The Rich and Vibrant History of Moroccan Architecture.

The Rich and Vibrant History of Moroccan Architecture. 

The kingdom of Morocco sits majestically in the Maghreb region of North Africa, it’s coastline abuts the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. Inland you can expect to find an eclectic mix of expansive desert married contentedly with rocky mountains. The contrasts in the country’s landscape is matched by the diversity of its history and its architectural influences. Many visitors have passed through Morocco and many have stayed, calling Morocco their home. Some were friendly and some not so, but each faction brought with it new and inspiring ideas. This is reflected in the unique architecture of this distinctive land, with influences from the Berber kingdom, Islam, Moorish (Spain) and France.


The Influence of The Berber Kingdom. 

History indicates that we can go all the way back to 110 BCE to witness the birth of Moroccan architecture. The Berber Kingdom of Mauretania introduced characteristic architecture, rituals and doctrines that became firmly united with Moroccan design. The Berber clan were known for their love of large buildings erected from mud brick (known as pise). The buildings were assembled for practical purposes, built with protection and security in mind, they functioned as trading posts or were strategically located to ward off adversaries. The stand out element of these buildings appeared to be the recurrent use of the same materials and pattern designs, a trait we see in Moroccan architecture to this day.


The Influence of Islam.

The arrival of Idris I of Morocco had a huge impact on Morocco, its people and its architecture. Idris I of Morocco was not only the great – great – great grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, he was also the very first Arab leader and the creator of the Idrisid dynasty. He brought with him the religion of Islam and was instrumental in encouraging the Berber clans to follow and convert to his faith.

The architectural style of the country began to evolve and the influence of Islam became more prevalent in designs. The arrival of Islam also heralded a welcome for places of worship, in the form of mosques, these were designed to be individual and distinctive.

Moroccan tiles were also brought to the fore at this time and incorporated to add a striking decorative effect. The artform of Zellij (a traditional type of tilework) was introduced – Zellij refers to tilework whereby geometric tiles are used to form eye-catching and convoluted patterns. It’s reputation precedes it and it is known as the “Prince of Tiles.”  Nowadays Moroccan architecture and Zellij go hand in hand and you will find numerous designs and patterns incorporating Moroccan tiles. There are triangles and stars, diamonds and crosses, all carefully and methodically arranged to create a stunning interior or exterior design feature. Zellij proffers the opportunity for bespoke creations and you will find an array of Moroccan tiles in traditional colors including brown, white, green, blue and black.

Islamic design influence also came to include the addition of fountains. Water has always been seen to be an integral part of Moroccan culture, but the coming of Islam heralded the use of fountains even more. They were considered to be a representation of paradise and were also a practical solution to providing Muslims with a place to carry out customary ablutions prior to prayers.

From palaces to plazas, mosques to domestic dwellings, designers incorporated Moroccan tiles and fountains. Patterns also became more of a feature, Islam prohibits the use of images of live beings (humans and animals) for decorative imagery. Therefore, patterns became the focal point, with the significant use geometric designs and floral motifs (also known as arabesques). The arabesques are highly decorative and intricate and were most often carved into stone or wood. They are made up of patterns that “scroll,” picture interweaving flora cascading gently down.


The Influence of Moorish (Spain) 

Once upon a time Spain, as we know it today, was a Moorish province and was called Al-Andalus. In the 11th century The Berber Kingdom ruled over Morocco, along with the Southern area of Spain. With the Almohad Caliphate ruling during the 11th century, followed by the Almoravid Dynasty ruling during the 12th and the Marinid dynasty taking the helm from the 13th to the 15th century. This extensive period of rule resulted in a very prevalent Moorish design influence and many new features were introduced to an already rich and diverse Moroccan style.

Arches began to appear, and two distinctive types became predominant, these being the horseshoe design (which is shaped like a clover) and the cusped design (which is a rounded shape). In line with the era these became known as Moorish arches.

Tiling has been associated with Moroccan architecture for many years and the Moorish influence heralded the practice of overlying roofing tiles and the use of hand glazed tiles. The Moorish era also saw the creation of the exceptional Alhambra Garden and this has provided inspiration for Andalusian gardens that grace Morocco far and wide. This looks even more impressive when seen against the Moorish style sharp white walls that were a feature of this era.


The Influence of France. 

1912 bore witness to the French occupation of Morocco and concerns were raised as to the numerous unplanned structures and buildings that were appearing. The French decided to take action and imposed certain restrictions that would again shape the future of Moroccan architecture. It was decreed that buildings should be no more than four stories high, that roofs should be level and that balconies should not allow residents to look out over their neighbors! It was also ruled that buildings should not take over the land, each planned project would be allowed 80% of the space given for a building and the remaining 20% would be given over to outdoor space – pretty gardens or attractive courtyards. This stricter approach to building would help to ward off excessive building work and ensure that structures were sympathetic to the landscape, rather than a blight on it.


Combining Styles to Produce Beautiful Architecture. 

Often described as traditional, vibrant and striking, Moroccan architecture stands out and, with past influence from the Arab world, Spain and France this eclectic mix of style has produced a unique look that can now only be synonymous with Morocco. How can so many different influences and styles combine so well to make Morocco the champion of interior and exterior design it has become? It is the diversity that ensures Moroccan architecture remains vibrant and inimitable. Walk among the buildings, follow the lines of the old Kasbah walls, explore the towns that showcase the influence of the French style with low rise buildings and flat roofs.

You are just as likely to find an ornate mosque sitting next door and the styles intermingle seamlessly. Add to this the “new and modern” buildings which are springing up in places such as Casablanca and you have an exquisite melting pot of cultural design delights that abridge past and present.


Experiencing the Delights of Evolving Moroccan Architecture.

Visit Morocco and you will readily witness typical Moroccan architecture, including methodical geometric patterns, ornate archways, fountains and Moroccan tiles in the form of the ancient and traditional craft of Zellij throughout the land. Attractive courtyards and lush gardens are shown off with aplomb.

Casablanca is Morocco’s largest city and has a population of over 3 million. It is a pivotal location for trade and industry and its port is a hub of activity and a perfect example of old meeting new. The medina in Casablanca is very much in keeping with Arabic convention, you will find traditional buildings. Venture outwards and you will happen upon a more contemporary feel, a city that has high-rise buildings, business areas and domestic dwellings. It is very fitting then that these two contrasting areas are called “The Old City” and “The New City,” and telling that they are able to co-exist in such a complementary way.

“Old” style architecture is likely to feature the Riad, a traditional Moroccan house, which is two or more stories high. Typically, they have a courtyard (Andalusian-style) and you will often find  decorative fountains that are adorned with Zellij. Riads were initially built to be inhabited by those considered affluent and only offered to those considered wealthy enough. The courtyard offered privacy as it sat in the confines of the home, this is in keeping with Islamic penchant for a retreat from the outside world and a quiet place to reflect.

Many visitors also flock to Fes and Marrakesh and are met with examples of the stunning architecture in the form of mosques and palaces. El Bahia Palace in Marrakesh and the Andalous Mosque in Fez offer perfect examples of the typical style.

Madrasses (educational establishments) and Minarets also offer impressive specimens of archetypal Moroccan design. Minarets (also known as Goldaste) resemble tall towers, topped by a spherical or tapered crown. They act as a center-piece and are used in the Islamic call to prayer.

If you want to go right back and visit ancient examples of architecture you would be best placed heading to the Atlas Mountains. Here you will come across longstanding villages and archaic Kasbahs. The Kasbahs feature red clay bricks that have been dried in the sun, in the past their walls acted as forts for defense and they still continue to dominate the skyline.

In all of the different types of buildings you are likely to see traditional Moroccan tiles featured somewhere. Decorating interior walls and livening up the exterior, Moroccan floor tiles adorning the floor and bespoke designs in traditional colors adding vivacity to a dancing fountain. The Moroccan tile has evolved alongside Moroccan architecture, in the past there were limited choices of color and the Zellij lacked the vibrancy of later designs.


Incorporating Moroccan Design. 

In keeping with Moroccan ideals, it is pleasing to place focus on all areas of our home. We often examine the exterior and interior walls and ceilings, injecting color and design to brighten up and enhance our living. However, what of neglected surfaces such as doors and the top of that old-but-still-loved coffee table that has been passed down from generation to generation. Can they not be given the same loving thought? Moroccan style dictates we treat all elements of our home in the same way. A plain wooden door can be carved and used to showcase a stunning piece of art. Much more welcoming than plain old wood?

Ceilings can be enriched with crown moldings (decorative strata that adds interest to the area where the wall meets the ceiling) and plaster medallions that are designed to complement the moldings.

While ideas are easy to take on board, some aspects of design and craft need to be left to the experts and the art of Zellij is a perfect example. The creation of Moroccan tiles is an age-old tradition that has been passed on from generation to generation.  There are many copies and substandard reproductions offered by those who are looking to proffer from the art, but true Zellij is made using time-honored methods and by Mallems (true Zellij artisans) who have mastered their craft.


Zellij Gallery – Home of craftsmanship, ancient tradition and unique design. 

Zellij Gallery are masters of the craft and have accrued over a century of experience, knowledge and skills. Family, tradition and staying true to your culture are key in the eyes of the Zellij Gallery and the resident Mallems work with a passion and skill that cannot be imitated.

A real family affair, Miloud Farhi and his son Faissel have worked tirelessly to ensure their unique company Zellij Gallery and their beautiful hand-crafted Moroccan tiles are brought to the attention of the global market. If you are looking to add vibrancy and life to your home and businesses Zellij could be the answer. There is no better way to make a stunning transformation than to inject a little of the magic of Morocco in the form of awe-inspiring Zellij.