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Chapter 8

NOTE ON MOROCCAN ARCHITECTURE


I

M. H. Saladin, whose "Manual of Moslem Architecture" was published in
1907, ends his chapter on Morocco with the words: "It is especially
urgent that we should know, and penetrate into, Morocco as soon as
possible, in order to study its monuments. It is the only country but
Persia where Moslem art actually survives; and the tradition handed down
to the present day will doubtless clear up many things."

M. Saladin's wish has been partly realized. Much has been done since
1912, when General Lyautey was appointed Resident-General, to clear up
and classify the history of Moroccan art; but since 1914, though the
work has never been dropped, it has necessarily been much delayed,
especially as regards its published record; and as yet only a few
monographs and articles have summed up some of the interesting
investigations of the last five years.

II

When I was in Marrakech word was sent to Captain de S., who was with me,
that a Caïd of the Atlas, whose prisoner he had been several years
before, had himself been taken by the Pasha's troops, and was in
Marrakech. Captain de S. was asked to identify several rifles which his
old enemy had taken from him, and on receiving them found that, in the
interval, they had been elaborately ornamented with the Arab niello work
of which the tradition goes back to Damascus.

This little incident is a good example of the degree to which the
mediaeval tradition alluded to by M. Saladin has survived in Moroccan
life. Nowhere else in the world, except among the moribund
fresco-painters of the Greek monasteries, has a formula of art persisted
from the seventh or eighth century to the present day; and in Morocco
the formula is not the mechanical expression of a petrified theology but
the setting of the life of a people who have gone on wearing the same
clothes, observing the same customs, believing in the same fetiches, and
using the same saddles, ploughs, looms, and dye-stuffs as in the days
when the foundations of the first mosque of El Kairouiyin were laid.

The origin of this tradition is confused and obscure. The Arabs have
never been creative artists, nor are the Berbers known to have been so.
As investigations proceed in Syria and Mesopotamia it seems more and
more probable that the sources of inspiration of pre-Moslem art in North
Africa are to be found in Egypt, Persia, and India. Each new
investigation pushes these sources farther back and farther east; but it
is not of much use to retrace these ancient vestiges, since Moroccan art
has, so far, nothing to show of pre-Islamite art, save what is purely
Phenician or Roman.

In any case, however, it is not in Morocco that the clue to Moroccan art
is to be sought; though interesting hints and mysterious reminiscences
will doubtless be found in such places as Tinmel, in the gorges of the
Atlas, where a ruined mosque of the earliest Almohad period has been
photographed by M. Doutté, and in the curious Algerian towns of Sedrata
and the Kalaa of the Beni Hammads. Both of these latter towns were rich
and prosperous communities in the tenth century and both were destroyed
in the eleventh, so that they survive as mediaeval Pompeiis of a quite
exceptional interest, since their architecture appears to have been
almost unaffected by classic or Byzantine influences.

Traces of a very old indigenous art are found in the designs on the
modern white and black Berber pottery, but this work, specimens of which
are to be seen in the Oriental Department of the Louvre, seems to go
back, by way of Central America, Greece (sixth century B.C.) and Susa
(twelfth century B.C.), to the far-off period before the streams of
human invention had divided, and when the same loops and ripples and
spirals formed on the flowing surface of every current.

It is a disputed question whether Spanish influence was foremost in
developing the peculiarly Moroccan art of the earliest Moslem period, or
whether European influences came by way of Syria and Palestine, and
afterward met and were crossed with those of Moorish Spain. Probably
both things happened, since the Almoravids were in Spain; and no doubt
the currents met and mingled. At any rate, Byzantine, Greece, and the
Palestine and Syria of the Crusaders, contributed as much as Rome and
Greece to the formation of that peculiar Moslem art which, all the way
from India to the Pillars of Hercules, built itself, with minor
variations, out of the same elements.

Arab conquerors always destroy as much as they can of the work of their
predecessors, and nothing remains, as far as is known, of Almoravid
architecture in Morocco. But the great Almohad Sultans covered Spain and
Northwest Africa with their monuments, and no later buildings in Africa
equal them in strength and majesty.

It is no doubt because the Almohads built in stone that so much of what
they made survives. The Merinids took to rubble and a soft tufa, and the
Cherifian dynasties built in clay like the Spaniards in South America.
And so seventeenth century Meknez has perished while the Almohad walls
and towers of the tenth century still stand.

The principal old buildings of Morocco are defensive and religious--and
under the latter term the beautiful collegiate houses (the medersas) of
Fez and Salé may fairly be included, since the educational system of
Islam is essentially and fundamentally theological. Of old secular
buildings, palaces or private houses, virtually none are known to exist;
but their plan and decorations may easily be reconstituted from the
early chronicles, and also from the surviving palaces built in the
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and even those which the wealthy
nobles of modern Morocco are building to this day.

The whole of civilian Moslem architecture from Persia to Morocco is
based on four unchanging conditions: a hot climate, slavery, polygamy
and the segregation of women. The private house in Mahometan countries
is in fact a fortress, a convent and a temple: a temple of which the god
(as in all ancient religions) frequently descends to visit his
cloistered votaresses. For where slavery and polygamy exist every
house-master is necessarily a god, and the house he inhabits a shrine
built about his divinity.

The first thought of the Moroccan chieftain was always defensive. As
soon as he pitched a camp or founded a city it had to be guarded
against the hungry hordes who encompassed him on every side. Each little
centre of culture and luxury in Moghreb was an islet in a sea of
perpetual storms. The wonder is that, thus incessantly threatened from
without and conspired against from within--with the desert at their
doors, and their slaves on the threshold--these violent men managed to
create about them an atmosphere of luxury and stability that astonished
not only the obsequious native chronicler but travellers and captives
from western Europe.

The truth is, as has been often pointed out, that, even until the end of
the seventeenth century, the refinements of civilization were in many
respects no greater in France and England than in North Africa. North
Africa had long been in more direct communication with the old Empires
of immemorial luxury, and was therefore farther advanced in the arts of
living than the Spain and France of the Dark Ages; and this is why, in a
country that to the average modern European seems as savage as Ashantee,
one finds traces of a refinement of life and taste hardly to be matched
by Carlovingian and early Capetian Europe.

III

The brief Almoravid dynasty left no monuments behind it.

Fez had already been founded by the Idrissites, and its first mosques
(Kairouiyin and Les Andalous) existed. Of the Almoravid Fez and
Marrakech the chroniclers relate great things; but the wild Hilalian
invasion and the subsequent descent of the Almohads from the High Atlas
swept away whatever the first dynasties had created.

The Almohads were mighty builders, and their great monuments are all of
stone. The earliest known example of their architecture which has
survived is the ruined mosque of Tinmel, in the High Atlas, discovered
and photographed by M. Doutté. This mosque was built by the inspired
mystic, Ibn-Toumert, who founded the line. Following him came the great
palace-making Sultans whose walled cities of splendid mosques and towers
have Romanesque qualities of mass and proportion, and, as M. Raymond
Koechlin has pointed out, inevitably recall the "robust simplicity of
the master builders who at the very same moment were beginning in
France the construction of the first Gothic cathedrals and the noblest
feudal castles."

In the thirteenth century, with the coming of the Merinids, Moroccan
architecture grew more delicate, more luxurious, and perhaps also more
peculiarly itself. That interaction of Spanish and Arab art which
produced the style known as Moorish reached, on the African side of the
Straits, its greatest completeness in Morocco. It was under the Merinids
that Moorish art grew into full beauty in Spain, and under the Merinids
that Fez rebuilt the mosque Kairouiyin and that of the Andalusians, and
created six of its nine _Medersas_, the most perfect surviving buildings
of that unique moment of sober elegance and dignity.

The Cherifian dynasties brought with them a decline in taste. A crude
desire for immediate effect, and the tendency toward a more barbaric
luxury, resulted in the piling up of frail palaces as impermanent as
tents. Yet a last flower grew from the deformed and dying trunk of the
old Empire. The Saadian Sultan who invaded the Soudan and came back
laden with gold and treasure from the great black city of Timbuctoo
covered Marrakech with hasty monuments of which hardly a trace survives.
But there, in a nettle-grown corner of a ruinous quarter, lay hidden
till yesterday the Chapel of the Tombs: the last emanation of pure
beauty of a mysterious, incomplete, forever retrogressive and yet
forever forward-straining people. The Merinid tombs of Fez have fallen;
but those of their destroyers linger on in precarious grace, like a
flower on the edge of a precipice.

IV

Moroccan architecture, then, is easily divided into four groups: the
fortress, the mosque, the collegiate building and the private house.

The kernel of the mosque is always the _mihrab_, or niche facing toward
the Kasbah of Mecca, where the _imam_[A] stands to say the prayer. This
arrangement, which enabled as many as possible of the faithful to kneel
facing the _mihrab_, results in a ground-plan necessarily consisting of
long aisles parallel with the wall of the _mihrab_, to which more and
more aisles are added as the number of worshippers grows. Where there
was not space to increase these lateral aisles they were lengthened at
each end. This typical plan is modified in the Moroccan mosques by a
wider transverse space, corresponding with the nave of a Christian
church, and extending across the mosque from the praying niche to the
principal door. To the right of the _mihrab_ is the _minbar_, the carved
pulpit (usually of cedar-wood incrusted with mother-of-pearl and ebony)
from which the Koran is read. In some Algerian and Egyptian mosques (and
at Cordova, for instance) the _mihrab_ is enclosed in a sort of screen
called the _maksoura_; but in Morocco this modification of the simpler
plan was apparently not adopted.

[Footnote A: The "deacon" or elder of the Moslem religion, which has no
order of priests.]

The interior construction of the mosque was no doubt usually affected by
the nearness of Roman or Byzantine ruins. M. Saladin points out that
there seem to be few instances of the use of columns made by native
builders; but it does not therefore follow that all the columns used in
the early mosques were taken from Roman temples or Christian basilicas.
The Arab invaders brought their architects and engineers with them; and
it is very possible that some of the earlier mosques were built by
prisoners or fortune-hunters from Greece or Italy or Spain.

At any rate, the column on which the arcades of the vaulting rests in
the earlier mosques, as at Tunis and Kairouan, and the mosque El
Kairouiyin at Fez, gives way later to the use of piers, foursquare, or
with flanking engaged pilasters as at Algiers and Tlemcen. The exterior
of the mosques, as a rule, is almost entirely hidden by a mushroom
growth of buildings, lanes and covered bazaars, but where the outer
walls have remained disengaged they show, as at Kairouan and Cordova,
great masses of windowless masonry pierced at intervals with majestic
gateways.

Beyond the mosque, and opening into it by many wide doors of beaten
bronze or carved cedar-wood, lies the Court of the Ablutions. The
openings in the façade were multiplied in order that, on great days, the
faithful who were not able to enter the mosque might hear the prayers
and catch a glimpse of the _mihrab_.

In a corner of the courts stands the minaret. It is the structure on
which Moslem art has played the greatest number of variations, cutting
off its angles, building it on a circular or polygonal plan, and
endlessly modifying the pyramids and pendentives by which the
ground-plan of one story passes into that of the next. These problems of
transition, always fascinating to the architect, led in Persia,
Mesopotamia and Egypt to many different compositions and ways of
treatment, but in Morocco the minaret, till modern times, remained
steadfastly square, and proved that no other plan is so beautiful as
this simplest one of all.

Surrounding the Court of the Ablutions are the school-rooms, libraries
and other dependencies, which grew as the Mahometan religion prospered
and Arab culture developed.

The medersa was a farther extension of the mosque: it was the academy
where the Moslem schoolman prepared his theology and the other branches
of strange learning which, to the present day, make up the curriculum of
the Mahometan university. The medersa is an adaptation of the private
house to religious and educational ends; or, if one prefers another
analogy, it is a _fondak_ built above a miniature mosque. The
ground-plan is always the same: in the centre an arcaded court with a
fountain, on one side the long narrow praying-chapel with the _mihrab_,
on the other a classroom with the same ground-plan, and on the next
story a series of cell-like rooms for the students, opening on carved
cedar-wood balconies. This cloistered plan, where all the effect is
reserved for the interior façades about the court, lends itself to a
delicacy of detail that would be inappropriate on a street-front; and
the medersas of Fez are endlessly varied in their fanciful but never
exuberant decoration.

M. Tranchant de Lunel has pointed out (in "France-Maroc") with what a
sure sense of suitability the Merinid architects adapted this decoration
to the uses of the buildings. On the lower floor, under the cloister, is
a revêtement of marble (often alabaster) or of the almost indestructible
ceramic mosaic.[A] On the floor above, massive cedar-wood corbels ending
in monsters of almost Gothic inspiration support the fretted balconies;
and above rise stucco interfacings, placed too high up to be injured
by man, and guarded from the weather by projecting eaves.

[Footnote A: These Moroccan mosaics are called _zellijes_.]

The private house, whether merchant's dwelling or chieftain's palace, is
laid out on the same lines, with the addition of the reserved quarters
for women; and what remains in Spain and Sicily of Moorish secular
architecture shows that, in the Merinid period, the play of ornament
must have been--as was natural--even greater than in the medersas.

The Arab chroniclers paint pictures of Merinid palaces, such as the
House of the Favourite at Cordova, which the soberer modern imagination
refused to accept until the medersas of Fez were revealed, and the old
decorative tradition was shown in the eighteenth century Moroccan
palaces. The descriptions given of the palaces of Fez and of Marrakech
in the preceding articles, which make it unnecessary, in so slight a
note as this, to go again into the detail of their planning and
decoration, will serve to show how gracefully the art of the mosque and
the medersa was lightened and domesticated to suit these cool chambers
and flower-filled courts.

With regard to the immense fortifications that are the most picturesque
and noticeable architectural features of Morocco, the first thing to
strike the traveller is the difficulty of discerning any difference in
the probable date of their construction until certain structural
peculiarities are examined, or the ornamental details of the great
gateways are noted. Thus the Almohad portions of the walls of Fez and
Rabat are built of stone, while later parts are of rubble; and the touch
of European influence in certain gateways of Meknez and Fez at once
situate them in the seventeenth century. But the mediaeval outline of
these great piles of masonry, and certain technicalities in their plan,
such as the disposition of the towers, alternating in the inner and
outer walls, continued unchanged throughout the different dynasties,
and this immutability of the Moroccan military architecture enables the
imagination to picture, not only what was the aspect of the fortified
cities which the Greeks built in Palestine and Syria, and the
Crusaders brought back to Europe, but even that of the far-off
Assyrio-Chaldaean strongholds to which the whole fortified architecture
of the Middle Ages in Europe seems to lead back.

Edith Wharton

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