Fez: a world heritage worthy of preservation

Fez: a world heritage worthy of preservation

By Mouhssine El Hajjami

Morocco World News

Fez, February 24, 2013

The historic city of Fez was founded in the year 789 AC by Moulay Idriss I.

In 809, the city became the royal residence of Idriss II, the son of Idriss. Fez was one of the greatest cities of the Muslim world during the Medieval ages and a zone for religion, arts, science, craft works and trade activities; the city was also classified by UNESCO as a world cultural heritage site and one of the greatest landmarks of Arab civilization in North Africa after Alkairawan in Tunisia. In both its tangible and intangible forms of cultural diversity, Fez constitutes a melting pot where the Arab and other ethnic groups coexist under the banner of Islam.

Today, the Medina of Fez is still playing active socio-economic, religious and cultural roles which all make it an attractive tourist center for foreign visitors. However, over the centuries, the Medina of Fez has started undergoing a continuous process of degradation due to overpopulation, weak and collapsing infrastructure in addition to lack of investments in maintenance and restoration. These very factors in particular have threatened the ability of the Medina to survive as a historical and cultural patrimony for Moroccans, as well as for humanity.

Souk in Fez Medina. Photo by Benjamin Villanti-MWNAs a part of its architectural patrimony, Fez encompasses hundreds of minarets, which stand as a witness on the wealth of religious knowledge and dozens of ancient alleys leading to (Funduqs) hotels or (madrasas) schools. Unfortunately, all of this is threatened with decay and collapse due to the pressures of over urban population and also some neglect from stakeholders. UNESCO observed by the early 1980 that Fez was in danger of losing the original quality that makes it one of the purest zones of Islamic civilization. That same year, UNESCO at its general conference in Nairobi, announced the active safeguarding of the Medina of Fez.

More significantly, the late king Hassan II himself, and other members of the royal family did play an active part in calling for the promotion of the city of Fez. 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 (…) our duty is to instill new life into it and to renovate it so that it may find its ancient traditions once again.”

Souk Sefarine in Fez Medina. Photo by Benjamin Villanti-MWNGoing back to the colonial era, there were some strategies exerted by the French protectorate, which were intended to preserve the material heritage of the city of Fez. In 1912, the French Resident General Marshall Lyaeuty considered the old architectural heritage of the Medina as a form of national heritage that should be conserved and protected. To this very reason, he created the institute of fine arts and historic monuments; the major concern of this latter was the protection of all the historic buildings and the ancient monuments of the city. The implementation of this project had to abide by three important rules of urbanization, which are still referred to even today. These rules vary as follow:

• The necessary separation of the European city, which was at the time in the process of construction, from the Islamic old city. This was done in order to ensure the non-dependence of each part of the city on the other.

• Providing more preservation to the most prominent historic sites and monuments which represent both the history and the architecture of Morocco.

• The implementation of high and modern forms of architectural construction in building Morocco’s new cities.

Painting for sale in the souks of the Medina of Fez. Photo by Benjamin Villanti-MWNThe first decree in this regard was issued in 1914. This decree was meant to preserve mainly the buildings, which stand as an outstanding symbol of both Moroccan art and history such as the artifacts, precious masterpieces and also the unique natural and historic sites that surround the old Medina.

Nowadays, to help maintain the authenticity of heritage inside the old city of Fez, UNESCO has adopted an integrated rehabilitation plan running over 15 years. This plan of rehabilitation was submitted after a five years study by Morocco, the UNESCO and the ADER-Fés (Agence pour la Dedentification et la Rehabilitation de la Medina de Fès) which was created in 1989. This agency, known today as the agency of the development and the rehabilitation of Fez, is a semi-private organization in charge of carrying out and co-coordinating the projects of save guarding the old cities.

Al Qarawiine Mosque in Fez. Photo by Benjamin Villanti-MWNThe ADER agency was run by the former architect and director general of the restoration project Abdellatif EL-Hajjami. The director used to work in coordination with the UNESCO and the Moroccan government throughout the processes of rehabilitation, which the city of Fez underwent in the past. Before starting the project of preserving and restoring the historic buildings, Abdellatif El-Hajjami directed 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 madrasas, 320 mosques, 270 funduqs and over 200 hammams (public baths), houses or public ovens worthy of preservation. The estimated total fund of rehabilitation, which came from the Moroccan Ministry of Cultural Affairs, UNESCO and also the World Bank, was around $600 million as initial funds.

The general rehabilitation strategy has been planning to provide a well-grounded infrastructure to the old Medina of Fez by focusing on the following priorities:

• The improvement of the circulation network by creating accessible emergency circulation network that would meet the requirements of the overall commercial and social activities held inside the heart of the old Medina.

• The restoration plan calls for depopulating the old city by transforming most of the inhabitants to new industrial zones.

• The displacement of polluting industries outside the old Medina to a farther industrial area.

• The program focused on improving the built environment by restoring the demolition of ruins and the old traditional houses that are in a vulnerable state.

• The creation of active tourist circulation flows which would help to alleviate poverty among the young people through the regeneration of job opportunities.

All in all, the restoration plan has succeeded in retrieving and rehabilitating the patrimony of the old Medina of Fez by focusing mainly on the historic sites; however, the plan did not attain all the objectives set previously. Until today, many of the inhabitants in the city are still frustrated about the non-materialization of the ADER promises to restore their collapsing houses.

Thus, the extent to which the rehabilitation project managed to maintain the architectural tissue of the Medina is up to the stakeholders working in the agency to answer for the time being.

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