As soon as we enter the Medina, I lose my bearings. Dr. Mohammed Benaboud leads me down one street and up another, in one courtyard and out the other side, past shops selling all the same items, with each vendor promising a better price. Finally, we round a corner and reach our destination. He bids me enter through a small, unassuming door in the whitewashed wall. As I step in, the change in atmosphere is palpable: the sedate cool of the first room is a jarring shift from the heat and stench of the streets. Eight reservoirs of clear, still water stand against one side of the room, and natural light spills in from the frosted glass ceiling. As I move through the rooms, it becomes clear that I have entered into a different world entirely.

Dr. Benaboud smiles. “Take some pictures,” he said, “and then we’ll go up to the roof.” From the roof we can see the stepped skyline of the city as it cascades down the northern escarpment of the Rif Mountains. As we pass out of the house again, I ask about the small reservoirs of water. These, he explains, are part of the elaborate Skundu system, a complex network of clay pipes, unique to Tétouan, that channel water from the mountains to many of the Mosques and large houses in the city. They are one aspect of Tétouan’s significant and overlooked heritage that Dr. Benaboud is seeking to preserve.

Dr. Mohammed Benaboud is Professor of History at the University of Tétouan, and for the past 25 years has led grassroots initiatives to preserve Tétouan’s built heritage. His most recent project is his most ambitious: to restore five houses, each from one of the past five centuries, using only the materials and techniques available during that period. In order to achieve this, he has employed the specialized knowledge of skilled artisans and architects, for whom Tétouan is well-known. The purpose? To serve as a model for how the city council can incorporate Tétouan’s rich heritage into its future urban development.

I approached Tétouan from the mountains, but the city unequivocally faces the sea. For the past 800 years, it has been a refuge for pirates, travellers and asylum seekers, and has been repeatedly sacked and traded between warring dynasties, the marks of which are born in the palimpsest of different architectural styles on display in the medina. Home to some half a million people, it is by no means a small town, with growth spread outwards along the valley bottom and up the mountainside. However, you would be forgiven for having not heard of it: it is conspicuously absent in the images of Morocco sold abroad, despite its status as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1997. Within Morocco, the town is known as a cultural capital, with a fine arts school, a renowned annual international lute festival, and an active cultural life that celebrates its Andalusian identity. When King Mohammed VI ascended to the throne in 1999, he established a palace in Tétouan, where he returns for several months each summer.

As we continued our tour of the medina, Dr. Benaboud pointed out several places where the council had slapped on cheap, thin paint to a wall to patch the original degraded whitewash, or had replaced wooden beams supporting ancient archways with iron ones. “The problem is this:” he said, “the laws they apply in the medina are the same laws they apply in the modern city.” Repairs are made on an ad-hoc basis, rather than with any sort of comprehensive plan for how to conserve the historical integrity of the medina. For Dr. Benaboud, historical integrity is everything, for although Tétouan’s medina is small, it is one of the few left in Morocco that has not been irrevocably altered to conform to the demands of Morocco’s mass tourism industry.

Tourism in Morocco has quadrupled in the last two decades, reaching 10.17 million international arrivals in 2015, thus making it the most visited country on the African continent. It also has one of the fastest growing tourism sectors for both international and national tourists alike. Much of this is due to its favourable location – a short hop across the Straights of Gibraltar from Europe – but it is also down to the efforts of the Ministry of Tourism, which has made huge efforts to craft Morocco’s image abroad and make it marketable to a western population wary of travel to north Africa and the Islamic world in general.

The images of the country’s heritage sold to international tourists are steroidal: kaleidoscopically-coloured medinas stand alongside foamy-white sand dunes; the jagged peaks of the High Atlas mountains alongside the flat blue expanse of the Atlantic ocean. It is these images of an ‘exotic’ and ‘primitive’ Morocco that have so appealed to tourists seeking the ‘authentic’. And while these images have been incredibly successful at drawing in visitors, the impact upon Morocco’s cultural heritage is equally tangible. In order to meet the expectations such exotic images induce, local economies have become warped, with mass-produced tourist souvenirs beginning to replace locally-produced goods of a higher quality craftsmanship. In addition, the historical integrity of many of UNESCO’s 9 cultural heritage sites, including the medinas of Fez, Marrakesh, and Essaouira, are under threat, notably due to the huge infrastructural demands of mass tourism that have resulted in uncontrolled urban development and unregulated alterations to protected buildings in some ancient medinas.

Mercifully, Tétouan has not suffered the same entrapments that have afflicted Marrakesh. As Dr. Benaboud and I continued our tour through the medina, I still saw many local craftsman at work in their market stalls, and had to push my way through the crowds of locals bartering at the fish counter. At the leather tanning baths, I was the only visitor as a group of five men carried out the unenviable job of bathing and drying hides, a process that has been going on here for 400 years. Despite this, however, Dr. Benaboud notes that the town has not been able to take advantage of the lucrative offerings tourism brings.

“How can you have tourism here when you don’t have a strategic plan for its development?” he says, sitting in a café on the Place Hassan II, “It just doesn’t exist.” He is adamant that the Ministry of Tourism should be doing more to promote Tétouan as a centre of tourism, although he acknowledges the problems that other cities have faced. The development of Tangier as an economic and tourism centre over the past twenty years, he admits, has been “chaotic”. In the absence of any international tourism to provide the requisite funds or government impetus for heritage preservation, however, the responsibility falls to local organisations and individuals, such as Dr Benaboud, to make the case for its survival.

To this end, the medina’s inscription as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997 should have raised its profile and conferred some responsibility for its protection. Indeed, the UNESCO website profile for the Medina of Tétouan states that “the services concerned and the local authorities and associations demonstrate a strong will and conviction in favour of preserving and conserving the property.” However, notes Dr. Benaboud, “UNESCO is totally absent. They are just as bureaucratic as our local and national administrations.” Where UNESCO has intervened, it has done so where the government wants them to, notably in those cities high on the tourism agenda, and in the form of heritage ‘training schemes’. “We can train them if they want – we don’t need their training.” Dr. Benaboud retorts with a chuckle. The real problem, he contends, is that “there’s no money coming from UNESCO”. Indeed, while World Heritage status has resulted in a great deal of tourism revenue for Fez and Marrakesh, Tétouan has seen none of it.

However, there is a much bigger shift under way that poses a more significant threat to Morocco’s past. Tétouan is changing: its young population are moving out, and not just to other nearby towns. I took a walk one evening with a young student from the University of Tétouan, an engineer who stated repeatedly that his one aim was to get to Europe do to do a PhD. “I cannot do what I want to do here – there is no money, there are no opportunities” he lamented. So far, the future of Tétoaun’s past has been assured by grass-roots efforts from long-term residents who feel that their identity is wrapped up in the city’s unique heritage. If the changes afoot in Morocco are the same as those taking place across many North African countries – where young and educated individuals are increasingly trying their chances in Europe and elsewhere – then such long-term residents will be a dying breed. Indeed, how can people focus on preserving the past when they do not feel assured of a future? For the moment, however, Dr. Benaboud is optimistic: “The people of Tétouan are extremely aware of their heritage.” As long as this remains true, he is confident the fight will continue in the streets and houses to preserve what is important about this great city.


Alex Walmsley

Alex Walmsley

Alexander Walmsley is a writer and postgraduate student of archaeology at the University of Geneva, Switzerland, specialising in West African prehistory. His work appears in Atlas Obscura, The Ride Magazine, and Litro Magazine, among other publications.