VIII. NOTE ON MOROCCAN ARCHITECTURE
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.
When I was in Marrakech word was sent to Captain de S., who was with me, that a Caid 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. Doutte, 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 Sale 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.