - Fez El Bali - by shifting most of the current inhabitants to new satellite cities and industrial parks. This process has already begun.

When the city was declared a World Heritage Site in 1980, it had 600,000 inhabitants, of whom 300,000 lived in the old quarter. Since then, through various inducements, the population of Fez El Bali has been reduced to a more manageable 200,000, while the total urban area has grown to 700,000. Yet the ancient heart remains densely populated, and at times that density threatens to destroy it. Planners would ultimately like to expand the satellite cities and see the combined population of Fez El Bali and Fez El Jdid reduced to about 100,000.

Planning along these lines began more than 20 years ago, and has involved input from local citizens, national agencies and the international community. In 1972, the Moroccan government turned to UNESCO and UNDP for assistance in preparing an inventory of Fez's buildings; later it turned to those same agencies for assistance in preparing a master plan for the restoration. Key planning sessions took place in 1976, 1982 and 1988, in addition to several public hearings held in Fez and in Casablanca.

When restoration plans were unveiled at a symposium in Casablanca in January of last year, they showed just how complete the thinking has been: There were panel discussions on culture and civilization, to be sure. But projects dealing with the urban environment, health and sports, and development of the regional economy were alsodisplayed. Planners showed how they are seeking to preserve the appearance of ancient buildings, while installing high-tech cable lines and other necessities of modern life. Several architects displayed renditions of vast proposed housing and industrial projects for the Ville Nouvelle and satellite cities. Discussions ranged from the preservation of a 1000-year-old mosque to the building of a new soccer stadium.

As the restoration project moves from planning to execution, it is expected to have its most dramatic impact on the merchants and artisans of Fez El Bali. Only the ubiquitous pack mules seem unaffected by this, retaining their indifference to tourist and citizen alike, commanding the narrow streets which lead from Bab Bou Jeloud down to the Karaouine Mosque at the center of the oldest part of the city. This may change, as many shops which the pack mules serve have already had to curtail their activities because of the restoration work in their vicinity. But few merchants seem to mind. Raiss Abderrafie, a cloth merchant in Fez El Bali, reflected the attitude of many, noting that "while it is causing some difficulties now, we will have a more beautiful city afterward."

Although the final master plan has yet to be completed, work has already begun on a number of historic sites as well as private facilities. "The major problems of the restoration are now known," says Miloud Glibi, director of the Municipal Agency for the Protection of Fez. "The studies are complete."

Raising the necessary funds to realize the complete project continues to be a major problem; with cuts in UN funding and Morocco itself heavily in debt, much depends on private donors and foreign assistance. Of the $600 million estimated cost, some $120 million will be provided by state or local authorities, and another $190 million by "beneficiaries" - for example, the members of a hammam users association, or those who will inhabit restored or new housing, or the merchants in the immediate vicinity of a given monument. The balance, approximately $290 million, will come from gifts and subsidies.

While Fassi merchants, both in Fez and elsewhere, are expected to contribute a healthy share of the donations, appeals are being made throughout the Arab world, as well as to international agencies and individuals concerned with preserving this unique cultural landscape.

The restoration of Fez is thus as much an international project as a matter of national pride. While it is a favored charity of King Hassan II, it has also received assistance and funding from UNESCO, UNDP, Arab and European governments and individuals - including a private donation from Queen Margrethe II of Denmark.

Funding is only one of several challenges facing planners. So much groundwork has had to be done. "Everything about this project surprises me," El Hajjami says. First, the city had to be properly mapped, so restorers knew what they would be working with. Laws had to be developed to protect sites and to enable restorers to take title. New techniques and technologies had to be developed, and old crafts revived.

The project has already had a significant impact on urban planners and archeologists elsewhere. Special computer software was developed to plot each building, its structural condition, and its age. And the Moroccans have set up an Institute for Traditional Building Skills, which now has 15 students, to help revive such long-lost arts as the carved filigree plasterwork which graces many Fassi monuments.

El Hajjami and others know that appearances are important. Over the past century, many buildings were marred by the impedimenta of modern life - electric wiring, bare lights and television antennae. These things are being removed from public sight, and walls and roofs restored to their original style. Cables are to be laid so that those who live in the old city can nonetheless enjoy modern conveniences, while future growth will be carefully controlled.

"The operation exemplifies, by virtue of its scope, one of the major challenges to which humanity must rise if it is to preserve and enrich its cultural heritage in the face of accelerated modernization and industrialization," said UNESCO's M'Bow. "This challenge will tax man's capacities and imagination to the full."

Each ancient site presents unique problems. At the Attarine madrasah, for example, there has been concern that the restoration of tile surfaces could weaken the underlying structure by exposing ancient clay to the elements and by causing vibrations which might dislodge ancient mortar. In the Bou Anania madrasah, archeologists needed to take extra time to explore the original substructure and report on the engineering used to support the current structure. At the Funduq Nejjarine, craftsmen had to be taught ancient skills to adequately restore stone, plaster and wood panels without jeopardizing the physical or esthetic qualities of the building (See sidebar, page 23).

"We developed a strategy to identify the risks and effects," says El Hajjami. He adds, "One cannot begin a restoration project like this without considering the total environment. We are working with a living city at the same time as with a monument."

Restoration work has already begun on several of the most famous sites - scaffolding now enshrouds many mosques and madrasahs in Fez El Bali, including the Bou Anania madrasah, the Horlogerie, the Karaouine Mosque and the Funduq Nejjarine. A dozen historic houses are also being repaired, using traditional material and designs.

El Hajjami, aware of the disruption this can cause, is determined to live up to his responsibilities both as the director of the restoration project and as a Fassi. "This is not just a matter of restoring monuments," he says. "It involves improving life for all the citizens of Fez. It is a social as well as a restoration project."

Josh Martin, a New York-based consultant and journalist, specializes in Middle Eastern cultural and economic developments.

The Funduq Nejjarine
Written by Josh Martin

Deep in the heart of Fez El Bali, a small square attracts a steady stream of tourists and townspeople. On one side is a café and a bookstall, on another a shop selling the sweets so beloved by all Moroccans. But what attracts most visitors is the large building on the third side of the triangular space.

Scaffolding now covers the facade like a web, yet one can still clearly see the outline of the Funduq Nejjarine, the Inn of the Carpenters. When it first opened its doors in the 12th century, the funduq was one of the largest hotels in the world, comparable to the palaces being raised in Europe at the same time, and capable of housing 100 or more merchants. It was designed to meet the needs of a thriving commercial center. The massive double door that marks the hotels entrance can be opened to admit a traveler on camel- or horseback, but includes two smaller panels that swing open to admit persons on foot.

The focal point of area restoration efforts, the site currently employs 21 workers and technicians, including three stone-carvers. As restoration continues, those workers will train others, and some already travel to other sites to provide lessons. Ultimately, Ahmed El Hajjami, chef de chantier or chief engineer at the site, expects this work force to serve as the nucleus of a cadre of restoration workers and artisans. He hopes the experience will rekindle lost skills - delicate plaster or cedarwood carving, wood inlay work, intricate zellij tilework - as well as the esthetic sensibilities that informed them in the past.

Inside, there is a tiled courtyard which all the rooms face, now piled with sand, tiles, scaffolding and tools. Originally, there was a fountain in the middle, where guests could make their ablutions or get a drink of water. An archeologist and a geologist have done some excavation here, but the main purpose is not to find artifacts. Rather, it is to study the foundations of the hotel, and the condition of the subsoil, to make sure that the basic structure is sound and that renovation work will not be endangered.

The Funduq Nejjarine sits on a square which marks the boundary between the carpenters suq (or market) and the henna suq; nearby are the Attarine (perfumers’) and Kissarine (shoemakers’) suqs as well. The square also contains the Nejjarine Fountain, one of several exquisitely tiled, freestanding water fountains that grace the streets and squares of Fez El Bali. Like the funduq, it is being lovingly restored.

Not surprisingly, the funduq was a popular merchants haunt in its heyday, comparable to a five-star hotel today. Inside, the four-story structure is a marvel of pure geometry. Each floor has three or four rooms to a side, each opening onto an internal veranda that overlooks the central courtyard. The ground floor and the "first" floor are graced by heavy cedar beams, the third-floor veranda boasts a geometric latticework railing, while the top-floor veranda is shaded by delicately columned wood screens hinting at the Andalusian influences that played such a key role in the cultural evolution of Fez itself.

The rooms themselves are plain: There is no hint that they may have been more sumptuous during the golden age of Fez. Perhaps this is because much decoration was removed later, reflecting the decline of the city in the 17th and 18th centuries, and the hotel was used to house pack animals. In our own century, it housed students and suffered from a poorly conceived redecoration and renovation effort in 1944. Fortunately, however, the essential structure has survived.

Like many of the other sites being renovated in Fez, the Funduq Nejjarine is expected to have a new function. Planners say it will become a museum and an exhibition space for the works of local artisans, thus welcoming the artisan-descendants of guests long departed.

This article appeared on pages 20-27 of the May/June 1993 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1993 images.