UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Morocco

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The World Heritage Sites in Morocco are a unique mixture of Arab, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Roman influence. The sites range across Morocco, from the north to the south of the country.

UNESCO World Heritage Sites are unique sites that are geographically and historically identifiable, and have a special cultural, scientific, or physical value. International conventions that UNESCO administers for practical preservation legally protect these landmarks.

Since the kickoff of the program in 1972, UNESCO listed 1,052 sites in Morocco. Eight-hundred-and-fourteen of them are cultural, 203 are natural, and 35 are mixed properties.

Morocco is home to nine UNESCO World Heritage sites, more than any other African country. These landmarks that civilizations created ages ago show minimal changes. Following are the nine heritage sites that convey Morocco’s authenticity.

Volubilis

One of the  authentic sites in North Africa, Volubilis, near the city of Meknes, covers an area of 42 hectares with a 2.6 kilometer circuit of walls. The site dates back to 300 B.C., centuries before the construction of any of the other World Heritage Sites on the list.

The archaeological site of Volubilis used to be the capital of the Kingdom of Mauritania. The Amazigh communfounded it, before it grew rapidly under Roman rule from the first century A.D. onward.

The city fell to local tribes around the year 285 until the eighth century, when it became the seat of Idris Ibn Abdallah, founder of the Idrisid dynasty.

UNESCO finally identified Volubilis as a World Heritage Site in 1997 for being “an exceptionally well-preserved example of a large Roman colonial town on the fringes of the empire.”

Currently, anyone can visit the historical site and see the archways, ancient bath chambers, and mosaics.

The archaeological site of Volubilis is a historically rich landmark and reflects the Mauritanian, Roman, and Arabo-Islamic cultures.

The City of Meknes

Brimming with Hispano-Moorish style architecture, Meknes incorporates components of Islamic and European design. Monumental gates that were constructed from materials looted from Volubilis protect the city.

Meknes dates back to A.D. 1601 and is located in the Saiss plain between the Middle Atlas and the pre-rifan massif of Zerhoun. Meknes is one of four imperial cities in Morocco and the sixth most populous city in the kingdom.

Meknes found its name from the Amazigh tribe of Miknasa, who dominated eastern Morocco in the eighth century. The city flourished as the country’s capital in the 17th century under the reign of Sultan Moulay Ismail, son of the founder of the Alaouite dynasty.

Moulay Ismail built the 25 kilometer long walls that border the city and established a massive imperial palace complex including 25 mosques, 10 hammams, vestiges of fondouks (inns for merchants), and private houses. The city’s extensive fortification and monumental gates reflect the grandeur and opulence of the Alaouite dynasty.

The sultan now rests in a lavish mausoleum located inside his former kasbah (a traditional castle), now considered an important historic and religious site in the city.

The large El Hedim Square represents the heart of the medina; families come to the square in the evening for a stroll, to play football, and to listen to musicians.

The Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou

The term “ksar” refers to a group of earthen buildings strategically clustered together and surrounded by high defensive walls and corner watchtowers found in traditional pre-Saharan habitats.

Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou is located in the foothills on the southern slopes of the High Atlas, in the Ouarzazate Province.

The collective grouping of dwellings dates back to the 17th century and illustrates the main elements of Southern Moroccan architecture. Inside the defensive walls, the community area consists of houses crowded together. Some are modest while others are comparable to small castles with high mud-brick angle towers. The ksar also has a mosque, a public square, a caravanserai (a roadside inn), two cemeteries — both Muslim and Jewish — and the sanctuary of the Saint Sidi Ali.

The ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou has preserved its earthen construction, being perfectly adaptable to the climatic conditions and natural environment. The ksar has also featured in many great Hollywood movies such as the 2000 classic “Gladiator” and most recently, the HBO series “Game of Thrones.”

In 1987 UNESCO added the ksar to the World Heritage list for its impressive history and photogenic Southern Moroccan architecture.

Medina of Essaouira (formerly Mogador)

Medina of Essaouira, previously Mogador (meaning small fortress), is an outstanding and well preserved example of an 18th century fortified town.

On the west coast of Morocco, facing the Atlantic Ocean, lies the medina of Essaouira. French military architect Theodore Cornut designed it after the Alaouite Sultan, Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdallah, who wanted to make this small Atlantic medina a royal port and a Moroccan commercial center open to the outside world, invited him to do so.

Constructed under the vision of the French architect, Essaouira is an exceptional portrait of contemporary European military architecture melted into Arab-Muslim design.

The city served as a major international trading seaport, linking Morocco with Europe and the rest of the world.

Outside of the city walls is the Skala du Port. The sky, the sea, and even the boats of the fishing harbor all make blue the dominant color.

The medina of Essaouira with its impressive European military architecture, great beaches, and nice climate, which earned the city its place on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2001.

Medina of Fez

The Idrisid dynasty founded the Medina of Fez between A.D. 789 and 808. The Medina of Fez is Morocco’s oldest imperial city. Fez served as the capital of Morocco until 1925 while maintaining its position as Morocco’s cultural and spiritual center.

Many know Fez as the best-preserved historic medieval city of the Arab world. This landmark conserved most of its principal monuments that date back more than 10 centuries. The city boasts a high concentration of mosaic displays and intricate artisanal work, such as madrasas, fondouks, the royal palace, mosques, and fountains.

The imperial city is also home to the University of Al-Qarawiyyin, the oldest existing, continually operating university in the world. Fatima al-Fihri founded it in 859 and it subsequently became one of the leading spiritual and educational centers of the Arab-Muslim world.

The Medina of Fez is also famous for being one of the biggest car-free urban areas in the world.

Many call Fez the spiritual heart of Morocco. UNESCO recognized its medina as a World Heritage Site in 1981 for its intoxicating example of culture, heritage, and preserved architecture.

Medina of Marrakech

The Almoravids (an Amazigh dynasty) founded the Medina of Marrakech. Historians argue about the exact date of the city’s founding but generally agree Marrakech’s founding occurred between 1062 and 1072. It is the fourth largest Moroccan city and is nestled along the foothills of the Atlas Mountains.

The Muslim world considered it its political, cultural, and economical hub during the first century. The imperial city earned the nickname of “Red City” due to its terracotta-colored mudbrick architecture.

The Red City possesses an impressive collection of monuments such as the kasbah, Koutoubia Mosque, Badia Palace, Ben Youssef Madrasa, Saadians tombs, the Bahia Palace, and Jamaa El Fna Square that has become the symbol of the city since its foundation.

UNESCO inducted the Medina of Marrakech as a World Heritage Site in 1985 for its splendid number of architectural jewels and art that embody an impressive example of a living historic medina, warranting universal recognition.

Medina of Tetouan (formerly Titawin)

Situated in the north of Morocco, between the Rif Mountains and the Mediterranean Sea, is the medina of Tetouan, one of the smallest but still historically significant UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Morocco.

The city of Tetouan, nicknamed the White Dove, has served as a point of connection between Morocco and Andalusia since the eighth century. Andalusian refugees who the Spanish had expelled built the city.

The architecture of the city reveals the prominent Andalusian influence and Hispano-Moorish character, surrounded by historic walls. The only way to enter the city is through its seven grand gates. Inside the city, you can find open spaces and public buildings such as fondouks, mosques, zawayas, and the artisanal and commercial markets.

With its appealing and authentically historic design and Andalusian-Moroccan cultural blend, it is no wonder that Morocco’s medina of Tetouan found itself on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list in 1997.

El Jadida (formerly Mazagan)

Located on the Atlantic coast, 90 kilometers south of Casablanca, the Portuguese built the city of El Jadida in the 16th century as a fortified colony. It stands as a superb model of the cross-cultural exchanges between Europe and Morocco.

Taken over by Morocco in 1769, El Jadida has gone from being a Portuguese fortress never penetrated by enemies, to a commercial center, and now a multicultural community embracing people from all religions.

El Jadida is home to many outstanding landmarks such as the Church of the Assumption, the Grand Mosque, and an abandoned synagogue. The most important landmark is the Portuguese Cistern, which is famous for its thin layer of water covering the floor that creates a stunning mirror image of the expansive, vaulted ceiling.

UNESCO designated Morocco’s El Jadida as a World Heritage Site for its well-preserved and magnificent Portuguese architecture.

Rabat

Founded in the 12th century and now the capital of the kingdom, Rabat is considered the largest and most ambitious modern urban project built in Africa in the 20th century and the most complete.