Morocco & Andalusia: Architecture

The Ighrem: When the first Berbers started moving roughly as of some 6 millennia ago into what is today’s Morocco , they first lived in huts made of plant materials and natural grottoes in the mountains. All that remains of the first are circles of stones used to anchor trunks or around burial sites, while the grottoes have been continuously used over the millennia as shelters by shepherds and their flocks. As the populations grew and the riches of the southern valleys began to attract the attention of desert marauders, a novel style of multi-level architecture developed, with defense in mind: high walls with nearly no openings to the outside, all the light and ventilation provided by an ample inner courtyard. As they were used to shelter everything of importance, including grain and animals, they became known as granaries, ighrem in Berber (agadir in the Souss region), later called qsar, or castle, in Arabic. Countless ighrems, some up to 7 stories high, are still in use today in the High Atlas and desert regions, a unique feature of Morocco. The oldest have been dated to the 8th C., yet, as they are built of local materials — adobe in the South, layered stone at higher elevations where snow is abundant — once they are abandoned they revert to their natural elements, a mound of mud or stones scattered down a slope, and it is thus impossible to find out when this style of building emerged.

The Almoravids: The first dynasty to rule over what is now all of Morocco, these Berbers from the Sahara were competent builders, at least for defensive purposes as may be witnessed from the walls they built around Marrakech. The first 2 rulers were primarily pre-occupied with gaining control of a territory that had never had any central authority prior, their domain extending from the Sahara to Southern Spain and East into Tunisia. Arts began to flourish only under the third (and last) sultan, though the architecture for the most part imitated what had impressed them upon their conquest of southern Spain, in Cordoba and Sevilla, as may be seen in Marrakech’s ablutions Qubba, the last remaining Almoravid structure in the city, as well as in the layout of Fes’s Al Qarawïne university (though the Qarawïne was founded in the 9th C., it was totally rebuilt under the Almoravids and refurbished further under succeeding dynasties). A new archeological dig of an Almoravid city just South of Marrakech may provide further insights into their art.

The Almohads: Under Yaqub el Mansour, the third ruler of the succeeding dynasty of the Berber Almohads, emerged an original, purely Moroccan architectural style, majestic to honor God, with elegant yet relatively sparse, austere decor so as not to seem to compete with the intricate world God created. The quintessential showcase of this is Marrakech’s Koutoubïa minaret, a world reference of Islamic art. Other notable examples include the city’s Agnaou “Blue” gate, Rabat’s Kasbah gate, the Giralda minaret now converted to a bell tower in Sevilla, the Almohads’ former Andalusian capital, and, in its early stages, at the Tin Mal fortress, the Almohads’ mountain cradle. The Almohads’ creation spread around their domains, which now extended into central Spain and central Libya, and until the early 20th C. nearly all religious edifices throughout the Maghreb were built in this “Moroccan” style, following the Almohad rules of proportions.

The Merinids: The rule of the third (and final) Berber dynasty coincided with the first mass expulsions of the “Moors” from Spain under the Reconquista. With them the refugees brought riches of intricate Andalusian designs. The Merinids kept the Almohads’ architectural codes yet now filled all of the “empty” spaces on the walls with a bevy of elaborate floral and geometrical designs influenced by the refugees. They also created what till today is considered the Moroccan interior architecture: intricate mosaics of cut tile on the lower part of the walls, hand-carved plaster motifs above, and at the top and ceiling masterful cedar work (the Merinids originated in the Middle Atlas, the realm of the cedar). Nearly all the fabulous monuments of Fes were built by them, while Berber craftsmen of the time built the last Moorish citadel of Spain, the Alhambra.

The last dynasties, the 16th–17th-C. Saadians and the current Alaouites, added more decor, at times with designs influenced by Europe and the Far East (where the Saadians had diplomatic posts!), more lavishness with gold paint and Carrera marble, more grandeur, but in essence the sublime interior and exterior architecture the visitor experiences in Morocco today is due to the creative genius and artistic flair of the Almohads and Merinids.

A Moroccan gazetteer: Tangier | Rabat & Casablanca | Andalusia | Meknes & Volubilis | Fes | Marrakech | The High Atlas | The Middle Atlas | Taroudant & the Anti Atlas | On the Sahara's Edge | The Atlantic Coast | Jewish Heritage | Architecture | Festivals

Plan your trip: Sample Itineraries | Hotels | Trip Request Form | Morocco ABCs