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.