Monday, March 7, 2011

The Arts and Crafts of Morocco

Fountain at the Mausoleum of Mohammed V, Rabat

Morocco is, pure and simple, one of the most beautiful countries for artistic expression in the World.  Ancient skills are still practiced in precisely the same manner as they have been through millennium.  That is a remarkable thing in a World that has gone through industrialization and extreme changes in such a short period of time.  

The Tanneries in Fes
How many countries have entire markets dedicated to finely embroidered clothing, hand tooled metal work, wood carving and intricate painting?  Beautiful hand loomed carpets are stacked to the ceilings in old riad mansions converted in to sales rooms.  The ceramics in Fez are exquisite, as are the hand cut tiles used in traditional zellij work.  There are markets for dazzling ornamental horse bridles, and fine leather goods are skinned and tanned and dyed just around the corner in tanneries that have functioned in the same manner for 1,000 years.  Then there are the herbal pharmacies, and quality hand made perfumes that provide natural remedies for better health and olfactory bliss, It is like a continuation of the medieval bazaars with royal patronage that existed in imperial cities and along the old Silk Routes hundreds of years ago, where the finest workmanship was created for the noble classes.  Though the Islamic arts find their most renowned expressions due to Royal patronage, practical items used by the middle classes in every day life, such as ceramics, metal work, and carpets often receive a highly refined level of craftsmanship.
Ceramics Souk, Fes
Ceiling, Dar Seffarine, Fes

Doors of the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca
It is heartening to see that these skills are still valued here, and incorporated in to modern design.  I saw in my travels extensive use of traditional tile zellij  in restoration and new construction.  The Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, the third largest in the World, was only finished in 1993, and needed 6,000 highly skilled artisans to complete it.  These people didn’t need to be trained, they were already adept at their various trades.  Massive bronze doors are meticulously cast.  The zellijes cover acres of surfaces with unusual variations on traditional motifs.  Stone and stucco work is beautifully designed and carved.  Then there are the new train stations in Rabat, Fez, and Marrakesh, with giant hand tooled lanterns and inlaid floors with tessalate geometric patterns of great complexity.  Old Riad houses are being restored in all of the major cities for use as homes, guest houses, restaurants and shops.  I stayed in one of the finest Riads in the ancient city of Fes, called Dar Seffarine.  It is located in the metal workers souk around the Place Seffarine and is something of an affordable dream place to reside.  In fact is probably the most beautiful place I have ever stayed.  Every aspect of the house was derived from carefully conceived design, proportions and embellishment.
Bronze doors on Hassan II Mosque
Tile Zellij, Hassan II Mosque

When I was in Tetouan I visited the Artesanal School where master artisans teach apprentices the methods of designing and executing traditional methods of painting, wood, metal, ceramic and textile work, and stucco carving.  The school received patronage of the King and the work is of the highest standard to ensure that the traditional arts continue to be passed on to the next generation.
Wedding Cabinet made in the Artesenal School in Tetouan

Manhole Cover, Tangier
We rarely if ever see this kind of work in the United States.  One of my pebble mosaic patios was once featured on the cover of Landscape Architecture magazine.   I ran in to one of my professors from the University of Oregon in a nursery in Eugene one day and happened to have a copy.  She looked at the image of an intricate Persian carpet patio made of pebbles and said ‘What is this?’  It was entirely out of her range of comprehension that a patio could be built by hand of anything, let alone exercising skill and patience, and she had been teaching Landscape Architecture classes for 25 years.  It kind of made me feel sad.  You see pebble mosaic used all over the Mediterranean as a form of pavement.  It is commonplace.  The surround for a manhole cover can be a beautiful thing to behold.  Yet few people other than myself have learned the craft in the U.S.

After the magazine came out, whenever I was approached by a Landscape Architecture office about the possibility of doing a mosaic project it was treated as a decorative element that would be surrounded by vast quantities of poured concrete.  I was introduced to the term ‘Value Engineering’, where the cost per square foot was the key to whether or not a pebble mosaic could be plugged in to the project.  In the end, all of those projects ended up being paved over entirely with a faster  but not necessarily cheaper material.  Many of these projects had enormous budgets, and in the end became forgettable places of minimal integrity.  Why are we so impatient to the point of compromising the very quality of life we live?

But enough about that.  I’m back in the U.S. now and already I am despairing the state of our nation.  In Morocco there were days when I was so overwhelmed by the richness of beauty that I had encountered that I would start to cry.  I saw thousands of wonderful doors that I would have to  stop and admire.  The richness of shapes and colors and embellishment on hand hewn wood or metal doors never seems to cease.  The hinges and reinforcements and latches are made by metal smiths in the same manner as in Medieval times.  They are works of art, the entrances to everyday homes.  Moroccan houses in the old Medinas don’t traditionally have front gardens, but stand directly on the street.  An inner courtyard and roof terraces are where the outdoor living spaces are located.  The courtyards of fine houses have tiled floors and carved stone columns and stucco and woodwork, and are often covered with a transparent roof so that light can flood in while allowing the space to stay clean and dry.  There is often a tiled or marble fountain at the center of the courtyard which would double as a decoration and source of water for the household.
Carved door, Fes

Madrasa Bou Inania, Marrakesh
Carved stucco is a craft that was used in the palaces of the Viziers of Andalusia in places such as the Alhambra, and is still used to enrich the walls and ceilings of buildings today.  Carefully applied thick layers of smooth stucco are intrically carved with delicate fine tools to create seemingly impossible reliefs.  The best work can have three overlapping designs, with Islamic caligraphy, tessalated geometric patterns, and foliar motifs juxtaposed over one another.  The latter two can be extended limitlessly in order to convey the endless realm of God.  Images of human and animal figures are not used in Islamic design.  Sometimes paint is applied inside the carving for added brilliance.  Designs are made on stencils and then transferred to the stucco and then carved.
Stencils of designs for carving stucco panels, Artesenal School, Tetouan

Stucco carving tools, Artesenal School, Tetouan
Decorative painting is used on wood doors, windows, and incredible ceilings that beg a person to lie down on cushions and spend hours in contemplation of their exquisite designs and rich colors.  Fes has always been considered the center for the finest painters and artists from this city were frequently brought to other parts of the country to embellish fine houses, palaces, and mosques.  Usually a stencil is drawn and cut and the design transferred to the wood to be painted in several colors afterwards by a steady hand.

Stencils for decorative painting, Artesanal School, Tetouan
The painting is usually done on wood panels  that are ornamented with hand jig sawn and carved wood.  Some of the most fantastic pieces of furniture are Wedding shelves with honeycomb patterns and Moroccan arches.  Ceiling panels can have star and tessellated geometric patterns to emulate the night sky in stylized interlocking knot designs.

Tile Zellij work, Artesenal School, Tetouan
Tile zellij is the process of hand cutting individual pieces of different colors of tile to form interlocking patterns.  They are used to adorn fountains and walls and floors and staircases.  Different patterns were used for various applications.  Stairwells always seem to a specific pattern of green, white, and ochre squares.  Walls will get tessellated geometric patterns in a huge range of patterns that can extend in to infinity.  Some allude to stories from the Koran or geographic context, and the colors have meaning.  Zellij fountains were installed as sources of water the the Medinas of every city.  In the Imperial city of Fes the tiles are cut with a chisel after they are fired.  In Tetouan the pieces are cut from the wet clay and then glazed and fired.  The finished look is different in appearance and to the touch.  I personally loved the Fes technique more as the edges have the slightest roughness that comes from the chip of the chisel.
Zellij fountain, Mnebhi Palace, Marrakesh

Functional hand painted ceramic items such as cookware and dishes, and pots are so beautiful as to irresistible.  We visited a workshop in Fez and did not leave empty handed as they were the most beautiful dishes we had ever seen.  The clay comes from nearby mountains and is mixed with water in vats, allowed to rest and then turned on wheels to make the forms.  They are then bisqued and glazed and fired and perhaps glazed a second or third time.  The elegance of the shapes and designs is a feast for the eyes.  If I was rich I would be replacing all of my dishes at home.
Fes Pottery, Art Naji

Carpet weaving is another age old tradition still practiced on a massive scale throughout Morocco.  The Berber carpets are distinct in that they are embroidered flatweaves and are durable and meant to be used for floors.  They incorporate geometric designs and stripes and are made from a mix of wool, silk, and cactus fibers colored with natural dyes.  Nomadic pile rugs are softer and made originally for reclining and sleeping rather than walking on.  The designs are more pictorial, with borders and garden scenes and curvaceous arabesque patterns being typical.  Beautifully tiled floors graced with gorgeous carpets make for some of the wonderful room treatments I have ever seen.
Carpet Shop in a Riad, Tetouan

Lantern Shop, Marrakesh
Metal smiths cut and hammer brass, iron, and copper to form huge kettles, pots, lanterns and hardware.  Moroccan lanterns are a distinctive item that are pierced with intricate patterns to cast fantastic sprays of light across rooms.  Colored glass is often set in them to add jewel like brilliance.  Hardware on doors, hinges, and locks are one of the reasons that doors are such captivating sights along the streets. 

Lantern Shop, Marrakesh
Each of these mediums deserves an article on its own as I am barely brushing the surface.  I hope to self publish a book of photos in the near future on the Gardens and design of Morocco and Andalusia, and perhaps one with just photos of doors as I have an amazing collection of images.  I will forever be inspired by what I have seen, and will continue to make it a part of my life’s quest to raise the bar in the country that I live in by creating and encouraging a richer and more meaningful embellishment of the spaces we inhabit.  We can live in a more beautiful world.
Marble and Tile Floor, Dar Seffarine, Fes
Woodworking Department, Artesenal School, Tetouan

Thank you for reading this, Jeffrey
Tile courtyard and fountain, Meknes
Tile patio, American Legation, Tangier


  1. Excellent! A wonderful summation of those hundreds of photos and commentaries you shared in the last few months on FB. Thanks!

  2. Jeffrey--Fabulous. Thank you! Particularly appreciate your plea for artisanship (is that a word?) in our world. So much here to inspire. It's inspiring for the grander scheme, but also, just now, for my litte corner of the world.

  3. Thanks again for a GREAT MESSAGE and inspirational least Portland has some good arts and craft schools. How about you offer up a class in pebble mosaic?

  4. Beautifully emoted and shared. Thank you for your eye towards beauty and you generous spirit.
    Michelle in Marin

  5. The process has not varied for one millennium though conception and design has started using new technologies such as data processing".(Zellige craftmanship WIKIPEDIA/zellige

    We have discovered new techniques in processing zillij.My techniques are simple and dont require any particular expertise and results in quicker production and a smoother, lighter table top or panel as no concrete or iron are required. Furmah ,hand cut from any ready made tiles (7 to 8 mm thk) ,we prefer low sheen floor tiles (rustic or monochromatic color)
    Anybody can create zillij mosaic !!!
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