On our 2019 Moroccan Discovery tour, we had the opportunity to visit 6 of the country’s 9 UNESCO World Heritage cultural sites. UNESCO, or the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, “seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity” and preserves 1121 World Heritage sites in 167 countries across the globe.
Rabat - “Modern Capital and Historic City: a Shared Heritage”
Our tour started in Rabat, Morocco’s modern capital city. Designated as a cultural heritage site in 2012, the blend of Western and Islamic architecture in this city was an ideal introduction to the diverse cultural identity of the country. The oldest parts of the city date to the 12th century, including the Hassan II Mosque, the construction of which began in 1184. Juxtaposed to this ancient city, a new town was constructed between 1912 to 1930 under the French Protectorate, giving parts of the city a distinctly Parisian feel. My favorite part of the city was the old kasbah located along the sea, with its distinctive blue walls.
Historical City of Meknes
Following our visit to Rabat, we traveled on to a brief stop in Meknes, designated as a cultural heritage site by UNESCO in 1996. While the city was founded in the 11th century by the Almoravid dynasty, it became the capital under the rule of Sultan Moulay Ismaïl, who ruled from 1672-1727. The focus of our visit was the incredible royal stables and adjacent granary built at the command of Sultan Moulay Ismaïl. While much of the structure has collapsed as the result of a 1755 earthquake, the ruins of these huge structures - built to house 12,000 horses and to store enough grain to feed those horses for 20 years - still awe visitors with their cavernous rooms.
Archeological Site of Volubilis
Not far from Meknes lie the ruins of the city of Volubilis. Established in the third century BC, the site became a capital of the Mauretanian kingdom, before eventually becoming an outpost of the Roman Empire by the first century AD. Eventually, the city was abandoned and lay largely uninhabited for hundreds of years. During the French colonial period, much of the city was excavated, with restorations completed in the years following Moroccan independence in 1955. In 1997, the site was designated as a UNESCO cultural heritage site for its “outstanding importance demonstrating urban development and Romanisation at the frontiers of the Roman Empire and the graphic illustration of the interface between the Roman and indigenous cultures.” It was incredible to wander the ruins and marvel at the incredible tile mosaics still visible all over the site.
Medina of Fez
While no longer the capital city of Morocco, the city of Fez is still considered by many to be the cultural and spiritual center of the country. Fez was founded in the 9th century and it is the home of the oldest university in the world. The city rose to its height in the period from the 13th -15th centuries under the Marinid dynasty who favored it as their seat of power over the city of Marrakech, building a new section of the city, Fez Jedid, next to the more ancient footprint of the city (Fez El-Bali). During our visit we explored the winding streets of both the “new” and old sections of the city and we were able to appreciate the diverse architectural forms and interwoven cultural heritages that led it to be named Morocco’s first UNESCO site in 1981.
Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou
On the road to the city of Ouarzazate, we passed many ksars, but none as impressive as the Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou. By definition, a ksar is a group of buildings built from earthen materials, surrounded by high walls, common to the pre-Saharan area between the Atlas Mountains and Morocco’s border with Algeria. A model of this type of architecture, Ait-Ben-Haddou was designated as a cultural heritage site in 1987.
Medina of Marrakech
The final UNESCO heritage site visited on our tour was the bustling city of Marrakech. Following its founding in 1070 by the Almoravids, Marrakech remained the political, economic, and cultural capital of the country for centuries before its replacement by Fez. Besides the meandering corridors of the old medina, one of the most incredible sites of the city is the Koutoubia Mosque. At 77 meters high, the surviving minaret of this mosque was completed around 1195 and is a towering example of classic Moroccan Islamic architecture, emulated both during its time and down through the ages.
Centre, UNESCO World Heritage. “Archaeological Site of Volubilis.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre, whc.unesco.org/en/list/836. Accessed 30 Nov. 2020.
---. “Historic City of Meknes.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre, whc.unesco.org/en/list/793. Accessed 30 Nov. 2020.
---. “Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre, whc.unesco.org/en/list/444.
---. “Medina of Fez.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre, whc.unesco.org/en/list/170. Accessed 30 Nov. 2020.
---. “Medina of Marrakesh.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre, whc.unesco.org/en/list/331. Accessed 30 Nov. 2020.
---. “Rabat, Modern Capital and Historic City: A Shared Heritage.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre, whc.unesco.org/en/list/1401. Accessed 30 Nov. 2020.
World, UNESCO. “UNESCO World Heritage Centre - World Heritage List.” Unesco.org, 2016, whc.unesco.org/en/list/.