Rehabilitation and the Cultural Festival of Asilah

Eunice M. Lin


This small trading town, over 3,600 years old, is situated on the northwest tip of Morocco. Until 1978 the town was deteriorating behind the ancient defensive walls that still enclose it. That situation was soon changed by the ideas of one man, Mohammed Benaissa, by his belief in culture as an invaluable resource and his dreams for his hometown. Through the efforts of Benaissa and his colleague, another local resident, Mohammed Melehi, the annual cultural festival of Asilah was created to fund the rehabilitation of the town, an effort continuing today. The rehabilitation project is heavily intertwined with the creation of the festival and the story of the two men. In 1989 the town won an Aga Khan Award for its rehabilitation efforts. Asilah has been granted a whole new life but raises issues related to the continuing development of the town and its inhabitants.


Asilah is located 42 km southeast of the town of Tangier on the Atlantic coast. The town is completely surrounded by Portuguese defensive walls that were erected in the 15th century. (Images 1 & 2) There are extensive beaches and a natural harbor on the northwest side of the town. Farmlands surround the town and there are no factories in the immediate area. To the north of Asilah lie beach resorts and to the southeast lie squatter settlements called mixik. This northern Atlantic coastal area falls into the Mediterranean climate zone bringing mild wet winters and dry warm summers. The presence of the Atlantic creates more rainfall than in the other Mediterranean areas.

Asilah's history stretches back to around 1500 BC, since then it has changed hands several times. The significance and morphology of the town is linked to its natural harbor. The Phoenicians called it Silis or Zilis and used the town mainly as a trading post. Being at a favorable location at the crossroads between the East and West, it was later occupied by the Carthaginians, Byzantines, and the Romans. In the 9th century it was occupied by the Arabs and the Normans. In 1471, Asilah was occupied by the Portuguese who built the town's fortifications. It was voluntarily returned to Morocco in 1550, but was absorbed by the Spanish as they took control of Portugal in the late 16th century. In 1692 the town was recaptured by the Moroccans under the leadership of Moulay Ismail. In the 19th and 20th centuries Asilah was a base for piracy. In 1911 Spain took the northern portion of Morocco as their protectorate which included Asilah. The country finally gained its independence in 1956.


Though the rehabilitation of Asilah is strongly tied to the personal efforts of two men, a few comparisons can be used to address two key aspects of their project, the participation of the town residents in the project, and the role of tourism and conservation. Comparisons can be made with the projects of restoration and conservation of the city of Lamu, Kenya and the town of Sidi Bou Said in Tunisia. (See the relevant case studies on this web site.)

The efforts of Lamu illustrate the benefits of a controlled and studied approach for dealing with the anticipated issues of conservation: maintaining a living culture vs. static monuments, how best to achieve this, and how to maximize the economic benefits of tourism. Lamu, like Asilah, is a scenic African coastal port where the will of an influential individual started the restoration effort. In the case of Lamu, the individuals are the famous anthropologists, the Leakeys. But unlike Asilah, Lamu does have a rich history and architectural heritage. Though the sequence of events leading to restoration are different, Asilah could learn from the thoughtful studies and resulting stringent policies that were enforced in Lamu and have kept the effects of tourism under control.

The efforts at Sidi Bou Said offer a lesson on how strict regulations were developed to keep the growing problems of tourism from affecting the largely completed restoration efforts begun in 1913. Also, similar to Asilah, the village's picturesque quality attracted much attention and thus the inhabitants were eager to protect and restore it. But it is on the level of local participation and the nature of that participation that Asilah differs, with the majority of the "participation" consisting of providing labor and supplies rather than input in the decision-making process.

If policies are not developed to restrict the growing speculation on the now valuable land and the subsequent urbanization and modernization of the town, the rehabilitation efforts and the festival may be the town's downfall. There are complaints that rising land values have forced some of the poorer residents off highly desirable lands. Hotels and resorts are not allowed, but the increasing numbers of tourists will affect the success of the rehabilitation and the festival and hence the town's future.


Historical Significance
Despite its history, at the time of the project in 1978 the town was quietly wasting away since it had no great significant role in modern day Morocco. Individual historic elements had been the focus of previous restoration work, mainly the fortifications, the Raissouni Palace and the Al-Kamra Tower. The Raissouni Palace, built in 1909, was the home of Ahmed-al Raissouni, one most of the most well-known pirates based in the area. But for the large part the city was falling into disrepair and its historical significance was not widely celebrated.

Social Significance
Prior to the rehabilitation project the town had no particular social distinction. In 1977 it was a coastal town with a population of 11,000 people. In various documentation and guidebooks it was only listed as being the first stop south from the larger city of Tangiers.

The social and cultural impact of the project reached far beyond the realm of the town. In addressing the larger world of Islamic society beyond Asilah, the two founders observed that:

There is no common ground where the Arab Muslim intellectual - artist, writer or poet of the Third World - can meet his counterparts from the 'the other world.' This limits their communication through dialogue and an exchange of experiences that should be open, intimate and direct. There needs to be a common ground...for much needed communication within a human framework that includes students, teachers, workers, farmers, craftsmen, civil servants, and housewives.1

The two founders also described the festival as "a permanent center for cultural diffusion, rich in authenticity and steeped in heritage...where people will be able to define their distinctive features, their fundamental characteristics and their values."2 Thus the cultural festival was envisioned as an international gathering where the ordinary local resident of any background could interact with visiting artists, scholars, and others within the realm of the festival. Individuals and tourists come from Europe, Asia and the US in addition to nearby Arab countries and Africa. At the time the award was given in 1989 it was recorded that 150,000 people came to the festival.3 For the two months of July and August the town hosts one of the most popular African festivals, attracting people from all corners of the world.

Though there is much rhetoric describing their ambitious intent, the situation in reality is quite different. By developing the cultural festival into a Musim, which means season, Benaissa thought the festival would integrate with the religious and cultural activities of the town. Cultural venues created for the festival were used by the community during the remainder of the year. The participation of the local residents in the festival as well as in the restoration project generated an increased social well being and desire to maintain the town and secure its future. The social and cultural linking of the festival and the rehabilitation of the town was elegantly stated by the two founders:

We wanted to establish Asilah as a...stronghold for the protection of man's dignity [and] the values of civilization...We also wanted to establish it as a symbol of the movement of cultural functions away from capital cities to small towns...which otherwise...would remain marginal and underdeveloped and would eventually decline.4

The reality, however, is that the influx of large numbers of the cultural elite for two months every summer seems to have had the result of alienating the residents who feel they could not understand or participate in these cultural happenings. Also, there have been complaints that the artistic and architectural elements that were installed in the town to beautify it or that were part of the festival are not respective of the local residents' wishes or even of their traditions. They feel that the work represents only the ideas of particular artists, either those visiting, those influenced by Melehi, or Melehi himself and his ever-present "wave" motif.

Economic Significance
The rehabilitation of Asilah and the funding mechanism for that rehabilitation are dependent on each other, the festival having been created to fund the rehabilitation. The festival has created added incentive for restoration, but has also created pressure to maintain and improve "the stage set" of the town. By doing so the cultural festival draws more and more tourists every year. For two months out of the year, the economy of the town is boosted by the increased demand for goods and services. In 1978 when the project began, the average income of a family was less than US $50 a month. Today it is about US $140.5 It is stated in the Aga Khan Award Technical Review that these two months of the festival are the major source of residents' annual income. Issues have also been raised about the lack of year-round employment for the youth of the town, about resulting drug abuse problems and young men's tendency to move away from the town to find work. The relationship has been beneficial to the economy but if it continues uncontrolled it can also lead to the city's slide into simply another gentrified tourist destination with severe economic and social problems stemming from unemployment among the town's younger generation.

The socio-economic make-up of the town has changed as well. The influx of wealthy and educated citizens, artists and even expatriates who responded to Benaissa's plea for help in the renovation created a new group of residents. Renovated houses rented during the festival are now attracting new residents from outside the region. Thus, as a result of the rehabilitation and the festival's success, there is also now a growing concern that the increase in the upper-class population will raise the rents of the poorer residents on newly valuable land.

Physical Description
The original local architecture falls into two types, that which was built inside the walls and that built outside the walls. Inside the walls the town consists of courtyard houses arranged in a compact, organic urban fabric with narrow streets. Spanish influence is noticeable in some of the house's facades. Outside the walls there is a sense of a "new controlled vernacular." There is a "typical two-story plan and a few rooms around a small court that is often covered. The houses are lined on 8-20 meter wide streets that lead to other narrow (3-6 meter) streets. The streets are planned by the municipality too."6

The rehabilitation project encompassed the part of the town which is limited in growth by the Portuguese fortifications that still surround it. The medina, or the old town, is located in the northwest corner. (Image 3) The key elements of the rehabilitation project included a general cleaning up and beautification of the town. This included the restoration of historic structures such as the defensive walls, the Raissouni Palace (located on the western edge of the medina), and the Al -Kamra Tower; the rearrangement and improvement of public spaces such as market areas; improvement of the infrastructure; and lastly, regulation of any new construction in town.

The buildings were restored, cleaned and freshly whitewashed. As part of the rehabilitation, and then in preparation for each festival, walls are painted with murals done by children or artists of the festival. The town is now known for these picturesque white buildings of Portuguese and Spanish style, with their brightly decorated walls along the blue coastal waters. (Image 4)

The infrastructure for electrical power and telephones was improved; the original electricity lines had been installed in 1926 by the Spanish. A wavelike pattern of street paving was created by Melehi to beautify the streets and to interest the children as they walked to and from school. (Image 5)

New construction is limited to space within the walls, mainly on lots where the original structure cannot be saved. These new buildings are constructed in a similar style and manner as the historic Portuguese and Spanish buildings. Materials such as doors and window frames are salvaged from the structures to be demolished and then recycled into the new buildings. (Image 6)

Structures, Materials, Technology, Construction
Modern materials and methods of construction are used on the new buildings. Reinforced concrete columns and beams are used, with the occasional use of some load bearing brick walls and partitions, and load bearing stone walls. New floors are constructed out of reinforced hollow tiles. The most common material for walls is concrete and hollow bricks. The exterior walls are then mostly cement with a lime wash. Traditional ceramic tiles, zelij, or cedar woodwork are the common finishing materials.

The renovation and restoration work on the other hand has been done with mostly traditional materials and methods of construction. Local masons and craftsmen do the majority of the work. From photos, traditional construction on the ramparts appears to be unfinished brickwork, as compared to the whitewashed facades in most of the rest of town.

Current Physical State
Restoration work still continues today. At the time of the award in 1989, 60% of the town had been restored. Each year the Al-Mouhit Association renovates the "sanitary facilities of at least ten sub-standard houses a year."7 Construction within the town has nearly doubled in the last ten years, though no hotels or resorts are allowed. The town records state that 10-15 houses are renovated each year, an impressive figure in a town that contains only 1200 houses within the boundary of its walls.8


Benaissa's objectives for the project were simple; to renovate and rehabilitate the town and in doing so create a sense of pride, responsibility and motivation for the upkeep of the town to ensure its future. The festival would provide the funding for the work and thus provide income and jobs for the town's residents. With the children helping to beautify and clean the town, the project would ensure that a whole range of ages would participate.

There is a statement from the officials that relates to the underlying philosophy of the project, the idea of "culture as a source of income for the local population."9 This is a questionable concept because it ignores the existing culture in the town and ignores the town's desires for change in their own culture and instead is in favor of bringing in a different culture to create a means of income.

The rehabilitation of Asilah is an immense accomplishment as is the creation of the cultural festival. But the unstated emphasis of the project seems to be one of aesthetics - creating the picturesque by beautifying the appearance and maintaining the character of the town vs. the historic preservation of the valuable heritage of the town. There is little published material describing any of the structures or materials involved in the rehabilitation and no statements hinting at strict regulations or studies of the historic fabric of the city. If it is this picturesque quality that improves as the rehabilitation continues, then its appeal as a tourist attraction increases since the town acts as a "stage set" for the Musim. But the subsequent growth of tourism and the influx of new wealthier residents may or may not be a desirable or anticipated condition of Benaissa's original objectives. An article found on the internet which ended its description of Asilah with the statement, "Asilah's future as one of Morocco's important tourist resorts now seems assured" asserts what is now the inevitable outcome of the rehabilitation project.10


Phases of Renovation
There are approximately three phases of the project, the pre-festival efforts, those efforts that were linked to the first festival, and then those that are continued in the subsequent annual occurrences of the festival.

The rehabilitation of the town really stemmed from the efforts and ideas of Mohammed Benaissa and Mohammed Melehi. They began by becoming involved in the town's government and later becoming members of the Municipal Council, and also by beginning simple studies into the efficiency of the maintenance efforts of the town. One simple example of what developed from this study is that they discovered that the garbage collectors had to knock on people's doors to pick up the garbage. Benaissa and Melehi asked residents to help make the service more efficient and had the residents put their trash outside, ready to be picked up.

The next phase involved improving the town's appearance and involving all age groups and citizens of the town. A "paint-in" with competitions for the children was organized and with the assistance of professional artists the walls of the city were cleaned and painted. The Town Council also agreed to pave the streets. The restoration of the houses was accomplished by appealing to the wealthy and educated citizens who had moved away and still had an interest in the town. Along with artists and even expatriates they were then asked to renovate the old houses they owned in town within the accepted "traditional methods and modes" of the town.11 These houses were often rented out during the festival. (Image 7)

Drawing on the invaluable resources of the local culture, Benaissa and Melehi founded the Al-Mouhit Cultural Association to organize the international cultural festival. In preparation, the Raissouni palace was made into a "Palace of Culture,"12 and the Ministry of Culture of Morocco restored a portion of the rampart walls.

The first festival began with the artists painting their artwork onto the city's walls, with the assistance of the local residents. The work may be painted over the next year, but nonetheless serves as a marker of culture for all to see. Today, hundreds of local school children compete to clean the beaches and older residents provide labor, materials or supplies to maintain their "blocks."13

Spatial Changes
New functions were given to historic areas. The Raissouni palace was donated by the Spanish government to the project and transformed into the Palace of Culture. It was restored and changed into studio spaces for the visiting artists during the festival; a large gathering space for the community was also created. An open-air theater was constructed in the old section of town within the Portuguese walls, and a new harbor is being rebuilt to serve as a commercial port and marina.


Local Group
The main players were Mohammed Benaissa and his colleague Mohammed Melehi, as individual citizens at first and then as members of the local government. Their efforts involved the entire population in the rehabilitation project and the cultural festival. Understanding Benaissa's background gives insight into the goals and strengths that underlie the festival and his efforts on behalf of Asilah.

As the spokesperson and instigator of the project Mohammed Benaissa was able to create and promote a desirable image for Asilah. Benaissa's studies in journalism and communications at the University of Cairo and then at the University of Minnesota and his experience in the mid-1960's studying film-making in New York definitely helped him to create and convey a certain image of Asilah to the larger public. His interest in international political and cultural issues is evident in his long involvement with the UN and then at various levels with the Moroccan government. He worked in several different positions for the UN, his early positions were first in the Moroccan Permanent Mission, then in the Office of Public Information. He later held positions in Addis Ababa, Rome and Ghana as information director for the UN's Food and Agricultural Organizations.14 He was formerly the culture minister and currently he is now the Moroccan Ambassador to the United States in addition to being the re-elected mayor of Asilah.

Mohammed Melehi is a prominent artist of the region and was, in 1978, the head of a local association of artists. For a time he worked with Benaissa in the Ministry of Culture.

Government Agencies
For the most part, participation in the project by any large government bodies was linked to improvements in the infrastructure and the provision of support attached to restoration of the larger historic structures.


Total cost is unknown since it is an ongoing project. One indication of Asilah's economic growth from the project though is that the town's budget went up from 1.8 million Moroccan dinars in 1978 to 10.9 million dinars in 1989.15 These costs include the maintenance of the town plus the salaries of the city's employees and laborers. The town is constantly seeking more financial support. The town received some aid from the Portuguese government in restoring parts of the old town, and the Shell Oil Company contributed a couple hundred garbage cans.16


The findings of the Technical Review of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture17 are extensive and provide information beyond the scope of this paper. But the Review raises some very pertinent issues worth stating in this paper.

The project in its success has improved the infrastructure of the town and given the residents a sense of pride and a greater access to income. But there are flaws and contradictions that mar the success of this project. The most pertinent point of controversy is Benaissa's insistence that what is essential to a restoration project's success and the development of tourism for the benefit of the town is the participation of the residents. Unfortunately the only level of participation seems to be that of labor and provision of supplies, instead of participation in the decision making process. Decision making seems to be only in the hands of Benaissa and the 18 - 21 members of the municipality that are part of his political party. Plainly put the problematic issues are as follows:

1. Basically the project began and continues as the imposition of one atypical resident's will and ideas on a larger community without the continuing consent of the residents.

2. There is no clear legislation or policies to guide the restoration and rehabilitation of the town. Ideally these would have been established with the residents input. This leads to questions and contradictions as well as allows for municipal decisions to be implemented easily since there are no guidelines or set limitations.

3. The cultural festival does not enrich the culture of the residents. Since they feel that the level of culture presented in the festival is "above them," they essentially have become service providers to those who participate in the event.

4. The original controversial issue brought to national attention, the question: "To what extent should a society give up its values for tourism in order to generate income?" remains unanswered. With Asilah, it almost seems that new external values were imposed on the town. Benaissa stated in an interview his desire for "slow and natural growth," but it is the municipality group which decides what "slow and natural" really means. No hotels and tourist-oriented restaurants are allowed to be built.

5. There are basic issues of restoration/rehabilitation or preservation in the redesign of the town harbor. It is in the process of being redesigned to be a working port as well as a marina area. There are complaints regarding the loss of its character which leads to questions about who makes the decisions and what is the desired result of rebuilding an historical site.

6. In promoting the city as a place of culture no factories and other opportunities for more regular employment are created. There are complaints from the residents that it's this goal of promoting culture which is "stopping progress" and that it is unrealistic to have a city based entirely on a cultural event, especially when the residents need jobs. The irregularity of the summer income has been linked to social problems of drug abuse, employment problems, and the scamming of tourists during the festival.


1. Danielle B. Hayes, "Asilah: Common Ground," Aramco World, vol. 45, no. 1 (January 1994), p. 12.
2. Hayes, "Asilah: Common Ground," p. 14.
3. "Rehabilitation of Asilah, Morocco" Mimar no 33 (December 1989), p.28.
4. Hayes, "Asilah: Common Ground," p. 12.
5. James Steele, Architecture for Islamic Societies Today, Academy Editions (London: 1994) p. 57.
6. Jamal Akbar, "The Rehabilitation of Asilah," Technical Review Summaries for the 1989 Award, vol. 1, Award cycle IV, Unpublished Report Number 18 (Geneva: The Aga Khan Award for Architecture, 1989) p. 3.
7. http://
8. Steele, Architecture for Islamic Societies Today, p. 55.
9. Akbar, "The Rehabilitation of Asilah," p. 4.
10. http://www.arabnet/morocco/tour/mo-asilah.html
11. Steele, Architecture for Islamic Societies Today, p. 55.
12. Hayes, "Asilah: Common Ground," p. 12.
13. http://www.arabnet/morocco/tour/mo-asilah.html
15. (author) "Rehabilitation of Asilah, Morocco," p. 28.
16. Steele, Architecture for Islamic Societies Today, p. 57.
17. Akbar, "The Rehabilitation of Asilah," p. 2-14.


Akbar, Jamel. "The Rehabilitation of Asilah." Technical Review Summaries for the 1989 Award, vol. 1, Award cycle IV, Unpublished Report Number 18. Geneva: The Aga Khan Award for Architecture (1989), pp. 2-14.

Bwana, Omar. "Conservation and Tourism." RIBA Journal v. 192, no. 2 (February 1985), p. 41

Hayes, Danielle B. "Asilah: Common Ground." Aramco World Magazine, vol. 45, no. 1 (January 1994), pp. 10-15.

Kay, Shirley. Morocco. London: Namara Publications, 1980.

McLachlan, Anne & Keith. Morocco: Handbook with Mauritania. Bath, England: Footprint Handbooks, 1997.

"Meet the Arab Ambassadors to the United States of America."

"Morocco: Tour Guide."

"The Rehabilitation of Asilah, Morocco." Architectural Review. vol. 186, no. 1113 (November 1989), pp. 106-101.

"Rehabilitation of Asilah, Morocco." Mimar. no.33 (December 1989) pp. 28-29.

Schmertz, Mildred F. "The 1980 Winners of the First Aga Khan Award for Architecture." Architectural Record. vol. 168, no. 7 (November 1980), pp. 104-107.

Steele, James. Architecture for Islamic Societies Today. Academy Editions. London: 1994.












1. Map of Morocco

2. Overall image of the area



















































































3. Plan of the old city

4a. View of houses in Asilah.

4b. View of the Sea through the ramparts.

5. Street view

6. Entrance to houses










7: Mural painted by local artists

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