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Art and architecture

Despite its turbulent history, of all the countries in the Maghreb, Morocco has retained the richest artistic heritage, at least in terms of the Islamic period. Enriched by the cultural contribution of Muslim Andalucia, far more than by the Middle East, Morocco was at the centre of the Hispano-Moorish architectural movement for almost six centuries (11C-17C). Moroccans also excelled in ceramics, woodwork, books, textiles, jewellery and weaponry. Nowadays, the country’s art and craft industry is still extremely healthy and a major attraction for visitors.

Unfortunately Morocco’s architectural heritage has suffered from violent political movements set on destroying, or at best, concealing, large numbers of palaces and mosques. In this way, the mosque at Tinmel, the El-Beidi palace at Marrakech, the Saadian Tombs and Glaoui palace at Telouet, to name but a few of the most famous victims, were destroyed, walled-up or left to fall completely to pieces. This contrasts sharply with the efforts made under the French Protectorate to preserve the nation’s cultural capital by implementing a wise policy whose effects continue to be felt today. They included the creation of a Department of National Monuments, the restoration of ancient buildings, a ban on the construction of new buildings within the medinas and the implementation of a clearly defined border between the modern town and its historical centre.

Morocco’s origins

Belated traces of Prehistoric art

Even though traces of humanity’s distant ancestors dating back over 2 million years have been found in Morocco, the first artistic vestiges discovered do not go back past the 4th millennium BC. Homo sapiens of the Upper Palaeolithic period produced a variety of tools and even jewels, but no works of art such as cave paintings.

It was not until the Neolithic or Bronze Ages that any figurative representations emerged. These were mostly rock carvings, cut out of blocks of sandstone and polished, and depict a variety of now extinct animals, bronze weapons, geometric patterns and, more rarely, human beings. Several dozen of these carvings have been transferred to the Rabat Archaeological Museum, but most have remained in situ in the High Atlas and southern Moroccan mountains and are therefore difficult to get to. Engraved pottery, ivory jewellery and, even more remarkable, a series of beautiful dolerite vases, also date from this period.

The Punic period and the Mauritanian kingdom

During the five centuries or so of their colonisation of the Moroccan coast, the Phoenicians and Carthaginians brought with them their Mediterranean civilisation and left behind them several major archaeological sites, such as Lixus and Banasa , but very few works of art. This might be because of later ransacking and pillaging, or because their wares were sold in these distant lands purely for commercial purposes. Some fine ­pottery , of Greek or Punic origins but also locally manufactured, together with imported bronze objects and gold jewellery, have nonetheless been discovered.

The superb series of bronze statues found in the palaces of Juba II at Volubilis and Cherchell might at first lead one to believe that the Mauritanian kingdom had its own school of sculpture. However, this was not the case: whether Hellenistic or contemporary to the king, all these works were made outside of Morocco.

The Roman period

Evidence of Roman domination (essentially from 40 to 285 AD) can be seen, here as elsewhere in the empire, in the magnificent public buildings: forums, basilicas, thermal baths, theatres and triumphal arches. The best vestiges stand at Volubilis , Banasa and Sala Colonia, but they are nothing compared to the more prestigious sites of eastern Maghreb. In imitation of the Roman lifestyle, the opulent local upper classes built spacious houses around an atrium, which were luxuriously decorated with mosaic floors, murals and artefacts. With the exception of the bronze statues already mentioned, most of which were imported, Morocco’s Roman art undoubtedly produced its finest masterpieces in the field of mosaics. Over 80 pavements have been found, mainly at Volubilis , Banasa and Lixus , but also at Tingis, Sala Colonia, Thamusida and elsewhere. Some have been left in situ despite major fears about their conservation, while others have been removed and transported to the museums of Volubilis, Rabat, Tangier and Tetouan. Black and white or multicoloured geometric patterns feature very prominently but there are a few figurative scenes (emblema) which reveal good quality workmanship. Unlike Tunisian mosaics, the subjects are almost exclusively mythological and not based on scenes of ordinary life. Among the most interesting examples are the Venus with the Shell at Banasa, which is particularly intricate, the Navigation of Venus and Orpheus at Volubilis, Eros and Psyche at Lixus and the Triton in the thermal baths at Banasa, whose largest tesserae are 2cm2.

Islamic art

The Arab invasions from the 7C onwards brought with them Islamic art, which was to spread parallel to Berber architecture throughout the land. To understand how it evolved over the centuries, one must first examine its main features.

Religious Arab monuments

The simplicity and austerity of the architecture and internal spaces together with the opulent inner decorative work (stucco, wood carvings, zellij tiling) are striking.

Right from the start, the first Muslims felt the need for a place where they could meet together to pray: the mosque was born, and its basic layout has not changed since its conception. It always faces Mecca, the direction of which is shown by the mihrab , an alcove in the middle of the qibla wall. Next to it is a minbar , a platform or pulpit, made out of wood or marble, on which the spiritual leader stands to deliver his sermon. In Morocco, the minaret , inspired by the Christian bell-tower, is a square-shaped tower, topped with a battlemented platform where the muezzin stands to call the faithful to prayer five times a day. Moroccan minarets can be decorated, depending on the period, with twin bays, arches or blind arcades, interlacing or zellij tiling.

A madrasah is a college of theology (and not to be confused with a Koranic school) for high-level scholars and men of learning, earning it the title of “Islamic university”. The building’s specific function gave birth to an equally specific architectural style. An elaborately decorated door with awning, set in a totally blind façade, opens onto a narrow central courtyard surrounded by classrooms and a prayer room. The masters and students live in cramped cells on an upper gallery overlooking the central courtyard. The courtyard contains the major part of the madrasah’s sophisticated decorative features: central fountain, zellij floors, intricately carved stucco fanlights, carved cedar wood corbels and cornices.

A koubba , better known as a marabout , is a mausoleum built for pious Muslims who had achieved something approaching sainthood on their deaths. Their distinctive white domed roofs – koubba originally meant dome – and little cubic buildings are a familiar sight throughout the Moroccan countryside and they are the object of pilgrimages, many of which are surrounded in superstition. Near the marabouts, it is common to see a tree covered in remnants of fabric each of which signifies a wish that has been granted by the saint.

Civil architecture

The ramparts , most of which are built out of cob (clay and chopped straw), surrounding the medinas are usually very impressive. The gigantic gates , set in the walls, are among the finest examples of Moroccan architecture. Made out of freestone, they are surrounded by bastions, merlons and are often highly ornamental.

In the medinas, spacious palaces with a succession of inner gardens (riad) , living quarters, reception and judgement halls (mechouar) , administrative buildings, hammams, stables and warehouses are surrounded by a vast open space (aguedal) of orchards and pools.

The fondouks , urban caravanserai, doubled as hostels and warehouses. Similar to the madrasahs architecturally, a central courtyard is surrounded by several galleries whose small rooms were used to accommodate merchants and their most precious wares, while their mounts and goods stayed on the ground floor or in the cellars. The fondouks generally belonged to religious foundations and the rents collected were used for the upkeep of the madrasahs and their students.

Decorative techniques

Due to Islam’s abhorrence of all human representation, most decorative art was based on geometric patterns, arabesques and floral motifs (palm, fir cone). Cursive or Kufic script also features prominently.

Such motifs can be found in stone, brick or wood, but Hispano-Moorish art particularly favoured two materials. The first, stucco was applied in plaster form to surfaces covered in nails and sculpted while still damp, often into stalactite forms. The second, zellij tiling on panels, is a typically Moroccan decorative feature.

Major periods of Islamic art in Morocco

The dark ages of early Islamic art (8C-10C)

Very little remains architecturally of the first two or three centuries of Islam in Morocco. This is due to subsequent pillaging and destruction, but also to the fact that Islam spread slowly and with difficulty, only reaching an essentially rural, poor section of the population, and that for many centuries there was no stable government or lasting dynasty. As a result, it is more than likely that the early mosques were modest, unassuming buildings.

It is significant that the two most important mosques of Fès, the Qarawiyin and the Andalucian Mosque , both founded in the mid-9C, were the work of immigrants from regions where the Islamic religion was already well-established and thriving. However, almost nothing remains of the initial edifices and it is archaeological digs at Sijilmassa (in the Tafilalt), Belyounech (near Ceuta) and elsewhere that have produced a few rare authentic architectural or decorative elements dating from this period. Morocco also possesses two extremely rare pieces which illustrate the exquisite carpentry work existing at the time: an epigraphic carved beam (izar) dated 877, from the Qarawiyin, and the minbar, dated 980-85, from the Andalucian Mosque.

A briefly blossoming Almoravid art (1070-1147)

Desert nomads, the Almoravids clearly had no architectural traditions and naturally enough adopted those of Andalucia which they had just conquered; hence the term “Hispano-Moorish” given to this art symbolised by semicircular Moorish (a legacy of the Visigoths) or multifoil arches and a certain decorative style.

The Almohads’ hate of the Almoravids led them to destroy all the latters’ works, which were considered too frivolous; consequently, almost nothing remains of the Almoravid edifices in Morocco itself: exceptions being some parts of the Qarawiyin Mosque in Fès, extended in 1130 and the Koubba Ba’Adiyn rediscovered in 1950 in Marrakech. However, the Almoravids’ building projects were not limited to mosques and palaces; in the countryside, their engineers (mouhendis) built fortresses, bridges and irrigation systems which were to supply Fès and above all the famous rhettara (irrigation canals) of Marrakech’s palm grove.

Almohad glory (1147-1269)

Given their extremely rigorous opinions, the disciples of Ibn Tumart were no doubt content with a m’sallah for their five daily prayers. Nonetheless, it is a paradox that the Almohad dynasty (also influenced by Andalucia, just like its hated predecessors) was responsible for one of the greatest artistic movements of Morocco’s history. Almohad art, which was essentially architectural, is characterised by the scale of design and the sobriety of the decoration, the handsome proportions and the pure lines; it was, in a word, classical.

At the outset, under Abd el-Mumin, Almohad architecture differed very little from that of the Almoravids: the same artists and craftsmen of Andalucian origin worked on the new dynasty’s projects. The fortifications and Great mosque at Taza , together with the superb funereal mosque at Tinmel , recently restored, all date from this period. The following sultan, Yusuf, had a preference for Seville and Marrakech, his capital. It was finally the third sultan, Yaqub al-Mansur, who launched vast building projects in his new capital at Ribat ­al-Fath (Rabat) , thereby enabling Almohad architecture to attain its full potential.

Almohad architects are reputed above all for their talents in two particular domains: fortifications and mosques. They built walls using concrete : lime mixed with pebbly clay was poured and packed into frames and impressive gateways were built out of carefully selected freestone blocks. The defensive system was further refined by a clever zigzag design.

Almohad mosques can be recognised by their vast proportions (the mosque of Rabat is an exception) and impressive minarets. There are no grand domes or vaults; pillars and solid archways are used to support the long roofs over the nine aisles perpendicular to the qibla wall. All these aisles meet in a transversal aisle, parallel to the qibla wall, which is the only one to be ornately decorated (as at Tinmel) and a small dome is often added to the mihrab. A typical Almohad minaret is somewhat squat and square-shaped: its height is equal to five times its base, and it is constructed from freestone. The ornamentation was designed to be seen from afar; plane carving work, as on the doors, was essentially used for multifoil arches and interlaced arcatures. The Koutoubia ’s minaret at Marrakech, the Giralda at Seville and the Hassan Tower at Rabat perfectly symbolise the splendour of Almohad art.

In a culture where theologians are revered, book arts and calligraphy have blossomed. Glazing is often used on pottery to produce superb examples of well coping (in particular the unique Sidi bou Othman near Marrakech), as well as large decorative water pitchers (khabia) and a number of brown-black painted (manganese oxide) drinking utensils ( shurba , djara ).

The golden age of the Marinids (1278-1358)

The Marinids’ reign, at least up until the mid-14C, was one of the most fertile periods of Moroccan architecture: their buildings, although admittedly smaller, were widespread and all were stamped with a grace and sophistication which contrasted sharply with their predecessors’ austerity. Early Marinid architecture followed in the footsteps of the Almohads, as is shown by the ramparts at Salé , rebuilt by Abu Yusuf Yaqub in the last part of the 13C. Little by little, however, Almohad austerity gave way to elegance, influenced by the delicate art of the Nasrids of Granada. Ornamentation became more important, even in edifices such as fortifications . The main door of the wall around Shella (Rabat) built in 1339 is a fine example. Morocco owes many mosques and madrasahs to Abu el-Hassan and Abu Inan , the two main Marinid sultans and patrons of architecture. Marinid madrasahs are often of quite modest proportions which adds to their charm. Bou Inania , Attarine and Sahrij at Fès, Abu el-Hassan at Salé and Bou Inania at Meknès are among the best known.

The caravanserai or fondouks that were so indispensable to this trading nation doubled as hotels and warehouses. Fès has the best examples of this type of architecture. Although they must have existed prior to the Marinid dynasty, no traces exist.

Finally, funereal art resulted in some particularly handsome imperial tombs at Shella (Rabat) and at Fès; Abu Yacub Yussef’s funeral stela at Shella (1307), backed by an intricately carved slab of Roman marble, is a notable illustration of this style.

The Marinid rule constituted a heyday for all decorative arts . At this time, most constructions were made out of terracotta bricks, but were generally covered in ceramic or sculpted plasterwork. Although ceramic tiles had already been used to ornament the upper storeys of some Almohad minarets, zellij tile work only really emerged under the Marinids in the early 14C. Such craftsmanship continues to prosper as the reception rooms of the palace at Telouet show. Stucco work also reached a perfection rarely equalled in Islamic art during this period. Cedar wood from the Middle Atlas was abundantly used in carpentry to decorate madrasahs, fondouks and palaces: doors (bab) , panels, window frames (shrjem) , railings (derbouz) , balustrades, corbels, friezes and cornices were all intricately carved; in the mosques, they added richly carved artesanado ceilings, minbars and even mihrabs. A profusion of beautifully sculpted geometric interlacing, plant motifs and calligraphic verses from the Koran cover almost every available square centimetre. Some pieces were also painted.

A continuing tradition of Hispano-Moorish art under the Saadians and the Alawites (16C-20C)

Two major figures, the Saadian sultan Ahmed el-Mansur (16C) at Marrakech and the Alawite, Moulay Ismail (17C) at Meknès , were both fanatical builders whose constructions greatly impressed their contemporaries. However, the work of both men fell victim to their successors’ malevolence.

Ahmed el-Mansur’s immense fortune enabled him to embark on a vast building programme to embellish his capital city, Marrakech. The unprecedented luxury of El-Beidi palace (“the incomparable”) was based on Granada’s palaces and surrounded by gardens and pavilions. Unfortunately, a century later, Moulay Ismail tore it down and carried off anything of any value in it to construct his own grandiose palaces at Meknès. However, he didn’t dare destroy the Saadian tombs and contented himself with having them bricked up. These were rediscovered in 1917, and their delicate marble columns, stalactite domes and stucco lace-work rank them among the masterpieces of Hispano-Moorish art.

At Meknès, Moulay Ismail naturally aspired to surpass his ancestors’ grandiose legacy and he succeeded. Tens of thousands of slaves worked relentlessly to construct a vast complex of palaces, barracks, warehouses and stables. This was surrounded by 25km of ramparts that were penetrated by a number of majestic gateways, including the famous Bab Mansur . These too suffered the same fate as their forerunners and became a treasure-trove plundered by the sultan’s successors. Despite this, the original proportions were such that, even in ruins, they still remain singularly impressive.

During the 16C and 17C, several waves of Jewish and Muslim immigration took place. The refugees who flooded in from Moorish Andalucia in particular brought a breath of fresh air to Moroccan art.

In the 19C, the princes and urban upper classes built palaces like Bahia palace at Marrakech or Dar Jamai at Meknès, which were relatively small but not without charm. All were stuffed full of local arts and crafts such as painted carpentry, carpets, wall hangings and copperware.

In the 20C, the last manifestation of Hispano-Moorish art to be built was the Hassan II Mosque at Casablanca, inaugurated in August 1993.

Berber art

In the somewhat floral imagery of a German Orientalist of the 1930s, Klaus von Grossgrabenstein, “the dazzling fruits of Hispano-Moorish art unjustly conspired to make us forget the gnarled, robust trunk of Berber tradition onto which the glittering fruit was grafted”. It is true that eight centuries of grandiose masterpieces of Andalucian inspiration – Arab, urban and scholarly – should not totally eclipse the existence of another tradition – Berber, rural and popular  –, on which Moroccan art was also founded. The roots of Berber art go back so far in time that it is more than likely that they will remain shrouded in mystery for ever, for lack of any written documents or dated monuments. What is more, over the centuries both “artistic trends” influenced and enriched one another mutually, to a point where it has become almost impossible to distinguish them. The only Berber art forms that managed to remain “pure” were those far removed from the influence of the northern Arab-Andalucian cities, in other words the South and the mountains.

The most striking aspect of Berber art is undoubtedly its ochre-coloured fortified architecture : ksours , kasbahs (tigremt) and agadirs (igherm) . Powerful yet not overbearing, functional yet elegant, a simple beauty emanates from these constructions. Built entirely out of unfired bricks, the most traditional technique consisted in using cob , made out of clay and chopped straw, which was poured into mobile wooden frames and packed down with a heavy pestle. In some mountainous regions, dry stone is used instead of cob bricks, but the forms are almost identical.

The doors of some granaries and houses are steeped in decorative and symbolic motifs and some excellent examples of these are exhibited in several museums (Dar Si Said in Marrakech, Dar Belghazi near Rabat). Brightly painted tataoui ceilings are the rustic equivalent of the Andalucian-style artesanado ceilings.

The old rural mosques , which have unfortunately been systematically replaced with banal masonry constructions, were built from columns of thuja wood topped with magnificent rustic capitals of carved, painted wood.

Colonial architecture

As early as the 16C, the Portuguese left their stamp on the architecture of their posts at Asilah, Azemmour, Safi, Mazagan (El-Jadida) and Mogador (Essaouira). Essaouira was also influenced by late-18C European architectural styles, when it was redesigned by the French architect, Théodore Cornut .

During the early years of the 20C, many Europeans began to move to Morocco, and this gave rise to the construction of an anarchical hotchpotch of tasteless, inelegant buildings. However, the nomination of General Henri Lyautey to the position of Resident General in 1912 gave rise to a genuine approach to urban planning. With the help of Henri Prost and a plethora of young architects (such as Albert Laprade and Marius Boyer), plans were drawn up for Casablanca and for “Villes Nouvelles” at Fès and Rabat. The principle behind this new approach consisted of building new districts that were quite separate from the old historic town centres. Public buildings and homes were designed around wide avenues lined with trees and gardens. These sober, functional constructions discreetly integrated a number of Moroccan decorative features without falling into a neo-Moorish style.

Prost, the architect of the luxurious Mamounia hotel, also set to work on a housing programme: the Habous district in Casablanca’s new medina illustrates his desire to adapt modern techniques to a traditional lifestyle.

In the mid-1920s, the Art Deco style arrived in Morocco and some fine examples can still be seen in Casablanca. This style was enriched with typically Moroccan features, such as domes, lanterns, wooden carvings and zellij work.

Between 1946 and 1953, Michel Ecochard was responsible for Moroccan urban planning. After a long career in Syria, he was familiar with Islamic architecture and followed in the footsteps of his predecessors at Rabat and Casablanca, as well as at Fès and Meknès. In 1960, an earthquake in Agadir provided architects and urban planners with an opportunity to implement more contemporary theories. In particu­lar, Jean-François Zecavo distinguished himself with his “brutalist architecture” (referring to the bare concrete used), which was described as “suburban minimalism” by the critic Emile Chapoutier. With hindsight, it now seems almost inhuman and sadly banal.

In the 1970s, concerted efforts between French and Moroccan architects gave birth to a series of quite remarkable ONMT hotels. Finally and more recently, a number of handsome buildings (mainly hotels and offices) have managed to combine Moroccan traditions with European modernist trends.

Agadir (Berber) Communal fortified granary in the South. Referred to in some regions as an igherm .

Bab Door or gateway to a town.

Borj Tower, stronghold, small fort.

Chemacha Screen, generally made out of plaster.

Dar House. By extension: place where a specific activity takes place (for example, dar dbagh: tannery; dar el-Makhzen: former government building).

Derbouz Wooden railing used as a balustrade or moucharabieh.

Fondouk Urban caravanserai used as hostel and warehouse.

Hammam Public bathing house, same principle as Roman thermal baths.

Irherm (Berber) See agadir .

Kasbah Citadel in a town. In the south, isolated fortified household: Berbers refer to it as a tigremt .

Kissariya In a city souk, group of shops laid out around a courtyard and all devoted to the same trade or craft.

Koubba Dome. By extension: a saint’s tomb, marabout (because most have a dome roof).

Ksar (plural Ksour) Castle or fortified palace. In the south, fortified village.

Marabout Holy man. By extension: his tomb. Marabouts are greatly revered in Morocco.

Madrasah School of theology. In Morocco, they are comprised of a narrow courtyard surrounded by cells for the masters and students.

Medina Town. The old town as opposed to the new.

Mellah Jewish quarter in the old town. It is not generally isolated from the rest of the medina.

Mihrab Alcove in the qibla wall. In smaller mosques, it is often the only decorated part.

Minaret Tower from which the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer (salat) .

Minbar Stone or wooden pulpit from which the imam preaches the Friday sermon (khutba) .

Mosque Prayer hall. Two types exist: jami , Friday mosques and masjid , simple mosques. The khutba is only preached in the former.

Moucharabieh Ornamental wooden railings in front of windows. Enable the women to see outside without being seen.

Muqarna Cavities in the alcoves, vaults and domes. The base of these cavities is carved into stalactites.

M’sallah Open-air prayer area, of a very basic architecture: a qibla wall, never over a metre high, with the mark of the mihrab and a few steps for the minbar.

Qibla Direction of Mecca to which Muslims turn at prayer.

Rhettara Underground irrigation canal to transport water over long distances.

Riad Patio or walled garden in a private house.

Ribat Fortified monastery.

Sahn Courtyard in a mosque or madrasah.

Souk Market. It can be either a weekly open-air market or in a district of the medina entirely devoted to trade.

Tataoui (Berber) Ceiling made out of reeds or branches of oleander laid out in a diamond pattern over the joists.

Tedlakt (Berber) Extremely smooth wall covering made from finely ground lime, pigments and black soap.

Tigremt (Berber) See kasbah .

Zawiyah Religious brotherhood. By extension: the buildings around a saint’s tomb where the brotherhood meets.

Zellij Marquetry of coloured ceramic composed of tiny fragments of brightly coloured tiles.

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