MEKNES, Morocco, (Reuters) – People living near the Lalla Khenata mosque in Morocco’s old imperial city of Meknes say they warned for years that its minaret was in danger of collapse.
The centuries-old tower finally gave way when its muezzin called the faithful to Friday prayers on Feb. 19, crushing or smothering over 40 worshippers to death under sand and clay.
“As the search went on we realised that nearly all those trapped in the debris were dead,” said 29-year-old Red Crescent volunteer Hicham Dahhou. “Most suffocated in the sand”.
Mosques are usually well tended in Morocco but the neglect and collapse of the minaret in Meknes — which the authorities blamed on damage from heavy rains — reflects the long decline of its medinas, or historic cities.
Swathes of the kingdom’s ancient walled towns — symbols of the ephemeral might and wealth of past empires — are crumbling.
The medinas of Meknes and Fez, founded in the 11th and 9th centuries, have deteriorated as the wealthy middle class abandoned sumptuous town houses for less cramped and better organised new neighbourhoods.
Poor people abandoning the countryside took their place and great old houses were split up to make room for several families who usually rented their new quarters, giving them little incentive to preserve the opulent surroundings.
Record foreign investment in Morocco’s property sector has largely bypassed the labyrinthine old medinas.
As upscale housing developments and new seaside resorts nurture a revival of the graceful Andalusian arches, shaded courtyards and fountains of the old imperial cities, the medinas themselves are struggling to rediscover their past glory.
Bushes and grass sprout from sections of the towering ochre walls of Meknes. In Fez, temporary timber frames buttress the bulging walls of centuries-old town houses.
“Many people won’t live in the medina. They say it’s dingy, there are piles of rubbish and the children there are badly educated and foul mouthed,” said Fez guide Kamal. “Once a poor family in the medina earns enough to live better, their first instinct is to get out.”
Meknes governor Mohamed Faouzi said last week that 500 buildings in the medina — once the jewel of the fearsome king Moulay Ismail’s powerful empire — need to be demolished, reinforced or restored, with 160 in danger of collapse.
The fall of the minaret appears to have tarnished Meknes’s image as a tourist destination.
“I’ve not had a single booking since the minaret came down,” said Khizlaine, who manages a guest house in an opulent Meknes riad, or town house. “It’s as if tourists think the whole medina is on the point of collapse, which is just silly.” Both Meknes and its bigger, older sister Fez are classified as UNESCO world heritage sites but the term loses much of its meaning in a crowded, poverty-ridden medina like Fez with its 9,400 streets and over 150,000 inhabitants.
“There are 4,000 buildings that could be demolished and 1,800 are in a very bad way,” said Ali Idrissi Kaitouni, a poet, painter and former political prisoner from Fez.
In 2004, a house collapsed onto a mosque in the city, killing 11 people.
“We said enough is enough — we have got to stop this loss of human life,” said Fouad Serrhini, director of the Fez development agency ADER-Fes. “The only solution was to shore up the buildings that were in a critical state.”
Some 1,200 threatened buildings have been buttressed by scaffolding. Now Serrhini hopes a system of state subsidies, tax breaks and rules to force landlords to take responsibility for their buildings will stop the rot. He said ADER-Fes aims to restore 500 buildings between 2009 and 2011, but a greater challenge is to instil a new dynamic in Fez, a city founded in the ninth century, home to the world’s oldest university and still Morocco’s spiritual capital.
Its decline quickened when colonial power France made Rabat the kingdom’s administrative centre and the coastal towns became the focus of Morocco’s development.
French administrators laid out new, modern neighbourhoods outside the crumbling walls of the country’s cities, with wide boulevards that contrasted with the narrow medina alleyways. “When the coloniser expropriated the land outside the medina, he began to disconnect the medina from its economic and financial potential,” said Serrhini. “But you can’t only blame the colonial power. The medina has decayed for over 150 years.”
Despite their decline, the medinas are still home to schools and teachers, administrative offices and police stations.
Foreigners have turned many homes into guest houses, most of them near the exterior walls so the growing numbers of tourists to Morocco don’t get lost finding their way. But locals say official corruption, bad management by the authorities and murky property ownership rules that make investments riskier are blocking the medina’s revival. “In 30 years, more than half of Fez’s population has changed,” said Kaitouni. “Fez is sick. It no longer recognises its past and has no idea of its future.”