Deadly Earthquake in Morocco Destroys Cultural Heritage

Shortly after 11pm on Friday, September 8, a 6.8 magnitude earthquake struck the High Atlas Mountain region of Morocco, killing more than 2,680 people, injuring over 2,500, and affecting at least 300,000. The quake was the strongest to strike the nation in 100 years, according to the US Geological Survey’s National Earthquake Information Center. An aftershock on Sunday worsened the damage and left victims sleeping outdoors in fear of their homes collapsing. Many have traveled to Marrakesh — around 45 miles away from the earthquake’s epicenter — to receive medical treatment. The natural disaster has also inflicted severe damage to parts of the city’s cultural heritage.

Much of the structural damage in Marrakesh occurred in its Medieval old town — a UNESCO World Heritage site called the Medina. The site was founded in 1070 by the Muslim Almoravids and later served as the capital of the Almohads, who conquered in 1147 and expanded their empire northward into Spain. The Medina is surrounded by red sandstone walls, and videos on social media show that parts of the barriers have crumbled. Inside, homes in the historic Mellah Jewish district have also been badly damaged.

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A photo shows the collapsed minaret of the Kharbouch Mosque. (screenshot Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic via Instagram)

Elsewhere in the Medieval city center, two mosques next to the Jemaa el-Fna Square — a popular tourist attraction with stalls that sell food and souvenirs — were badly hit. The minaret of the small Kharbouch Mosque collapsed, and video shows the minaret of the nearby Koutoubia Mosque shaking. According to Eric Fact, regional director for UNESCO in Morocco, that mosque has suffered “major cracks.”

In the mountains near the earthquake’s epicenter, the 12th-century Tinmel Mosque appears to have been almost completely destroyed, according to photographs on Twitter. The church was built in the 12th century by the leader of the Almohad empire.

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The Tinmel Mosque before the earthquake (photo via Flickr)
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Photos show the recent damage to Tinmel. (screenshot Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic via X)

Marrakesh is Morocco’s most popular tourist destination and Medina is a heavily frequented destination. Beyond Jemaa el-Fna Square, many of its popular stops, such as the fortressed Casbah citadel, the 16th-century Badiâ Palace, and the Medersa Ben Youssef, an Islamic school built in the 1300s, were largely unscathed. On-the-ground reports state that some tours have been canceled, but other travelers have decided to stay. Other high-traffic tourist areas of Morocco, such as the cities of Fez and Casablanca, did not sustain damage.

Moroccan government aid to the rural High Atlas Mountain region has been relatively slow. A host of nations have offered aid and some have already dispatched search teams and funds. Rescue efforts are largely centered in the High Atlas Mountain region that was worst hit; the rural area’s homes were largely built with red brick, a construction that was structurally vulnerable to earthquakes and has made it difficult to find survivors in the rubble.

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