Recovery with an eye on heritage

The Agadir Oufella, a fortress damaged during an earthquake in 1960 and restored recently in Agadir. As Morocco tries to rebuild after the earthquake in September, tradition is at the top of many minds; experts say the government should preserve cultural and architectural heritage, while also building disaster-resistant homes. — ©2023 The New York Times Company

BOUJEMAA Kouti still remembers the screams of his neighbours trapped under the rubble of their houses, calling for help that horrific night 63 years ago.

He was just eight and asleep when a large earthquake struck Morocco in 1960, wiping out entire neighbourhoods in the coastal city of Agadir, near the Atlas Mountains, and killing at least 12,000 people.

“I saw stars when I woke up,” Kouti said, and then he heard “people screaming ‘Save me’ – calling for their family.”

Kouti’s older brother died, and the Kouti family lived in tents for almost a year as Agadir was mostly rebuilt at a location nearby deemed safer.

Rubble was bulldozed and cleared, and a vast amount of concrete was poured as buildings with stricter seismic standards went up.

The Agadir Oufella, a 16th century fortress partly damaged in the quake, was eventually restored, and a memorial was erected on top of a hill where many died.

Now, Moroccans are confronting a new challenge in the nearby Atlas Mountains: how to rebuild the once picturesque villages and towns destroyed in the powerful earthquake that devastated the region on Sept 8, killing about 3,000 people.

Agadir was largely spared this time, but possibly hundreds of thousands of people, according to estimates in the Moroccan news media, are still living in tents in devastated villages across the Atlas Mountains, waiting for reconstruction to begin; countless others have sought shelter with relatives.

Graves for victims of the earthquake in 1960 Agadir, Morocco. — ©2023 The New York Times CompanyGraves for victims of the earthquake in 1960 Agadir, Morocco. — ©2023 The New York Times Company

Recent rains and flooding have further exposed them to vulnerable living conditions as they wait for officials to act.

The government has pledged to spend about US$11.8bil to rebuild and repair the homes of an estimated 4.2 million Moroccans in the next five years. At the same time, officials are weighing how best to restore the cultural heritage of a region that is also an important part of the country’s tourism industry.

In the Atlas Mountains, traditional architecture had long endured, with picturesque flat-roofed houses, built with mud and stone bricks mixed with straw, clustered together across spectacular landscapes that were a draw for visitors.

Many of those structures collapsed, partly because of the sheer force of the earthquake, but also because the seismic standards put in place two decades ago were often not followed.

Experts, among them Marrakech-based architect Amine Kabbaj, say it is hard to enforce rules in rural areas where people rarely have the ability to hire architects or engineers. This can lead to a lack of foundations and inadequate protections.

Salima Naji, an architect and anthropologist who led the project to restore the Oufella fortress in Agadir and has also been at the forefront of efforts to promote traditional ways of building in the Atlas Mountains, agrees.

“The recent hasty constructions do not respect any rules; the companies, contractors and builders work quickly and poorly,” she said.

Naji is also a strong advocate of using materials and techniques that reflect local customs and address climate challenges. While modern methods of earthquake-proofing buildings are necessary, she said, they can be combined with more established ancient techniques.

Kouti, a survivor of the 1960 earthquake, in a graveyard in Agadir, Morocco. — ©2023 The New York Times CompanyKouti, a survivor of the 1960 earthquake, in a graveyard in Agadir, Morocco. — ©2023 The New York Times Company

She says traditional architecture is sustainable, can withstand earthquakes when standards are respected, and is adaptable to the mountain environment: warm in winter and cool in the summer.

Naji has long been involved in heritage preservation in the Atlas Mountains, including fortified villages.

During anthropological fieldwork from 1999 to 2006, Naji explored high mountain valleys, focusing on the collective granaries where villagers stored their crops. She said she felt a strong bond with the region, and was indebted to villagers.

She accompanied her father, a Moroccan topographer, to the region frequently as a child. There were not many hotels at the time, so villagers welcomed them into their homes, she said, and she grew fond of the buildings they stayed in.

“I loved this architecture, made of stone and mud,” she said. “It was the joy of my entire childhood.”

So far, Moroccan authorities appear to be open to entreaties from such architects as Naji.

The Academy of the Kingdom of Morocco, a national cultural scientific reference institution, has consulted several experts from different disciplines on how using traditional materials to rebuild can help preserve Morocco’s heritage.

The country’s highest authorities seem, according to the experts who were consulted, aware of the need to draft a plan that could be a starting point to preserving the cultural and architectural heritage of the Atlas Mountains, while also building homes that will resist natural disasters.

A mosque that was damaged after the earthquake in September in Douar Taqordmi, Morocco. — ©2023 The New York Times CompanyA mosque that was damaged after the earthquake in September in Douar Taqordmi, Morocco. — ©2023 The New York Times Company

Still, Abdeslam Maghraoui, a political scientist at Duke University, warned that the recovery process would be long and laborious.

“The epicentre of the earthquake and surrounding mountainous areas are extremely poor, difficult to access and have been neglected by the state for decades,” he said.

“So the collective healing, trust in authorities, and material reconstruction will take time.”

As winter approaches and temperatures continue to drop, the first concern of many residents is to get back in their homes. Some have been avoiding them for fear of aftershocks.

Rim Rami, 18, a university student in Marrakech, lost her family home in Moulay Brahim, near the epicentre of the earthquake. She has been shuttling to the city to attend class while her family camps out in the mountains. She is worried historical buildings will be prioritised.

“It’s scary to sleep outside,” she said. “They need to rebuild homes first.”

Many experts are also concerned about the fate of precious and precarious architectural gems across the mountains.

Abdallah Fili, an archaeologist and professor at Chouaib Doukkali University, led the restoration of the Tinmel Mosque, which dates from the 12th century. The work was nearly finished before it was heavily damaged in the earthquake in September.

Despite the disaster, he sees some benefits.

“Destruction has a meaning because it allows access to parts of the buildings that we have never been able to analyse,” Fili said.

But he is worried about what will happen to the site. According to him, the authorities started removing debris from the mosque without consulting archaeologists.

He does not know whether he will be asked to work on the next restoration.

Whatever the fate of the villages dotted across the Atlas Mountains, the example of Agadir shows just how difficult it is to repair the trauma of a devastating earthquake. Every year around the end of February, the anniversary of the 1960 disaster, a commemoration occurs.

And a phrase taken from a speech by the king at the time, Mohammed V, still adorns a wall in Agadir’s city centre: “If destiny has decided the destruction of Agadir, its reconstruction will be due to our will and our faith.”

Kouti, 71, who survived the 1960 quake, is now the custodian of the cemetery of Ihchach, where many victims were laid to rest.

The graveyard sits on a hill that once was a neighbourhood of Agadir. Not much remains from that time: some trees, a disused hospital and the ruins of collapsed homes. Sometimes visitors come to ask him to help them locate the grave of a loved one.

Many come to inquire about the unidentified bodies quickly buried in a mass grave when the authorities feared epidemics, in the hopes of finding lost family members.

Kouti said he had been asleep when the earthquake hit last September.

“I wasn’t scared,” he said. “I already experienced that before.” — ©2023 The New York Times Company

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