Morocco's deadly earthquake destroys cultural sites

UNESCO World Heritage sites as well as priceless historical landmarks were severely damaged by the biggest earthquake ever recorded in Morocco

The city's most important landmark, the 12th-century Kutubiyya Mosque, has been been badly damaged (Photo: DW)
The city's most important landmark, the 12th-century Kutubiyya Mosque, has been been badly damaged (Photo: DW)


In addition to the rising death toll and the thousands of people injured by the powerful earthquake that hit Morocco on Friday, several cultural landmarks have also been destroyed.

With Morocco being home to nine UNESCO World Heritage sites, the United Nations' cultural organization is making its first cautious assessments of the extent of the damage, though information is still incomplete.

According to UNESCO, several of the country's World Heritage sites have been severely damaged, including parts of the almost 1,000-year-old Medina in Marrakech. The Old City has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985.

The city's most important landmark, the 12th-century Kutubiyya Mosque, has also been been badly damaged.

The minaret of the Kharbouch Mosque in Marrakech's Jemaa el-Fnaa Square has collapsed. The Mellah of Marrakech, or Jewish quarter, is in ruins. The city's famous historic red sandstone city wall has numerous cracks; parts of it have crumbled.

The city, which draws many tourists, quickly undertook clean-up work after the quake, and the first cafés have already reopened. But things look much worse outside the urban center.

The epicenter of the earthquake was in Al Haouz province in the High Atlas Mountains, where entire villages were devastated with high numbers of victims.

First the people, then the cultural sites

"After a disaster like this, the most important thing is to preserve human lives," Eric Falt, regional director of UNESCO's Office for the Maghreb, told The Art Newspaper. However, Falt also emphasized the importance of assessing the damage and restoring tangible and intangible cultural heritage sites.

Of course, after a disaster, there are more immediate needs to be met — can people still be saved; is there enough food and drinking water; do they have access to a safe shelter? But in a second phase, schools and cultural assets will need to be rebuilt, and plans need to begin as soon as possible, explains the UNESCO regional director.

Photos on X (formerly Twitter) show numerous "before and after" pictures of buildings that were destroyed, including the mosque of Tinmal in the Atlas Mountains, one of the most important historical buildings in the country.

"It is a symbolic place in the history of Morocco," says Falt. Its destruction represents an inestimable loss to Morocco's national heritage. The Tinmal Mosque was a contender to be listed as another World Heritage Site in Morocco.

'People have cultural rights'

Cultural monuments are of great importance not only for tourists and historians, but also for the local people affected by the disaster, explains Susann Harder, president of the international cultural property protection organization Blue Shield. "People have cultural rights," she tells DW. "It is important for them to be able to perform their ritual practices at funerals, and to find prayer rooms beyond the destroyed historic mosques, especially at this time."

Rituals and religious holidays strengthening the sense of community can provide stability in difficult times, she adds.

Cultural institutions are therefore extremely important for people who have just lost everything, explains the World Heritage expert.

A cultural identity that has developed over centuries

In Morocco, it is primarily the old towns that have been listed as World Heritage sites, such as the Medina of Marrakech. When such areas are destroyed, people lose part of their cultural identity.

"Such sites are not only important for tourism. Above all, they are living spaces," says Harder. The structures that make up cultural heritage sites have been developed over centuries and have been part of the people's everyday life; it's where they live, shop, pray and work, she adds.

When such sites are damaged by natural disasters or wars, people not only lose an important anchor, but also part of their cultural memory. That's also how a Marrakech resident summarized it for Morocco's The National newspaper: "It's a shock. Our identity is defined by these sites."

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Published: 13 Sep 2023, 7:44 PM