Architecture of Morocco: all you need to know to admire it

Architecture of Morocco

   Morocco’s architecture is one of the main reasons for the beauty of this country: historical buildings are true monuments thanks to the harmony of their elements and, above all, their rich decoration. On this page, we tell you what distinguishes the architecture of Morocco and what you should look out for to admire it as it deserves.

Typologies of Moroccan architecture

Architecture of Morocco

   In the architecture of Morocco, there are several types of construction that predominate over the rest, as you will see on your trip. And for their beauty and originality, they become authentic monuments worthy of photography. They are the following:

  • Royal Palaces: the territory of Morocco has always been made up of kingdoms, and that made the royal residences proliferate. In some cases, they as palaces of government and habitual residence of the sultan, and in other cases as palaces of retirement or temporary stay. They are large complexes, formed by different constructions to house the Court within the enclosure. All this is a perimeter by a wall or security fence. In its interior, there are gardens that give a touch of natural freshness very much to the taste of Islam.
  • Palaces or stately residences: unlike the royal palaces, these buildings are usually found in the medina, sometimes attached to other adjacent buildings. In them, the surprise effect is spectacular: from the outside, it is difficult to imagine the grandeur hidden inside. However, it is common for its facade to have an elegant entrance portal, like a triumphal arch framed in half and richly decorated, with a wooden gate finished in an exquisite way. Its interior is usually organized around a central courtyard.
  • Mosque: this is the main religious typology of Moroccan architecture, since it is an Islamic state, as recognized by its Constitution. Unfortunately, they are not open to visitors, with few exceptions, but their architecture can be admired from the outside. In general, they are sober constructions, where the most outstanding and decorated element is the minaret, the tower from where the imam calls to prayer. Inside, there is usually a porticoed ablutions courtyard with a fountain in the center, then a large prayer hall with a ‘forest of columns’, a mihrab or niche and a pulpit (minbar), usually made of wood. All this in the qibla wall (to the east), which indicates the direction to be taken by the faithful during prayer.
  • Other religious typologies: in addition to the mosque, it is possible to find temples of other religions, although in very small numbers. Mainly churches, especially in the north of the country, and some synagogues.
  • Madrasas: these are Koranic schools for future imams or for the Islamic teaching of members of high society. For this reason, they are institutions of great prestige. This can be seen in the architecture of all of them, especially in the historic ones. The ceramic decoration of geometric character is usually dazzling, often combined with passages from the Koran in kufic or cursive calligraphy, which is an ornamental motif in itself.
  • Alcazabas and citadels: ancient castles or fortresses that, due to their strategic position, allow control of their surroundings, including the medina and the main access roads. Very remarkable are the maritime fortresses, built on the coast, often on rocky elevations that amplify their visual impact.
  • Medina: many of the above buildings are in the historic center of the city, i.e. in the medina. And these measures are, in themselves, representative structures of Moroccan urban planning and architecture. Normally surrounded by a wall, in which different monumental gates open, it is usual that in front of the main entrance there is a large commercial square, where lively markets are held.
  • Ville Nouveau: in the 20th century, Morocco experienced a great urban impulse outside the walls of the medinas. They were modernist neighborhoods or Ville nouveau, with a marked neo-Moorish style but with more rational, spacious, and functional spaces, in the fashion of the great European extensions.
  • Funerary constructions: in Moroccan architecture, another very particular typology is the funerary, often in the form of a large mausoleum where the tomb of a sovereign rests or as a pantheon of different characters, often linked to a monarchical dynasty. It is also worth mentioning here the so-called marabouts, where the remains of a ‘saint’ or religious figure venerated in a particular region rest.
  • Kasbahs and ksars: although we have referred to the citadels and citadels above, it is appropriate to dedicate a point and part to the kasbahs, as they are a very original typology in the military architecture of Morocco. Kasbahs are Berber castles built mainly in pre-Saharan areas, such as the Draa or Ziz valleys, often on hills or mountains. Their materials, determined by the environment, are striking, mainly adobe, but also different woods and sand with different treatments, even uncooked. Their decorative resources are also striking, often as simple incisions in the mud or geometric patterns of bricks. The ksars are larger fortified enclosures, like impregnable villages, where there is usually a kasbah at its highest point.
  • Cisterns: the medieval Arab civilization is recognized in the world as one of the best in terms of hydraulic infrastructures. Its recurrent droughts and permanent water shortages forced its engineers to create solutions of maximum efficiency. An example of this is the cisterns, subway reservoirs in which rainwater was stored. Some of them are still preserved in good condition, while of others only archaeological evidence remains.
  • Public baths: between hygiene and social gathering, the Arab public baths or hammams are inspired by the Roman baths and are a hallmark of Arab architecture and, of course, of Moroccan architecture.
Architecture of Morocco

Characteristic elements and spaces

The architecture of Morocco, following the precepts of Islam, usually respects a premise: the exterior is sober, even austere and simple, with no intention of showing ostentation, while the interiors can be richer, both in decoration and in materials. However, more affordable materials such as wood, plaster, brick, or ceramics predominate, in line with the idea that the only truly eternal thing is Allah.

   As for the constructive elements, the architecture of Morocco and Muslim architecture, in general, is characterized by the development of an extraordinary variety of arches: horseshoe, pointed, tumbled, lobed, poly-lobed, crisscrossed, perpendicular… And related to the variety of arches is the extraordinary diversity of domes, which in the palaces reach their zenith in terms of richness and mastery.

   Moreover, the arches are not only used for constructive purposes, as in most non-Arab countries, but also for purely decorative purposes. Hence the emergence of blind arches, both inside and outside the buildings. The same can be said of bricks: they are sometimes used on facades and cornices to generate a very characteristic ornamental effect, which acquires its maximum expression in the sebka or geometric patterns of interlocking bricks, often present in minarets.

   Porticoes are also very common, especially in interior courtyards, because the space created in them offers a precious shade for those who move around the complex, whether it is a mosque or a palace.

   We have mentioned courtyards, and they are undoubtedly one of the most important elements of Moroccan architecture. Except for the ablutions courtyards in the mosques, where a single fountain is installed in the center, in the rest of the courtyards, there are different fountains and abundant vegetation. They are called riads, places that invite pause, rest, and reflection. They are usually located in urban palaces in the medina or in traditional houses, and many of them have been converted into small charming hotels.

   But without a doubt, the typology that best integrates nature into the city is the gardens, very popular in Moroccan architecture thanks to their divine conception: they are a metaphor for the paradise protected for the chosen ones, where colors, shapes, and aromas allow us to imagine what awaits them in the Hereafter. In them, water plays a fundamental role, capable of bringing freshness, purification, and life, in short. There may be fruit trees, smaller shrubs, flowers, and a long list of species.

Traditional styles in Moroccan architecture

Not all Moroccan architecture is the same, far from it. It changes according to the region, as is logical, but also according to the historical period in which the construction is framed since each reigning dynasty in the country had its own conception of life and, consequently, of culture and architecture.

   This is a list of styles associated with different dynasties, currents, and influences, which are present in Moroccan architecture to a greater or lesser extent:

  • Almohads: the Almohad empire, which came to conquer much of North Africa and the south of the Iberian Peninsula, emerged in Morocco in the 12th century. It developed an architectural style with its own details, such as the minarets covered with sebka, visible in the Hassan Tower in Rabat, and the Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakech. They were, above all, builders of mosques
  • Hispano-Muslim or Andalusian: Andalusian architecture and culture are generally characterized by great refinement, and in Morocco, it was mixed in an original and brilliant way with the austerity and sobriety of the Berbers. Significant are the muqarnas or stalactite domes and the turquoise green tiles, a celestial shade.
  • Benimerines or Merinids: related and contemporary to the Nasrids of Granada, on the other side of the Mediterranean, this dynasty took Hispano-Muslim refinement to its fifth expression, with the profuse decoration of tiles, plaster, arabesques, cursive and Kufic script, etc. They were great builders of madrasas, an ideal typology to display their style, which proliferated in their capital, Fez. They also built important public works, such as hammams.
  • Jews: for centuries and until the aliyah undertaken in 1948, the Jewish population was numerous in the country. For this reason, it is possible to appreciate some Hebrew details in the architecture of Morocco, especially in the so-called Mellahs or Jewish quarters. This can be seen, for example, in the façades with wooden balconies on several levels of the Mellah of Fez.
  • Portuguese: in its eagerness to discover a route to reach the Indies via Africa, the Portuguese Empire set its sights on Morocco in the 15th and 16th centuries, conquering ancient cities, building strategic military positions, and weaving trade relations with the local authorities. As a result, many coastal cities still bear the undeniable imprint of their architecture, such as Essaouira and El Jadida.
Architecture of Morocco

The region and the climate have an influence

Architecture of Morocco has been able to adapt over the centuries to the needs imposed by the climate of each region. The clearest example is that of desert constructions, both military, religious and civilian: adobe is predominant, not only because sand is omnipresent in the area, but also because it is an optimal solution for climate control, with cool interiors in the hot season and warm in the winter. Other materials at hand and very useful are the pebbles of the dry rivers (wadis).

   Without leaving the desert, reference should be made to the ephemeral and dismountable architecture of the Berber tents, which could accompany their nomadic owners during their long caravan journeys. Today, in the face of a more sedentary population and the rise of tourism, it is possible to enjoy more or less stable camps at the foot of the dunes.    Something completely opposite is found, exceptionally, in some high mountain populations. In particular, in the Middle Highlands, where some localities are accustomed to rain and even winter snow, as is the case of Ifrane, nicknamed the ‘Switzerland of Morocco’ for its buildings with gable roofs.

A modernity that looks to the past

One thing that will strike you about Morocco’s architecture when you visit the country is the limited presence of avant-garde-style buildings and, in particular, the scarcity of skyscrapers. There are, and more are being built these days, but not at the rate of other countries. This may be related to the Moroccans’ taste for traditional architecture: even the most recent buildings draw their inspiration, in one way or another, from the past.

   This can be seen, for example, in the newly built museums. Consider the Mohammed VI Museum in Rabat or the Yves Saint Laurent Museum in Marrakech: if in other countries they would have been a great opportunity to create an ultramodern, groundbreaking building, in both cases the choice was made to erect constructions clearly inspired by the traditional architecture of their city, as can be seen in the whiteness of the materials and the perpendicular arches of the former, and the red brick of the latter.

Outstanding examples

   Throughout the country, you will find beautiful examples of architecture of Morocco typologies. You can consult and discover them in depth in the pages dedicated to each destination, and in our blog, we also analyze the great monuments of the country. But here we show you a summary list of some symbolic constructions that you should not miss during your trip if you visit these cities:

  • Tetouan: Royal Palace
  • Chaouen: Kasbah
  • Asilah: Raissouni Palace
  • Fez: Mosque of the Andalusians, Madrasa-University of Karaouine, Madrasa Bou Inania, Borj Nord Fortress, Royal Palace
  • Meknes: Bab Mansour gate, Mausoleum of the Sultan Moulay Ismail
  • Rabat: Mausoleum of Mohammed V, Kasbah of the Oudayas, Hassan Tower
  • Casablanca: Mosque of Hassan II
  • Essaouira: Skala Fortress

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