Casablanca’s Old Medina – White, Hectic and Unapologetically Authentic

A stand selling bottles of freshly-squeezed orange juice

photography by: Omri Westmark

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By far the largest city in Morocco, Casablanca is the country's most important financial and cultural center, also serving as a gateway to the whole African continent. While much of the city was built either during the French colonial rule or after Morocco gained its independence, a small district, known as the Old Medina, dates back to as early as the 15th century. With narrow alleyways, grimy buildings and rowdy vibes, the Medina is unapologetically authentic, providing a glimpse into another epoch.

A Bit of History

Nestled along Morocco’s Atlantic coastline, Casablanca was founded in the 10th century BC as a Berber port-town named Anfa. In the following centuries, the city was ruled by the Phoenicians, and later by the Romans, who transformed it into a major regional trading hub. The city was returned into the hands of the Berbers, when the Barghawata, a group of local Berber tribes, took control of the city in 744 AD.


The Barghawatas managed to hold the city until 1068 AD, when it was conquered and ruled by a series of Muslim dynasties for the next 400 years. At one point, the town became a haven for pirates, known as the Barbary corsairs, who captured merchant ships and raided coastal communities across the western Mediterranean and North Atlantic. In an attempt to curb the growing piracy, the Portuguese destroyed Anfa and established a military fortress on its ruins.


Over the years, the townlet that developed around the fort was nicknamed “Casa Branca” for its whitewashed houses. As Portugal and Spain came under the same union, the city received its modern-day name, Casablanca (simply “white house” in Spanish). Following several defeats by local tribes and a massive earthquake that leveled much of the city, the Portuguese left the region in 1755. 15 years later, the then Sultan of Morocco along with the Spaniards rebuilt the Old Medina, which would later become the core of a sprawling metropolis.


Under the Moroccan sultanate, the prosperous town was surrounded by a defensive wall and ramparts, fortifying it against any future attack. As part of its ensuing Arabization, the city was renamed Dar al-Bayda, a literal translation of its foreign moniker. During the 20th century’s French Colonial rule, the city was expanded far beyond its historic boundaries, with modern boulevard being built outside the Medina’s walls.


This urban sprawl process culminated after independence, when Casablanca became the country’s largest and most economically important city. Despite being dwarfed by the overall size of the city, the Old Medina serves as the true heart of modern-day Casablanca. Nevertheless, in spite of its cultural and historic significance, this old district is skipped by most travelers who regard it as untidy, smelly and even unsafe. In reality, the Medina, regardless of its problems, is a worthy place to explore, where one can have a glance of Casablanca’s original character.

Visiting the Medina

While the 18th century Medina of Casablanca is far eclipsed by its counterparts across the country, it is by no means a skippable attraction. In contrary to other Medinas in Morocco, the city’s historic district is devoid of any tourist-oriented sites and facilities. In fact, foreign visitors, especially the camera-armed ones, are greeted with a great deal of suspicion. This unwelcoming attitude should not deter you from going there, but rather be taken into account upon visit. Therefore, asking people for a permission before taking photos of them or their property is highly recommended.


The bulk of the Medina features narrow alleyways and cramped buildings, making it the city’s most densely populated part by a large margin. Many houses throughout the quarter are partially painted with blue, a common tradition across Morocco, most notably in Chefchaouen. The blue tint, along with meticulously ornamented doors, wooden shades and multiple cornices enrich the buildings’ façades. Whereas most commerce is concentrated around several hectic chokepoints near the Medina’s walls, there are also numerous food stands across the narrow alleys.


Among the many stalls you can find here are mini greengrocer’s shops, small bakeries that offer Ramadan treats as well as seafood booths, where sardines are being processed on demand. Curiously, the Medina is dotted with dozens of fountains, where ordinary people wash their limbs, fill plastic containers with drinking water for domestic consumption or even wash their dishes.


As you stroll around the old town, be cautious of the fast-moving motorcycles, the only mean of transportation capable of navigating through its narrow alleyways. The district’s convoluted layout is also challenging for GPS navigation, as many of its smaller streets are not properly mapped on the different apps. Orientation is getting even more difficult as you realize that almost every third alley has a dead end. The Medina spans all the way from Hassan II Mosque in northwest to Casa Port train station in the southeast, with its central part sandwiched between Boulevard des Almohades and Boulevard Tahar El Alaoui.