Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Morocco’s Rich Architectural History

Morocco’s Rich Architectural History
This picture shows a street in the central Moroccan city of Fez. FADEL SENNA / AFP

Camille-Jean Helou

Traditional Moroccan architecture was shaped by millennia of history. Successive periods of foreign rule and immigration left their mark on the iconic building-style of the country, and the region.

Five thousand years ago, North Africa underwent rapid desertification, greatly reducing the variety of materials available for construction, and imposing strict limitations on the scale and placement of human settlements. The Amazigh peoples who lived there, were partially sedentary and partially nomadic, organized in autonomous tribes that nonetheless shared strong cultural ties. They built walled towns of rammed earth and mud brick, to protect themselves from nomadic raiders. They decorated the outer walls of their constructions with false windows and geometric motifs (which they believed to hold mystical properties).

Around one thousand BCE, the Phoenician civilization expanded to include the coastal area of modern-day Morocco, establishing the city of Tinjis (later Tangiers). The remnants of their constructions have been the subject of deep archeological study. They also built a lucrative trading relationship with the Amazigh people that inevitably resulted in cultural cross-pollination.

In 500 BCE, a large Jewish population exiled from their homeland by Babylonian aggression, migrated to North Africa, and successfully integrated into local Amazigh communities.

In 300 BCE, the Roman Empire sought to invade the region, but met heavy resistance from independent tribes and lesser kingdoms. After two centuries of conflict, Rome managed to seize control of the coast, and vassalize many inland Amazigh tribes (referred to as Berber, a term originating from the pejorative roman word barbarian).

When Christianity spread among the provinces of the empire (2nd to 4th centuries CE), it took root in the Romanized territories of Morocco, and was adopted by many tribes. Despite chronic instability caused by regular Amazigh revolts, Roman builders left a rich architectural legacy in the region. They built monuments and infrastructure in the typical Roman style, as well as establish a vast interconnected road network across the Moroccan landscape. Some Roman edifices remain to this day, but most were plundered and dismantled after the fall of the empire.

In 429 CE, Germanic tribes, notably Vandals and Visigoths gained control of the coastland. Their short reign resulted in very few architectural remnants (mostly churches), since they relied heavily on preexisting Roman structures, and erected mostly light ephemeral structures.

By 533 CE, the Byzantine Empire had ejected the last of the Germanic forces from coastal Morocco. This period was marked by increased Amazigh autonomy, and the expansion of tribal settlements.

In 581 CE, Spanish fanaticism compelled persecuted communities to flee to Morocco, further expanding the region’s already significant Jewish population. Up until the 6th century, religious buildings were predominantly comprised of Christian churches and Jewish synagogues.

In 662 CE (thirty years after the death of the prophet Muhammad), the Umayyad caliphate would initiate the conquest of the Maghreb, introducing the people to the Islamic faith, the Arabic language, and great advancements in construction.

Morocco’s Rich Architectural History
Muslim worshippers, mask-clad and distanced as precautions due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, perform prayers at the Hasan II mosque, one of the largest in the African continent, in Morocco’s Casablanca on June 16, 2020. (Photo by Fadel SENNA / AFP)

The archeological remnants of the period show critical improvements in stone-masonry and woodworking. Tribespeople adopted Islam, intermarried with Arabs, paid taxes, and even participated in the Umayyad invasion of southern Spain. But they sought to retain their cultural identity by preserving their social hierarchy and upholding customary tribal law. They formed a sort of a hybrid culture that left its distinctive marks on the architecture of the period.

Despite their kinship with the Arab world, the Amazigh people sought self-determination. So by means of consecutive tribal revolts, the region gradually gained its independence from the Umayyad caliph and his Abbasid successor, only to fragment into many small states by the end of the 7th century. Thus Morocco would remain divided and prone to infighting, until reunification under the Almoravid dynasty (1055 to 1152 CE) (when tribal leader Yusuf ibn Tashfin returned to North Africa after successful military campaigns in Spain, and used that political momentum to establish an empire that extended as far south as Senegal and Niger).

This period of prosperity led to the creation of some of the greatest examples of traditional Moroccan architecture. Major cities were reconstructed (such as Marrakesh in 1062 CE, and Fez in 1069 CE). Highly influenced by Islamic styles but still distinctively North African, the great buildings of the empire were the envy of the world.

Advances in science and geometry helped stonemasonry reach greater heights, and political stability allowed the arts to flourish. Christian and Jewish minorities prospered in Morocco during this time, leaving their mark on the architecture of the period in the form of major places of worship.

Morocco’s Rich Architectural History
Typical houses of the Mellah or Jewish quarter, established in 1438 when the Jews were driven out of the old town to al-Mallah, Fes, Fes-Boulemane, Northern Morocco. MANUEL COHEN/ AFP

After the fall of the empire (13th century), the territories comprising Morocco were ruled by consecutive Amazigh dynasties, but none managed to match the success of their predecessor. Art and architecture suffered a sharp decline. Sporadic waves of persecution targeting religious minorities dealt a decisive blow against demographic diversity.

In 1554 CE, the Ottoman Empire conquered Fez and installed a vassal on the Moroccan throne. However, Ottoman rule would remain partial, due to tribal resistance and Spanish intervention. Nonetheless, the iconic style of the empire left its mark on Moroccan architecture.

After the Napoleonic wars (1815 CE), Istanbul became increasingly unable to govern its North African territories. As they transitioned out of Ottoman rule, the Alawite dynasty (who still rules Morocco to this day) managed to remain independent, despite increasing European intervention. It is during this period that Morocco acquired its reputation as a “pirate stronghold” and a “den of spies,” being intensely coveted by many international superpowers, yet remaining under the control of none.

For many years, the French sought every excuse to increase their military presence in Morocco, until its ruler was finally forced to agree to their terms. In 1912, most of the country became a French protectorate, while a northern and southern zone were placed under the control of Spain. At the time, a trend in European urban planning favored the preservation of historic buildings. So Morocco’s colonial masters chose to build their modern European-style neighborhoods just outside of existing cities, so as to keep historical urban centers as they were. Strict building regulations served to maintain the sharp contrast between local and foreign architecture, creating a sort of urban apartheid.

After decades of strife, the nation of Morocco eventually achieved independence from the French in 1956, and the Spanish in 1958, but Moroccan post-colonial architecture remained highly influenced by European styles.

Since then, the need to build fast and cheap has driven contemporary Moroccan architects to design buildings in the same bland utilitarian style that can be found in every city around the world, rather than expanding upon Morocco’s unique traditional style, and modernizing it. After all, traditional Moroccan architecture has been refined through centuries of trial and error to be best suited for both local climate and culture.

The traditional Moroccan house is a two to three story structure arranged around a central courtyard.

Outer walls are built with irregularly shaped stones set in heavy mortar, and plastered. They are relatively plain at ground-floor level, (a consequence of Islamic tradition which emphasizes modesty), and lightly decorated with geometric motifs at the top (in a manner reminiscent of ancient Amazigh constructions).

Very few windows look out onto the street. Most look inwardly, towards the central courtyard. Privacy is paramount.

The main entrance is topped with a distinctive horseshoe arch (the lower edges of which curve inwardly towards each other), a 10th century Andalusian import, and an emblematic feature of Moroccan architecture.

Residents enter from an ornate door which leads to the main courtyard through a curved or L shaped passageway, laid out in such a way as to prevent passersby from glancing into the house when the door is open.

The outer sobriety of Moroccan homes often hides a treasure trove of esthetic brilliance within. In wealthy homes, walls are often decorated with carved stucco panels and intricate woodwork, floors are livened with multicolored interlocking stones, and ceilings display floral motifs seamlessly integrated within patterns of geometry.

A cluster of three columns stands at each corner of the square or rectangular courtyard, supporting connected balconies from every side.

A fountain or water-feature is often installed at the center of the space, as part of an efficient climate-control system that provides residents and guests with a comfortable environment. Carefully placed openings and shading structures also contribute to the passive cooling of internal spaces during the summer months.

A looping gallery ferries residents to the nearest rooms, while winding corridors lead deeper into the dwelling, towards secondary courtyards and more private quarters. Concealed staircases lead to the upper floors.

In accordance with Islamic tradition, the house is segregated in regards to gender. Women live and work in the deepest sections of the house, unseen by male relatives and visitors. A few discrete observation-points allow women to keep track of what goes on in the rest of the house without being seen.

The design of the traditional Moroccan house has evolved to reflect the importance of guest-hosting in Moroccan culture. Such homes often include dedicated guest-quarters with private entrances, and relative autonomy.

In modern times, living in this kind of residence is certainly beyond the financial capability of many. However, the principles upon which this design is based, and the lessons learned from centuries of experimentation may just as easily be applied elsewhere, in a more contemporary context.

A modern apartment building for example, could be just as peaceful, just as sustainable, and just as adept at preserving the privacy of its residents. It could promote strong family ties, regulate community interaction, and facilitate the hosting of guests. It could be tailored to the culture of its users, even tuned to their collective habits and customs. But only if its designer is willing to learn from history.