Morocco is a land of mystery, fabled for its sensational tastes, smells, and enchanting architecture. I fell in love with all of it, the second I arrived in Casablanca, for the first time.
Over thousands of years, the country has had numerous influences – including Arabic, Spanish, French, African and others – that have fused with the indigenous Amazigh (Berber) culture, resulting in the unique style of buildings that can be seen today.
From the earliest pisé, or mud-brick buildings, of 110 BCE, to the most recent edifices of Hassan II Mosque, in Casablanca, Moroccan architecture is a voyage through time.
The Welcoming Morocco arts tour begins in Casablanca and unravels to reveal the countless architectural beauties that have become my personal love affair. Travelling to the soaring Monumental Gates of Fez with their different architectural styles, and to the traditional marvels of the Mausoleum of Mohammed V.
Together, we will visit the ancient red bricks of the Kasbah L’oudaya, and sit in the shaded courtyard of the Villa Sbihi. Marvel at the massive and ancient Granaries and Stables of Moulay Ismail, said to keep 20 000 royal horses fed and cared for 20 years in a famine, and run your hands over the crumbling walls of his marble palace.
Moroccan architecture is overwhelmingly detailed. Colours tend to be bright, and patterns complex. Spanish and French influence can be seen but is not as common as that of the ancient Amazigh square brick, or Arabic arches with cut out detail.
Mosaics are prevalent, found in the grandest of Mosques and Palaces to the Monumental Gates. Tiny tiles together form magnificent images of nature, or simply patterns in blues and reds. The conversion of Moroccan tribes to Islam by Idris in the early first century began an architectural period that remains today.
Come with me on our tour and discover the magic that is Moroccan architecture for yourself. Fall in love with the massive minarets of mosques and crumbling ruins of ancient Morocco, all of which tell a story rich in history and culture.
The earliest accounts of settlers in Morocco was from around 110 BC when the Amazigh tribes ruled the lands. Roman influence was sparse, with the great Empire preferring to concentrate on nearby Tunisia. That being said the Berber/ Roman town of Volubilis shows Christain influence in the way of Roman pillars and basilica and was occupied right up until 11 AD.
From around the 8th century, Islamic influence had begun to pervade the area. Idris migrated to the lands and settled in the ancient city of Fez. Here, he taught the ways of Islam and played a major part in building the city up to a bustling epicentre of culture and architecture.
Many of the oldest buildings in Fez still stand today, including the Madrassa or University, the old city fortifications, and the Monumental Gates. A large number of buildings in Fez, such as the al-Qarawiyyin and Andalusi mosques, were built in the hypostyle form, making use of the “Moorish” arches or horseshoe style openings that are still used in modern Moroccan architecture.
Fez is famous for its mix of ancient and modern architecture. Being a Unesco World Heritage site, and being able to trace its origins back almost to the time of Christ, one can see history merge in its winding streets.
During the 11th and 12th centuries, the Amazigh Empires came into full strength. No longer were they simply nomad tribes, they were now a united people who ruled over large parts of Western and Northern Africa and up into Europe. Islamic in faith, their culture was reflected in their architecture with detailed minarets and intricate carvings such as muqarnas, “stalactite” or “honeycomb” carvings.
Both of the cities of Rabat and Marrakech were founded during this time, with their architecture becoming heavily influential throughout the rest of the country. A wonderful example of this is the minaret of the Almohad Kasbah Mosque, which we visit.
From there the Architecture of Morocco remained broadly continuous up until the influence of the French in the early 20th century. Modern contemporary architecture, such as the Mosque of Hassan II reflects the fusion of modern technology and ideas with ancient Moroccan design.
Many of Morocco’s newer cities, such as Casablanca, have modern urban planning at their core or are built around the ancient sprawls, or Medina’s, of the old towns. Moroccan architecture is an enduring reminder of the passage of time, and how we as a species have adapted while remaining true to our heritage.
I love to visit The Dâr-al-Makhzen or Royal Palace in Rabat, it makes me feel like a true royal, if even only for a moment. It was built in 1864 to replace the rather outdated building built by Mohammed IV. To this day it is the residence of the royal family of Morocco and managed to remain so even after many other residences were abandoned during the French occupation.
Exploring the mass of buildings you will discover a palace to house the royal family, barracks for military units, government buildings, a school for the royal family, and even a small racecourse.
Architecturally it remains a perfect example of mid-19th-century Moroccan architecture, with large sloping roofs falling to courtyards and gardens. Access to this magnificent seat of power is restricted to authorized personnel only, and a select few approved guide groups, of which we are one!
It’s no wonder that this relaxing activity is part of Walking through the halls of The Mausoleum of Mohammed V, also in Rabat, I am amazed at how little Moroccan architecture has changed in the last 1000 years.
The Mausoleum stands opposite the ancient tower of Hassan, and both could be mistaken for being designed by the same person. The sleek white outline is topped with the traditional green tiled roof which can be seen in many of the modern buildings of the city. Standing respectfully beside the bodies of the Moroccan king and his two sons, King Hassan II and Prince Abdulla, I look around and wonder what marvels are to come in Morocco’s future.
The monolithic Hassan Tower stands sentinel opposite the modern Mausoleum in Rabat. Standing in its shadow I am transported back nearly a millennia to a time when great buildings were a stamp of a Sultan’s grandeur.
The tower has been unfinished for nearly 1000 years, and at its feet lies the remains of a Mosque of the same age. The mosque was set to be the biggest and greatest on the planet, an astonishing 600 by 456 feet. Sadly, most of the columns of the ancient mosque are now only stubs of their former selves, grasping at the sky like rows of broken teeth.
Soaring above the remains of the mosque is the sandstone tower of the unfinished minaret. Hassan Tower itself has turned a deep red ochre over the centuries, but its intricate carvings and horseshoe windows still stand just as they had in 1195. Winding up the incredible ramps on the inside,I can almost hear the ancient Muazzin, calling the faithful to prayer with a beautiful melody.
Riad Dar Sbihi or Villa Sbihi is named after the family that owns it. This stunning example of traditional Morrocan Architecture can be found tucked away from the noise and bustle of Sale in the old town, or medina.
As we enter the grand wooden doors, we will wander into a cool courtyard with a tinkling fountain, looked down on by tiled galleries and arched doorways. Everything about Villa Sbhi is inward-facing as if it is silently guarding its occupants against the outside world. Its outward face is unadorned, giving no clue of the grandeur that lies within.
Come with me as we sip on iced drinks in this beautiful oasis, amongst the dust and energy of the outside world. If you listen closely, you will hear birds call, and the distant hoot of a vehicle’s horn. But inside the Villa, time seems to almost stand still.
A Kasbah is a fortified military building, many of which can be found dotted all over ancient Morocco. The Kasbah L’oudaya, found in Rabat, was built in the 12th century, making it nearly 1000 years old. The fort crouches at the mouth of the Bou Regreg river, guarding its dark waters against marauding interlopers.
We will walk along with the same bastions where so many soldiers stood, almost a millennia ago. The Kasbah is like an alien world, stone and brick remaining intact for centuries as if to remind us of the might of Morocco.
Inside the ancient stone walls of the fort stands a private mosque. Built by the Sultan Moulay Ismail, it is an odd place of quiet beauty and contemplation amongst the violence and dirt that the rest of the fort has seen over the centuries.
From there, the winding dirt passageways of the fort eventually give way to the light and beauty of the Andalusian Gardens. Cupping a delicate flower in my hand, I cannot help but be reminded that even from the darkest beginnings can spring beauty and life.
The ancient city of Fez has been guarded for centuries by imposing walls, punctured by several gates. These gates reflect both the passage of time and the changing influences that Moroccan architecture has experienced over the years. Centuries ago the fortifications of ancient Morocco played a dual role of both keeping people in and keeping strangers out.
If you have ever wished to imagine what it must have been like to be a simple peasant in the time of great royalty, you have to but walk through, or stand before, one of the Monumental Gates of Fez.
Gaze upward at wooden doors that will dwarf even the tallest of men. Flanked by large square or round towers, they are made mostly of unforgiving stone. We can stand underneath the ramparts with their crenellations atop, which would have allowed archers to rain down death on troops below.
Control over your subjects would have been just as important to a Sultan as defence, and the gates allowed the ruler to maintain this with an iron fist. Walk with me in the shadow of the great gates, imagining how it must have been to be a trader entering the city with our donkey or mule.
Follow in the footsteps of millions that have passed through the imposing monoliths, adding yours to the faceless crowd.
I cannot tell the story of the granaries and stables of Meknes, without giving you some understanding of the ruthless and successful Sultan that designed and built them.
Moulay Ismail was said to be a great fan of the French King Louis XIV. He designed and built a city to rival the great palace of Versailles, very little of which has survived to modern times. He was said to have had dozens of wives and fathered hundreds of children. But his first love, and passion, was his horses.
Standing in the almost endless archways of the great stables, I can see why they were without a doubt one of the marvels of their time. They date back to over 300 years and are constructed of a series of arched doorways, each one leading to a stall that housed a royal horse.
The sultan prized the lives of his horses over those of his human subjects, and as a result, the nearly 12,000 horses housed in his stables wanted for nothing. An irrigated canal ran down the centre of the stables, providing a permanent source of clean water for the animals, and a convenient way to keep each stable sparkling clean.
All that’s left today, though, are echoes of the grandeur that once stood here. A handful of horses call the place their home as if to just give us a glimpse of the mighty animals that once roamed these halls. The sound of iron-shod hooves on stone still rings out, if you listen carefully, and will give you a sense of what it must have been like all those years ago.
The massive granary has survived mostly intact, letting us in on its secret of how it could store enough grain to feed the nearby horses for an amazing 20 years. There is no trace now of the mountains of golden grain that would have been stored here, but its sheer size gives you a fleeting glimpse into the incredible mind of the man that designed and built it.
In the centre of the medina of Meknes stands the old mosque. Although it is known by the name of the man that refurbished it almost 400 years ago, its bones are much older.
Looking down the length of the prayer hall, which goes as far back as the 12th century, my eye is drawn to the delicately carved stucco and rich mosaic all around me. The space is carved up by large columns, each of which stands like a sentinel holding the faithful at their feet.
The quiet gushing of a fountain is found on the north side of the building, surrounded by a courtyard that has been a place of cleanliness for a thousand years.
Cleanliness is next to godliness and is integral to the Islamic faith. Running my fingers through the clear water, I can hear the Muezzin’s call their flock to evening prayer. A glimpse of white robes and capped heads can be seen through the horseshoe arches; I had better leave them to their worship.
In a city rich with history, Bab Almansour soars above the other, lesser gates. Babs, or gates, can be found throughout Moroccan architecture, both in city walls and fortifications such as kasbahs.
The mighty Bab Almansour in Meknes is without a doubt one of the grandest found in the county. It stands just as it has for hundreds of years: large, imposing, and a testament to its Sultan, the great Moulay Ismail’s son, Moulay Abdullah.
Standing 16 meters tall, the actual wooden gates are seldom open, but there is a small footpath to the side. I slip around the side of the square stone bastions, with carved horseshoe arches and short pillars, making my way slowly out of the city to marvel at the monument from the outside.
From here I can see the massive carved marble pillars to either side of the gate, supporting carved overhanging pilasters above. It is whispered that the great Sultan’s son stole these from the nearby even more ancient Roman city and necropolis of Volubilis. What incredible buildings were they a part of, and how many lives have they stood watch over?
Shuffling feet and heads bowed over books have been a part of Madrasa’s life for hundreds of years. The Madrasa al-Atarine is found in Fez, in the winding streets of the Medina. Built between 1310 and 1331 by Sultan Uthman II Abu Said, it is one of the oldest places of learning on the planet. The University of al-Qarawiyyin is equally as ancient, having been founded in the first century, originally as a mosque.
Quietly, I walk through the L shaped entrance hall of al-Attarin, designed to protect its interior from the prying eyes of strangers. Galleries and square pillars look down on the central courtyard, creating shadows that play over the square of sunshine.
Marble columns and carved wooden archways dominate the building’s interior facade hiding the 30 smaller rooms for student accommodation tucked up the second floor, like an Arabic Hogwarts.
The University of al-Qarawiyyin, which sits next door to the Madrassa al-Attarin, is as old as the city of Fez itself. Built by Fatima al-Fihri in 859, it mainly focuses on the teachings of Islam and legal sciences. The original mosque building can be seen in the outline of the existing prayer hall, which was built a few years later in 956. From there it was further expanded until the mosque itself became the biggest in Africa.
Today the ancient library is said to be the oldest public library on the planet, holding the first medical degree from 1207. It is also one of the oldest universities in the world recognised by UNESCO.
I love to spend time in the reading room which is available to non-Muslims. Although it is of modern build, I can imagine how many scholars before me used to pore over books by candlelight on this very spot.
Like many other buildings of its time, the outside of both the University of al-Qarawiyyin and the Madrasa Alatarine give nothing away to the beauty of their interiors. Hoarding vibrant mosaics and carved stucco jealously from the outside world, they save their treasures for those lucky enough to tread their hallowed halls.
As I finish my tour with a quick stop in the Prayer Hall of the University of al-Qarawiyyin, I am struck by what a key role this building must have played in the history of its country by training the great minds that were responsible for the success of Morocco for hundreds of years.
Medinas, or old towns, can be found in many North African cities as well as Malta. They are walled areas, usually swarming with activity through a network of tiny winding streets. As I walk through the various Medinas of Morocco, if I close my eyes I could be in any one. Every Medina is a rich tapestry of smells and sounds.
Around every corner is a new treasure, whether it is a lost ancient wonder or a skilled artisan creating goods as if by magic. To walk these streets is to step back in time, often hundreds of years. Mosques, synagogues, palaces and fountains can be found in strategic points among the narrow alleyways, every one a jewel waiting to be discovered on your adventure.
The houses of the medinas have been the same for many centuries. Some of them are crumbling; their grandeur slowly fading as time carries on its unstoppable march. Many, however, are being saved by industrious individuals who have fallen in love with Morocco, just like I have.
Taking a walking tour of a medina will allow you to feel the cobbles beneath your feet, and run your fingers lightly over the age-old walls and studded wooden doors. Become a part of the lifeblood of the old town as you gain a greater understanding of how Moroccon’s have lived for hundreds of years.
Another rich residence of Morocco, Glaoui Palace in Fez is known for its incredible tile work and beautiful gardens. It is one of the few luxury residences that has been frozen in time, never upgraded as it fell out of favour.
The grand entrance hall, with its dizzying array of mosaic, was created over 200 years ago. Although I love to visit it, it makes my heart a little sore. The palace is currently in a rather sad state, with many of its wooden archways and terraces broken and decrepit. The courtyard, fountain and harem still stand, complete with their stucco carvings and gilded metalwork.
In its day the Glaoui Palace was a wonderful example of an opulent Morrocan home, fit for royalty. Today one can peek inside the still working bathroom and kitchen, imagining what it must have been like to live here two centuries ago.
The overwhelming colour of the Majorelle Gardens is blue, whether it is the almost eye-watering tiles and paint of the villa or the blue sky above verdant green gardens. Visiting this startling example of modern design in an ancient city jolts you into an age of opulence and art deco.
The early 20th century saw many fashions come and go, creating famous lives and great minds. One of which was the painter Jacques Majorelle. In 1931 he bought a simple parcel of land and began to design and create something that would eventually catch the eye of the great Yves St Laurant.
Fourteen acres surrounding a bright blue cubist style villa are planted with a variety of plants including important cacti species. The building seems almost alien amongst the soft natural world around it, all sharp corners and hard edges.
I love to discover the pieces of sculpture, and small buildings holding museums and exhibits that are hidden amongst the foliage. To me, it is almost like a different world.
Over all hovers the villa itself, which was designed by the architect Paul Sinoir, and is a wonderful example of French Modernist design. You can see it peeking between the trees and bushes as if keeping an eye on all the visitors to its park.
The mostly cubic core of the building is fringed with delicate overhangs and arches, with many examples of Islamic decorative elements such as mosaics and intricate wooden screens. The bright cobalt blue of the villa and surrounding structures was patented by Jacques Majorelle just before his death.
Tragically, after the artist’s divorce in the 1950’s he was forced to sell the gardens and the villa. They fell into disrepair and were set to be paved over and become a hotel until they were rediscovered by Yves Saint-Laurent and the great Pierre Bergé.
The two fabulous designers bought the fading gardens and restored them to their previous splendour. Today I love to take a romantic carriage ride through the twisting pathways, visit the personal collections of the Frenchmen, and explore the diverse species of plants that are growing under the shade of the spreading trees.
Marrakech is a city known for its frenetic activity, no place more so than the Jemaa el-Fnaa Square, or the main Marrakech market square in the Medina Quarter. The square dates back to the 10th century when it was an open plaza often used to hold executions.
Today the market is a bustling hive of activity, with food stalls, leather and brass, and trained animals on display. Walking between the stalls you can see the remains of an old mosque built in the 16th century, its square ruins overrun by modern conveniences. Everything in Morocco seems to me to be full of history, even the shiny new buildings reflect their ancient heritage.
The market at Marrakech is a melting pot of every culture that has made the great country of Morocco their home. Artisans craft their wares as you watch, enticing you to buy a souvenir or ten to take home with you.
The smell of fresh bread and spices wafts on the winds, undercut by the acrid tang of animal dung and sweat. Let me guide you through the seemingly endless throng of humanity, revealing to you the choicest souks and hidden gems, only the best art that Jemaa el-Fnaa has to offer.
The medina or old town in Marrakech is not only a UNESCO world heritage site but also has remained mostly unchanged for nearly a millennium.
Many cultures have called this small piece of the earth home, often living uneasily next to neighbours that would have been enemies anywhere else. The first buildings of the medina were founded originally in 1070, such as the Koutoubia Mosque, which still offers souls sanctuary and guidance today.
For almost 1000 years, the mosque has been the largest in Marrakech. The roof and walls seen today is the second incarnation of the building and was completed in 1158.
I love to climb the stately minaret, which stands 77 meters high and is crowned by 4 golden orbs and a metal spire. Below me, I can see the whole of the medina quarter, with every tiny person scurrying around like so many ants.
Underneath the minaret, in the main body of the building, delicate horseshoe-style arches can be seen all over the exterior, offset by blue mosaic tiles. Sandstone walls, long turned dark with age, create a sacred space within.
Rubbing shoulders with the great mosque is the Slat al-Azama Synagogue or Lazama Synagogue in the Mellah or Jewish quarter. Jews began to flock to Morocco after they were expelled from Spain in the 15th century. The modern building is resplendent with marble columns and cobalt blue mosaic and built in the traditional style around a central courtyard.
Visiting the synagogue is an interesting experience after that of the mosque. The similarities in the two peoples are quite apparent, visible in the detail of the buildings as well as the very worshippers themselves. It makes me realise that no matter how different we may seem, that we are all the same at the core.
Essaouira was the vision of the Moroccan King Mohammed III. Although it has been occupied since prehistoric times, the modern city owes itself to his desire to reorientate his entire kingdom toward the Atlantic.
The road that links Essaouira to Marrakesh is a perfectly straight line, standing in silent testament to Mohammed’s determination. The medina was designed in typical 18th-century military style, with lots of blocky buildings and crenellated ramparts. The walls and towers of the fortress fortifications remain today, along which I love to stroll, looking out toward the endless Atlantic.
Among all of the wondrous buildings that can be found in Essaouira’s medina, I particularly love the Scalas. These large arched doorways mark the entry to the old town from the Port and are mostly golden coloured granite or sandstone. Wide openings have allowed millions of feet to pass through them since their inception.
Entering into the crowded medina through one of the great scalas, I find myself caught up in a network of roads and houses. Winding streets are flanked by carved doorways, many of which are decorated with blue tiles or paint. Every wooden door jutting up against the narrow paving seems unique. Colours, patterns, barred windows or studs all stand out as if demanding to be studied and touched.
Exploring these maze-like alleyways gives one a sense of adventure, as if I were travelling back in time without realizing it. The air is filled with the smell of spices and salt and the cries of gulls as they wheel above.
Exploring on foot is by far the best way to discover the medina’s secrets. I will often find a cafe or shop that I had never seen before, making my day just that extra bit more special. I will often take a break from my wanderings, resting my feet with a cup of nus nus, a traditional Moroccon coffee, while watching the seemingly endless mass of humanity pass me by.
Finally, we will visit the Hassan II mosque in Casablanca. As our last stop on our Morrocan Arts tour, this modern building perfectly depicts the continuation of Morrocan architectural design.
I love the way that the urban exterior reflects traditional Islamic design elements such as horseshoe arches and a large minaret. The minaret has its own laser beam that is turned on every night and points the faithful in the direction of Mecca.
The mosque is resplendent with traditional carved stucco, mosaics, and marble columns. In its design, it would not look at all out of place alongside the ancient Hassan Tower in Rabat, which is one of the things I love about Morocco. The way that the past and the present simply intertwine so closely that one can almost not tell them apart.
In a slightly jarring exception, the exterior of the mosque boasts surfaces finished in titanium, which highlight the honey-coloured granite. The Hassan II mosque took a staggering 50 million hours and 35 000 workers to build, resulting in one of the best examples of traditional Moorish architecture blended with modern infrastructure and technology on the planet. It is the perfect way to end our incredible arts tour of Morocco.
I adore Moroccan architecture. Especially in imperial cities. The intricate detail that goes into every undertraining. I love the arched doorways and the way that the mosaics seem to swim and change shape before your eyes.
I love the tall, elegant minarets, from which the Imams send their call at sundown. I love the ancient buildings of Rabat and Fez who have guarded their inhabitants for a thousand years. But most of all, I love the way that modern Morocco reflects its past, and joins with it to form one seamless stream.
Standing almost anywhere in Morocco, and looking at the buildings around you, you would be mistaken for forgetting where in time you were.
Come with me as I rediscover a history in sand and stone. I can’t wait for your journey and your own love affair with Morrocco to begin.