Taza, the Medina of shimmering words and pale stones

Taza, the Medina of shimmering words and pale stones

10/06/2021 by Nassima Chahboun

The city of Taza lies at the saddle between the Atlas and the Rif mountains, in the north of Morocco. The medina (from the Arabic word madinah, meaning “city”) is the historic part that dates back to the pre-Islamic era and represents an urban and architectural palimpsest illustrating the succession of several Islamic dynasties.[1]

Due to its strategic location at the crossroads between the east and the west, Taza played a key role in the geopolitical transformations of the Moroccan kingdom until the start of the French protectorate.[2] After independence, the epic of this city came to its end and many monuments in the medina were partially or completely lost.

Today, walking through the narrow streets of the medina of Taza resembles walking over a shrouded history, and passing by hundreds of stories hidden behind the faded walls and the ever-closed doors. However, if the buildings have lost their ability to depict the local culture and the spirit of the place, the words that have been written about the city a few centuries ago are still alive and still able to convey a genuine image of its glorious past. Today, the genius locus of the medina of Taza is not found in the physical space, but rather in narratives and poetry.

In this article, the medina will be presented through a confrontation between its tangible and intangible layers: the built space as well as examples of the remaining poetry and travel narratives from three key periods in its history, namely the Almohad dynasty, the Marinid dynasty and the pre-Protectorate Alaouite dynasty.

Amidst the pale stones: the physical space

The medina, also called “Upper Taza”, is located at the top of a hill in the southwest of the city. It is a compact urban fabric surrounded by a 3-kilometre-long rampart with several gates ensuring the direct connection with its periphery, such as cemeteries and agricultural fields. Given the rugged topography, the medina is connected to the modern city by a 250-metre-long stairway bordering the defensive walls in a slightly sloping manner in harmony with the natural and the built environments.

This synergy between the medina’s location and the mountainous landscape in the background results in an enchanting scenery. Yet, the buildings’ incongruity in terms of typology, proportion, materials and colours is noticeable. In fact, over 60% of the medina’s urban fabric is composed of neo-traditional extensions, built during the French Protectorate and after Morocco gained its independence. These extensions have overlapped with the original traditional fabric, and in some parts, have altered it.[3]

Another factor is the decades-long absence of a holistic conservation strategy for the medina of Taza, which led to drastic changes in many built areas and to the deterioration of many monuments. According to a census conducted in 2000, only 13% of the buildings made of traditional fabric are in a good state, 10% are completely in ruins and 23% are closed and inaccessible.[4]

The ramparts are among the few remaining historical monuments. These were built during the Almohad dynasty and strengthened by the Marinids and the Saadians.[5] Among the other historical monuments that are still standing today are the Bastion fortress built by the Saadians,[6] Al Mechouar space that dates back to the early Alaouite period,[7] and the Great Mosque (Jamaa Lakbir), which is the only monument that is fully preserved and still operating. In fact, this mosque, built during the 12th century by the Almohads and expanded by the Marinids in the late 13th century, is one of the oldest surviving examples of Almohad architecture.[8]

Taza remained an outstanding example of civilization and architectural ingenuity until the end of the 19th century

Through the shimmering words: The memory of the place

Taza during the Almohad and Marinid dynasties

The Great Mosque also represents an invitation to explore local history. In the main prayer hall, that dates back to Almohad period, an enormous bronze chandelier tells a fragment of the story of the Mosque and the medina, through a poetic inscription carved on it: [9]

يا ناظرا في جمالي حقق النظرا … ومتع الطرف في حسني الذي بهرا

أنا الثريا التي تازا بي افتخرت …. على البلاد فما مثلي الزمان يـــرى

أفرغت في قالب الحسن البديع كما … شاء الأمير أبو يعقوب إذ أمـــرا

في مسجد جامع للناس أبدعه …  ملك أقام بعون الله منتصــــــــــــرا

له اعتناء بدين الله يظــــهره… يرجو به في جنان الخلد ما ادخـــــــرا

في عام أربعة تسعون تتبعها … ست المئين من الأعوام قد سطـــــرا

تاريخ هذي الثريا والدعا لأبي… يعقوب بالنصر دأبا يصحب الظفـرا

(Watch my beauty, enjoy my dazzling grace

I am the unique chandelier that made Taza proud

I was ordered by prince Abu Ya’qub,

modelled in a mould of beauty,

and put in a mosque that was conceived by a great king,

who has always served the religion,

694 [HA] is the date of conception of this chandelier,

Prayers for my father Ya’qub, and wishes of victory)

At first, one might assume that the prince “Abu Ya’qub” who ordered the chandelier is the Almohad Sultan “Abu Ya`qub Yusuf Ibn Abdul-Mu’min”, given that the Mosque was built during this specific time period and that the architecture of the prayer hall is purely Almohad in terms of configuration, proportions and details (the naves that are perpendicular to the qibla, the direction of the Kaaba shrine in Mecca, the lack of ornaments of the square pillars, the minaret and the walls). Yet, the inscribed conception date (694 AH) refers to the Marinid period, and hence, the prince in question is “Abu Ya’qub Yusuf an-Nasr”.

This poem is a key element to understanding the mosque’s evolution, as it provides accurate information that architecture could not convey, but most importantly, it depicts the importance of Taza during the Marinid period. First, through its mere existence, given the fact that decorating a regular object with unique poetry was not recurrent; carvings often encompassed Quranic verses and general poems and quotes. Second, through its content, as it shows that the chandelier is of an unprecedented elegance and was exclusively conceived for this mosque.

The chandelier of the Great Mosque – ©Houssain Tork, CC BY-SA 4.0

Another intriguing written account that confirms the importance of Taza for the Marinids and that provides further details about the city is the Description of Africa by Leo Africanus (Hasan Al-Wazzan) at the beginning of the 16th century. According to Al-Wazzan, Taza was the third city in the kingdom in terms of status and civilization, and it was the official summer residence of the Marinid Sultans. For this reason, the medina encompassed a multitude of important services: several madrasas, fonduks (hotels), baths, and the Great Mosque, bigger than the mosque of Fez, which was the capital at the time.  The population was also known to be wealthy and educated. Al-Wazzan also sheds light on a component of the city that has now disappeared: an important Jewish community who inhabited nearly 500 houses.[10]

A street plaque in the “Mellah”, the old Jewish quarter – ©Yamen Bousrih, CC BY-SA 4.0

The Andalusian historian Ibn Al-Khatib had also described the Marinid Taza as“a land of resistance and truth, of wealth and prosperity, of sweet water and fresh air, and an embodiment of God’s gifts and wonders”.[11] Yet, the importance of Taza did not start with the Marinids. In Al-Bayan al-Mughrib (also known in English as Book of the Amazing Story of the History of the Kings of al-Andalus and Maghreb), written around 1312, the Marrakesh-born historian Ibn Idhari outlines the status of this city: “Once settled in Taza, Abu Yahya, the Marinid prince, ordered to beat the drums and raise the flags. Tribe delegations from all over the country came to present their congratulations. These celebrations were never organized before, although several cities and regions have been taken ».[12]

In fact, Taza thrived several decades earlier. According to the anonymous author of Al Istibsar fi Ajaibi Al Amsar written during the Almohad period, the medina was founded around 1172 and built as a fortress with significant fortifications, described by the author as a “magnificent and everlasting wall, made of stone and lime”. When the fortress was built, the region was already inhabited. The author also describes the harmony between the natural and the built environments, through the example of the pouring water that stems from the mountains and flows through the city streets to the surrounding fields.[13]

Today, a successful restoration effort of the medina of Taza would be almost impossible due to the severe deterioration that has led to the complete collapse of many important buildings and because reconstruction would falsify history if based on conjecture despite the availability of detailed documentation

Taza during the Alaouite Dynasty

Taza remained an outstanding example of civilization and architectural ingenuity until the end of the 19th century.

In the 18th century, Al-Sharqi Al-Ishaqi, the minister of the Alaouite Sultan Moulay Ismail, visited Taza during his journey to Al Hijaz with the de facto prime minister Khnata Bent Bakkar, the sultan’s wife. Al Ishaqi describes the city as an impregnable fortress, a charming illustration of civilization, and a living memory of Marinid art. The Great Mosque, according to him, is one of the greatest mosques in the country in terms of size, solidity and ornament, and its maqsura (an enclosure in a mosque typically reserved for a Muslim ruler) has a unique gypsum art decoration.[14]

Al-Ishaqi also describes a “marvellous” Marinid madrasa juxtaposing the Great Mosque (which is nowadays in ruins). The following poetry inscribed on its main gate outlines its uniqueness in terms of architecture[15] and the importance given to it by the Marinid princes:

لعمرك ما مثلي بشرق ومغرب   يفوق المباني حسن منظري الحسن

بنانـــي لدرس العلم مبتغيا بــــــــه   ثوابــــــــــا مـــن الله الأميــــــــر أبـــــــــي الحسن

 (I swear, no building in the world is equivalent to me,

 my beauty exceeds every building,

I was built by the prince Abu Al Hasan,

 for the sake of knowledge and of God’s mercy)

In the early 1800s, the Spanish officer Domingo Badia y Leblich, also known as Ali Bey, travelled to Morocco as part of an expedition to Africa and Asia. In his book Voyages of Ali Bey in Africa and Asia during the Years 1803–1807, he describes Taza as the prettiest of all the cities he has seen in the Empire of Morocco, and states that “it is the only one where one sees no ruins. Its streets are beautiful, the houses pretty and painted. The main mosque is very large, well-built and has a beautiful vestibule. There are several well-stocked markets, a great number of shops and very beautiful gardens”. Ali Bey also concludes: “These advantages make me prefer the city of Taza to all the other cities of the empire, even to Fez, the capital ».[16]

Reviving the memory of the place: Storytelling within the built space

Today, a successful restoration effort of the medina of Taza would be almost impossible due to the severe deterioration that has led to the complete collapse of many important buildings and because reconstruction would falsify history if based on conjecture despite the availability of detailed documentation. One could argue that it would be a mere reproduction of the shell, and not a restitution of the city’s spirit.

A building for demolition – ©Nassima Chahboun, CC BY-SA 4.0

Yet, reviving this medina is possible through putting words where stones can no longer be placed. Storytelling, supported by new technologies, can be a powerful tool to recall the past while preserving the city’s authenticity, and to shape a meaningful experience for the inhabitants and visitors. Possible interventions are plentiful and can be based on simple and widely available tools and methods, such as creating instructive circuits with the use of QR codes that can be incorporated into entrance plaques on buildings, to give access to articles, images or audio files that describe these buildings and areas. In the case of buildings that have completely disappeared, the QR codes can also play the role of virtual memorials. Gamification can be of tremendous value as well, to create more appealing experience;[17] mobiles games based on geo-localisation and augmented reality, for instance, are able to give a new dimension to the built space.

I believe that these synergies between the built and the written, the stories of the past and the storytellers of the present are not only possibilities, but key to reviving Taza’s spirit.

[1] Les Archives Berbères, Volume 3, Fascicule 2, Publication du Comité d’Études Berbères de Rabat, 1918.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Note de Présentation, Plan d’Aménagement de la Médina de Taza. Agence Urbaine de Taza. 2004.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Les Archives Berbères, Volume 3, Fascicule 2, Publication du Comité d’Études Berbères de Rabat, 1918.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Terrasse, Henri (1943). La grande mosquée de Taza. Paris: Les Éditions d’art et d’histoire.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Leo Africanus (circa 1550). The history and description of Africa, and of the notable things therein contained. Robert Brown. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2010. ISBN 978-0-511-69830-9.

[11] Ibn al-Khaṭīb, Lisān Ad-Dīn (1374). Khaṭrat al-ṭayf : riḥlāt fī al-Maghrib wa-al-Andalus. Dār al-Suwaydī lil-Nashr wa-al-Tawzīʻ; Bayrūt : al-Muʼassasah al-ʻArabīyah lil-Dirāsāt wa-al-Nashr, 2003.

[12] Ibn ʻIdhārī, Muḥammad (approximately 1295). Kitāb al-bayān al-mughrib fī akhbār al-Andalus wa-al-Maghrib. Bayrūt : Dār al-Thaqāfah, 1967.

[13] Anonymous author (12th century). Kitāb Al-Istibsār fī ‘Aja’ib al-Amsār.  Bayrūt: Dār Sader. 1852. ISBN 978-9953138206

[14] Abi Muhammad ‘Abdul-Kadir Al-Ishaqi Al-Ishaqi (approximately 1731). The Journey of Al-Wazeer Al-Ishaqi to Hejaz 1143 H.A/1731A. [Manuscript]

[15] Ibid.

[16] Badia i Leblich, D.F.J. (1816), Travels of Ali Bey in Morocco, Tripoli, Cyprus, Egypt, Arabia, Syria, and Turkey, Between the Years 1803 and 1807, Vol. I & II, London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, & Brown

[17] Kapp, K. M. (2012). The gamification of learning and instruction: Game-based methods and strategies for training and education. San Francisco: Pfeiffer.

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