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Volume 53, Number 4July/August 2002

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Re-Greening Marrakech

Written and photographed by Tor Eigeland

In Marrakech, first impressions turn out to be accurate. As I was driving from the airport into the heart of the city, the nearly 1000-year-old madinah, my senses were overwhelmed. The buzz of life and the rush of traffic made an indelible impression, along with the intensely blue sky, the green of the date palms, the ochre of the city walls and houses, and the blue, red, black, white, purple and yellow dresses of the women.

We zipped past well-kept, ample homes, and above the walls of the gardens I could see hints of interior splendor: the tops of citrus and fig trees, date palms and bougainvillea. A cobalt-blue wall reminded me of Mexico, and the pale yellow, elegantly squared minaret of the Kutubiyya Mosque, the 12th-century landmark of Marrakech, lent an Andalusian flavor.There were a few parks, and a few green islands too small to be called parks, but as we approached the heart of the madinah, the traffic got heavier. Narrowing lanes became choked with cars, delivery trucks, horse-drawn buggies and carts, bicycles and unmuffled, smoky motorbikes—not to mention brave pedestrians, who seemed to spend as much time dodging into doorways or narrower lanes to avoid being run over as they spent in getting wherever they were going.

Here in the madinah, the colors had faded almost to disappearing. The gardens and greensward had given way to concrete and mud-brick walls, dust and the gray haze of exhaust fumes. My trip from the airport into the madinah, where nary a tree or a plant now seems to grow, was a metaphor for what has happened to Marrakech itself over time.

Founded in 1070 by an Almoravid chieftain from the Sahara named Abou Bekr, who set up a permanent camp and created agricultural fields here at the foot of the High Atlas mountains, Marrakech became the city of North Africa most renowned for its greenness. During the 12th and 13th centuries, the Almohads created two great gardens on the city's outskirts; though badly in need of maintenance and restoration, they still exist today: the 445- hectare Agdal Gardens (1100 acres) and the 88-hectare Menara Gardens (220 acres). Mohamed el Faïz, author of The Historical Gardens of Marrakech: Ecological Memoir of an Imperial City, writes that these were centers of fruit and vegetable production as well as sites for the introduction, testing and acclimatization of new plant species. They also served ceremonially as venues for swimming and other sports, receptions, royal festivals and military training exercises.

By el Faïz's account, Marrakech must have seemed a paradise to visitors of earlier times. Here was a bustling center where one strolled among vegetable and aromatic herb gardens, fruit orchards, date palms, orange groves, grapevines and olive and carob trees. Fragrant flowers and jasmine climbed on the walls. Shade from the North African sun could be found under trees and daliyas, or grape arbors. Water came via underground canals from the Haouz plain, whose water table is fed by rain and snow in the High Atlas.

All this changed over the last century as Marrakech became also an industrial city and—like many other cities in the world—a magnet for rural migrants. Between 1900 and 1950 the city's population doubled to 200,000, and from 1960 to 1982 the number of inhabitants more than doubled again. There is no more recent census, but common wisdom holds that as of 2000, about one million people live in Marrakech. In the madinah itself, which accounts for about 40 percent of the city's total area, the population has quadrupled in the past century from 60,000 to around 235,000. The tourism industry has lately played an important part in that growth

As a result, the Marrakech madinah is overbuilt, and its green spaces have been largely sacrificed in the process. In addition, walls and foundations, many of which date back to the 12th century, are deteriorating, and scores of lovely old buildings, arches and monuments are crumbling, mostly due to wear and tear and lack of maintenance. The smell of jasmine blossoms is a thing of the past.

All this presents a challenge to those who seek to balance the city's continuing growth with the enhancement of those factors that make it lively, vibrant and fascinating. In 1985, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared the madinah a World Cultural Heritage Site. Since then, among the most urgent of the challenges has been the re-greening of the madinah in a way that integrates the new and the old. Among the regional and international organizations that are assisting in this restoration—mostly of buildings but also of the famous Kutubiyya minbar, or pulpit—a lead role is held by the 10-year-old Austrian-based ARCH (Art Restoration and Cultural Heritage) Foundation. With more than a dozen projects running in seven countries, the organization is overseen by its founder, archduchess Francesca von Habsburg. In Marrakech, the day-to-day work is principally in the hands of ARCH'S conservation director, Lori Anglin.

Another driving force in the greening of the city is American ethnobotanist Gary Martin, founder of the UK-based Global Diversity Foundation (GDF), who moved to Marrakech in 1996. He hopes to learn from Marrakech's success to assist similar projects in Fiji, Mexico and Malaysia. Up until very recently, he says, greenery in the madinah was more often uprooted than cultivated.

During his survey of existing plants in the madinah, Martin says, "We got talking to Ould Bouya Ahmed, a traditional healer and circumciser who has a shop next to the famous Mouassine Fountain. He told us there used to be two beautiful daily as here which were planted by his father, a man of the same profession. The daliyas came up from a corner and made a two-level horizontal arbor here, one with a white fruit variety, and another with red grapes. It gave shade to the fountain and a lot of allure to the whole place. Then, when Marrakech hosted a conference of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1994, the city embarked on a beautification campaign, and a great number of plants were destroyed so that paving tiles could be laid down. This daliya suffered the fate of the others. Talk about the impact of globalization on the madinah!"

Thus re-greening the madinah is, he explains, often a matter of adding plant life in a large number of very small places. "We come back and reverse that process. We take the cement up in places, plant grapevines, let them grow, let them give cover. It is ecologically sustainable, culturally appropriate, and it's even economically useful, in that people harvest the grapes. It gives shade where tourists and the local people walk through, where people sell rugs and pots. And when you start talking to people about this, they notice and say, 'Hey, where have all the green spaces gone, why have we turned this into a city of concrete and mortar?'"

Backed by members of the Moroccan royal family and with the support of local authorities, ARCH and the GDF have spent nearly two years documenting and beginning to reestablish the vegetation of the Marrakech madinah, as well as restoring arcades, fountains, public baths and marketplaces. As a consultant for ARCH, it was el Faïz who drew up the first re-greening plan in September 2000. Five months later, a Moroccan-facilitated workshop drew up an action plan to be "carried out with the residents of the madinah... to maintain and replant bitter oranges, dates, figs, grapes, mulberries, olives and other traditional species that produce fragrant or showy flowers, fresh fruit or shade.... Newcomers and longtime residents are encouraged to recreate gardens in privately owned courtyard houses (riyads) and former caravan hotels (fondouks)."

After their surveys and an inventory of remaining cultivated plants, the teams tilled the collective memory of madinah residents to make sure the plans would fit the city's heritage. Already, some daliyas have been restored and a Regreening the Madinah manual is in preparation to aid anyone who wants to participate in restoring a garden.

With the support of students, parents and the Maghrebio Association, as well as GDF and ARCH, Morocco's Ministry of Education has overseen a one-hectare (2 1/2-acre) pilot project at the Ibn Abi Sofra school, one of the madinah's poorest. Jalil Belkamel, professor of science and technology at the University of Marrakech and a founder of the Maghrebio Association, says the garden space was "a wasteland" abutting the school, many of whose 615 students, because of poverty, suffer from diets that are both insufficient and unbalanced.

In response, says Belkamel, "We are creating a vegetable garden and fruit orchard there that will help feed a lot more of the children, at least 100 in the first year. The garden will help them understand about plants and it will give more greenery to the madinah. There will also be peach and orange trees and aromatic plants used in Moroccan 'mint' tea. What is very important is that this will be entirely an organic garden—no chemical fertilizers or pesticides. We have to teach the local people that there is no need to use these things. Plants will be very carefully selected and I will furnish all the aromatic plants. There will also be some animals, like goats, rabbits and chickens, which will feed the children as well as give them contact with animals." This spring, the first plants went into the ground.

Of the 10 micro-projects proposed so far by ARCH, three are already complete. I was present for the inauguration of the newly restored Wool Market, or Suq Laghzel, the only area in the madinah where the retail trade is run by women.

Having fallen into disrepair, the earthen brown buildings around the small covered market square were crumbling. Participants in the three-month effort were the local government, the merchants themselves, the ARCH building conservation team and the GDF, with funding assistance from the Olympus Europe Foundation. The joy that evening was unrestrained, and the stars, without a doubt, were the archduchess Francesca von Habsburg and the women merchants, in a happy meeting of the Arab and European worlds. All dressed the part, the archduchess in white and the ladies of the suq in their multicolored finest. There was a ribbon-cutting, speeches and an art exhibit by a girls' school. Grapevines, the start of new daliyas, were planted and ceremonially watered by visiting dignitaries. When the archduchess made a round of the market, hugs and kisses were spontaneously exchanged, and when the merchants started dancing around her, she gamely danced right along.

"This renovation was a huge disruption of their lives, which could have created a lot of enemies and animosity," said von Habsburg. "But the women of the market got into it from the word go. They have been working, rolling up their sleeves, participating, and they're so proud of their space now! And all the other shop owners in the suq—how they've improved their stores, inside and out!" Indeed, the men of the shops along the periphery of the Wool Market undertook façade repairs, painted or replaced doors, and fixed or replaced awnings, too.

"More people are visiting the suq and many locals come to check it out," says ARCH'S Lori Anglin, who has tracked the success of the project since its opening. "Every night it is cleaned, and a few women who were formerly of the suq have returned and have been assigned a place to trade."

It's this kind of collaboration, she says, among the merchants and the assisting agencies, that is the real seed of Marrakech's re-greening. "When people get together to define the qualities they value in a community and then plan the conservation of those values, that's urban conservation."

Tor Eigeland (www.toreigeland.com) is a free-lance photographer and writer living in Garganvillar, France. He has contributed regularly to Aramco World and Saudi Aramco World since 1965.

This article appeared on pages 28-33 of the July/August 2002 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 2002 images.