Blog WHS Visits

WHS #825: Mazagan

7 out of the current 9 Moroccan World Heritage Sites have been rated with 3 stars or more by our community. They have brought Morocco a good overall country rating of 3.44. The only exceptions are Tétouan (almost there at 2.92), and Mazagan (2.63). The Portuguese City of Mazagan however turned out the biggest positive surprise of my short Moroccan coastal trip in January 2023.

Just looking at the site’s intrinsic qualities and OUV, I believe a low rating of Mazagan is not fair. Yes, I understand it is small and takes an hour at most to explore. But:

  1. It is really old. It dates from the very early stages of the explorations of the Portuguese outside Europe (1514). Among the many Portuguese colonial forts around the world, this one is the second oldest that is still intact. The only older one is Elmina Castle in Ghana (part of the Gold Coast Forts WHS). 
  2. It has barely changed since. Elmina was heavily used by the Dutch and British in the 17th-19th centuries, while Mazagan was abandoned after the Portuguese left in 1769. The fortress town, therefore, has kept its original layout, some buildings, and the ramparts. Only the residential buildings of the Moroccans that settled here from the mid-19th century on, are additions, as well as an entrance gate built during the French protectorate.
  3. It has kept the church buildings intact. The 16th-century Portuguese Church of the Assumption still holds the primary position in town. OK, the Moroccans that took over and renamed the town El Jadida turned a higher watchtower into the minaret of their mosque. But they didn’t destroy the churches.

I visited Mazagan as a stop-over between Casablanca and Essaouira, arriving by train. At the ‘modern’ double entrance gate to the fortress, my attention was drawn to the trilingual WHS plaque, as I had read in Clyde’s review that it was upside down. I didn’t see anything wrong with it at first until Clyde (after I consulted him) pointed out that although they have repainted the text and the logos in black, the UNESCO logo still is on its head… But, hey, at least they have a plaque, something that has been lacking during my WH travels the past months in Brazil, Gran Canaria, and Morocco.

Mazagan has a main street to the right from the entrance with some souvenir stalls, but you certainly needn’t come here for the shopping or the bustling medina life. It’s more interesting to climb up to the ramparts, which can be accessed on either side of the town. The walkway is wide and you can access several bastions and have good overviews of the enclosed town with its (church) towers.

Unfortunately, I found the Portuguese cistern that other reviewers named as their highlight of Mazagan closed. A big lock kept the door shut and there was a sign in English saying that it ‘may be closed for restorations’. It did not open up while I was there, and also not when a bigger tour group arrived. The Church of the Assumption is now in use as a cinema. You can have a look around and an information panel tells about its original use. The 19th-century Mosque lies to the back of it and has an interestingly shaped, pentagonal minaret.

Mazagan has some graffiti here and there, the living conditions in the old houses may not be great and there is a large field of rubble just in front of the only boutique hotel in the town. But the streets and ramparts are clean, safe and pleasant to walk. I finished my visit with lunch at La Capitainerie restaurant (an offspring of the Iglesia boutique hotel in a nearby street) to see what the interior of one of the more fancy buildings looks like.

Getting there and away on public transport. There is a direct train every 2 hours from Casablanca to El Jadida. The railway station is some 5km away from the Cité Portugaise, but there are plenty of petit taxis waiting to take you there. The ride costs 18 dirhams and probably will be a shared one as common in Morocco. To leave, there is a ramshackle bus station (Gare Routière) which lies an easy 1.5km walk from the WHS. I travelled from there to Essaouira with CTM, which has a comfortable bus every 4 hours. You need to pre-book this one online, as it fills up (it’s just a stretch of the popular Casablanca – Agadir route). More basic and slower buses to Essaouira leave from that bus station more frequently. There is also a new bus station near the railway station, but it seems to be not in use (yet). 

Els - 29 January 2023

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Liam 30 January 2023

Hmm, and I'm one of the ones dragging the average down with a 1 star rating. I have likely been unfair to it, considering that it was part of my first ever trip looking for WHSs, and I didn't particularly understand *why* sites had been inscribed or what to look for. Plus I only had a short gap between bus and train to look around.

But. If other people say the cistern is the highlight, it is nothing compared to that in Istanbul. And I found it a disappointment after Essaouira generally (maybe views are dependent on which historic walled maritime town you visit first?)