ANCIENT MEDINAS OF NORTH AFRICA
In her book “Tripoli The Mysterious,” the American writer Mabel Loomis Todd writes: “With her feet in the blue Mediterranean, her hand in the fire of heaven, and her back against the yellow silence of eternal Sahara, Tripoli awaits her destiny.” Today, all North Africa’s capitals dotted along the shores of the Mediterranean patiently await the next chapter of their destiny. They are the soul of the Arab World that is still historic, traditional, authentic and unpretentious. From Tripoli to Algiers, Tunis to Rabat, at the heart of each old town sits the Medina. These 7th century medieval walled cities spill their wares with intense scents, vibrant colours and boisterous trade, reflecting how North Africa was once a rich and important trade centre during the rise of the Islamic Empire, between the 12th and 16th centuries. However, the Medina’s cascading narrow alleyways of paved stone do give way to a more modern streamlined European hub, created by the French colonial power at the turn of the Industrial Revolution. Known as the ville nouvelle, they were built around a classic grid with palm-lined boulevards, surrounded by continental shops, cafés, restaurants and hotels.
It was during this era that the cosmopolitan capitals of North Africa, become something of a surrogate Paris or Rome for vacationing European elites from the western side of the Mediterranean. By comparison to other dynamic trade hubs along the Silk Road, this fusion of culture turned North Africa into a destination of unique contradictions; a surreal crossroad where Africa and the Middle-East meet and collide with Europe, and hedonism intersects with history. The contradictions of North Africa are a mesmerising tale of how the old and new, fusing over into each other, could create an amazing juxtaposition which came to symbolise the region’s rich and unique history. It is a labyrinth of alleyways in contrast to the palm-lined boulevards, and whitewashed façades as opposed to the more ornate French colonial buildings. Also, the serenity of Islamic courtyards versus the lavishly landscaped gardens, and bustling market stalls or souks on the back of sidewalks teeming with hip cafés and restaurants.
As a result, cities in North Africa have gained a far more recognisable international status than any of the other dynamic centres in east and west Africa. Particularly in Morocco, the gem of the Atlantic Ocean Casablanca has become an economic powerhouse in the country. Marrakech is famous as a festive tourist destination with a flamboyant lifestyle, and spiritual Fez is an enchanted labyrinth sheltered from time. Indeed, Fez is slightly more reserved turning deeper to its history with a wealth of architectural masterpieces. It also hosts religious festivals devoted to the city’s rich culinary and pious traditions. Hence and since the 1970s, the architectural heritage of North Africa has become the focus of ambitious international preservation and restoration efforts. For example in Tunisia, the old Medina is recognised as an emblem of national pride. Second only to Fez, it’s one of the Arab World’s most intact medieval cities, preserving traditional decorative arts alive through the leather, clothing, wood and metal crafts produced by local artisans. All of this was threatened with disintegration by the turn of the 20th century, due to the pressures of uncontrolled urban growth coupled with simple neglect. Fortunately, the UNESCO added the Medina to the World’s Heritage List in the 1980s, and thus succeeded not only in preserving its heritage, but also in revitalising the tourism industry, and the regional economy.
If anything, the urban rehabilitation of the ancient Medina in Tunis is a prime example of how the historical context of a city is often responsible for reviving communities, supporting poverty reduction, and accelerating economic growth. It's amazing, however, that this cosmopolitan stretch of ancient history has remained partially shut to the outside world. The hope is that this rich region will slowly open with a new economic perspective. Like successful resort cities such as Cannes, Monaco, Split, Marseilles and Barcelona, Arab coastal hubs can too be a money spinning opportunity. In fact, if planning is done right the potential for urban development along the east edge of the Mediterranean rim is crucial to a region buckling under layers of socio-economic strain.