Thieves target 14th-century Islamic building

Experts express concern at the lack of action by Moroccan authorities

LONDON. Last August, thieves broke into the 14th-century Sbaiyin madrassa in the Moroccan city of Fez, stealing a decorated marble fountain plaque and carved wooden beams. The removal of the beams, which were sawn off, caused the collapse of the building’s upper gallery. The Sbaiyin madrassa and the adjoining Sahrij madrassa had already been listed by the World Monuments Fund (WMF) as one of the world’s 100 most endangered buildings. A few days later, in broad daylight, the thieves returned in a brazen attempt to steal the slender marble columns that they had already removed and cut into portable sections when they were disturbed by neighbours and fled.

Although the theft was reported to the police and the ministry of culture, three months passed before the ministry of Islamic affairs—the owner of the complex—or Bonnie Kaplan, an American scholar and structural engineer who has spent eight years trying to launch a restoration project, were informed of the robbery.

“It was only in October when I returned from the United States to check on the condition of the complex and learned of the theft, that it has been possible to determine what was taken,” says Ms Kaplan, who has subsequently appealed in the press for help in locating the stolen fragments. “I can’t understand why Interpol can’t get involved”, she says. “Rabat is a well known transit point for looted antiquities, but so far we have no leads.”

The Sbaiyin and Sahrij madrassas, built in 1321 and 1323, are among the finest of the Muslim seminaries founded by the Merinids, a Berber dynasty who ruled much of the Maghreb (North Africa and Southern Spain) from the 13th century to the 15th century. In 1271 they made Fez their capital and built a new administrative centre.

The distinctive Hispano-Moorish style of Islamic architecture that evolved under Merinid patronage reached its apogee in the madrassas of Fez and the Sbaiyin, and Sahrij madrassas are among six built between 1321 and 1357, securing the city’s status as an important centre of Islamic learning. The Merinid city, known today as Fez el-Jdid, is distinct from the earlier medina, known as Fez el-Bali, which was made a Unesco world heritage site in 1981.

Ms Kaplan is clearly frustrated at the bureaucratic hurdles and apathy with which she has had to contend in her efforts to get the project off the ground. After eight years, the emergency structural intervention has not yet been carried out and she is still waiting to get the project fully validated by the Moroccan authorities.

“When I arrived in Fez in 2000 I discovered the madrassa in a poor state of repair, with the last restoration work having been carried out around 1915 when they were listed as important monuments by the French protectorate,” says Ms Kaplan. “My first agenda was to raise international awareness and luckily I managed to get the complex listed on the 2004 WMF list.”

“We received $75,000 from American Express as well as a grant from the Getty Foundation. In total we raised $150,000 for emergency structural intervention and a feasibility study to show the Moroccan government how we would restore and manage the building in the future,” said Ms Kaplan. “However the ten month study ended up taking 27 months and was only finished last year.”

“The Getty Foundation and WMF money can only be managed by a non-profit organisation, which in this case was Icomos Morocco [an international organisation dedicated to the conservation of historic monuments and sites],” says Ms Kaplan. She soon discovered that the stipulations did little to create a dynamic basis for overcoming the already labyrinthine bureaucracy in Morocco. “The recipient is supposed to show commitment to the project by not accepting any funding from the donor so there is no financial incentive to facilitate the project,” she said.

Another point of contention has been whether the Sahrij madrassa should continue to be used by students. “I have been told that I should get them out of there, but the unoccupied Sbaiyin madrassa has fallen into far greater disrepair so I believe that the best solution is to educate the students to look after the building,” says Ms Kaplan.

In recent years there have been a number of initiatives to restore Fez’s historical buildings, with some structures sponsored by the Moroccan government, which, for a time, encouraged a large influx of foreigners to buy old properties in the medina. Ms Kaplan says, however, that the conservation of historic buildings remains a low priority. “Morocco still has hardly any cultural education,” she says. “The architecture school in Rabat only has one module on Moroccan architecture.”

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