Sunday, February 12, 2012

Chefchaouen Blue

A view of Chefchaouen, Morocco
Chefchaouen is a small city in the Rif mountains of Northern Morocco known for its climate, blue houses, and kif, or marijuana that is grown in the surrounding mountains.  It is a heady combination to say the least, though I have been passing on the hashish, as the blue is intoxicating enough on it's own.  I wrote an essay called 'The Colors of Morocco' while I was here last year, discussing the meaning of various colors used throughout the country.  Many people have written and posted images of this incredible town.  Here is my personal blue spin on the situation.

Pink Leopard Slippers on a blue doorstep

 Chefchaouen was founded in 1471 by Moorish and Jewish refugees fleeing the Reconquista of Spain, led by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabela the Catholic.  The town has an Andalusian character like the larger city of Tetouan near the coast.  The houses are typically white washed in the tradition of those found all over Andalusia in southern Spain, with related architectural styles.  This makes for a wonderful pedestrian Medina with beautiful homes tightly clustered along narrow winding lanes.
A blue street in the Medina
The blue color on homes came about as a pigment wash used by Jewish refugees in the 1930's who emigrated to Morocco fleeing Europe as anti Semitic oppression grew there.  Although the Jewish community has largely moved on to other countries, the color has become emblematic to the city.   Blue is said to represent the sky to Jews, and therefore heaven.  Blue threads have been traditionally woven in to prayer shawls for this reason.
Angel ladders over the Grande Mosquee
The day I arrived in Chefchaouen, I was up in a wonderful tower in the contrasting orange red mud plastered Kasbah.  There is a fantastic view from there of the Plaza Uta el-Hammam, the main gathering space of the Medina.  I was gazing out over the town when I heard a group of men singing.  The sound was quite beautiful.  Then, from the narrow lane below, the singing men emerged, wearing the typical tan colored Djellabas of the region.  These are the long winter robes with a pointed hood that are the traditional overcoat of men in Morocco.  These men were leading a funeral procession.  A group of men behind them appeared carrying a casket draped in a green cloth embroidered in gold with inscriptions from the Koran.  Green and gold are the colors of Islam.  When I turned around toward the mosque, with its beautiful red tiled roof, the sky had exploded with a spray of magnificent Angel Ladders.  It was as if Allah was shining down on the city in response to this moment of transition between life and death, a binding of Heaven and Earth.  It was so beautiful I started to weep.  The beauty of being blue...
Funeral Procession entering the Plaza Uta el-Hammam
The original blue pigment from what I have read, was derived from a type of Murex shell, which is usually a shade of royal purple once prized by the Romans and Byzantine empires.   Shades of indigo were apparently made for the use of dying the blue thread used in the Jewish shawls.  I have also seen blue powdery stones for sale by Tuareg people of the Sahara in the Djemma el Fna in Marrakech, who prefer indigo dye for their clothing.
Bags of powdered pigments for sale in the Medina

The vibrant pigments used today for painting in Chefchaouen are probably synthetic.  The colored powders are mixed with water and applied as a wash on a regular basis, often with a primitive brush made of coarse dried grass bound together in a bundle.  They come in many colors. In Tetouan I found that virtually every color was used, red, pink, blue, green, yellow, charcoal, purple.  But these colors don't sell very well in Chefchaouen.  Adding additional layers of color over time gives the surfaces a luminous glow, especially in the evening.
Number 16
They say that blue is used to trick mosquitos, who perceive it as clear flowing water, which they are not attracted to.  In fact it sometimes feels like you are swimming when walking down flights of blue painted steps surrounded by blue walls and ceilings.
A blue passageway

I have heard that the blue washes most commonly used were predominantly pale, but that over time, due to the availability of varied shaded pigments, and creative impulse, combined with civic encouragement as tourism in the town developed, the shades of blue have become more varied, vibrant, and intense.  What is most extraordinary, is that places that normally don't get painted, like pavements, are often washed, so that the entire view in some walkways makes for a surreal blue world.
Pale blue treads and deeper blue risers
A wall can be painted blue, but then it is trimmed in a darker shade.  The risers of steps can be a darker shade as well, giving a flight of stairs a wonderful undulating ripple affect.  Doors will be painted to throw the whole mix in to the realm of psychedelia.  It could be women inhaling the second hand smoke of their husbands kif pipes in small rooms.  Who knows for sure.  But in the end it is utterly inspiring, and beyond beautiful.  It is like a blue dream.
A woman painting the stairs at dusk

As the evening sets in the colors become more intense, and they glow in an entirely different way when the lights come on at night.
Grape vines form a tendril canopy over a street in the Medina at dusk

I find myself walking up and down and around and around, absorbing the lush chilled saturation of colors, taking photos at every turn.  Women often wear vibrant blue kaftans here, complimenting their surroundings.  But every color looks electric in this blue world.  I have painted the ceilings in three of the rooms in my home blue, so that when I look up it is like looking in to the sky, to the heavens, or in to a crystaline pool, or the deep blue sea.  It is transportive and transcendent, and oh so beautiful.

Colorful Life in the Medina

Blue Hole

Blue doors at night

Blue trimmed everything
Blue Scallops
Technicolor Blue Door

My favorite blue ruins
The vivid colors seem to trigger a response in the brain that makes the people here some of the sweetest, kindest, and most gentle I have ever met.  Complete strangers will engage you in ways that seem impossibly penetrating in no time at all.  A baker gave me fresh cookies from the wood fired oven for free.  A boy playing a game blindfolded in the street grabbed me and hugged me as if I wasn't a stranger.  Girls shake my hand, and so many people say hello.  I find myself smiling more, and often laughing, and crying from the sheer beauty of it all.  The color blue may just be a cure for the blues!

Thanks for reading as always.  I'm going back out there to swim around Chefchaouen.

Blue and Silver
Bags of Hand Spun Thread
The Intensity of Blue can be astounding at times

Bags of Sand

Blue Steps to a Blue Door
A Blue Door with a Black Flower Pot design
The Sweetest Boys
The Sweetest Girls

Water trickling down blue steps

Doorway to another World


  1. What a splendid gift you gave us, a gift for Sunday morning and every day thereafter.

  2. Amazing, some of these photos are like dreamscapes. Gorgeous colours and photos Jeffery.

  3. Jeffrey,

    Your photos are utterly amazing, and even unworldly. Please know that we follow your generous postings with great excitement and appreciation. As Gina said, they are a splendid gift.

  4. Dear Jeffrey, Perhaps you will remember me from Mosaic Art Now? This was such a wonderful post that I shared it on the MAN Facebook page. People have really responded to it. You captured a lot of magic here. Best regards, Nancie

  5. So, so beautiful. Just discovered your blog via Ann (3 comments up). Thank you so much for your incredible eye and yen to share.

  6. Hi Jeffrey…i came acros your blog on Chefchaouen…really enjoyed it. I am a fellow garden maker based in London and interested in Mediterranean gardening. Did you see any small market gardens or gardens growing vegetables etc in Chefchaouen or around the area. I am planning a trip their hence the question. Many thanks Tim

    1. Hi Tim, since your question is a few years ago, you may have been to Marokko already and could give an answer on your question that I ask myself, too. Did you find any interesting gardens there?. . Jan

  7. just discovered your blues. thank you.

  8. hi's a thing ,came across Chefchaouen chasing the good life in '72 ..unlike the mosquitos the 'blue' did it for to know the mix..short of grinding up a truck load of grateful for any advice....

  9. Superb pics and amazing art..
    Do search for 'brahmpuri jodhpur' for something similar version with a diffrent culture