The Portuguese settled here in 1502 and built a fortified town, which they named Mazagan. Over time, the town became a major trade center connecting Europe and the East. In 1769, Sultan Mohammed ben Abdallah (reign: 1757-1790) expelled the Portuguese from Mazagan, who destroyed it as they escaped. (The Sultan then established the town of Mogador (Essaouira) to facilitate the resumption of trade.) In the early 19th century, Mazagan was resettled by local Arab tribes and a large Jewish community from Azemmour. The town was then known as El-Jadida [The New].
The old town of El Jadida, the Cité Portugaise [Portuguese City] is one of the ‘Seven Wonders of Portuguese Origin in the World’. Unfortunately, it seems deserted, with only few tourists wandering around.
Entering the main gate of the old town, to the left are the 16th-century Church of the Assumption and the Grande Mosque with its unique five-sided minaret. One of the most interesting sights in the old town is the Citerne Portugaise [Portuguese cistern]. Originally, this underground vaulted cistern was built by the Portuguese in 1514 as an armory. It was converted into a cistern after the citadel was enlarged in 1541. The columns and arches, real and reflected in the water, come together into a pretty optical illusion. Orson Welles used it as a location for the dramatic riot scene in his 1951 film Othello.
The walls of the old town were originally fortified with five bastions, but only four of them were rebuilt after the retreating Portuguese had destroyed the town. The Bastion of St Sébastien was once the seat of the Inquisition’s tribunal and the prison. As a reminder to the Jewish community that once lived here, the sign of the Star of David can still be seen on the facade of the nearby ruined synagogue. The Bastion of l’Ange offers great views of the old town, the harbor and the ocean.