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.

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.


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. Doutte. 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.


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 facade 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 facades 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 revetement 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.