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Morocco: A Cultural Discovery

Posted: 10th February 2016 08:42

Morocco is alive with a wide variety of captivating architecture, and as Morocco was previously colonised by the French – and also coerced into sharing its land with the Spanish – it is apparent that architectural influences have been drawn from these countries.

Among Morocco’s buildings and old Kasbah walls sit French style-towns left behind by colonisation, overlapping intricately detailed mosques and riadstyle homes. Nonetheless, sleek, modern designs are being constructed in cities like Rabat and Casablanca, giving no particular homage to any of the past Moroccan architecture styles. Some distinctive features of Moroccan architecture include geometric patterns and bright colours, most notably in the tiles known as zelij; ornamental Islamic calligraphy, open court yards with lush gardens; and U-shaped entries and large domes. The architecture can range from ornate with bold with colours, to simple, clean lines with earth tones, and has been described as an exotic, contemporary and traditional mix. Visitors most often note that the finest architecture in the country is found in Fes and Marrakesh, especially at the mosques with their imposing minarets, elaborate madrassas and palaces.

The extensive blend of art and cultural influences make Morocco a thriving and engaging place to visit. The Marrakesh Museum, housed in the late 19th Century Dar Menebhi Palace, holds an array of artefacts and art works that span Morocco’s widespread history. In the centre of the medina, the museum displays works from Arab, Berber and Jewish traditions. The palace itself is also a part of the exhibit, with its attractive architecture restored, and fine examples of traditional tile and stone work, a hammam, courtyard and private seating areas. Another converted home is the Matisse Gallery, dedicated largely to modern Moroccan art; displaying a number of pieces from local artists just breaking in to the scene. The Jardin Majorelle and the Museum of Islamic Art resides within a botanical garden, first built by French artist Jacques Majorelle in 1924. The grounds today host countless flowering plants and trees, more than 15 bird species and a succession of fountains and walkways. The garden has been open to the public since 1947, and has been owned by Yves Saint Laurent since 1980. Within the outstanding Museum of Islamic Arts are traditional pottery, jewellery and metalwork, textiles and other art from Morocco and North Africa. Visiting a souk, an open-air marketplace or commercial quarter, is a cultural experience that should not be missed during a trip to Morocco. Find the medina, the central and oldest part of the city, and your journey has almost begun. If you feel slightly overwhelmed when you enter a lively area filled with artisan shops, fragrant bakeries, and excited shopkeepers eager meet you, you have found the souk. Each town has its special souk quarter, large cities like Fes and Marrakesh have labyrinths of individual souks, each filling a street or square and devoted tone particular craft, and in the countryside there are hundreds of weekly souks, on a different day in each village of the region. Each souk has its own personality; here the atmosphere is alive with cries of gypsies, snake-charmers, magicians, and folk-singers. There are tanneries on pavements, street artists in every corner, and vendors popping out of alleys. If you’re not paying attention, you could end up with a monkey on your shoulder or snake wrapped around your arm.

Morocco is also the proud home to nine UNESCO world heritage sites, which are available to tour, providing the opportunity to fully explore the historical and cultural significance of the sites. The Historic City of Meknes, founded in the 11th century by the Almoravids as a military settlement, became a capital under Sultan Moulay Ismail. The Sultan turned it into an impressive city in Spanish-Moorish style, surrounded by high walls with grand doors, where the harmonious unification of the Islamic and European styles of the 17th century Maghreb are still apparent today. Behind the high defensive walls are key monuments including 25 mosques, 10 hammams, palaces, immense greeneries, vestiges of fondouks and private houses, which are testaments to the Almoravid Period. The presence of these rare remains within a historic town, that is in turn located within a rapidly changing urban environment, gives Meknes its widespread value. Medina of Fez, which became a UNESCO world heritage site in 1996, is a walled city home to the oldest university in the world. Fez reached its pinnacle in the 13th to 14th centuries, when it replaced Marrakesh as the capital of the kingdom. Although the political capital of Morocco was transferred to Rabat in 1912, Fez has retained its status as the country’s cultural and spiritual centre. The Medina of Fez is considered one of the most extensive and well maintained historic towns of the Arab-Muslim world. The unpaved citified space preserves the majority of its original functions and characteristics. It not only represents an outstanding architectural and urban heritage, but also conducts a lifestyle and culture that prevails, and is revived despite the assorted effects of the developing modern society.

Archaeological Site of Volubilis, the Mauritian capital, became an imperative outpost of the Roman Empire, and was graced with countless fine buildings. Due to its isolation, and the fact it has not been occupied for approximately one thousand years, it presents a significant level of authenticity. The archaeological remnants of this site have observed several civilizations. All the phases of its ten centuries of occupation, from prehistory to the Islamic period, are symbolised. The site has produced a considerable amount of artistic material, including mosaics, marble and bronze statuary, and hundreds of inscriptions. The ruins of Volubilis, which consist of no more than half of the original town, are located on a commanding site at the foot of the Jbel Zerhoun, bordered by the two valleys, Khoumane and Ferdassa. The ancient town is well defined by the remains of its walls, and the buildings of the Volubilis are, for the most part, constructed using the grey-blue limestone quarried in close proximity to the Zerhoun massif. In 2008, the buffer zone of this World Heritage Site was extended to incorporate the neighbouring plain and mountains, along with the pilgrimage town of Moulay Idriss. Saint Idriss I had made Volubilis his home before founding Fez and Moulay Idriss. The cultural and historical understandings of Morocco go further than the three aforementioned locations. Medina of Marrakesh, Ait Benhaddou, Medina of Tetouan (formally known as Titawin), Medina of Essaouira (former Mogador), Portuguese City of Mazagan (El Jadida) and Arganeraie Biospher Reserve are the six other fascinating World Heritage Sites steeped in culture and tradition. All of the nine sites recognise the rich tapestry of Morocco’s past, and will certainly enhance any visit, providing an experience of a lifetime.

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