What is a medina: 7 things you need to know

Before your trip, when gathering information about the program, you will have verified that in our tours we visit different medinas in Morocco. And perhaps you have some basic notions about these typical neighborhoods in the country’s cities. But for you to better understand what characterizes them, here we tell you what a medina is and what you should know before venturing into them.

#1. Its etymological meaning

Medina is a word derived from Arabic (madinah), which in turn comes from Aramaic. It is most likely derived from the word din, which refers to “law,” in reference to the delimited part of the city with its own legal order, such as certain tax breaks or exemptions. The Fes el-Bali medina is usually considered the oldest (9th century), precisely on the occasion of the city’s foundation as the capital of the Idrisid kingdom and its consequent urban planning.

#2. An area delimited by walls

In Morocco, the medinas were surrounded by walls, which in most cases are partially or completely preserved, with their respective entrance gates, some of them truly monumental. At the time, they practically encompassed the entire city, except for the outer suburbs. Today, these walls serve to delimit what is known as the old town, with the exception of other unique neighborhoods that are also historical but outside the medina, such as some mellahs (Jewish quarters).

#3. Narrow streets to create a climatic island

Due to its latitude and climate, it is very hot in practically all of Morocco during the summer season. Therefore, all medinas were conceived as spaces with very narrow and winding streets, providing shade throughout the day to create a cooler environment. Undoubtedly, an intelligent and efficient solution that remains more relevant than ever in our times.

#4. With the main historical monuments

Being the old town, the medinas of Morocco concentrate the main historical monuments. Especially mosques (which are not usually visitable), madrasas (Quranic schools), or palatial houses (now converted into museums in many cases). Attached to the medinas, there are usually castles or fortresses (alcázars) for defense. Royal palaces, on the other hand, may be attached to or near the medina, but due to their greater space requirements, they tend to extend outward.

#5. A place to explore on foot

Due to the aforementioned narrowness and tortuosity of its streets, medinas are not suitable for public transportation such as buses. But not even for private vehicles in many cases. Therefore, you will have to be prepared to explore it on foot. Additionally, you should consider that they are not usually adapted areas for people with reduced mobility, as steps or even stairs are common.

#6. Where craftsmanship lives

You will see that the medinas are full of small shops and even souks (bazaars). This is one of their main characteristics and charms: it is a refuge for artisanal activity, which still has significant weight in Morocco. Therefore, this is where you will find the most interesting traditional items: in some cases, of the highest quality, and in many others, of more discreet quality, but undoubtedly made with the care of handmade craftsmanship, by humans.

#7. Riad: neighboring buildings converted into charming accommodations

As we mentioned in another post, riads are charming accommodations in neighboring buildings organized around a courtyard with a fountain. And it is a typology associated with the medina that, due to space limitations, are organized in this way, unlike the more modern and spacious hotels outside the walls.