El Jadida, Just Five Short Centuries After Its Prime

Wednesday, June 17, 2009 | El Jadida, Morocco (map)

Lousy camera phone pics definitely do not do the cistern justice.
Enough of politics—time to hit the road.

Jacqueline and her cousin Carolyn (visiting from New York) were leaving Saturday for a southern Morocco surfing odyssey. Unfortunately, chained to my desk as I am these days, I couldn't go for the full trip, but our friend Chris and I managed to tag along as far as El Jadida (الجديدة). The ladies dropped us at the entrance to the town's old Portuguese medina, leaving us to our own devices for the day.

Five centuries ago, El Jadida was the site of a seaside Portuguese fortress named Mazagão, at the time the largest port along Morocco's Atlantic coast. The Portuguese influence remains in the now-decrepit architecture of their fortified medina (very reminiscent of other crumbling outposts I saw in Mozambique), but its Moroccan inheritors have clearly left their mark. A synagogue—testament
to the town's once-thriving Moroccan Jewish community—is now shuttered, along with the Portuguese church. But the mosque and Sufi brotherhood are open for business, as are the communal bakery and the obligatory trinket sellers hawking pottery and carpets to what few tourists pass through.

Chris and I climbed atop the medina's outer walls, which afforded an unimpeded survey of the sights (fishing boats, fish markets) and smells (rotting fish) of both the old and new cities.

After poking around among the cannons and lookout towers for a bit, we headed for El Jadida's main attraction: the Portuguese cistern. A wrinkled old man in traditional djellaba and slippers led us down into the sunken chamber, built by the Portuguese to collect drinking water. From a central opening overhead, a shaft of light beamed in, illuminating the mildewed columns and archways supporting the ceiling.

Though the cistern no longer collected the rains, a thin film of water still covered the floor, and reflected a double image of the entire chamber at our feet. (Fans of Orson Welles will remember this dank but spectacular chamber from his 1954 film Othello.) As our guide explained, for centuries after the Portuguese departure this enormous chamber had somehow avoided detection by the town's Moroccan inhabitants—likely explaining its good state of preservation.

After exhausting El Jadida's modest sightseeing opportunities, Chris and I found a grimy but apparently popular seafood restaurant near the new town's main fish market, and gorged our way through an hour-long seafood feast.

Wet after a few hours on the city's muddy beach, I didn't particularly enjoy the inevitable three-hour train ride back to Rabat. But what a relief to escape work, the capital, and its increasingly uncomfortable summer heat.

Update: Oh, look, Chris just said it all better here (along with plenty of ribbing—admittedly deserved—for incessantly quoting from my-new-favorite-book).

1 comment:

Patrick said...

"Unfortunately, chained to my desk as I am these days,"
Wait, how did this happen? Did I miss something?

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