A medina is the old part of a town or city, found in many countries of North Africa, not just Morocco. It is typically walled, and contains narrow streets, fountains, palaces and mosques. Many medinas are car-free as there is not enough space in the alleyways for cars to pass. The word "medina" means city or town in modern-day Arabic.
All Arab cities with some history have their medina. The Prophet Mohammed founded the first Islamic community in a city named Medina, second only to Mecca in importance, and it quickly became the prototype for other towns in the Arab world.
To a follower of the Islamic faith the pursuit of the ideal of a just and ordered city was obligatory. It is believed that on the Day of Judgement men and women will be assessed not only on their own merits but also on their performance in society. The design of the medinas, therefore, reflected communal values. Each quarter contributed to the benefit of the whole.
Even during the French and Spanish protectorates, the integrity of the medinas was respected. Marshal Lyautey, the first French Resident-General, decreed that new developments serving the European administrators should be set apart from the medinas in order to preserve the old towns’ way of life. Hence the new towns, or villes nouvelles, which were built outside the original city walls.
However, such good intentions have created their own problems. Though many of the medinas are intact, they have generally lost their administrative and political importance to the new towns. After independence, the richest and most influential families often moved to the more modern quarters vacated by the Europeans, leaving the medinas to the poor.
Fez embodies all the problems facing medinas in the modern world. For centuries it was the political and cultural capital of Morocco and is still seen as the centre of intellectual endeavour. But its 1,200-year-old medina relies upon the interdependence of industries and social structures for its survival. Contrary to some visitors’ impressions, it doesn’t exist as a museum, and its souks do not stock merely tourist trinkets; the Fassis rely on their industries, and their leather goods, silverware and cedar work are sold throughout the country to Moroccans. Over 200,000 people live and work in the medina, and it’s clear to anyone wandering through the packed souks that tourists are irrelevant to most of the inhabitants.
Overcrowding is the main cause of Fez’s ills. Over the past 50 years people have been moving into the town from the countryside to find work and fulfil dreams of prosperity, putting Fez under severe strain. Certain public infrastructures, such as water supplies and 13th-century sewage systems, are at breaking point.
But there is cause for optimism. Unesco is working in partnership with the World Bank and the Italian government to try to keep the medina as a working structure, keeping the medieval craft traditions alive – it is the survival of these trades that contributes to the survival of the medina itself.
In recent years, there has been a considerable surge in tourism, especially in Fez and Marrakech, which has kick-started not only the buying and renovation of decaying riads into guesthouses and boutique hotels but the general gentrification of the medina as a whole. There are increasing numbers of expats choosing to live in the medina, too, and their work on rescuing some of the city’s most historic houses is a vital contribution in helping preserve these historic ancient towns.
Read more about the cultural features of Morocco in Insight Guides: Morocco
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