Ancient Mosques Damaged in Morocco Earthquake

A UNESCO representative says the country has suffered an “inestimable loss”

Kharbouch Mosque
People gather around the damaged Kharbouch Mosque on September 9, 2023 in Marrakesh, Morocco. Carl Court / Getty Images

The country of Morocco is reeling from its deadliest earthquake in more than 60 years, a 6.8 magnitude event which has left more than 2,000 people dead. Much of the worst of the damage occurred in the ancient city of Marrakesh, 150 miles south of Casablanca, and the nearby Atlas Mountains

Marrakesh’s old city, or medina, has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1985, and the quake wreaked havoc on its buildings, some of which have stood for many hundreds of years. Marrakesh was first built in 1070 by Yūsuf ibn Tāshufīn of the Moroccan Almoravid empire, and the city served as the Almoravid capital before falling to another Muslim dynasty. 

Eric Falt, a French senior official at UNESCO, visited Marrakesh in the wake of the destruction. He writes in a post on Instagram that the damage is “much more significant than expected.”

“After a disaster like this, the most important thing is to preserve human lives,” Falt writes. “But we must also immediately plan for the second phase, which will include the reconstruction of schools and cultural property affected by the earthquake.”

One site that Falt mentions is the Kharbouch Mosque on Jama El Fnaa square, a cultural center even today for the city where dancers and storytellers perform. Basma El Atti of The New Arab says that the building is now “barely recognisable.”

“It goes back to the 17th century or older. It’s so sad to see our city losing its history,” Alhaj Ahmed, a 72-year-old craftsman who closed his damaged shop, tells The New Arab.
Koutoubia Mosque
The Koutoubia Mosque, which has stood in the city since the 12th century, was damaged in the earthquake. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Possibly even more devastating for the residents of Marrakesh is the damage done to the Koutoubia Mosque, the most prominent and recognizable mosque in the city. The building has stood since 1150, and its iconic minaret rises more than 250 feet high, visible from almost any point in Marrakesh.

According to Falt, that minaret, popularly known as the “roof of Marrakesh,” now has deep cracks.

Falt says that the most damage was done to the city’s mellah, or historically Jewish quarter. It is the second oldest of its kind in all of Morocco behind Fez. According to Falt, here “the destruction of old houses is the most spectacular.”

East of Marrakesh lie the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, one of the defining geographic features of northern Africa. These mountains, which divide the Mediterranean coast from the Sahara desert, have shaped thousands of years of cultural development in the region. 

Tinmel Mosque
The Tinmel Mosque, in the village of Tinmel in Morocco's Atlas Mountains Drugstore95 via Wikimedia Commons under Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

This region was the epicenter of the earthquake, and it had its own share of cultural damage, in particular the Tinmel Mosque, which has been on UNESCO's Tentative World Heritage list since 1995. According to Hadani Ditmars of the Art Newspaper, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs had initiated a restoration project of the building only seven months ago.

Now, credible reports say the mosque has been almost completely destroyed. Falt tells the Art Newspaper its destruction “constitutes an inestimable loss for the national heritage of Morocco.”

“It’s a symbolic place in the history of Morocco because it was the starting point of the Almohad military campaigns against the Almoravid dynasty, at the beginning of the 12th century,” Falt says.

The Moroccan Culture Ministry tells Reuters that “the ministry has decided to restore it and will make budget for it,” but did not give any additional details. 

Falt adds that countless other cultural sites around the country have surely been affected, but it will be some time before authorities have an accurate idea of the total damage. 

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.