When you gaze at the coastal city of El Jadida from the sea, you may notice that this ancient port town doesn’t resemble other traditional Moorish settlements. Indeed, El Jadida’s architecture and urban design is unique in that it has been heavily influenced by the Portuguese who occupied it for over two centuries. This influence has produced a city that truly bears witness to a history of cultural exchange between the Moroccans and the Portuguese.
The remnants of the Portuguese presence in the city are more visible in its old town, formerly known as Mazagan (or Mazagão in Portuguese). It is here that you will be able to find an impressive 16th century cistern as well as a number of enchanting (and well-preserved) churches and chapels. Although today the city has grown and modern buildings surround the historic center of El Jadida, it is undoubtedly a unique experience to enter the Mazagan’s ancient fortification and discover history around every corner.
The Icon of an Era
The old city of Mazagan is one of the first places where the Portuguese explorers settled on their way to India during the peak of the Age of Discovery. Its development was slow and evolved out of the need for protection of the Portuguese hold on the city from the surrounding kingdoms.
The coastal settlement was thus first established as a protectorate of the Portuguese Kingdom in the late 15th century. It was officially occupied in 1502 when the only construction on site was a tower called el-Brija. It remained so until the Portuguese decided to build a citadel designed by Francisco and Diogo de Arruda in 1514. When the Portuguese lost Agadir in 1541, Mazagan was transformed into a much larger fortification designed by three architects from Portugal, Spain and Italy. It was at this time that the city began to develop more rapidly with the construction of various churches, small chapels and an impressive fortress.
After over two centuries of occupation, the Portuguese were pushed out of Mazagan in 1769, thus losing their last stronghold in Morocco. After signing a peace treaty with Sultan Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdallah, the Portuguese were forced out of the city without the possibility to take any of their belongings. To retaliate, they mined the main entrance to the fortress (the former Governor’s Bastion), which caused several deaths and the destruction of a part of the rampart. Out of fear, Mazagan was left uninhabited for over 50 years and was named al-Mahdouma (meaning “The Ruined”).
It was only in the mid 19th century that Sultan Moulay Abderrahman ordered the city to be restored. Its Portuguese name was banned and the new city was called El Jadida (meaning “The New” or “The Novel”).
Today, most of the Portuguese construction still stands in excellent conditions and the ancient citadel is protected under UNESCO World Heritage status for its ability to beautifully capture the era in which it was erected.
The Portuguese Remnants
The main sites of Portuguese heritage that you can explore through Mazagan are its fortress and a 16th century cistern.
The ancient fortress is an impressive structure that pays due homage to the early style of Portuguese Renaissance architecture. It is laid out in a star shape with three entrance points and five main bastions (one of which stands in ruins today as it stood above the fort’s main entrance). Its massive high walls and colonial-era Portuguese cannons create an imposing structure that dominates the landscape of El Jadida.
One enters the fortress through its main entrance which was once connected to land via a drawbridge over a deep ditch that surrounded the fort. Today, the ditch has been filled in and now the entrance to the fort connects to Mazagan’s main street, Rua da Carreira. It is on this street that you’ll find the city’s best preserved historic monuments.
One of these monuments is the Portuguese cistern built in 1514, when the citadel was constructed. Its square layout was designed to include the el-Brija tower that stood on site when the Portuguese decided to settle in Mazagan. Three more towers were added to complete the structure and form three large halls on the main floor. The true treasure, however, is found in the underground floor where thin pillars and vaults built in the Portuguese Manueline style house a spectacular cistern. Take your time strolling through this grand structure and observe how the dim lights create enchanting reflections of the spartan ceilings and pillars on the thin sheet of water below you.
A Modern Melting Pot
When Mazagan was restored to become El Jadida, the city underwent a number of changes and new construction works. The beauty of this transformation from colonial stronghold to Moroccan city, however, is that it didn’t mean the destruction of the existing buildings. Thus, today, the 16th century Portuguese churches and chapels coexist with a modern Muslim mosque (a symbol of purification) and even synagogues erected by more recent Jewish settlers.
Modern-day El Jadida is a true melting pot of different cultures. Its location has made it a popular stop for international merchants, missionaries and ambassadors from all over the world since the second half of 19th century. Despite this intense intercultural exchange, the old town of Mazagan has beautifully preserved its buildings and history making it a truly unique window for those looking to explore the dawn of the Age of Discovery.
Go Beyond with Our Team
We are the only travel company in Morocco that currently uses El Jadida as an overnight stop – usually before a traveler’s departure. If you are interested in touring Morocco with a renowned team, look no further! Send us a quick email and we’ll help you start planning for the trip of a lifetime.
Portuguese Cistern in El Jadida by Mariya Foteva; Commissioned by Journey Beyond Travel
This article was co-authored with Maria Inês Pinto, a young Portuguese freelancer born with a passion for writing and travel.She has spent her life hopping around different countries, having lived in Canada, the US, India and Ireland. Now residing in Portugal, she is planning to move to Mozambique soon to pursue her third passion: humanitarian work. In her free time, she travels and writes about her adventures.