Morocco culture is beautifully complex with aspects that are as old as recorded human history, stewed together with the most current trends and technology. The resulting blend is rich with Arab, Islamic, Jewish, Christian and Berber flavors, a feast for the intellect and the senses.
Moroccan arts and culture are tremendously sophisticated, are the subject of many books and can be the subject of an entire trip to the country.
Deepest among the montage of cultural influences are the country’s Berber and Arabic roots. The cultural dialogue between Arab and Berber culture is at the core of Moroccan national identity and culture.
The Berbers, or Amazighs, have been in Morocco for at about 10,000 years, living in the mountains and valleys throughout northern Africa. Some Berbers have always engaged in trade throughout the region, and such practices certainly had a tremendous influence on the history of the African continent. (Trade routes established from western Africa to the Mediterranean connected the peoples of southern Europe with much of sub-Saharan Africa thousands of years ago.) Berber culture resisted assimilation for millennia, and is unusual in other ways as well: for example, it is matriarchal, and women play a very different role in society than in many other cultures around the world. With its roots in the mountains and in the desert, Berber culture flourishes in the interior of Morocco, where Berber crafts remain alive and strong tribal structures still predominate.
The Arab culture, with its roots at Mecca and Medina, and in Islamic southern Spain, is the the sister culture to the Berbers, and it most influential in the north and coastal regions of the country. Islam, with its common language, heritage of the hajj and support of the arts and sciences, helped Morocco become a cosmopolitan kingdom, attuned to the great innovations of the day in every field of human endeavor.
Overlaying the deep and ancient cultures of the Arabs and Berbers are complex forces of post-colonialism and modern global culture. Moroccans are rightly proud of their independence, and liberty from the French, and yet are highly dependent on tourism for income, often from the very same country. A walk down the street in any major city will witness jellaba-clad Islamic traditionalists, who eschew any form of European influence, and Levi’s-clad youngsters in Internet cafes talking about the latest “Jurassic Park” sequel.
The result of these forces is neither a complete rejection or embrace of the West, but the synthesis of contemporary Moroccan culture that maintains its deep Islamic and Berber roots, while selectively integrating elements of Western influence into a larger Islamic whole.
Aligned with the country’s deep Berber and Arab roots, Morocco boasts a variety of very different architectural styles, all of them revered for their extraordinary beauty.
In the south and west of the country, throughout the Atlas mountains and the regions approaching the Sahara desert, the Berber kasbahs and ksar reign. These mud-brick cities and villages are marvels of architecture with found materials, and profound examples of adapting architectural styles to the needs of dry, arid living. Although their purpose of these was originally military in nature, they evolved over time into desert palaces.
From 685 c.e. onward, Morocco became an Islamic state, and like elsewhere across the north of the African continent, this new faith was to transform the country’s architecture, bringing familiar Islamic horseshoe arches, mosques, minarets, and gates into every city skyline. It is these images which many people associate with the country today.
In every city in Morocco there are two main sections: the medina, or old, pre-colonial Moroccan city, and the ville nouvelle, or French colonial city. The contrast between the narrow passages of the medina, seemingly (but not) unplanned and extending in every direction, and the wide, grid like boulevards of the ville nouvelle is extraordinary. The modern “new towns” were the result of efforts by an enlightened French governor, General Lyautey, who had seen his countrymen raze much of French Algeria, and engulf the country in even more chaos and bloodshed than was necessary as a result.
For most visitors the medina provides an interesting introduction to Islamic architecture. Rooted in the desert experience, the goal of Islamic architecture is to create enclosed spaces for living, protected against a possibly hostile climate. As a result, most decorative flourishes, such as gardens, fountains, and the like, are located on the inside of the buildings, rather than on the outside, as is commonly the case with European architecture. In Islamic domestic architecture, the building is the environment. Nowhere can this more easily be seen than in Morocco’s private gardens and riads, private homes in the medina, which often enclose a courtyard with gardens, pools, and pavilions.
The medinas, with their roots as protected pseudo city-states built at various times within Morocco’s history, are typically surrounded by crenellated walls and towers, to protect against invasion.
Thrusting upwards above the ramparts, one can typically see at least one minaret, the tower from which the muezzins call the faithful to prayer. (The word minaret comes from menara, meaning lighthouse.) Moroccan minarets are typically four-sided.
Although all but three mosques in Morocco are closed to non-Muslims, one can get a sense of the resplendent Islamic decoration of these holy places by visited the medersas, the residential colleges for Koranic study attached to many mosques.
The visual arts have a long and thriving history in Morocco.
The visual style of Morocco’s decorative arts has enthralled visitors for centuries. Common themes are a deep commitment to complex geometric, floral and calligraphic visual pattern, pared with simple, bright, and often whitewashed colors. (Islam forbids the representation of people and animals in art, so there is a widespread use of pattern and abstraction to focus the mind of the viewer on higher truths.)
A walk through any medina will reveal extraordinarily complex tile, or zellij mosaics, covering public fountains, walls, and furniture. A visit to any medersa will reveal stone and wood carved calligraphic patterns taken from the Koran, against a background of near-infinite geometric complexity.
The high Islamic art of the riads, medersas, gardens and palaces, the bustle of the medina, and the daily rhythms of Moroccan life have inspired both native Moroccan and Western artists alike. Today, modern Moroccan artists like Ahmed Cherkaoui and Hassan Slaoui have a growing international reputation. And throughout the centuries, Western artists as varied as Delacroix, Jacques Majorelle and Henri Matisse, who did important work during, and in response to, their lengthy visits to the country.
Morocco is known throughout the world for its carpets. Carpets are made regionally, and styles in different cities, and different parts of the country are very different. However, like many things in Morocco, broadly speaking all carpets originate in one of two different styles, based on the weaver’s Berber or Arabic roots.
Carpets in the high-Islamic urban style, most closely associated with the city of Rabat, have a very high number of knots per square inch, and can take many months to complete.
Outside of Rabat, carpets are made by hundreds of Berber tribal groups. Each of these carpets is utterly unique, and covered with symbols of significance to the individual tribe.
The value of a carpet is based on the complexity of its visual design, the number of knots (an indication of its durability), its age, its constituent ingredients (such as high or low quality wool, vegetable or chemical dyes), and other factors.
In general, such carpets should not be purchased for their investment or resale value, but for the personal value to the owner. Always negotiate for the best price.
You can read more about Moroccan carpets on the Internet or in print.
Morocco has a long history in film, having been used as the backdrop for classics such as Lawrence of Arabia and such modern pieces as The Last Temptation of Christ, Hideous Kinky, and The Mummy, among hundreds of other major Hollywood and international films. The center of Hollywood’s activities is Ouarzazate surrounded by kasbahs and ksar in the Draa Valley.
If you’re a film maker, you can learn more about film shooting in Morocco, and more about how Marrakesh Voyage can help you set up and manage a professional film shoot in the country. Please click here
Morocco also maintains a thriving national film industry, with national film acting and directing stars.
One of the most common sights in the souks of Morocco is piles and piles of olive-colored powder, the crushed leaves of the henna plant. It is used as both a hair treatment as well as a dye to make decorative designs on the skin. It’s use originated more than 5,000 years ago in Egypt, when Cleopatra was said to have enhanced and prolonged her beauty with henna.
In Morocco, it is quite common to see henna on women’s hands and feet for weddings, special occasions, or even just for a treat. Yet while Mehndi retains an aura of festivity, it remains a sacred practice intended not just to beautify the body, but to invite good fortune into one’s home, one’s marriage, and one’s family. Henna is still used as part of the marriage ritual. It is said a good dark design, applied to the bride’s hands and feet, is a sign of good luck for the married couple.
Pregnant Moroccan women in their seventh month seek out well respected henna practitioners called hannayas, to have certain symbols painted on their ankle, which will be encircled with a corresponding amulet. These are meant to protect both the mother and the child through birth.
Handicrafts are part of the Moroccan national heritage. There is nothing artificial about these products; they are all practical, useful things that have been used for centuries and are still employed in the home, or as items of everyday clothing.
The industry has expanded with the tourist trade, but it would be wrong to say it has been revived just to satisfy the demands of visitors. Craft have always been an integral part of the Moroccan scene – carefully and beautifully created, and useful at the same time.
Damascene, or inlaid metalwork, is a specialty in the city of Meknes. The products are usually well finished and nicely designed to make durable gifts.
Moroccan leather is some of the very finest in the world. Morocco’s souks offer a thousand types of leather goods, all of extraordinary quality and all completely traditionally created. In Fes and Marrakech a whole district is reserved to tanners, which is a good thing – for the whole business can create quite an aroma!’
Moroccan jewellry, of both gold and silver designs, are done in a distinctively Moroccan style. Gold jewellry is largely confined to the cities, whereas silversmithing has been both a high Islamic and Berber artform for hundreds of years. Silver jewelry comes in many forms: bracelets, earrings, fibulas, anklets and necklaces, sometimes set with semiprecious stones or studs inlaid with enamels. Among the most popular are heavy solid silver bracelets with deeply- etched designs.
Moroccan woodwork, produced in Tetouan, Essaouira, Sale, and Meknes, is rightly famous for both its elegant carving, and its marquetry, works which are woven like a carpet with several different kinds of wood. Smaller items but just as richly decorated include cigarette or jewelry boxes inlaid with mother-of-pearl. In Marrakech and Azrou, the woodworkers and cabinet makers use cedar or olive tree wood to make a wide variety of objects. Coffers are also made of carved cedarwood with studded wood in the Sahara, covered with leather and studded or intricately painted designs in many colors. These coffers or chests used to be a kind of Moroccan hope-chest for keeping women’s caftans in. Smaller caskets, coffee tables in marquetry, chessboards are made out of the wood inlaid with ebony, lemon wood or cedar, while chests or babies’ cribs made of brightly-painted wood are made mainly in Fez.
Also wildly popular are Moroccan pottery and ceramics. Earthenware, in every conceivable form, is available throughout the country, although styles vary. The main centers for ceramics are Safi, which produces pottery inlaid with metal or covered tightly with leather, and Fes, which produces the very distinctive blue and white fassi pottery.
Finally, a variety of distinctive wrought iron products, from small tables, lamps, and knick-knacks to platerests and candle holders are very popular with visitors.
Contemporary Moroccan fiction is both vibrant and varied. It is a young literature, still in the process of testing boundaries and searching for its voice, but built on cultural themes that are as ancient as any on Earth.
At one end of the spectrum there are the consciously literary novels of authors working in French, including Driss Chraibi, Abdelhak Serhane and Tahar Ben Jelloun, winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt.
At the other end there is the group of writers and storytellers like Mohammed Mrabet, whose works have been translated from Arabic into English by the American expatriate author Paul Bowles. Their narratives stem directly from Morocco’s rich oral tradition, and indeed are often recorded and then transcribed rather than written. Apart from differences in language and methodology, Moroccan literature also encompasses a wide variety of aesthetics, from Ben Jelloun’s dreamlike tales to the sharp and cynical styles of Chraibi and Serhane and the colorful depictions of the seedier side of life in Tangier and the Rif by Mrabet et al.
In every major city, without fail, music will accompany your Moroccan experience, for every day, the muezzin, beginning in the largest mosque in the city, will begin the chanted call to prayer. In the quiet of the early morning, the effect is hauntingly beautiful.
Beyond this primal experience, there are many genres of Moroccan music, including Arab, Berber, classical, and popular styles. Musicians perform in concerts, in cafes, at private homes, ceremonies, marriages, funerals, and religious processions. It is also used to accompany dancing and storytelling. Here are just a few of the many popular kinds of Moroccan music:
Andalusian music, which traces its roots to the flourishing culture of Moorish Spain, is characterized by a complicated musical structure. The lyrics are in Andalusian dialect “Gharnati” or classical Arabic. Performed by larger orchestras, this kind of classical music is today alive and well in Morocco, with conservatories in all the major cities.
The Gnaoua people, for which Gnoaua music is named, originally came from Senegal, Guinea, and Mali. During the16th century, they were deported to North Africa as slaves of rich sultans, and integrated this new culture and religion into their own. The music of the Gnawa is a powerful mixture of religious Arabic songs and African rhythms, trance music tinged with mysticism. It can be heard throughout the south of the country, particularly in Marrakesh and Essaouira, where is there is a major festival of Gnaouan music every year.
Berber music has been around for millennia, with a variety of musical styles. These range from bagpipes and oboe to pentatonic music – all combined with African rhythms and a very important stock of authentic oral literature. These traditions have been kept alive by small bands of musicians who travel from village to village, as they have for centuries, to entertain at weddings and other social occasions with their songs, tales, and poetry.
Listen to samples of Berber music on the Internet, and learn more about leading Berber musicians.