Earthquake in Morocco: a provisional assessment

Morocco. On the night of September 8 to 9, a magnitude 6.8 earthquake hit southern Morocco, an earthquake more powerful than that of Agadir in 1960 which serves as a reference. Marrakech, located 70 kilometers from the epicenter, is one of the areas affected by the destruction. The medina of Marrakech (old city) has been listed as a world heritage site since 1985, and the first findings from the UNESCO regional office for the Maghreb are worrying. Piles of rubble in the alleys, dozens of collapsed houses, particularly in the Jewish quarter, and several cracked minarets of mosques: UNESCO sent a mission on September 9 to assess the damage and secure the damaged buildings with the help of international partners (Aliph Foundation). According to testimonies from residents, the ramparts surrounding the medina (12th century) have partially collapsed in several places. Like most houses in the medina, the ramparts are built of earth, which explains why they were poorly resistant to tremors. A magnitude 7 earthquake in a densely populated area is always a major disaster, such as in Turkey and Syria in February 2023, with 90% of cities destroyed and nearly 60,000 dead.

Minarets are the most fragile

In comparison, the damage in Marrakech is limited although real, and the authorities are particularly concerned about the Koutoubia minaret, the great mosque dating from the 12th century (Almohad dynasty). 77 meters high and built of bricks and red sandstone, this minaret which features a dome topped with metal globes dominates the tourist district of Jemaa El-Fna square, itself listed as a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage since 2008. Videos filmed by residents show dust escaping from the minaret at the time of the earthquake, and the regional UNESCO office reports that numerous cracks have been spotted on the building. However, this minaret held, unlike that of the modern Kharbouch mosque located nearby, a minaret which collapsed on Jemaa El-Fna square. On the museum side, the National Foundation of Museums of Morocco (FNM) reports little damage, except at the Marrakech Weaving and Carpet Museum, opened in 2018: if the textile pieces resisted the earthquake, this is not the case for the ceramic collections which are very damaged.

But Marrakech is not the only area where the earthquake affected heritage because, in the High Atlas, the Almohad mosque of Tinmel (12th century) was almost entirely destroyed. A masterpiece of the Almohad style with colonnades and horseshoe arches, this red brick mosque had been under restoration since early 2023, and the Ministries of Culture and Islamic Affairs were planning a new museum there in 2024 Morocco has submitted the mosque to the World Heritage List since 1995 and hoped to obtain it after the restoration; the Moroccan Ministry of Culture announced that“he will restore the mosque and plan a budget” for this project, but without giving further details.

Another High Atlas site appears to have been damaged, the fortified village of Aït Ben Haddou, in the province of Ouarzazate. Built in the 17th century in adobe, this village surrounded by a palm grove was a stopover on the caravan route and it has been listed as a world heritage site since 1987. The first testimonies report that the granary collapsed, and that the houses and the ramparts would be cracked – information which remains to be confirmed.

This earthquake echoes another natural disaster in the region, the heavy flooding in Libya, in Derna. Although the situation of medieval and Ottoman heritage remains unknown, the authorities report that a quarter of the city was swept away by the waves and that nearly 12,000 people died. Unlike Morocco, Libya benefits neither from the political stability nor from the institutions necessary for a policy of heritage reconstruction.

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