From Islamic to art deco: A rich history of Moroccan architecture

by | 14 Nov 2022

Set between Europe and Africa, Morocco has experienced centuries of different rulers, kingdoms, and cultural influences. From the ancient Berbers to the Muslim Arabs, Moors, and French, each ruler and culture left a legacy. This diverse history is often best represented in the Moroccan architecture, with intermingled styles found across the country, from Marrakesh to Casablanca. Where else can you see the ancient red clay Berber kasbahs, gaze up at the dazzling Islamic tiled domes and minarets, wander through Moorish white stucco facades and Andalusian gardens, and spot the Art Deco buildings left by the French… All in one country. We dive into the rich history of Moroccan architecture and discover how the country got its unique style.

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BERBER INFLUENCES ON MOROCCAN ARCHITECTURE

Moroccan architecture, as we know it today, dates back all the way to the 2nd century with the Berber Kingdom. The Berbers, or the Imazighen, are an indigenous ethnic group of North Africa and have lived in this region for thousands of years. In Morocco, the Berbers built traditional kasbahs and fortifications in the high mountains and desert, which we can still see today. Their architectural style is characterised by imposing buildings made from pise, or red mud clay bricks that have been dried in the sun. At the time, Berber rulers were fending off frequent invaders, so the buildings were intentionally formidable to dissuade them. They often built large ports, trading posts and fortified walls with small windows so people could see out of the building without being seen themselves.

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If you want to witness this ancient Moroccan architecture, head to the Atlas Mountains. Here you’ll find old Berber villages and kasbahs made with red clay bricks that make a striking contrast to the blue sky. One of the most impressive is Ait Benhaddou in Ouarzazate. Built in the 1600s, this UNESCO-listed fortified village is made of clay buildings surrounded by defensive walls. You’ll see the classic small windows on the outer walls and tall towers punctuating the skyline. Once inside, you’ll find well-preserved homes with fascinating carvings in wood and clay. The sheer size and asymmetrical structure of this village make it a truly spectacular site.

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ISLAMIC INFLUENCES ON MOROCCAN ARCHITECTURE

Morocco has witnessed a long line of invaders including Saharans, Phoenicians, Romans, Greeks, Byzantines, Ottomans, Arabs, Spanish and French. The region was conquered by Muslim Arabs by the 7th century and since then, Islam has had the most significant impact on Moroccan architecture. Islamic architecture is highly decorative and functional, characterised by geometric patterns, tiles, fountains, horseshoe arches, and floral arabesques carved into stone or wood.

Traditional Moroccan tiles, or Zellij, were introduced, with spectacular geometric tiles lining the interiors and exteriors of buildings across Morocco. The classic colours are green, blue, brown, white, and black, and you’ll spot all kinds of intricate patterns like diamonds, stars, and triangles. Fountains are an integral part of Islamic Moroccan architecture, as they represent paradise. They’re also a place where Muslims can perform purification rituals before prayers.

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You’ll spot Islamic Moroccan architecture almost everywhere, from the dazzling domes and towers to the elaborate mosques, palaces, and plazas. Some famous examples include Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, one of the largest mosques in the world. The towering minaret soars 210 metres into the sky. The interiors and exteriors are decorated with vibrant tiles, hand-carved wood and stone, pink granite, marble, chandeliers, giant archways, and gilded grandeur.

In Marrakesh, don’t miss the spectacular El Bahia Palace, built in the late 1800s in stunning Alaoutie designs. From the sweeping archways, marble courtyard and ornamental gardens, to the bright tiling, painted ceilings, silk panels, and stained glass, this is an architectural masterpiece.

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MOORISH INFLUENCES ON MOROCCAN ARCHITECTURE

By the 8th century, the Moors, the Islamic Berber population, were greatly influencing Moroccan architecture. The Moors occupied parts of Spain and Morocco for centuries, so aspects of Spanish architecture became entwined with Islamic and African influences. Some distinctive Moorish influences include the white stucco facades, red-tiled roofs, and elements from Art Deco and Art Nouveau styles. The Moors were also known for their clover-shaped and cusped arches, interior garden courtyards, and hand-glazed tiling.

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To get an understanding of Moorish Moroccan architecture, be sure to visit any lush riad. These are indoor courtyards filled with greenery and a central water feature. You can also visit Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakesh. Originating in the late 12th century, the striking mosque is built from red sandstone. You’ll marvel at the intricately carved towers, scalloped archways, and ornate ceramic tile designs.

The Grand Mosque in Chefchaouen is another great example of Moorish Moroccan architecture. It was built in the 15th century and has an octagonal minaret. While minarets are usually four-sided square designs, you’ll occasionally find eight-sided minarets, as a legacy of the Moors.

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FRENCH INFLUENCES ON MOROCCAN ARCHITECTURE

When the French colonised South Morocco from 1912 to 1956, they introduced elements of French design to Moroccan architecture. One of the most distinctive changes was the windows. While Berber and Islamic architecture used small windows, the French brought in their large double French doors and windows.

The French also introduced restrictive building standards. They decreed that buildings could not be higher than four stories and all building roofs should be level and flat. Balconies could not overlook neighbours and each planned area should have 20% of the land dedicated to outdoor gardens or courtyards. While these policies were aimed at preserving the country’s existing traditional architecture, they also stalled urban development in many areas and repressed architectural innovations.

As the French architects built new cities, they often constructed buildings that had European layouts but traditional Moroccan styles. The result was a Mauresque or Neo-Moorish style, and this can be found in cities like Rabat. Walk along the European-style boulevards and you may notice the grand administrative buildings. In some cities, like Casablanca, you’ll see many Art Nouveau and Art Deco buildings. This was influenced by the Parisian style of ornate wrought-iron windows, balconies and staircases.

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MOROCCAN ARCHITECTURE TODAY

Walk through any Moroccan city and you’ll find the unique blend of Berber, Islamic, Moorish, and French architecture. While modernist buildings are becoming more prominent, they take their place amongst this eclectic mix that makes Morocco so spectacular.

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