Morocco is a country in Northern Africa. Its strategic location, bordering the Atlantic and Mediterranean, attracted successive waves of military encroachments and settlers. The movement of different kinds of people and cultures in Morocco influenced its African architecture.
Although Morocco’s architecture has typically blended with Islamic-style buildings, it was not always like this. The transformation has been systematic. African architects adopted various influences on African architecture dating as far back as 110 BCE.
The Berber Architecture
The Berber Clan ruled Morocco’s first independent state. It was commonly referred to as the Berber Kingdom of Mauretania. By the time the Berbers came into power, Morocco had gone through a series of invasions, so the stability was a welcome change. Political stability also brought about change, including the adoption of cultural heritage and African architecture.
One of the first architectural traditions by African architects during the period when the Berber clan was in charge involved the use of mud brick. The African architecture that defined Morocco during this period took into account the political instability.
So, even as the houses were built using mud brick, African architects introduced trading posts, ports, and guard walls to keep off pirates and rivals. The small windows gave those in the house an advantage over invaders because those within the building could not be seen easily, yet they could see what was happening outside without being spotted.
Although the mud brick is no longer being used as a building material, the imposing buildings remain a feature in Morocco’s architecture. The large buildings were intentionally made to be imposing. This was a defensive mechanism that African architects thought necessary to discourage invaders.
Since mud brick absorbed water, the African architects had to rebuild the houses frequently. The constant building and rebuilding helped Moroccans to develop the right skill and pattern of building. Over time, African architects identified better building materials.
Individually, the buildings made of mud bricks may not be impressive. However, when seen as a collection, the size, overall layout, and design tell a tale of the effort African architects made to fortify the buildings.
Today, some of the popular tourist attractions in Morocco include mud brick fortifications under UNESCO’s protection.
Muslim Arabs arrived in Morocco in the 7th Century. It is during this period that Islam had the most significant impact on African architecture in this region. To date, Islamic influence is visible in the majority of the buildings in Morocco.
Some of the visible signs of the Islamic influence on Moroccan African architecture are intricate geometric patterns, decorative calligraphy, floral motifs, fountains, woodwork, and ornate tiles. Islamic architecture stands out on the various buildings in Morocco because it is highly decorative and intentionally laid out.
The materials chosen, especially for the building’s interior, were not chosen because they were attractive. They were also deliberately used to keep the buildings cool.
African architects included courtyards in palaces, plazas and homes. This was done to distinguish places of public meetings and areas where privacy was crucial. Horseshoe arches were distinctive of Islamic architecture and were in all entryways in homes and palaces where Islamic architecture was adopted.
The elaborate ornamentation in Islamic architecture was easily identifiable in all the mosques, which continue to define Morocco’s skyline. Highly decorated domes and towers are a stunning reminder of the impact of Islam on Morocco’s architecture.
Despite the elegance of the Islam features on African architecture in Morocco, African architects were still wary of the perpetual warfare that defined Morocco. This is why impressive walls continue to surround major Moroccan cities.
Although various buildings in Morocco bear signs of Islam influence, the El Bahia Palace in Marrakesh, constructed in the late 1800s, is one of the most exquisite buildings in Morocco.
Looking at Morocco today, it is easy to assume Islam had the greatest influence on its architecture. However, the 8th-century occupation of Moors, the Islamic Berber population, defined Morocco’s African architecture.
For centuries, the Moors occupied Morocco and parts of Spain. So, Islam influences infiltrated Spain, and at the same time, aspects of the Spanish culture found their way into Morocco. Spain also occupied Northern Morocco between 1912 and 1958. Some of the Spanish influences adopted by African architects include the red-tiled roofs, white stucco walls, arches, and Andalusian gardens.
The Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakesh is an example of a building from the 12th Century that shows the Moorish influence on African architecture. Some of the architectural styles that African architects adopted during this period include Art Deco and Art Nouveau.
The French Influence
In the early 20th Century, France colonized South Morocco (1912-1956). It was during this period that building standards were set to halt the unorganized growth in real estate that took place in the late 1800s and early 1900s. So, while setting standards, France also introduced aspects of French architecture to an already blended Moroccan African architecture.
One of the major contributions that African architects adopted from the French were the use of windows. Islamic architecture placed little emphasis on windows as they seemed to violate the division of private and public spaces. The French, on the other hand, loved large windows.
Today, some buildings in Morocco are a testament to the Presence of the French in Morocco. African architects continued to use large windows in their building designs even after the French left Morocco. After Morocco’s independence, the African architects continued to pay tribute to the various changes Morocco’s African architecture went through over the years.
Traditional architecture and Moroccan craftsmanship were embraced and retained in some of the more recent buildings, including those designed by foreign architects. For example, the Mausoleum of King Mohammed V and the Hassan II Mosque, completed in 1971 and 1993, respectively, are a mix of traditional architecture.
As Modernist architecture becomes more prominent in the 21st Century, Morocco still retains its rich architectural history that cannot be missed given the massive structures. Fortunately, the changes in African architecture, based on the various influences, have a place in modern architecture and are likely to be adopted for years to come.