The old fanatical and sombre town is bathed in the gold of all this sunlight; spread out at my feet, on a succession of hills and dales, it has taken on an aspect of unalterable and radiant peace; it looks almost smiling, almost pretty; I scarcely recognise it, so much has it changed; a kind of ruddy radiance sleeps on the immobility of its ruins. And the air has suddenly become warm and tranquil, giving an illusion of eternal summer.
– Pierre Loti, Morocco
Sometimes it feels as if Morocco has managed to add a patina of modernity atop its centuries-old character without destroying what lies underneath. If not for the forest of satellite dishes that covers almost every square meter of the terraced rooftops of Fes, the view of the ancient medina from above wouldn’t be much different from the one described by Pierre Loti in 1889.
Despite being much cleaner than in Loti’s time, the impression many first-time visitors get of a Moroccan city is that of a dirty, chaotic milieu. Narrow lanes are flanked by high walls with scarcely a tiny window. The unsuspecting guest may well discover a hidden gem of a patio, not unlike a courtyard of the Alhambra, when entering one of the myriad dwellings through the unassuming and small doors.
Indeed, if you peer beneath the veil of globalization, or peek behind the gates of houses, madrasas, and mosques, old Morocco reveals itself in the luxurious gardens and the intricate details of tiled floors and finely etched panels of cedar wood..
This contrast is no more evident than in the tanneries of Fes, where workers toil, immersed to their knees, in vats that contain substances whose pungent smells are a clear indication of their origin. It would certainly seem like the process of tanning and dyeing leather has not changed much in the last four or five centuries. Pigeon dung is still used to soften the hides that are carried into the tannery on the backs of donkeys, but modern chemicals have replaced the vegetable dyes of old, much to the detriment of workers’ health.
With this post, I am introducing a series of articles exploring different aspects of life in Moroccan cities, illustrated with photos taken in Rabat, Chefchaouen, Fes, and Meknès. My goal is to portray this world of contrasts between ancient and modern, ugly and beautiful, bustling and quiet. Each article visually highlights an aspect of Moroccan life: Architecture and Design, People, Street Life, Work, Markets and Religion. This was done with the intent of providing a visual flow rather than creating a comprehensive narrative of the many aspects of Moroccan urban life. The choice of images, in their juxtaposed arrangement, is motivated by aesthetic rather than documentary appeal. Nonetheless, I hope my work will provide you with an interesting glimpse into the world of Moroccan cities.
No time to read this article now? For a limited time, I am offering an ebook containing the text of all the articles and many more photos for free.
I would like to thank Christin McLeod for providing invaluable help in proofreading and editing the text of these articles.
Architecture and Design
Intricate, geometric, repetitive detail. This is the signature of Islamic art and decor.
The Moroccan madrasa, mosque, or patrician house is like an oyster. One must crack the shell of the unadorned and often dilapidated structure to reveal the treasures hidden within. For tucked inside the buildings, is a phantasmagoria of splendor.
In Morocco, this character is visible in the floors and walls, covered with brightly colored ceramic tiles arranged in geometric patterns. It is evident in the delicately carved gypsum decorations of walls, columns, and vaults. It is echoed in the etchings of cedar wood shutters, which provide much needed protection from the hot afternoon sun – and from indiscreet eyes. It reverberates in the corrugations of wrought iron and brass lamps.
Only the minarets, surrounded by the green roofs of the mosques, rise above the sea of houses of the medina. The latter appear to have grown organically, without plan or direction, not unlike a cancer growth.
Standing atop the roof of one of these houses 125 years ago, Pierre Loti spied his female neighbors when they ventured out into the evening to do their chores and catch some fresh air. Nowadays, the satellite dishes have taken over that space, so we are left with only our imaginations to conjure such fanciful images in our minds.