Moroccan architecture has had influences from Persia, the Arabic-Islamic influx of the 700s, a strong Jewish presence, the original Berber inhabitants, of course, and a more recent impact from European colonialism.
What is a medina?
Medina means ‘city’, but typically refers to the old walled medina, containing a kasbah or castle, important for the defense of every place faced with constant invasions like Morocco.
You will quickly discover a maze of winding narrow walled alleyways that is unique. They were designed this way to confuse any invaders who got past the city walls, kasbah defenses, and the solid gates between neighbourhoods which were closed by the gatekeeper every night.
Is Tangier a big medina?
No. Tangier is a very small medina, though its hilly tumble of white buildings next to the sea make it a very nice place to wander.
The biggest medina in the world is in Fes. But Tangier has all the parts of a medina, including the densely packed houses making the smaller area easier to defend. There are also few windows onto the streets, making it impossible to know what’s on the other side of the walls.
One way of finding out is to visit the American Legation in the medina near the Spanish Steps. It used to be a stately home which became the American embassy – the first country to recognize modern Morocco as an independent state. It is now a museum with some interesting history, including Paul Bowles who recorded the local music and wrote stories set in Morocco.
Why a Jewish cemetery and neighborhood?
The Jews have been in Morocco for so long and had such a big influence that every medina will have a Jewish neighborhood called M’lah, referring to their original trade in salt, or m’l. There are also synagogues and Jewish cemeteries.
Each neighborhood was like a family – still is. A m’kadam is in charge and will know what’s going on in every single household. It is part of caring for the community, and no one will get forgotten.
Is that an archway in the middle of the road?
Yes. If you follow the road from the Bab Medina bakery past the German cemetery you will find graves in the middle of the footpath, and an archway in the middle of the road. The archways everywhere have two different forms.
The ones with the rounded top came with the Jews. The ones with the pointed top came with the Muslims. They are parts of the turreted town walls across streets, but also show up as shop and house doors, and windows – in fact, everywhere.
What are the homes like inside?
The blank walled streets were both a defense, and a reflection that privacy was highly valued as a virtue. But inside, a house or dar is usually arranged with rooms opening off an open courtyard. This is an influence from the Persians.
The tiled courtyard which is open to the sky is an excellent cooling feature. If the courtyard has a water feature and a tree, it is big enough to be called a riad, a more stately home. There are many beautiful ones you can stay at while in Morocco.
Mini fountains can be found all over the medinas. In Islam you can upgrade your post-death “accommodation” by contributing fountains, mosques and schools to your town.
The flat topped rooves are a great feature in the hot climates of northern Africa. Rooftops, terraces and balconies give extra space, and are also cool places to chill in the evenings, even to sleep on. In Tangier, many of them also have sea views.
They also offered a haven for women in the richer households who weren’t allowed to leave without a male, sometimes not at all.
Why are there 2 knockers on the doors?
If you pay attention to these they will give little clues to the house inside. Some even have 2 knockers – one in the middle, and another at the top.
The middle one is for women, the upper one for men. This way the women know to cover up before opening the door. In Fes some houses still have little round “cupboards” sticking out at the windows with have spy holes in the bottom – another way the women could check who was at the door.
Are the houses as plain on the inside?
Not at all. They are generally extremely elaborate. The Moors brought a love of detail that is still found everywhere today. In mosques and stately homes, the ceilings and the wooden tops of doorways and mosque domes are typically carved in unbelievable detail. Intensely decorated glazed tiles cover the walls up to head height in most rooms, topped by patterned plaster in relief in 2 colours, covering the rest of the walls, as well as the ceilings, from which hang elaborate chandeliers.
How many salons did you say?
Many houses have more than one salon – rooms which seem unnecessarily large, with divans lining the walls, and a low table in the centre. This reflects the importance of family gatherings. Food is presented on a large platter for everyone to share. To eat they must lean in, ensuring an intimate and connected event, and encouraging chatter.
Did you notice all the pictures?
Of course not. In Islam it is forbidden to depict a living creature. Creation is the sole domain of God. Consequently, the decorations are entirely symbolic, typically beautifully crafted and stylized Arabic script called zelij which fill entire walls, and ,cover carpets, rugs and tiles.
But Tangier looks so European…
In its strategic location at the mouth of the Mediterranean, Tangier seems to have had an endless lineup of colonizers, not least of all the French and the Spanish. It was even an international zone for a period up to 1956.
You can see the strong Spanish influence in the white buildings with their yellow trimmings all over the medina and up to Iberia where Cervantes is, the Spanish school, language school and the consulate. Just beyond that the architecture changes as you move into the American zone where The American School is, and a little to the west was the Italian zone centred on Casa d’Italie.
The other side of Cervantes starting from Place du France and Café de Paris and the French consulate is the French influenced area with many French schools including Institut de Francais. In between are the old fondouq – travellers’ inns now used as market places, and the Arabic mosques and official buildings scattered throughout.
These were not the only influences which come through the architecture, but they are the main ones, and it is interesting to note the changes as you move through Tangier.
Isn’t the Game of Thrones in Morocco?
Out of Tangier and heading south of Marrakech to the bottom of the Rif Mountains, you will find an entirely different type of town structure. Ait Benhaddou – the city used in the Game of Thrones as well as many other movies – is typical of the original Berber-Amazigh people.
There are in fact many such towns in that area – hillsides covered in red mud brick buildings which rise out of the green valleys – small and spectacular.
Blue Door Cuisine in Tangier, is right next to the medina and in the Spanish style. Check it out, and maybe even drop in for a Moroccan food event.
Written by OzzyHopper.