Moroccan arts emerged through a wide set of influences including not only North African, Mediterranean, and French colonial sources but also pan-African, Indian, contemporary Italian, and Swedish design to create a style of living at once global and distinctively local. Today, the emergence of a new approach to architecture blending craft, interior design, and cuisine has given birth to what we call “An Architectural Revolution” spearheaded by a growing community of local and international designers, hoteliers, and chefs de cuisine.
The influence of the Berbers represents the oldest cornerstone. Berbers have lived in the deserts and mountains since prehistoric times. Berber architecture includes the castles of red earth called kasbahs from which the ruling families controlled the caravan routes across the Sahara desert and through the Atlas Mountains. Berber crafts feature colorful carpets and carved doors with geometric patterns. The creators of the new Moroccan Arts also find inspiration in traditional Berber building materials, handmade bricks and rough wooden beams among them.
The Arab armies that swept North Africa in the seventh century AD and established Islam as the region’s dominant cultural force laid the second cornerstone of the new Moroccan style. Along with a new religion and language, they also brought a new design vocabulary. Because Islam forbids the representation of animate forms, this language consisted of elaborate patterns of stars and other geometric shapes, abstracted plant forms, and the calligraphy known as arabesque. The Arabs also brought a Persian palette of blue and white with their ceramics.
After conquering North Africa, the Arabs pressed into Spain to establish the Islamic stronghold called el Andalus by the early eighth century. By doing so, they set in place the third cornerstone of the new Moroccan style: the Andalusian culture, which represents a marriage of Arab and Berber influences with the Hispano-Roman roots of southern Spain. Roman architectural forms featuring columns and loggia gained prominence combined with Arab-inspired decoration including zellij (intricate geometric mosaics of cut ceramic tile) and tagguebbast (filigree-like borders of plaster carved while damp).
The French placed the final cornerstone of the new Moroccan style during the protectorate (1912 to 1956), when they imported European building techniques and architects to construct buildings in the art deco style, often incorporating decorative flourishes borrowed from Morocco. With its pure geometric forms and strong colors, Andalusian decoration proved a perfect complement to the European art deco style, as demonstrated most famously at Marrakech’s La Mamounia Hotel, which opened its doors to an international clientele in 1923.
During the last few decades, King Hassan II and his son, King Mohammed VI, protected and preserved Morocco’s architectural heritage and fostered the continued practice of its age-old crafts. They encouraged the purchase of architecturally significant palaces and private homes by local entrepreneurs and westerners with the resources to restore and transform them into guesthouses, hotels, and restaurants catering to the country’s growing international tourist trade. By so doing, these monarchs set the stage for Morocco’s contemporary style revolution.
A visit to Morocco today, whether to the cosmopolitan realms of Marrakech, Rabat, and Casablanca, the ancient walled city of Fez, the wind-swept coastal town of Essaouira, or the mysterious Routes des Kasbahs in the Atlas mountains, allows travelers to discover the living legacy of these historic influences. Grand hotels dating from the time of the French protectorate blend early twentieth century art deco stylishness with Moroccan decorative elegance. Intimate riads, as the guesthouses operated in former grand urban homes are called, reveal a blend of traditional domestic architecture, with rooms arranged around colonnaded courtyards, and the chic tastes of contemporary interior designers. The highpoint, both literary and figuratively, of a visit to a riad may be the traditional breakfast of freshly squeezed orange juice, homemade breads, and local honey served on a rooftop terrace overlooking the mazelike streets of Fez or the distant peaks of the Atlas outside Marrakesh.
We’ve put together a reading list for those who want to learn more about the country, culture, politics and history of Morocco:
* For a glimpse of how ancient arts have influenced modern design in Morocco: Morocco Modern: We All Dwell in a House of One Room by Herbert J. M. Ypma.
* For great recipes, photos and stories from Morocco: Cooking at the Kasbah: Recipes from My Moroccan Kitchen by Kitty Morse, Laurie Smith (Photographer).
* For an introduction to the streets of Morocco where colorful stalls sell all kinds of food: Cafe Morocco (Conran Octopus ‘Cafe’ Cookbook Series) by Anissa Helou, Jeremy Hopley (Photographer).
* For the story of the indigenous people of North Africa as told through Archaeology, History and literature.
* The Berbers (The Peoples of Africa) by Michael Brett, Elizabeth Fentress (Contributor), Parker Shipton (Editor).
* For the serious traveler who really wants to relate to the people of the country and get a deeper insight into the Moroccan culture: Culture Shock! Morocco by Orin Hargraves.
* For exquisite photos and poetic text transport you to the sands of the Sahara, the Atlas Mountains and the beautiful coasts of Morocco: Escape to Morocco: The Definitive Collection of One of a Kind Travel Experiences by Pamela Windo.
* For a critique of Western writing on the East: Orientalism by Edward Said, Vintage Books, New York, 1994.
* For a glimpse of what North African civilization might have been: Leon Africanus by Amin Maalouf. Of interest by the same author: The Crusades through Arab Eyes.
* For the end of Arab occupation of Spain as related by the last Sultan of Granada: Memoires Ecarlates by Antonio Gala, JC Lattes, 1996 (Look for English translation).
* As Time Goes by: A Novel of Casablanca by Michael Walsh /Paperback /Warner Books, June 1999.
* Morocco since 1830: A History by C. R. Pennell / Paperback / New York University Press, August 1999.
* The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles / Hardcover / HarperTrade, September 2000.
* Medinas: Morocco’s Hidden Cities by Tahar Ben Jelloun/ Hardcover / Rizzoli International Publications, October 1998.
* Splendours of Morocco by Izza Genini, Jacques Bravo, Xavier Richer/ Hardcover/ St. Martins Press, September 1999.
Blue Guide Morocco, WW Norton, NY.
Escape to Morocco, Fodor’s Travel Publications, Inc., New York, NY.
Fodor’s Morocco, Fodor’s Travel Publications, Inc., New York, NY.
Knopf Guides: Morocco, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., NY.
Lonely Planet, Morocco, Lonely Planet Publications, Hawthorn, Australia.
Moroccan cuisine has become widely celebrated in the last few years, thanks both to its fresh, bright flavors and its rich history. Simple meals of freshly prepared fish or grilled, marinated meats served with the cooked vegetable salads so popular in the country vie with elaborate feasts of savory meat pies redolent with Andalusian blends of spices or roasted leg of lamb.
While some Moroccan chefs de cuisine celebrate Old World recipes, including the Abbadi family of La Maison Bleue in Fez, others bring a contemporary approach to employing the traditional ingredients, including chef Barnaby Jones of Marakech’s Amanjena hotel, who blends the local condiment, salt-preserved lemons, with almond paste to garnish a slice of pâté de foie gras.
Favorite dishes include Couscous (a semolina grain served with meat and vegetables), Mechoui (lamb roasted on a spit), Pastilla (a flaky pastry often stuffed with pigeon and almonds or with chicken and almonds) and Tagine (a stew cooked using an earthenware dish) all complemented by an after meal cup of the ever popular Moroccan mint tea.
With a culture that goes back thirty centuries from the imprints left by the Romans, Berbers to those left by the most recent Arab civilizations, Moroccan’s artists from across the kingdom have sophisticated their creative effort into producing infinite variations of abstract and geometric motifs.
Exquisite Moroccan craftsmanship is evident on hand-woven rugs, ceramics, engraved jewelry and other metalwork. Popular with tourist and natives, the decorative henna tattoos often display the motifs from all these sources.
The extraordinary craftsmanship of the Touareg for instance occupies a fundamental place in ritual and ceremony, acts as safeguards against evil or disease and serves as a means of propitiating ancestors or gods. These remarkable adornments speak of values and beliefs, of achievements and status.
An insider’s tour of the souks, or craftsmen’s markets, in Morocco demonstrates the timeless appeal and adaptability of the materials, methods, and visual language of the country’s crafts. Turned, carved, and inlaid wood; pierced, twisted, and forged metal; glazed ceramics; hand-woven and dyed textiles; bold jewelry of silver and semi-precious stones – in the hands of master craftsmen and women, these materials are wrought into traditional patterns or transformed into contemporary styles unlike those found elsewhere in the world.
Music is an integral part of Moroccan life. The traditional form of Arabic music, or Andalous, is performed using lutes, mandolins and flutes and is occasionally accompanied by a singer. Popular Berber music accompanies dancers and singers and is recognizable by the ancestral rhythmic sounds of tambourines (long, narrow drums).
Andalusi: A Living remnant of the brilliant Spanish-Maghreban civilisation, the Andalusi music of Morocco perpetuates the âla, a broad repertory of songs and instrumental music which Moroccans have jealously preserved thanks to a strong oral tradition.