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The Portuguese Church in the Medina of Essaouira is a major gem in the town and a must in the urban landscape: the restoration of this monument is of great urgency and should proceed quickly.
The Portuguese church adjoining the Consulate in the Ibn Zohr cul-de-sac is in a neglected state: the church tower is in danger of crumbling down. An arched window bringing light to a prayer room and a freestone front door framed by two pilasters with capitals and looking as if it has been closed for years, give unto the road.
A phantom church whose remains can be seen when one climbs on the neighbouring terraces in Ibn Rochd Street which overlook the back of the building. As for the Portuguese Consulate, it is in the same neglected state as its neighbour: it adjoins the church on the right at the end of the cul-de-sac.
Legend has it that when Sultan Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah, the founder of Essaouira, first visited the town, he turned around towards his followers and uttered these words: “Whoever enters this town as a poor man, will leave it a rich man. As, in this city, riches come from very far away…”
This sentence is witness to the historical context when numerous trade treaties were signed with European countries.
From the XIV Century onwards, Europe will be interested in the African Atlantic Coast for many reasons. The situation of Mogador in relation to the Mazagan-Agadir axis was of very early concern to the Portuguese: with the taking of Safi and Mazagan in mind, the Portuguese King, Manuel The Great (1495-1521), ordered the building of a fortress on the site of Mogador facing the big island in 1506: it was El Castillo Real (the royal castle).
It was in this context that the various Consulates and the Portuguese church were built so as to offer the Christian community living in Essaouira an urban framework conform especially to their religious activities and to encourage them to settle down in some other places like El Jadida (or Mazagan under the Protectorate). Some of these Consulates were rehabilitated for public purposes, like the French or the Italian Consulates; others were left practically to ruin.
The church, named the Portuguese Church, situated at the foot of the Southern door of the Scala in the Medina, was built towards the end of the XVIII century by the first European traders settled in the town. The front of the building and its main entrance, fitting closely within the surrounding historical fabric, are situated at the end of a partly covered cul-de-sac. The ornate freestone front door is framed by two pilasters with capitals. Above the door, an arched window brings light to the prayer room on the first floor.
This monument is organised around a central yard and has three levels:
• The ground floor composed of a series of rooms used once as warehouses, whose access is possible from two levels of galleries supported by four drum pillars, each crowned by freestone capitals.
• The first floor composed of a church hall of 15.42m.
Its four galleries open unto rooms once used as lodgings.
·• The tower (7.8m high from the terrace level) is composed of two parts both topped by a semi spherical dome once sheltering the bells. A tiled roof with curved slopes- a clear reminder of the shape of old Portuguese churches- links up the rectangular part of the tower, the cylindrical ridge and its dome.
From a Casablanca architect file
In 2008, a 5 Million dirham rehabilitation project for the Portuguese Church planned for the creation of exhibition rooms, of a multi-purpose room (shows, screenings, conferences, exhibitions), of a specialized library (Art, History, Art History), of a workshop (painting, music instruments, jewels, music, photography) as well as of lodgings for the artists and for the participants invited by the town.
This very ambitious project which attempted to protect the old Medina of Essaouira by enhancing its architectural heritage, by improving the tourist trip around the town while creating a meeting space for local and foreign artists and intellectuals as well as a workshop for creators, would have led to the promotion of local art and cultural heritage. It was not finalized. Today and each passing month see the church degradation: the question that every one is asking is “Will the church end up disappearing altogether?”