Sweeping out the Spiders:  Restoring Morocco’s Madrassas
by Bonnie Kaplan
AE Newsletter - Fall/Winter 2002

When Si Jaffar appeared, he was wearing striped pajamas, a loosely wound turban was around his head, and he was wringing his hands and smiling his eternal smile. “We have had a little accident, with slight damage,” he said. “I hope you will forgive the inconvenience.” He led [Stenham] into the large reception room. Several tons of rubble lay piled up at one end: stones, earth and plaster. The wall of the house across the street was visible through the gaping hole… “The rain,” Si Jaffar said apologetically. “This is an old house. One is afraid the entire wall may crumble.”

                                        —Paul Bowles: The Spider’s House

Before I could stop him, Paul stripped off his clothing and waded into the basin in his underwear. The neighborhood children pressed their noses against cracks in the courtyard door to see what this foreigner was doing with fancy photography equipment and no clothes. “H’muk!” they told me, he’s nuts. The door guard looked uneasy. “Just another minute,” I told him in Arabic.

Paul and his wife Regina, photographers from Austria, had come to Morocco to build a portfolio of digital, panoramic images for a tourism website they were designing. When I met them in August 2002, I was in Fez conferring with architects, engineers and government officials to prepare grant applications for a comprehensive restoration project at the Sahrij and Sbaiyin Madrassa Complex, a fourteenth century theological college in the Fez medina.

The city of Fez was founded in the eighth century by the Arab conqueror, Moulay Idriss, a descendant of the Prophet Mohamed. As the capital of the first Moroccan dynasty, the Idrissids envisioned Fez as a model of Islamic civilization in the western Muslim world. Future dynasties, however, abandoned Fez for Marrakech, and it was not until the rise of the Merinid dynasty in the fourteenth century that Fez once again became the heart of the Moroccan empire.

Unlike preceding dynasties, the Merinids, natives of the frontier region between modern Morocco and Algeria, had no holy blood ties and as a result tried to legitimize their reign and express their piety through the construction of Islamic colleges, or madrassas. Seven were built in Fez under Merinid rule including the Sahrij in 1321 and the Sbaiyin in 1323. Commissioned by Crown Prince Abu al-Hassan, these structures housed western Islam’s future educated elite.

The appeal of Fez as intellectual and spiritual capital drew waves of immigrants from Spain and Tunisia. Many were master builders and artisans whose work shaped the corpus of what Fez is still today. Under the Merinids, building crafts achieved new levels of architectural harmony and sophistication. Intricate surface embellishment became the signature of the Merinid era, reaching its height in the Sahrij and Sbaiyin Madrassa Complex, a chef d’oeuvre of Merinid art. While numerous other structures in Fez date from this era, few demonstrate the Merinid arts as cogently in such a compact space.

Today, the structural and architectural components of the Complex are in a state of advanced deterioration. Built into a slope, open to the elements, poorly drained, and undercut by subterranean canals and springs, the madrassas suffer from perpetual water infiltration. Mold and vegetation growth are rampant; rotten beams have given way, resulting in floor collapse.

Fez is also located in an active seismic zone. Frequent tremors cause rubble-filled floors to spread and masonry walls to separate. With traditional construction offering little lateral resistance and early 20th-century tiebacks brittle and rusted, the unrestrained masonry columns in the Sahrij are buckling dangerously towards the central court. This widespread, structural warping in turn has damaged the decorative architectural veneer, cracking and displacing plaster and zellij (geometric tile mosaic).

My involvement at the Sahrij and Sbaiyin Madrassa Complex began when I moved to Fez as a structural engineer and Fulbright Scholar in September 2000. Over the course of the next year, I performed detailed site surveys, researched madrassa history in government archives, and photographed the Complex extensively. As soon as I returned to America, I launched a campaign to secure the US$1.5 million needed to restore the site, contacting foundations all over North America and Europe. This effort is ongoing.

Grantors rarely make awards to individuals, but instead to non-profit organizations or government bodies with reliable track records. For this reason, I asked the American Cultural Association in Rabat, “formed to promote understanding and intellectual exchange between the peoples of the Kingdom of Morocco and 

of the United States of America,” to adopt the role of grant administrator. The association president accepted, and with the accounting framework in place, I then nominated the Complex for a place on the World Monuments Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites. If selected for the biennial List, the site will receive international publicity and be eligible for a multitude of financial opportunities. The 2004 List results will be announced in summer 2003.

In addition to drafting grant applications, I have personally invested substantial amounts of my own money and time to promote the success of this project. I have spoken at two international conferences: The Middle Eastern Studies Association Conference in San Francisco in November 2001, and the First World Congress of Middle Eastern Studies in Mainz, Germany in September 2002; Interviewed experts in New York and Washington, D.C.; and I made two additional trips to Morocco.

I am buoyed by the encouragement I have received from academics, professionals and friends as well as by the positive outcomes of serendipitous encounters with people like Paul who sacrificed his modesty and dry clothes to make a personal contribution to this project. Now, I can only hope that funding will be found so that I may return to Fez to oversee the comprehensive restoration of the Sahrij and Sbaiyin Madrassa Complex. Like Paul, I will wade in with enthusiasm, but with a hardhat and my pants on.


Sbaiyin Madrassa Today (above-top to bottom,) Architectural Details: Spalling of reinforced concrete dating from the 1930s; Decorated cedar beams forced out of plane by seismic forces.

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Typical Damage: (above-top to bottom) Floor collapse caused by rotted beams; Cracked Masonry walls; Vegetation and mold growth in the Sahrij Latrine Court; Masonry columns in the Central Court of the Sahrij Madrassa buckle, forced out of plane by floor spreading.

Click on photos to view in greater detail.

Sahrij Madrassa Architectural Details: (below-top to bottom), Damage to a plaster frieze; Central Court entrance (cedar wood);Central Court roof eaves (carved cedar wood); Zellij (traditional tile mosaic) in Central Court .

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Bonnie Kaplan graduated from Penn State in December 1999 with Bachelors degrees in Architectural Engineering and French. Bonnie is in regular contact with Dr. Thomas Boothby, and calls in at the AE Department between trips to France and Morocco. She may be contacted at: bxk132@alumni.psu.edu.

Related Links:

Paul Rapnik and Regina Leibetseder’s photography may be viewed at: www.panograph.at; World Monument Watch: www.wmf.org; The American Cultural Association, Morocco: www.aca.org.ma.

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