This article lists many benefits of living in a medina – list them, adding any additional benefits that strike you. Then, create a list of drawbacks.
Should cities in your country build neighborhoods that look more like this? Would you live in one?
Design your own ideal neighborhood – create a map that considers space to live, work, and play, as well as transportation and utilities like power and water.
A medina quarter (Arabic: المدينة القديمة al-madīnah al-qadīmah “the old city”) is a distinct city section found in a number of North African cities, including in Morocco. A medina is typically walled, with many narrow and maze-like streets. The word “medina” (Arabic: مدينة madīnah) itself simply means “city” or “town” in modern-day Arabic.
Medina quarters have usually been inhabited for a thousand years or more, and often contain historical fountains, palaces, public squares, mosques, and churches.
Because of their very narrow streets, medinas are generally free from car traffic, and in some cases even motorcycle and bicycle traffic. The streets can be less than a metre wide. This makes them unique among highly populated urban centres. The Medina of Fes, or Fes el Bali, is considered one of the largest car-free urban areas in the world.
Aside from the addition of some electrical wires and modern plumbing, most medinas in Morocco today look a lot like they did in those bygone glory days of the trans-Saharan trade one thousand years ago. The streets are rarely wider that six or seven feet, and are sometimes as narrow as two or three. Mules and men with carts do most of the heavy lifting in the streets, delivering or carrying away what can’t be done by hand – no trucks or cars can penetrate, so most people buy groceries for today, and maybe tomorrow. Furniture and modern appliances are often transported into the medina over a neighbor’s rooftop, and down a home through the central, open air courtyard. Anger your neighbors, and you might have a hard time remodeling your house.
Fresh fish – caught this morning – for sale in the souq, or market. It will likely be carried home by the purchaser, wrapped in yesterday’s newspaper. Sometimes a map pushing a cart full of iced fish will delivery it straight to residents’ doors.
Mosques – identifiable by their lighted minarets – serve each neighborhood within a medina, offering a space to pray, socialize, connect, and to resolve dispute with the community.
The crowded street of the medina in Fez. The ditch is in the center of the street, channeling water away from buildings and allowing pedestrians to stay dry even in the rain, beneath the awnings that are common in front of homes and shops.
In this cafe, refrigeration is provided by cool mountain water fed from a small mountain stream – there is no electricity.
Don’t think of a city like this as “backward” – think of it as a template for a life many in our modern times have forgotten… But which many of us are trying to rediscover. What appear to be drawbacks at first glance, described another way, are what many Americans and Europeans list as desirable qualities in a neighborhood.
It is walkable, by necessity. Most anything you need is available in a five to ten minute walk from your door.
It is communal – there are basically no police present, so most problems are solved in the community. Violence is squashed through neighbors’ intervention and social pressure. Public fountains with fresh, clean water can be found at most major intersections. Same with mosques, which, in addition to the square full of small shops, are at the center of residents’ spiritual and social lives.
Most all food is organic, fresh, and affordable, sold with zero plastic packaging.
The narrow streets, paved with stone, between high mud-walled homes are many degrees cooler than the open air outside the medina, meaning that while most who live within don’t have air conditioning, they don’t really need it either.
Dusk falls on the densely packed medina of Fez. In this rooftop photo, it is easy to see the density, the open courtyards, and the mosques – recognizable from their tall towers – stretching into the distance.
Since there are few to no vehicles in the medina, the streets are designed for human traffic – stairways are common in mountain towns.
At their narrowest, the streets of the medina can be narrower than the hallway in your house. Extended families might build passover hallways to join two households across the street.
In an effort to maximize living space, some families build additions to their homes – which extend over the street. This does provide additional shade to pedestrians below.
The soul is the market section of the medina. Many small shops – usually highly specialized, selling only meat, only women’s clothing, only fruit, sometimes only one kind of fruit – characterize the shopping experience. All of this is within a few minutes walk from home.
Larger deliveries in the medina might be made to by mules. As a result, pedestrian fatalities – a real problem in every American community – are almost unheard of in the medina.
Occasionally, streets of the medina are wide enough to accommodate small motorbikes, such as this one making deliveries in the souk of Essaouira, Morocco.
For hundreds of years before running water was widely available to every home, Moroccan rulers built fountains at close intervals throughout the medina – fed sometimes by springs, sometimes by aqueducts carrying clean water from distant mountains to the corner by your house.
In Muslim countries, the symbol for a pharmacy is often the green crescent moon. This pharmacy serves a small neighborhood in the medina – and offers shade to pedestrians below.
A small public mailbox serves the neighborhood.
In the medina of Chefchaouen, residents have cultivated a vast, interwoven web of grape vines that grow overhead. The grapes can be eaten or turned into wine; their leaves provide fresh air and shade, and can also be eaten.
In the medina, streetlights are usually fixed overhead, right to the side of buildings – there is far less light pollution, because it takes far fewer lamps to light such narrow streets.
Electrical wires, added long after these ancient cities were originally built, are often run directly alongside buildings, or buried beneath the streets alongside waterlines.
Chickens often range freely, living on rooftops or in the courtyards of homes, providing fresh eggs and meat to their owners.
This public street runs completely underneath a multi-story home. Public parking typically means room for a bicycle or a hitch for a mule.
The public street continues into this tunnel.
Living in the medina can mean cramped corners, however. Each of these doors leads to a different home.
Traditional doors in the medinas of Morocco feature a smaller door nestled within a larger one, each with a seperate knocker which resonates with a distinct tone. The smaller door is for close family, as well as for ventilation while cooking – it allows for a modest amount of privacy within. The larger door is opened to welcome company or celebrate special occasion, symbolically opening the home to the wider community.
Air conditioning is rare in traditional medinas. Thick brick or mud walls and windows open at the right time of day help to keep indoor spaces cool.
This wall is made from sun-baked mud and straw, which insulates well against the heat of the day – and is durable in the arid, rainless climate that covers much of Morocco.
In most medinas, there are at least a few public squares filled with restaurants, shops, kids playing soccer, as well as musicians and other entertainers, such as snake charmers. Much of life outside of work and school takes place in open, public spaces like this square in Marrakesh, Morocco is by far one of the largest and busiest.
This cart is loaded with scrap metal for recycling. Any waste collection within the medina is done this way, on a human or mule-drawn carts. In truth, residents of the medina purchase most food without packaging in the local souq, meaning that they produce little inorganic waste. Large trash trucks are not really necessary here, even if they were possible.
Medinas are traditionally walled, guarding against attack from raiders or rival nations.
Industry can take place very close to residential areas. This tannery emits the strong smell of ammonia, which radiates for blocks around – neighbors live with it.
Without glamorizing the social problems like poverty and sanitation issues that persist in some medinas, there is a good reason that this way of life has persisted since prehistoric times, while the patterns of American suburbanization are barely a century and half old – but are killing the people who live there via social isolation, urban sprawl, excess carbon emissions, and water wasted irrigating green lawns.
Which is really the ideal here? Can we learn something from our human past?
It’s not backward if it offers answers to questions of sustainability and community that so many in countries like the United States are trying in vain and at great cost to reinvent.
THIS LESSON WAS MADE POSSIBLE THROUGH A GENEROUS GRANT FROM THE QATAR FOUNDATION.
Who are the Berber? Briefly describe their culture.
What do Berbers call themselves, and what does it mean in English?
Write your name in the Berber alphabet.
An anthropologist is someone who examines culture, artifacts, religion, language, lifestyles, and traditions to describe and understand a group of people, either from the present or the past. How would an anthropologist describe your community’s culture and history?
The main ethnic group inhabiting the Maghreb – which literally means “the west” in Arabic, and includes Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia – are known as the Berber people. They and their ancestors have inhabited North Africa for more than 10,000 years, and possess a rich history and culture shaped by the varied geography of the area, as well as by their interactions with other groups, including the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Arabs, the Spanish, and the French.
The Berbers call themselves Imazighen, which means free or noble people in their own language. It is a fitting descriptor.
Historically, the Berbers have been successful in trade, navigating the harsh conditions of the Sahara and the Atlas Mountains, linking Sub Saharan Africa to the Mediterranean world when other groups struggled to do so. In ancient times, this wealth – as well as Berber prowess on horseback meant that groups such as the Carthaginians were paying them tribute in North Africa.
Unlike the conquests of previous religions and cultures, the coming of Islam, which was spread by Arabs, was to have extensive and long-lasting effects on the Maghreb. The new faith, in its various forms, would penetrate nearly all segments of Berber society, bringing with it armies, learned men, and fervent mystics, and in large part replacing tribal practices and loyalties with new social norms and political traditions influenced by the Arab world.
Traditionally, Berber men take care of livestock such as sheep, goats, cows, horses, and camels. Families migrate by following the natural cycle of grazing, and seeking water and shelter with the changing seasons. They are thus assured with an abundance of wool, cotton, and plants used for dyeing. For their part, women look after the family and produce handicrafts like clothing, rugs, or blankets – first for their personal use, and secondly for sale in local souqs, or markets. While many Berber still live according to these patterns, many more no longer follow these traditional patterns – they now have jobs, homes, and lifestyles similar to any of those found in your country.
The Berber are experts of irrigation, drawing water from mountain rivers and feeding it via gravity into green oases of productivity.
Traditionally, Berber men have raised livestock like these sheep, which provide wool, meat, and leather.
The goats are nearly as resourceful as the Berber themselves.
Staple crops of the modern Berber are wheat, corn, dates, and tomato.
The Berber inhabit a wide range of climate zones, including this harsh foothills of the Atlas Mountains, on the edge of the Sahara Desert. Rainfall and grass are sparse here, and the hearty goats herded by the Berber graze in the Argon trees that thrive in this arid landscape.
Berber women have traditionally created inticateky woven patterns on looms such as this one.
Berber women hand stitch the lushly detailed patterns seen on these kaftans. The work is exacting – and can earn a good income for the skilled artisan.
The Berber also cultivate alfalfa as a feed for livestock. This alfalfa is cut, bundled, and carried home from a family garden plot, usually by women.
Other Berber men work in tanneries, turning animal hides into leather in these vats of ammonia. The ammonia is sourced from the waste of animals.
Increasingly, the Berber are sedentary, but traditionally, many have been nomadic, following the green grass with their herds on a seasonal basis. This is mobile home of one family who still follows such a nomadic existence.
Like kids almost anywhere, modern Berber children love to play soccer – anywhere, any time.
Some Berber men create impressive tiled mosaics. These are the plain backsides of vibrantly-colored tiles, which will be held together with concrete. When flipped over, they will create a stunning geometric pattern – avoiding the depiction of the human form, as prescribed by Islam.
The traditional social structure of the Berbers is tribal. A leader is appointed to command the tribe through a generally democratic process. In the Middle Ages, many women had the power to govern. The majority of Berber tribes currently have men as heads of the tribe.
Imazighen (Berber) cuisine draws influence and flavors from distinct regions across North Africa and the Mediterranean world.
Principal Berber foods include:
Couscous, a staple dish made from a grain called semolina
Tajine, a stew made in various forms
Pastilla, a meat pie traditionally made with squab (fledgling pigeon) often today using chicken
Morocco is a former French colony, and French-style cafe culture has also influenced the country. Men in particular can be found at most hours of the day drinking espresso or tea, and possibly eating a pastry in one of the country’s thousands of cafes.
A tajine (Standard Moroccan Berber: ⵜⴰⵊⵉⵏ) is a Maghrebi dish which is named after the earthenware pot in which it is cooked. The earliest writings about the concept of cooking in a tajine appear in the famous One Thousand and One Nights, though the dish would have been already famous amongst the nomadic Bedouin people of the Arabian Peninsula, who added dried fruits like dates, apricots and plums to meat like mutton, chicken, or camel, giving tajine its unique taste. Tagine is now often eaten with french fries, either on the top or on the side.
Couscous (Berber : ⵙⴽⵙⵓ seksu, Arabic: كُسْكُس kuskus) is originally a Maghrebi dish of small (about 3 millimetres (0.12 in) diameter) steamed balls of crushed durum wheat semolina that is traditionally served with a stew spooned on top. It is a staple of the Moroccan diet, meaning that is eaten routinely and in such quantities that it constitutes a dominant portion of a standard diet for a given people, supplying a large fraction of energy needs and generally forming a significant proportion of the intake of other nutrients as well. In Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and Libya, couscous is generally served with vegetables (carrots, potatoes, and turnips) cooked in a spicy or mild broth or stew, and some meat (generally, chicken, lamb or mutton).
Pastilla (Moroccan Arabic: بسطيلة, romanized: bəsṭila) is a traditional Moroccan dish of Andalusian origin consumed in countries of the Maghreb. It is a pie which combines sweet and salty flavours; a combination of crisp layers of the crêpe-like werqa dough (a thinner cousin of phyllo dough), savory meat slow-cooked in broth and spices and then shredded, and a crunchy layer of toasted and ground almonds, cinnamon, and sugar. Pastilla is said to be “uniquely Moroccan, intricate and grand, fabulously rich and fantastical.”
In Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and other parts of the Middle East, prickly pears of the yellow and orange varieties are grown by the side of farms, beside railway tracks and other otherwise noncultivable land. It is sold in summer by street vendors, and is considered a refreshing fruit for that season.
Writing in 1377, the scholar Ibn Khaldun offered a general description of the Berber that applies nearly as well in the twenty-first century:
“As for [their] moral virtues, one can cite: respect for one’s neighbours; the protection of guests; the observance of obligations and commitments; faithful adherence to promises and treaties; resolve in misfortune; indulgence towards the failings of others; renouncement of vengeance; kindness to the unfortunate; respect for the elderly; veneration for men of science; hatred of oppression; resolve before states; determination to win in matters of power; devotion to God in matters of religion.”
Indeed, nearly eight hundred years later the anthropologist Ahmed Skounti echoed these sentiments:
“The Imazighen (singular Amazigh) also known as the Berbers are among the original peoples of North Africa. Their myths, legends and history span 9,000 years, back to the Proto-Mediterraneans. They have achieved unity by keeping up their unique language and culture which are, like their land, both African and Mediterranean.
The Berbers of Morocco share this duality, reflecting the diversity of their nature and stormy history. Through contact with other peoples of the Mediterranean, they created kingdoms but also vast territories organised into powerful, democratic, war-mongering, tribal communities. Both aspects of this social political organisation have left a mark on recent historical events and the two millenia of the country’s history. As opposed to the pagan Mediterranean kingdoms of Antiquity, Berber empires developed inland and were Muslim. Judaism continued to be practiced, and the Sunni Islam majority gradually took
on a Berber hue with its brotherhoods, zaouias, marabouts. and rituals.
The roots of the Berber culture go deep down into Morocco’s proto-history. They are illustrated by a strong link with their land, a sense of community, hospitality sharing food and a specific relationship with spirituality. Its openness to many influences whether Mediterranean, African, Oriental, European or international have defined its current characteristics.
The Berber language, an Afro-Asian idiom, is the melting pot of the history and culture of the country. It has outlived most languages of Antiquity such as Ancient Greek, Phoenician, Latin and Egyptian. It used to be written but is now mainly oral. Though there are fewer now that can speak it, the language is nevertheless still used by a substantial number of Moroccans.”
The hamsa (Berber: ⵜⴰⴼⵓⵙⵜ tafust) is a palm-shaped amulet popular throughout the Middle East and North Africa and commonly used in jewelry and wall hangings. Depicting the open right hand, an image recognized and used as a sign of protection in many times throughout history, the hamsa is believed by some, predominantly Muslims and Jews, to provide defense against the evil eye. It has been theorized that its origins lie in Ancient Egypt or Carthage (modern-day Tunisia) and may have been associated with the Goddess Tanit. The Hamsa is also known as the Hand of Fatima after the daughter of the prophet Muhammad.
The Berber are known for their skills in working with silver. Its color is associated with purity and piety. The vibrant colors that highlight the silver are called enamel, which is a technique that probably arrived in Morocco in the 1400s, as many Muslims and Jews were expelled from Christian Spain.
Inseparable from poetry and associated with the dance, Amazigh music take many forms, but two popular folk forms include Ahwach and Rouaiss. – AHWACH: is a collective dance according to musical rhythms and with a accompaniment of songs. The group composed of flatists (aouad), percussion flat drums (bendir), percussion sionists of metal instruments (naqos) and dancers. ROUAISS a musical group that sings Amazigh poetry (amerg). The instruments used are the three-stringed lute (guembri), the monochord violin (rebab), the flat drum (bendir) and an instrument percussion metal (naqoss).
If men cover their heads, it is often with a wrapping as seen in this photo, which shields their heads and faces from the heat of the sun and the any sand on the wind.
Two men in traditional Berber clothing. The long tunic worn by both men and women is called a kaftan.
The djellaba is a long, loose-fitting outer robe with full sleeves that is worn in the Maghreb region of North Africa. Djellabas are made of wool in different shapes and colors, but lightweight cotton djellabas have now become popular. Among the Berbers, or Imazighen, such as the Imilchil in the Atlas Mountains, the color of a djellaba traditionally indicates the marital status (single or married) of the bearer: a dark brown djellaba indicating bachelorhood. Almost all djellabas of both styles (male or female) include a baggy hood called a qob (Arabic: قب) that comes to a point at the back. The hood is important for both sexes, as it protects the wearer from the sun, and in earlier times, it was used as a defence against sand being blown into the wearer’s face by strong desert winds. In colder climes, as in the mountains of Morocco and Algeria, it also serves the same function as a winter hat, preventing heat loss through the head and protecting the face from snow and rain. It is common for the roomy hood to be used as a pocket during times of warm weather; it can fit loaves of bread or bags of groceries.
Many women cover their heads in accordance with Muslim tradition, but many more do not.
No matter how traditional the dress, Berbers are not stuck in the past – this man carries a messenger bag containing his cell phone and other modern necessities.
The unique Berber alphabet is called tifinagh. Like the Berbers themselves, the writing has been attributed in turn to having Egyptian, Greek, Phoeno-Punic or South-Arabic origins, though none of these theories is definitive. Other research points toward the indigenous origins of Berber writing, linking it closely to cave art. The undecoded signs and symbols that accompany the depiction of humans, animals, weapons and ritual or combat scenes create a sort of visual vocabulary which may have later developed into the writing system.
Historically, Berber writing had limited uses, primarily in memorials and commemorative stone carvings. It was largely replaced by Arabic around the fifth or sixth centuries, and later by French in the twentieth century. Berber was originally written vertically from top to bottom, but today is oriented from right to left, like Arabic. The alphabet is composed of a distinctive geometric written form, in which 33 characters are created from three basic shapes: the circle, the line, and the dot.
This ancient alphabet serves as the basis for the formation of the modern tifinagh alphabet adopted since 2003 by Morocco in order to write the Berber language.
THIS LESSON WAS MADE POSSIBLE THROUGH A GENEROUS GRANT FROM THE QATAR FOUNDATION.
(Information on the Berber alphabet was adapted from the work of Aline Star, anthropologist at the Institut National des Sciences de L’Archéologie et du Patrimoine. Rabat)