Moroccan Architecture: The Berbers’ Enduring Architectural Legacy

The majestic Kingdom or Morocco had captivated and enchanted the world at large for decades. It is a land filled with brilliant color combinations, trendy roadside cafes painted in electric colors inasmuch as it is filled with desert metropolises of sand-beige painted concrete, such as Marrakesh. The city is fortressed by seven kilometers of rose-red walls in ‘tabiya’, a local pink sand strengthened with lime. The architectural heritage of the country is staggering. From the French designed Art-Deco architecture of Casablanca & Rabat, to the labyrinthine and magical medina of Fez, the architecture does not cease to amaze. So much so that the Fez medina has been classified by UNESCO as a World Heritage site. The country is a traveler's dream destination, nourishing the soul and the senses as a place that still has a strong connection to the ancient world. The rites and rituals of everyday life still remain untouched in many areas. I will aim to provide a panoramic overview of Moroccan Architecture across a series of articles. This first article will focus on the Berbers’ architectural legacy.

The Berber Roots of Moroccan Architecture

Most Moroccans are descendants from nomadic peoples who migrated from the Middle East and have been inhabiting the Maghreb region of Northwestern Africa from at least the 10th millennium BCE. They have later come to be known as the Berbers. The Berbers are the Indigenous people of Morocco and pioneers of a vernacular architecture. It is a form or architecture without architects, constructed with whatever materials were at hand. Constructions material range from animal skins used to sheath their nomadic tents to the stone and rammed earth (pisé in French) to build their magnificent Casbahs and Ksour. Their architecture is practical, responsive to their environment, and a pristine example of sustainable building. The finest examples of Berber Moroccan architecture are found in the Saharan south of Morocco.

The Berber Tent

The Moroccan Berber tent is accepted as one of the three traditional dwellings of Morocco. The desert traders and travellers of the Berber tribes were all tent dwellers. Theirs seasonal migrations in search of optimal grazing grounds for their herds of sheep was made possible by these dutiful and resilient tents.

Once at their campsite, the men will plant the first tent post, known as an adriq. The women will then proceed to install the tent and divide it into two quarters, one for the women and children and the other for the men and important visitors. When erected, the floor will be scattered with twigs and herbs as a symbolic act to bring prosperity and protection.

Berber Rugs as Architectural Flooring Become Home Decor

The tent interior will be accessorized with colorful Berber rugs and leather poufs for comfort and seating that’s easy to transport. The rugs serve as the flooring for Berber tents and are a crucial part of the construction, shielding the inhabitants from the cold night sand beneath. Vernacular in nature, these colorful Berber were rugs made from wool of the tribe’s flock, dyed with natural plants and herbs. Moroccan rugs can be found in various styles and types, often characteristic of the tribe’s geographical area. Named after their tribes, the black and white Beni Ouarain rugs or the more colorful Beni Mguild are hand-knotted with a thick plush pile. The Beni tribes traditionally live in the cooler regions of the north and in the Atlas Mountains. Southern-living tribes traditionally have used thinner Kilim rugs embellished with embroidered geometric prints. The tents themselves are often embellished with embroidered geometric prints, matching the wool flooring.

Although Berber tents have lost their ubiquity since the early 1900’s we now consider their decadent interior styling and allure as Moroccan rugs and poufs. This style had transcended from architectural to interior décor furnishing in many contemporary and bohemian homes worldwide. The Moroccan style remains a massively popular element of interior design. Many adore this style but few know about its roots in the humble Berber tent.

Berber Kasbahs and Ksour Architectures

The Berbers have a rich tradition of buildings constructed from earth in the form of Kasbahs and Ksour (plural of Ksar). They are massive fortification structures, often contained within a single continuous wall or a series of high walls. Built out of the mud-clay pisé of the riverbanks, they were designed to protect tribal Berber villages (ksour or ighrem in Berber) as much as the merchants or ruling families (casbahs or tighremt) from the many invaders Morocco had to endure throughout the ages.

There are over 4000 of these historic earthen settlements in southern Morocco, many of them strategically placed along the major trans-Saharan trade routes that once brought gold, spices, and other valuable goods from Timbuktu to the prosperous imperial cities of Morocco, such as Fez and Marrakech. Though monumental in design, their existence was for very practical reasons, particularly to safeguard and facilitate the commerce & trade upon which they survived.

These palaces of adobe—Spanish for mudbrick—appear to extrude organically from the earth itself, austere and solid, apart from the geometric Berber motifs engraved or painted on the walls, with empty windows bordered with lime. Seasonal rains wash off some of the mud, with Saharan winds and sands polishing off parts as well. They require a constant maintenance that is often not afforded to them. They are a source of wonder, many now abandoned as rural depopulation to the more prosperous and urbanized north has left its mark.

The Famous Kasbah Taourirt

Kasbah Taourirt is one of the most important earthen sites in North Africa. Built in the 19th century, it is now embedded within the modern city of Ouarzazate. A registered national monument, it was originally one of the residences of the El Glaoui Clan. One of the most influential families in the country for their stronghold over one of Morocco’s most important southern caravan routes to West Africa. Its maze of endless rooms, thin passageways and sharp steps echoes the urban morphology of Morocco’s medinas or old city quarters. The Kasbah has a beautiful assembly of volumes and proportions, with protruding towers interspersed along the perimeter of its walls. Indeed, it is a supreme example of vernacular architecture.

Cinematography and the Love of Ancient Moroccan Architecture

Part of the famous movie Lawrence of Arabia was filmed at the famous Ksar Aït Benhaddou. It is situated close to the city of Ouarzazate and is arguably, the epitome of Berber adobe architecture and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987. This fortified city full of kasbahs, built probably in the 17th century, contains a Mosque, two cemeteries (Jewish & Muslim), a public square, grain threshing areas outside the ramparts and the Sanctuary of the Saint Sidi Ali or Amer. Brutal rains have left its walls crumbling, with only 4 or 5 families still living inside the citadel.

The rest of its expat citizens have defected to the comfort and convenience of more modern accommodations on the other side of the Ounila river, as seen above. It’s a story that relegates these majestic structures to becoming relics of their former selves.

Lawrence of Arabia is only one of numerous Hollywood blockbusters filmed there throughout the brief lifespan of cinema, compared to that of the Berbers. Its relentless use in Western media is a testament to the enduring fascination and aesthetic appeal of Berber architecture in western culture.

Berber Moroccan architecture is so fundamental, that it can be transformed and used as a building block for other fantastical worlds. Recent examples include multiple Star Wars titles and the HBO series Game of Thrones.

Abandonment will transform them to ruins…inevitably returning them to the dust they were built from.

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