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The extraordinary architecture of Morocco

Updated: Apr 7, 2023

Moroccan architecture in the Muslim West was initially influenced by the architecture predominant in the Mashriq (the eastern part of the Arab world, located in Western Asia and eastern North Africa). Poetically, it means Sunrise place. However, it soon established its models and techniques, reaching the peak of its prosperity in Morocco and Andalusia.


Unlike in the Mashriq, the Maghreb architecture has not received the attention it deserves. Even the first researchers who addressed this subject, such as Bakri, Al-Nuwairi, and Ibn Khaldun, did not study it directly. Instead, it was an extension of their fundamental interests, namely history, geography and sociology.

Long after, orientalists and colonial writers like Bassé, Hodas, and Henry Terrace started looking at the architecture of the Maghreb countries. Their interest stemmed less from a desire to learn and more from a clinical standpoint of social science.


Their goal was to investigate the colonial mindset and social mores of the people living in the countries of the Maghreb. Moroccan architecture's scientific and artistic facets were studied in the later decades of the 20th century.


Literature in the following centuries showed interest in Morocco's architecture and art and the Maghreb. It emphasized how prosperous it was, where it drew its inspiration, and how it had changed through time.


Moroccan architecture in mosques and Islamic madrasas


In the Maghreb countries, Moroccan-Islamic architecture was associated, in its first manifestation, with building mosques during the Islamic conquests. That kind of architecture started in the East (i.e., in present-day Tunisia). Later on, it spread to the rest of the Maghreb. Long after that, this art spread to Andalusia, where it reached its peak of glory and completeness.


The first mosque built in the Islamic Maghreb was the Kairouan Mosque, also called the Mosque of Sidi Okba, relative to the famous Islamic conqueror. The latter believed that all mosques, which would be built in the future in conquered countries, should be similar to the first mosque.


The Okba Mosque was similar to the great mosques of the Mashreq: a columned hall led by a courtyard surrounded by arcades on three sides. The Okba Mosque became the principal mosque of the Aghlabids (an Arab dynasty of emirs). The mosque was later destroyed, to be rebuilt and restored several times. These are just a few of many Arabic mosques throughout Northern Africa, which include:

  • The Great Mosque of Tunisia, known as the Zaytouna Mosque was built in 732 A.D in the city commercial district. The mosque has a huge library.

  • The Great Mosque of Sousse, established by Prince Abu Abbas Mohammed, in 850 AD.

  • The Mosque of the Three Doors in Kairouan (866 AD).

  • The old palace mosque, built at the beginning of the 9th century, that no trace of it was left.

In the Muslim West, mosque building gradually became very popular in places like Fez, Tlemcen, and Marrakech, where different dynasties attempted to give Moroccan architecture its distinctive flavor while retaining the foundational buildings built by the earlier dynasties.


Al-Koutoubia in Marrakech, Hassan tower in Rabat, Khairalda in Seville, etc.) were all tall mosques, but the Almohad style was distinguished by simplicity and shunned grandeur. This behavior unmistakably demonstrated Mahdi ibn Tomert's sobriety and asceticism (founder of the Almohad Dynasty). They were also the first to construct mosques out of stone rather than brick.


The modernisation of Moroccan architecture between the 9th and 14th centuries


Contrarily, the Marinids were distinguished by their propensity for luxurious designs in buildings and adornment. Thus, they blended "African strength with Andalusian beauty," in Henry Terrace's words.


Therefore, it is undeniable that Moroccan Islamic architecture developed in the Muslim West between the 9th and 14th centuries. Moroccan architects' focus changed away from a building's purely aesthetic look. They also paid attention to aesthetics. The success of traditional handicrafts brought this about. In addition, the nation's citizens' tastes in art had changed. In contrast to earlier times, they were no longer content to replicate Oriental designs.


Moroccan architecture in madrasas


The construction of mosques and Islamic schools, often known as madrasas, marked the culmination of this architectural trend. Throughout the Marinid era, it peaked. Some of these colleges or madrasas are still operating today—for instance, Abu Anan School in Sale and Attarin School in Fez. In addition to being halls of worship, these Madrasas also provided administrative instruction. Additionally, they aimed to combat the political and religious activities that the "Zawiyas" (religious organizations linked to Sufis in the Islamic world) led against the central authority.


Whatever the intention, the founders ensured these institutions would also serve as architectural landmarks to represent riches and sophistication in the arts.


The architectural trend did not only involve building mosques in the Muslim West. Weapons depots, palaces, and other structures of both civil and military architecture were constructed concurrently.


In addition to dealing with Christian incursions, succeeding Moroccan princes and monarchs often had to put down local uprisings. As a result, they built citadels, fences, and forts as a kind of defense. According to Ibn Khaldun, Aghlabid Abu Ibrahim Ahmed constructed 10,000 castles in Africa. Even if Ibn Khaldun's statements may be exaggerated, they nonetheless demonstrate the significance of those buildings during the time.


In actuality, most of these castles were former Byzantine barracks that had been rebuilt or refurbished to meet the strategic needs of the time. However, these fortresses have been dispersed over the Maghreb since the ninth century. The Ribats are the most well-known (monasteries). Those Ribats served as launch pads for Islamic Jihad battles and fortifications against foreign invaders.


Ribats served in both the military and the church. The monarchs diligently looked after their managers, and the villagers respected them.


These Ribats were compact, independently armed cities from an architectural perspective. There were tall fences with guard posts surrounding them. Some of them had "warning towers" and weapon stockpiles. Shots were fired from these towers to signal the possibility of a threat. Some say these "fire signals" could notify the Ribats stretching from Alexandria to Ceuta in one night.


Fortresss and citadels

  • Alhambra Citadel has square and rectangular towers.

  • Ribat Bab Marisa: Seville-born Moroccan architect Mohamed Ben Ali constructed Ribat Bab Marisa during the Marinid era. This Ribat contained a stockpile of naval weaponry. It was connected to the Abu Rrakrak River by a canal explicitly created for shipping.

  • Ribat Mahdia in Tunisia: The central, fortified portion of a town or city is called the citadel. It could be a fortified city, fortress, or castle. The name is a diminutive of "city," and it refers to both the Almohad-founded defense of Fez al-Bali and the Sultan Abu Yusuf-founded and -built New Fez (beginning in 1276).

  • Chella in Rabat

  • Tunisia's Citadel of Mansoura was utilized by Moroccan troops during the siege of Tlemcen and afterward developed into a bastion of the nearby Marinid forts.

Royal homes and palaces built in the Arabic and Moroccan style


In addition to these military structures, whose relics are still visible today in the several Maghreb regions, Morocco and Tunisia also played a minor role. Successive kings built houses and palaces that resembled castles. Many people (servants, manufacturers, merchants, and soldiers), as well as members of the royal family and those close to them, were housed in these buildings, which were constructed apart from communities for the welfare and security of the monarchs.


One of the most well-known architectural landmarks is the Old Palace, also known as the Abbasid Palace, which was constructed in Tunisia during the Aghlabid era. Ibrahim I founded it in 801 AD for strategic purposes. He welcomed envoys from foreign princes there. With the proper fences, barracks, weapons caches, and supplies, this palace quickly transformed into a veritable fortress. But once it was evacuated, it was reduced to rubble, and today all that is left are some dilapidated artifacts.


All the princes, regardless of their progeny, had built comparable palaces to bolster their power, influence, and reputation. Moroccan architecture also developed in this way throughout the centuries.


The defensive function of these structures diminished between the ninth and thirteenth centuries, giving way to other considerations, primarily as a luxury lifestyle. As a result, the kings stopped constructing fortified homes. Instead, they built opulent palaces where competing architects tried adding as much grandeur as possible.


Similarly, the Aghlabid aquariums established in Kairouan, Sousse, and throughout Tunisia should be mentioned as incredible architectural feats in civil engineering. In the distant past, the Almohads also constructed bridges on the Moroccan rivers of Abu Rakrak, Tanseft, and Oued Kabir. A sizable water channel system was also installed to supply drinking water to Seville, Marrakech, and Rabat.


Traditional building materials used in Moroccan architecture


Rammed mud, bricks, and stones were used in architecture and construction. The latter was mainly utilized to adorn the façade. The use of the bricks was quite restricted and varied across Morocco. In other words, the construction was primarily done with rammed mud and bricks, whether for military or civilian buildings. A combination of dirt and lime was used to create the dirt. The mixture is sandwiched between two wood panels. It is frequently reinforced by habitation bricks made of crushed hay and soil. The architects of that era put a surprising amount of artistic effort into the décor by building arches, columns, etc.


Over windows or doors, arches came in a variety of shapes. There is a "blown" arch that resembles a horseshoe and was influenced by Byzantine Oriental architecture. Later, it will see an impressive artistic development in Andalusia and Morocco. The so-called entire arch also exists; it first emerged in the ninth century. Additionally, there are coronal arches and circular arches, which can be seen in certain significant mosques (Fez, Cordoba, Tlemcen, etc.).


The columns, which served as both structural pillars and decorative accents, were frequently made of carved plaster or oxy-marble.


The pulpit of the Great Mosque of Cordoba and the peasants' pulpit in Fez are two examples of Moroccan architects' use of carved wood around the start of the 10th century. The use of wood for doors, windows, ceilings, and other Moroccan architectural landmarks quickly became widespread. On the other hand, the architects, like those from the Attarin School in Fez, decorated the windows with glass and bronze plates.


In the ninth century, the Islamic Maghreb's architects first used plaster, a material that was frequently used in the Mashriq. This decorative technique gained popularity at the start of the 13th century (Fez, Tlemcen, Granada, Kairouan...). After being etched with iron tools, the usage of plaster

was mostly seen in the interior decorating of walls, halls, and courtyards.


Zellij art of the Maghreb


Zellij art is a distinctive creation of the Maghreb, especially Morocco. The artisans in Morocco are known for their expertise in this trade. It was frequently employed to embellish the walls of mosques, minarets, and even columns at the start of the 14th century.


The shapes of the motifs, which are a component of the so-called Islamic art of Arabesque and are carved on the plaster, changed depending on the architecture. Geometric designs predominated in mosques, along with floral inscriptions that drew inspiration from the natural world and star-like patterns. The designers eagerly engraved various Qur'anic poems or proverbs on the plaster.


Beginning in the 14th century, floral shapes were used increasingly frequently in decorating, and geometric shapes gradually took over. Moroccan architecture constantly evolved and flourished over the years. The Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, the pride of Moroccan architecture, is one of the timeless architectural marvels built as a result.


Conclusion


If you're looking for a fascinating and exotic travel destination, you can't go wrong with Morocco. The country's architecture and design is world-renowned, and a private tour with Journey Morocco is the best, most comprehensive way way to see it all.


From the stunning mosques and palaces of Marrakech to the wind-swept dunes of the Sahara, you'll be captivated by the beauty of Morocco.


Travel inspiration photo gallery: Architecture of Morocc0



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