Moroccan architecture, in the Muslim West, was initially influenced by the architecture predominant in the Mashriq (eastern part of the Arab world, located in Western Asia and eastern North Africa). Poetically, it means Sunrise place. However, it soon established its own models and techniques, reaching the peak of its prosperity in Morocco and Andalusia.
Unlike in the Mashriq, the Maghreb architecture has not received the attention it deserves. Even the first researchers who addressed this subject such as Bakri, Al-Nuwairi and Ibn Khaldun did not study it directly. Instead it was an extension of their fundamental interests, namely history, geography and sociology.
A long time later, some orientalists as well as some colonial writers such as Bassé, Hodas and Henry Terrace began to study Maghreb countries architecture. Their interest was not as much a result of scientific curiosity. Their aim was to study the mentality and customs of the population in the Maghreb countries from a colonial perspective.
It was until the last decades of the 20th century that scholars begun to study the scientific and artistic aspects of Moroccan architecture.
Over the following centuries there had been literary writings that took interest in Moroccan and Maghreb architecture art. It highlighted the prosperous aspect of it, its sources of inspiration, as well as how it evolved through the ages.
Moroccan Architecture in Mosques and Islamic Schools/Madrasas
In the Maghreb countries, Moroccan-Islamic architecture was associated, in its first manifestation, with building mosques during the Islamic conquests. That kind of architecture first started in the East (i.e. in present-day Tunisia). Later on, it spread to the rest of the Maghreb. Long after that, this art spread to Andalusia, where it reached its peak of glory and completeness.
The first mosque built in the Islamic Maghreb was the Kairouan Mosque, also called the Mosque of Sidi Okba, relative to the famous Islamic conqueror. The latter believed that all mosques, which would be built in the future in conquered countries, should be similar to the first mosque. The Okba Mosque was similar to the great mosques of the Mashreq: a columned hall, led by a courtyard surrounded by arcades on three sides. The Okba Mosque became the main mosque of the Aghlabids (an Arab dynasty of emirs). The mosque was later destroyed, to be rebuilt and restored several times. Certainly, many other mosques had been built, particularly in the eastern Maghreb. For example:
- The Great Mosque of Tunisia, known as the Zaytouna Mosque was built in 732 A.D in the city commercial district. The mosque has a huge library.
- The Great Mosque of Sousse, established by Prince Abu Abbas Mohammed, in 850 AD.
- The Mosque of the Three Doors in Kairouan (866 AD).
- The old palace mosque, built at the beginning of the 9th century, that no trace of it was left.
Gradually, the construction of mosques flourished in various countries of the Muslim West (Fez, Tlemcen, Marrakech.) where various dynasties tried to give their own character to Moroccan architecture, while preserving the essential structures founded by the former. Thus, despite the height aspects of their mosques (Al-Koutoubia in Marrakech, Hassan tower in Rabat, Khairalda in Seville...) the Almohad style was characterized by simplicity and avoided any manifestation of extravagance. This tendency undoubtedly displayed the sobriety and asceticism of Mahdi ibn Tomert (founder of the Almohad Dynasty). They were also the first to use stone, instead of bricks, to build mosques.
The Marinids, on the contrary, were characterized by their tendency for luxury style, both in terms of construction and decoration. Thus, according to Henry Terrace, they combined “Andalusian beauty with African power”.
Moroccan Islamic architecture, therefore, evolved indisputably in the Muslim West between the 9th and 14th centuries. Moroccan architects’ attention shifted from the construction functional appearance. They focused on aesthetic aspects as well. This was due to the prosperity of traditional handcraft. Additionally, the artistic taste among the country's population had evolved. They were no longer satisfied with reproducing Oriental patterns and shapes, as was the case in the past.
Moroccan architecture in Islamic schools
This architectural tendency not only culminated in the construction of mosques, but also the construction of Islamic schools or Madrasas. It reached its peak during the Marinid rule. Some of these schools or Madrasas still exit today. For example, Attarin School in Fez and Abu Anan School in Sale. These Madrasas were not only places of worship but also of administrative training. Furthermore, their goal was to fight against the political and religious movements led by the "Zawiyas" (religious institutions associated with Sufis in the Islamic world) on the central government.
Whatever the purpose, the founders had made sure that these schools are to be an architectural landmark besides its educational role. That they will be a manifestation of sophistication and prosperity in the artistic field.
In the Muslim West, the architectural movement was not confined to the construction of mosques. Simultaneously, other types of civil and military architecture (weapons depots, palaces, etc.) were built.
Successive Moroccan princes and rulers needed to quell local rebellions, just as they had to face Christian invasions. This led them to set up citadels, fences and forts for a defensive purpose. Ibn Khaldun states that the Aghlabid Abu Ibrahim Ahmed had built about 10,000 castles in Africa. While what Ibn Khaldun proclaims may be exaggerating, it attests, at the same time, the importance of those buildings during that era.
In fact, these castles were, for the most part, ancient Byzantine barracks, reconstructed or restored, to suit the strategic purposes of that era. However, these castles were scattered in various regions of the Maghreb, started in the ninth century. The most famous are those called Ribats (monasteries). Those Ribats were intended to resist foreign invasions, as were starting points for Islamic Jihad campaigns.
Ribats played a military and religious role. Its supervisors were carefully well cared for by the rulers, as well as respected by the locals.
At the architectural level, these Ribats were small, self-sufficient cities in terms of supplies and weapons. It was surrounded by thick fences, with guard posts. Some of them had weapons depots and «warning towers". From these towers, shots were fired, alerting to a potential danger. Some claim, quite in exaggeration, that these "fire signals" were able to alert the Ribats extending from Alexandria to Ceuta, in one night.
Among the famous architectural forts:
- Alhambra citadel, with rectangular and square towers.
- Ribat Bab Marisa is a Sale. It was built during the Reign of the Marinids by Moroccan architect Mohamed Ben Ali, who is from Seville. This Ribat had a naval weapons depot. A canal linking it to the Abu Rrakrak River was dug so that ships could pass.
- Ribat Mahdia in Tunisia.
- The citadel (is the core fortified area of a town or city. It may be a castle, fortress or fortified center. The term is a diminutive od ‘city’) of Fez al-Bali, established by the Almohads, as well as the strongholds of the New Fez, which was founded by Sultan Abu Yusuf and were built by his heirs (beginning in 1276).
- Chella in Rabat.
- Mansoura's Citadel in Tunisia. It was used by Moroccan soldiers during the siege of Tlemcen, and then became a fortress of The Marinid forts in the area.
In addition to these military buildings, whose monuments still exist to this day, in the various regions of the Maghreb, to a lesser extent Morocco and Tunisia. Successive rulers have constructed houses and palaces, which were also similar to castles. These buildings, which were built away from communities, for reasons of the welfare and security of the rulers, housed a large number of people (servants, manufacturers, merchants and soldiers), as well as members of the royal family and those close to them.
The Old Palace, or Abbasid Palace, built in Tunisia during the Aghlabid rule, is one of the most famous of these architectural monuments. It was established by Ibrahim I, in 801 AD, for strategic reasons. In it, he received foreign princes' envoys. This palace soon became a real fortress, with the necessary fences, barracks, weapons depots and supplies. However, after its evacuation, it was transformed into ruins, leaving only some worn-out relics today.
The truth is, the various princes, regardless of their descendants, had established similar palaces, to consolidate their authority and strengthen their influence and prestige. In this regard Moroccan architecture too expanded over successive periods.
Between the 9th and 13th centuries, the defensive aspect of these buildings faded, to be replaced by other concerns, mainly as a form of luxury life style. Thus, the rulers no longer built fortresses where to live. Instead they established extravagant palaces, in which architects compete, trying to add as much magnificence as possible.
In similar context, it should also be noted that architectural achievements in civil engineering were of impressive artistic features, including the aquariums founded by the Aghlabids in Kairouan, Sousse, as well as in Tunisia. Furthermore, bridges were built, long afterwards, on the rivers of Abu Rakrak, Tanseft and Oued Kabir rivers in Morocco by the Almohads. Likewise, huge water channel system was set to supply Rabat, Marrakech and Seville with drinking water.
Moroccan architecture. Building materials and decoration
The materials used in architecture and construction were rammed dirt, bricks and stones. The latter was used in particular to decorate the facades. The bricks were relatively limited in use, and varied in regions of Morocco. In other words, the construction was mainly done with rammed dirt and bricks, whether for military or civilian buildings. The dirt was made of a mixture of dirt and lime. It is a blend placed between two wood panels. It is often strengthened by abode bricks, consisting of dirt and crushed straw. In terms of decoration, the architects of those times made a remarkable artistic effort in erecting arches, columns, etc.
There were many different shapes of arches above windows or doors. There is a so-called "blown" arch, similar to a horseshoe, inspired by Byzantine Oriental architecture. Later, it will witness a remarkable artistic development in Morocco and Andalusia. There is also the so-called total arch, which appeared during the ninth century. There are also circular arches, which is found in some major mosques (Fez, Cordoba, Tlemcen...) and coronal arches.
The columns, which were as much structural pillars as they were among the elements of decoration, were often oxy-marble or carved plaster.
At the beginning of the 10th century, Moroccan architects began to use carved wood (the pulpit of the Great Mosque of Córdoba, the villagers' pulpit in Fez...). This method of using wood soon spread, in relation to doors, windows, ceilings and other monuments of Moroccan architecture. On the other hand, the architects used bronze plates and glass shapes to decorate the windows, Attarin School in Fez for example.
Regarding plaster, which was commonly used in the Mashriq, started to be used by the architects of the Islamic Maghreb in the ninth century. At the beginning of the 13th century, this decorative method became widespread (Fez, Tlemcen, Granada, Kairouan...). The use of plaster was mainly manifested in the interior decoration of walls, halls and courtyards, after being engraved with iron equipment.
Zelij art is a pure product of the Maghreb, particularly Morocco. In Morocco the craftsmen are renowned for their mastery of this art. At the beginning of the 14th century, it was commonly used to decorate the walls of mosques, minarets and even columns.
As for the motifs carved on the plaster, which are part of the so-called Islamic art of Arabesque, their shapes varied according to the buildings. In mosques, geometric shapes dominated, as well as floral inscriptions, inspired by the natural environment, and star-like shapes. The decorators were also keen to engrave different Qur'anic verses or proverbs on the plaster.
From the 14th century on, the art of decoration became simpler and more coherent using floral shapes while geometric shapes became dominant. As centuries went by, Moroccan architecture continued to develop and blossom persistently. Accordingly, resulting in the construction of timeless architectural monuments, perhaps the most recent one is Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, the pride of Moroccan architecture.