Getting to Know Philadelphia’s Fellow World Heritage Cities...Here’s Marrakech!

By Anna Viden 

One major aspect of the Global Philadelphia Association’s (GPA) promotion of Philadelphia's global profile is to encourage awareness of other World Heritage Cities beyond our city and the United States. Acknowledging Philadelphia’s place among the hundreds of these special urban centers that occur on every continent enables us to ask about our own and others’ remarkable historical sites and features. Virtually visiting these cities and their sites is quite possible.

Marrakech, Morocco, a major World Heritage City (WHC) in the region of Southwest Asia and North Africa (SWANA), is an important example. We can compare and contrast Philadelphia and Marrakech from their unique architectural, cultural, economic, geographic, political, religious, and sociological perspectives, and also learn a little about their historical connections. 

Marrakech, The “Red” City

Marrakech achieved its WHC recognition in 1985 because of the presence of many masterpieces of architecture and art; its role in medieval urban development; its status as a major Islamic capital of the western Mediterranean; and the city’s old medina - an “outstanding example” of a living historic town. Between the 11th and 18th centuries CE, numerous political chapters marked Marrakech’s history, including the rule of Sunnite Almoravids who founded the settlement, the Shiite Almohad dynasty, the Marinids, and the Alawites, among others later on. Each of these groups contributed its unique elements to the city’s architecture, culture, and economic history that created the foundation for Marrakech’s WHC status. One major economic example is the Almoravid control of the lucrative trans-Saharan caravan trade.

At its peak, the trans-Saharan camel caravans consisted of thousands of animals, and much more. Travel from North Africa, across the savannah region in the south and back again, was highly strenuous and could last up to 60 days. Access to water was crucial for survival, and an extremely coveted resource. The caravan trade brought with it ideas about art, architecture, and religion, and transformed many aspects of daily life in its path. The Fondouks (or Caravanserai), Christian medieval buildings originally designed as urban hostels for merchants, give us a glimpse of Marrakech’s past as the northern center for this trade. 

The series of chambers on the ground floor traditionally housed the camels, and lockable chambers served as storage for merchandise and sleeping quarters. The Fondouks were equipped with water fountains and scales to weigh the traded goods. They were often richly decorated and designed to attract merchants from a particular ethnic background such as Jews, Christians, or sub-Saharan Africans. 

In the 1100s, the third Caliph of the Shiite Almohad dynasty, Yacoub el-Mansour, transformed the city into a major Islamic capital by fortifying the Kasbah, enlarging the enclosure of the medina, adding beautiful gardens, covered markets, and rebuilding the Koutubia mosque. The latter remains an important landmark today. A triumphal gate (Bab Agnaou) was also built. The red color of the Kasbah wall gave Marrakech its name “the red city.”

Between the 1200s and the early 1900s, Marrakech’s political prominence shifted when the city lost and then regained its position as Morocco’s capital, and Morocco's relationship with European powers changed. Ruling groups built remarkable edifices such as the Al Bedi Palace and lavish riads, although most city-dwellers lived precariously in cramped Foundouks. A protected Jewish quarter (mellah) was established in 1558. Marrakech also was a trading center for Christians.  Late in this period, French and Spanish colonizers built a new town (ville nouvelle) outside of the city walls. Along with the French invasion in 1917, the foreign grip and influence on Morocco strengthened.

When Morocco gained its political independence in 1956, Marrakech became a center for modern “caravan trade” as hippies and rock stars such as The Rolling Stones and the Beatles visited the city, and fashion designers such as Yves Saint Laurent bought a home there. In the 1990s private mansions, riads, in the old medina, were transformed into Bed and Breakfasts. This evolution has continued into the 21st century. Marrakech remains a popular tourist destination and an important economic and cultural resource and as one of Morocco’s major WHCs. Visitors can learn about modern Moroccan culture through the Museum of African Contemporary Art, and other organizations.

And, we can connect these two WHC’s, too

We already know a lot about our city, of course, and the fact that it obtained its status as a WHC in 2015, on the basis of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall’s recognition as a World Heritage Site in 1979, among other features of “universal importance” according to UNESCO. Philadelphia also has rich historic buildings and sites, notably 67 National Historic Landmarks. 

Both Marrakech and Philadelphia have held positions of both political and economic leadership across generations. Philadelphia was the political, economic, and cultural center of the colonies in the “New World.” Nationalist ideas and revolutionary activity flourished, and Philadelphia served as the young nation’s capital, 1790-1800. Migration and trade are crucial when considering both Marrakech’s and Philadelphia’s political, economic, and cultural importance. While the caravan trade contributed greatly to Marrakech’s political, economic, religious, and cultural flourishment, it also had an architectural impact on the city as testified by the presence still today of the Kasbah and the Fandouks. Beyond Marrakech, Morocco was one of the centers for the North African slave trade. Slaves were commonly used as servants and concubines and were a prized commodity. Islam spread via conquest and trade. These contacts brought about periods of relatively peaceful co-existence between Jews, Christians, and Muslims, which also contributed to important discoveries in the human and natural sciences. Islam recognized Jews and Christians as legally protected by Sharia. As “people of the covenant” (Dhimmi) they enjoyed the right to freedom of religion, in exchange for loyalty to the state and payment of tax (jizya), although did not enjoy certain privileges and freedoms given to Muslims.

If we consider Philadelphia during the colonial period and the new nation era, we note that it grew through immigration and trade. With 40,000 inhabitants, it was a big city already at independence.  Diverse populations lived in various neighborhoods — Swedish, Dutch, English, German, Irish, Scottish, African — and from different socio-economic backgrounds, trades, and religious belonging, all testified to Philadelphia’s global connections. Our city was the most important port on the Atlantic for the British Empire in North America, and Philadelphians participated in shipping trade with the larger Caribbean region, New England, and Portugal, too. Indentured servants and slaves shared the city with landowners, business owners, merchants, artisans, and mariners.

Beyond our understanding of Marrakech and Philadelphia as sharing regional prominence at different historical moments, we can see another connection. Morocco was one of the first states to officially recognize the independence of the United States. In 1777, Sultan Sidi Muhammad Ben Abdullah, a Berber leader who ruled Morocco, 1757-1790, announced his desire for friendship with the United States. U.S. representatives initially ignored the Sultan’s outreach, but the need to establish trade as a basic source of revenue during economic and political turmoil won out. Thomas Jefferson, in Paris on January 1, 1787, and John Adams, in London on January 25, 1787, signed the Treaty of Marrakech, and Congress ratified it on July 18, 1787. Along with a separate ship seals agreement, providing for the identification at sea of American and Moroccan vessels, became the first treaty between any Arab, Muslim or African state and the United States.

Today, Philadelphia plays crucial global roles in medical research, technology and education, while successfully preserving its historic heritage as the birthplace of American democracy. Our city is, like Marrakech, a WHC with strong tourism and cultural benefits, too...and many connections with each other’s global regions! Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture’s exciting programming, The Penn Museum Middle East Galleries - Digital Collections, the UPenn Middle East Center, Islamic Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and The spectacular, and the spectacular rise of Middle Eastern Cuisine in Philadelphia all demonstrate the SWANA presence around Philadelphia.