History, culture, architecture and art
IntroductionMorocco’s history is one of successive invasions: long before the country’s period under French rule it was invaded by the Phoenicians, then the Romans and the Byzantines. As a result it is the product of several distinct influences; Berber, Arab, Jewish and Christian cultures have all learnt to live together.
From the ramparts of Essaouira or Asilah to the Roman ruins of Volubilis, the Arab-Andalusian constructions of Tétouan to the more cosmopolitan style of Rabat, Casablanca or Tangiers, Morocco will surprise and delight you at every turn.
Thanks to the country’s blend of Moorish, Arab, and European influences, the architecture of Morocco incorporates countless different forms and styles. In many Rif towns like Tetouan or Chefchaouen you’ll see Andalusian-inspired buildings among the cobbled streets and simple, whitewashed houses; the bustling, modern city of Casablanca is famous for its contemporary art deco facades; and, of course, the big imperial cities are home to some of the grandest feats of arabo-muslim architecture, including unforgettable mosques, palaces and monuments.
Mosques and minaretsAs you might expect, Morocco’s official religion has been the inspiration for some of its most beautiful and historic buildings. Mosques are both places of worship and cornerstones of civic life, playing an integral part in the daily routine of the individual and the life of the wider community. There are few more obvious or more haunting expressions of that centrality than the adhan, the muezzin’s call that beckons the faithful to prayer five times a day from the minaret. Minarets themselves are finely detailed towers that are generally square (see for example the Minaret of the Koutoubia in Marrakech) or round. A spiral staircase leads to the top. Though very few mosques allow non-Muslims inside – a notable exception is the huge Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca -visitors will find that their exteriors, and particular the grand, imposing site of their minarets, are quite memorable enough.
KasbahsOften at the heart of Moroccan towns and cities, the kasbah is the old reinforced citadel around which the modern settlement has developed. Some kasbahs are justly more celebrated than others – the kasbah of Essaouira, for example, is famous for the ancient canons that adorn its ramparts – but all have a central role in the history of their town. Kasbah can also refer to a rural town or village – examples of these can be found in the region around Ouarzazate, where the famous Kasbah Trail begins (see module five, Tours).
RiadsYou may remember riads from module two. They are traditional Moroccan town houses built around a central square or patio. Because their rooms open out onto the interior square rather than onto the street, riads have a distinctively peaceful, otherworldly atmosphere, and many have been turned into hotels and guest houses. Their rooms are typically thick-walled and decorated in warm colours using tadlak, a blend of lime and pigment. Mosaics and zelliges (intricate, geometric forms of mosaic common to North Africa) provide further decoration.
Although Morocco’s architectural charm has been shaped by its long and eventful history, time has not stood still here. When architects began to lay plans for a new Casablanca after the French takeover of 1912, they were designing a major international city that was to be a cornerstone of the Moroccan economy. Naturally they drew inspiration from the contemporary European and American trends – notably art deco – with which they were familiar, and this meeting of East and West was instrumental to the development of the neo-Moorish architectural style.
The administrative buildings around the stunning Place Mohammed V (the post office, courts of justice, French Consulate and Bank al-Maghrib) offer excellent examples of architecture from the city’s early period.
Still more modern is the huge Mosque Hassan II, whose 200m-high minaret – the highest in the world – towers above the adjacent ocean. Opened in 1993, its hall can accommodate 25,000 worshippers, and its cedar ceiling can be fully retracted in three minutes! It is the ultimate meeting of traditional Islamic-Arabic architecture and modern technology. Unusually, the mosque is open to non-Muslims – visitors to Casablanca should not miss it.
Essaouira Walls, EssaouiraBuilt under Sultan Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdallah in the eighteenth century, the ramparts offer an exceptional view of the sea and the town. Their pinkish colour contrasts wonderfully with the blue of the ocean, making this a favourite spot of photographers. The ramparts are also famous for the bronze Spanish canons that lie along them. A walk along the wall will take you past several key places in Essaouira, including Place Moulay Hassan and Sqala.
Dar el-Batha, FezCompleted under Sultan Moulay El Hassan in 1897, this Hispano-Moorish palace is surrounded by Andalusian gardens. It looks onto Fez el Bali and Fez el Jedid, reflecting the will of this pacifistic sultan to bring together the two towns. The square-shaped palace is structured around a central patio and its fountain, in the shade of cypress trees. Its painted roofs are particularly attractive and its wooden doors are remarkable. In 1915, the palace was transformed into a Moroccan arts museum. Opening hours: 7 days, 08h30 to 12h00 and 14h30 to 18h30.
The Hassan Tower rises 44 metres above the skyline of Rabat. It was begun in around 1195 under Sultan Yacoub el Mansour, who wanted to construct the tallest minaret in the Muslim world – indeed, the tower was initially supposed to be twice its eventual height. The Sultan died before its completion, however, and the work was abandoned. The tower’s 2.5m-thick walls house six small but finely decorated rooms. Nothing else remains of the Sultan’s project, aside from a vast esplanade dotted with some 400 ruined grey and pink marble columns.
Hassan Tower, Rabat
Dar Jamai, MeknesThe ‘Jamaï Palace’ has been home to the Museum of Moroccan Art since 1920. It was built in 1882, and was once the home of Abou Abdellah Jamaï, minister to Sultan Moulay Al Hassan I (1873-1879). The collections inside are stunning, and the interior features ancient terracotta, carved plaster and painted wood. The palace is surrounded by a beautiful Andalusian garden.
VolubilisSituated 30km north of Meknes, Volubilis is the most fascinating Roman archaeological site in Morocco. 2,000 years ago this was a wealthy town full of sumptuous houses, decorated with magnificent mosaics depicting the tasks of Hercules, the Orpheus myth or the procession of Venus.
Its former glory can still be glimpsed in the small but extraordinarily well-preserved ruins, including around 30 mosaics and the town’s impressive 11m high Arc de Triomphe, built in 217AD. Also here are the remains of the Basilica and Capitol, dating from the same time as the Arc de Triomphe.
LixusLixus, another Roman city site, can be found on a hill outside the pretty Arab-Andalusian town of Larache. Unusually, it is unprotected by guards so visitors are free to explore the ruins close-up. While not as impressive or as well-preserved as the Volubilis site, Lixus offers great views over the Loukkos river valley.
ChellahThe Chellah district also dates from the Roman period. Protected by an Almohad wall (built by the Almohad dynasty, which was founded in the 12th century), it is home to the ruins of the Roman town Sala and the famous Merinid necropolis (built by the Merinid dynasty, which was founded in the 13th century). The area is famous for its romantic gardens, but also features a well-preserved Roman basilica, forum and fountain. Some of the finds from the excavation of the area can be seen at the archaeological museum in Rabat.
Morocco’s traditional arts and crafts take relatively little discovering – take a walk around any souk and you’ll see a wealth of pottery and ceramics, textiles and carpets, jewellery and leather goods. Hand-crafting, trading and of course haggling over beautiful, practical objects remains an integral part of Moroccan culture. Although every souk trades a dizzying variety of unique, quality goods, each town has its speciality. Rabat, for example, is renowned for the quality of its rugs and carpets; Fez and Marrakech are celebrated for their leather; Taroudant for its silverware. Look out for the intricate, geometric designs on Moroccan jewellery, pottery, carpets and ‘zellige’ mosaics (made with small earthenware tiles cut by a hammer) – this kind of detail work is one of the most distinctive features of the arts and crafts of the region.
You should expect to haggle in a Moroccan souk. Far from being bothersome and suspect, as it might seem in the UK, in Morocco haggling is an integral part of trading. It’s also a suprisingly subtle exercise. Accept the mint tea you will be offered, look at the goods you’re presented with and – this is important – hide your interest in anything that takes your fancy. Your discussion will begin on a product, but can move onto life, travelling, Morocco itself or any number of other things. As we’ve said before, if these kind of encounters feel uncomfortable you can politely refuse them, but remember that they’re a time-honoured tradition. The best advice is to relax and enjoy them.
A note on haggling
Morocco has a long history of attracting all manner of creative people, from writers to fashion designers. But it is for its appeal to artists that the country is most celebrated. Indeed, Anglo-European art’s obsession with Morocco is generally agreed to have begun with the painter Delacroix, who visited Tangier in 1832 and returned enthused by its range of colours and the quality of its light.
In Marrakech the Galerie Bab Doukala (opened 1989), in one of the main and oldest gates of the medina, hosts exhibitions of both Moroccan and foreign artists. Over in the Portugese town of El Jadida, meanwhile, the Espace de la Culture Gallery occupies a former military building constructed by the Portuguese in 1514. It was restored and converted into an art gallery in 2000.
MuseumsMoroccan cultural heritage is rich and multi-faceted, and museums are an inspiring and enjoyable way to get to grips with it. You’ll also find that, like its art galleries, Morocco’s great museums are as interesting from the outside as they are within.
Dar Batha Ethnographical Museum, FezSituated in a magnificent Arabo-Andalusian palace, The Dar Batha Ethnographical Museum features pottery and ceramics decorated with the famous Fez blue (see right), plus fine local embroidery, jewellery and Berber carpets. There is also a collection of enamelled tiles dating from the twelfth to fourteenth century, and a beautiful room dedicated to the art of books which contains several stunning illuminated Korans.
Not far from the Bahia palace, this opulent building is home to one of the finest collections in the country. Atlas jewellery, Haouz carpets (from the plains around Marrakech), blue Safi pottery, Taroudant oil lamps, typical doors from mountain villages, and delicate local leather goods. In the beautiful rooms overlooking the courtyard you can see silver jewellery, old muskets, daggers and traditional costumes.
Dar Si Saïd Ethnographical Museum, Marrakech
Dar Jamaï Ethnographical Museum, MeknesInside the Jamaï Palace (see architectural must-sees, above) you’ll find jewellery, ceramics, wooden sculpture, traditional clothing, magnificent carpets from the Middle Atlas and antique furniture. Take the time as well to admire the Andalusian garden and the apartments in which the Jamaï family lived – they provide a great insight into the lives of Meknes’s high bourgeoisie at the end of the 19th century.
Situated at the heart of the citadel, this museum is housed in the governor’s palace, Dar el-Makhzen, which was rebuilt in the 18th century on the ruins of an ancient fortress. Built around two inner courtyards with marble fountains, its archaeological collections contain vestiges of pre-Islamic and pre-historical Morocco, from the Stone Age to Roman times (some of the most interesting finds come from the site of the former Roman city Volubilis, see above). The artistic collections bring together rich ethnographic items: carpets from Rabat, pottery and ceramics from Fez, musical instruments, weapons and jewellery.
The Kasbah Museum of Tangier
International Film Festival, MarrakechMarrakech’s International Film Festival invites films that mix cultures, nationalities and languages. Since its creation, the festival has welcomed some of the greatest actors and filmmakers in the world, including Alan Parker, Jean-Jacques Annaud, Jeanne Moreau, Francis Ford Coppola and David Lynch.
Music festivalsTanjazz (Tangier, May) celebrates jazz music in all its forms. Its open, inventive and demanding programme has won it international acclaim. Essaouira, meanwhile, has become synonymous with world music thanks to its Gnawa and World Music Festival (Essaouira, June). Gnawa is a traditional type of mystic music and dance that draws on both African and Islamic cultures. Fez, a highly spiritual town, is home to a fabulous Festival of World Sacred Music, which welcomes performers from a wide variety of global traditions.
National Festival of Popular ArtEvery June, the ruins of the el Badii Palace in Marrakech host the 10-day National Festival of Popular Art. The festival draws hundreds of troupes, performers and craftsmen from all over the country to showcase Moroccan music, dance and songs as well as traditional costumes and handicrafts. The setting and entertainment make this one of the most vibrant spectacles in the Moroccan cultural calendar – if you’re near Marrakech in June, don’t miss it.
Now try answering the following questions. Good luck!
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