Morocco's deadly earthquake destroys cultural sites - Hindustan Times

Morocco's deadly earthquake destroys cultural sites

By | Posted by Krishna Priya Pallavi, Delhi
Sep 14, 2023 11:13 AM IST

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

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. (Also Read | Morocco king visits earthquake victims in hospital; death toll crosses 2,900)

The earthquake damaged several culturally significant sites in Morocco, including the Kharbouch Mosque in Marrakech. (Lafargue Raphael/ABACA/picture alliance)
The earthquake damaged several culturally significant sites in Morocco, including the Kharbouch Mosque in Marrakech. (Lafargue Raphael/ABACA/picture alliance)

Morocco is home to nine UNESCO World Heritage sites, and 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 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, and parts of it have crumbled.

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

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

First save 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 people have access to 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, the UNESCO regional director added.

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," said 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 important not only for tourists and historians but also for the local people affected by the disaster, explained Susann Harder, president of the international cultural property protection organization Blue Shield.

"People have cultural rights," she told 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 added.

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

A cultural identity that has developed over centuries

In Morocco, it is primarily the old towns 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," Harder said. The structures that make up cultural heritage sites have been developed over centuries and have been part of the people's everyday life as it's where they live, shop, pray and work, she added.

When natural disasters or wars damage such sites, 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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