Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Koubba El-Badiyn

Looking up in to the interior of the Koubba El-Badiyn
Marrakech is a city rich in history and architecture.  The city was founded by the Almoravid people nearly 1,000 years ago on a plain near the Tensift River in a strategic location for trading routes through North Africa.  The Almoravids were a Berber dynasty from the southern Sahara who's rule eventually spanned an area covering the Maghreb, being most of North Africa west of Egypt, and Al-Andalus.  This region of Southern Spain is known today as Andalusia, famous for its Nasrid capitol at Granada, with its palace fortress, the Alhambra.
Painting of a Berber tent camp at the edge of a walled city
Originally a tent encampment, the city of Marrakech was begun as the new capitol of the Almoravid kingdom by Abu Bakr ibn Umar but largely completed by his successor Youssef ben Tachfin.  They built a sophisticated underground irrigation system for the cultivation of date palms and crops, and the signature pinkish red mud brick walls, parts of which surround much of the Medina to this day.  Within the walls, they constructed the great Ali ben Youssef Mosque, now lost, and the Koubba El-Badiyn, which was a hall of ablutions for cleansing one's self before prayers.  It is the oldest remaining building in the city.
A Palm Oasis near Ouarzazate in Morocco
The reign of the Almoravid dynasty was a short lived one lasting a little more than 100 years.  They were an austere sect of Islam, and destained the decadent ornamentation that flourished in Andalusia, but eventually adopted a greater flair for architectural refinement over time.  The kingdom was overthrown by the Almohad sect of Islam in 1147 AD, who destroyed everything that had been built up until that time except for the irrigation system, and the Koubba El-Badiyn, which was buried over during the construction of new buildings.   The Almohads built the great Koutoubia Mosque and extended the walls that you see today.

Excavation revealing the Koubba El-Badiyn
The original ground level of old Marrakesh has risen considerably, as is the case of most ancient cities.  When the Koubba was excavated in 1953, two stories of fill had to be removed to expose the original ground level of the building.  What you see today is perhaps my favorite building in Marrakech.  This structure and the architectural legacy that was lost became the prototypes for the great architecture of the following Almohad empire.  There are many details on the building that are used in some form in later structures throughout Morocco.

The Koubba is a relatively small building, with simple but beautiful doorways with 6 cupped indentations flanking a circular scallop on each end of the rectangular base.  There are two keyhole shaped doorways on the other two sides.  The construction is mud brick covered in a smooth layer of stucco with a natural ochre coloring.

On the second level are rows of varied shaped windows giving the facade a simple elegance.  The cap of the wall is crenelated with a zig zag edge to the merlons, or raised parts, like the profile of a terraced ziggurat.  This is a motif that you see on roof lines all over Morocco to this day.
Zig Zag edge Merlons on a building in the Medina in Tangier
The central dome of the building has a beautifully patterned lattice of narrow elliptic pointed arches interlaced to frame a star shaped crown.  The interior of this dome is sculpted with an elegant 8 pointed star connected by petal like tear drops.
Upper level windows and the sculpted dome, with zig zag crenelations 
Interior view showing the different shaped doors and brickwork revealed behind a layer of stucco
Carved and pigmented stucco arch

Inside the Koubba are two arches at either end with varying simple but very elegant carved stucco arches, both incorporating 6 pointed stars.  They are painted with a red pigment that may be derived from original remnants but I have no historical reference to prove that.  What I write here is purely from observation and the extremely limited amount of information that is available to me.  If a knowledgeable historian were to read my account they might be horrified, but then I am often left doubtful of what I read as interpretation of things I have seen that tend to be taken as fact because they have been reiterated so many times.  So I will indulge my hypothesis, and you can take me seriously or not.

There is a small rectangular depression in the floor with angled sides that might have been a small pool used for washing or to reflect the beautiful ceiling and cool the air inside the space.  This might have originally been tiled.

The interior dome is square, so there is a small balcony on each end that is not accessible, but only architectural to allow for the change in form.  The openings of the windows are a different shape and smaller than they are on the outside, allowing for structural strength and architectural harmony, but allowing adequate light in to illuminate the dome.  They are angled to create the shape of an eight pointed star.  Eight pointed stars can symbolize two overlapping squares with alludes to the overlapping of time and space, with one square representing the cardinal directions while the other represents the four seasons.  It is like looking at a time piece and a compass at the same time.  The arches are beautifully shaped in a form seen in many later Moorish doorways, like a keyhole but with a pointed top.  The space in between is decorated with garlands of carved stucco leaves, perhaps those of the Oriental Plane Tree, Platanus orientalis, which is an important shade tree planted throughout the Mediterranean.  This tree is sacred in ancient Greek and Persian texts.  The garlands and a pinnate foliage form frame large scallop shells, which could be derived from Roman buildings that would have been seen in ancient Volubilis and Chellah near the royal Moroccan cities of Meknes and Rabat.
Sculpted arches create an 8 pointed star, with foliage garlands framing shells
To make the transition between the square shape at the beginning of the space to the eight pointed space, there are four corner recesses culminating in seven pointed stars.  These are rarely represented in Islamic architecture but can allude to the seven known planets of the time, which rule the seven days of the week.  They allow for a geometric connection between the shape of the square to the shape of the octagon in the form of the arches in the rising dome.  There is a smaller seven pointed star inside the larger one and a seven petaled flower in the center of that.
Seven pointed stars in the corners of the transition between the square space and the 8 pointed space
It is quite extraordinary to look up in to this dome, which takes geometric shapes and brings them in to the three dimensional form.  This is called a Muqurnas dome, where niche shapes are combined in profusion to create a dome.  The Alhambra in Granada has extraordinary examples of Muqarnas that are so elaborate as to look hallucinogenic.  The sculpting is sometimes referred to as honeycombing, because it looks like gazing in to a bee hive.
Sala de los Abencerrejas in the Alhambra, Granada, Spain
Above the eight arches is another eight pointed star, and then an octagon shape that forms the base of the cupola at the top of the building.  Inside this is the geometric form of an eight pointed star with slender rays, connected by the round petal like shapes of a cosmic flower.  The perfection of the entire space is entrancing and transcendent, like the experience of enlightenment intended when praying devotedly to Allah.  It is a magical thing to behold.  The Koubba El-Adiyn is a prototype that inspired a plethora of gorgeous buildings found throughout Morocco, a country that is a virtual treasure chest of architectural gems professing to the brilliance of Islamic mathematics and art and engineering.  My breath is taken away to behold such brilliance, leaving me spellbound with awe.
A straight on view of the interior of the Koubba El-Badiyn

Thanks for reading, Jeffrey

1 comment:

  1. This is a fantastic post. We've recently returned from a trip to Marrakech. It is a most fascinating city and a city one can visit and feel relatively safe.... one of only a few places in the world where you are transported to an exotic land of storybook settings.