Cistern

Cistern

El Jadida [Mazagan], North Africa, Marocco

Military Architecture

In 1541, during the arduous work of constructing the new fortress, the castle served as a support centre for the large number of soldiers and stonemasons within the settlement, part of a system of protection that included the naval force stationed opposite the town. After the closure of the fortified perimeter, no longer used for defensive purposes, the castle was completely renovated and adapted to new functions. The constructions within must have been demolished and the excavation of the rocky mass it was built on was deepened for the construction of the cistern; a remarkable vaulted room, approximately 34 metres square, bordered by the walls of the former rampart. The vault system rests on a structure of pillars of carved stone, composed of rows of rectangular pillars and rows of circular columns. From each capital spring eight ribs, which intertwine at the top of each arch. The structure of rectangular pillars defines a rectangle, at the centre of which, included in the central vault, opens the mouth of the cistern, a circle of about three and a half metres in diameter. On the terrace, water was collected via this mouth for consumption and rainwater was probably collected. Originally, the supply from the cistern was made through a pipe emerging from the outside of the fortified perimeter and crossing the ditch near the Bastion of Saint Anthony, demolished during the siege of 1562. Analysing the plan of the cistern’s interior, and considering the erudition of the work, the structure composed of the solid square pillars seems to have been designed in order to connect to a regular structure of the terrace that would be built above it. The terrace’s boundaries would have coincided with the alignment of the square columns and the mouth of the cistern was set right in its geometric centre. However the courtyard that was actually built occupies the area that corresponded to the whole perimeter of the cistern without having a direct connection to this structure. This seems to indicate that during the work, after the construction of the cistern, the project must have been subject to changes, perhaps due to a change of the architect in charge.
Near the four exterior sides of the curtain walls, in the space between the cylindrical turrets, new constructions were put up. On the southwest ensemble was established the Misericórdia, with its hospital and church. On the southeast, northeast and northwest clusters were established several functional buildings, such as barns, warehouses and a prison. Doors and windows were made with robust frames of carved limestone. Inside, at ground floor level, rooms with ribbed vaults and stone escutcheons were built – and some of these can still be seen. The towers were converted into barns and powder deposits. The service access to the interior of the cistern started to be effected through a doorway that was opened in the southwestern wall, in line with the mouth of the cistern. Inside, the door led to a staircase, still standing. The stone used in the construction of the carved elements is a high-quality limestone, similar to that used in the carved elements of the bastion-like fortification, and which came from a quarry located nearby.
After the retreat of the Portuguese, the settlement remained closed for some decades. About 50 years later, around 1821, Moroccans started works of reconstruction. On the orders of Sidi Mohammed Ben Ettayeb the rampart and buildings of the town were restored. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries the ensemble formed by the castle and cistern was subjected to a number of changes, transforming the structures built by the Portuguese significantly. Apart from the interior of the cistern, the whole ensemble underwent major transformations. The fact that the chamber of the cistern served as a domestic sewage deposit for several decades contributed to preventing its destruction. The Tower of Boreja must have been demolished around 1914 for the construction of a residential building. Years later, probably still during the period of the French protectorate, the cylindrical building that simulates the former tower, where a police station now functions, was built. The Tower of Rebate was partially destroyed, altered and converted into the minaret of the mosque around 1879. The Stork and Prison towers maintain part of the structure built after 1541, including a part of the exterior staircase. Over the years the buildings erected on the four sides between the turrets, underwent changes and successive adaptations. During the first half of the 20th century the constructions opposite the southwestern curtain wall, the old Misericórdia building and its church and hospital, were demolished. By this time, the old castle gate must have been reopened; it is now used as an access to the cistern. In recent decades, the ensemble received a thick, uniform layer of a brownish cement rendering with a rugged finish. The many unofficial works of adaptation that it underwent during the 19th and 20th centuries as well as some restoration initiatives without a clear architectural orientation or global strategy have led to the dismal aspect that now characterizes the whole. However, inside, the area of the cistern – chosen by Orson Welles for the shooting of Othello – preserves an exceptional charm and continues to be a testimony to the rare beauty of Renaissance architecture built during the Portuguese expansion. Far from its original function the cistern is now a chamber with a uniquely surprising atmosphere, marked by the quality of the space and the solidity of the construction. A space of erudite conception, in which some of the most important elements of architecture throughout time have acquired a strong intensity: materials, light, sound and time.

João Barros Matos

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