Arts and Crafts in Morocco, through the ages

A highlight of any trip to Morocco is its rich and diverse heritage, underpinned by vibrant cultural traditions, a fascinating religious history, and unique gastronomy. In this article, archaeologist and historian Sue Rollin explores three aspects of Morocco’s arts and crafts, from ancient bronze sculptures, to colourful zillij mosaic tiles and the modern success of the argan oil industry.

On my first visit to Morocco’s capital, Rabat, I was surprised to discover that one of the most outstanding collections of Roman bronzes in the world is housed in the small Museum of History and Civilisations, a recently renovated 1930s building in the elegant Ville Nouvelle, the former French colonial district. Antique bronze statues are rare, as most were melted down and recycled for their valuable metal long ago, so this high quality ensemble is particularly special. Most of the works of art are from Volubilis, one of the royal capitals of Juba II, appointed client king of Mauretania in 25BC by Roman emperor Augustus.

Rabat, once the Roman trading post of Sala Colonia

The young Juba – who was brought to Rome and educated at court after his father, the king of Numidia, had been defeated by Julius Caesar and committed suicide – was married to Cleopatra Selene, daughter of Antony and Cleopatra, whose own dramatic suicides brought to an end one of the most famous love affairs in history. Their daughter was also raised in Rome, in the household of Augustus’ sister, Octavia. As members of Augustus’ extended family Juba and Cleopatra benefited from the best education contemporary Rome could offer. Juba developed an insatiable thirst for knowledge and became one of the greatest scholars of his time. Cleopatra was always loyal to the memory of her mother and promoted the Hellenistic-Egyptian culture of her homeland. Some idea of the sophistication of their court and the cosmopolitan taste of the elite of Volubilis at the time and later is attested by the fine bronze sculptures in the Rabat museum, which probably came from different production sites around the Mediterranean and date from the 1st century BC to the 3rd century AD.

Roman Age Bronzes on display in the Museum of History and Civilisations in Rabat

On our tour we’re fortunate to meet Juba himself, young, beardless, with short, thick wavy hair and wearing a royal headband in a superb bronze bust. In the Hellenistic Greek idealised tradition, it nevertheless shows a hint of the more realistic portraiture of the Roman Republic and early empire, when it was considered a sign of character to be depicted as you really looked, ‘warts and all’. With his downcast eyes and full expressive lips the handsome young Juba seems lost in thought. Another masterpiece in this magnificent archaeological museum is the portrait of Cato the Younger, mortal enemy of Julius Caesar and austere Republican ideologue, who tore out his own bowels after a botched attempt at stabbing himself following Caesar’s victory in North Africa in 46BC. Cato has a severe, rather haughty expression and a very prominent Roman nose.

The bust of Juba dating back to 25 BC

The Museum of History and Civilisations also reveals the taste erudite Romans developed for works inspired by the great sculptors of classical Greece. One of the full bronze statues in the collection, over a metre high, is of an ephebe, a naked young man of military training age whose luxuriant locks are crowned with ivy. There is also ‘genre’ sculpture, often used to adorn homes, gardens and fountains. A magnificent example is the ‘old fisherman’, a stocky, hard-working peasant who wears a short tunic, and has a receding hairline and deeply furrowed brow. Two beautiful children’s heads, one sleeping, their soft curls tied back from the forehead, express the joyful world of childhood and a remarkably realistic dog, stares at us, baring his teeth and ready to pounce.

The Lustral Ephebe on display in the museum, along with a horse and the Dog of Volubilis, found in 1916 and dating back to Hadrian in the early 2nd century

The grand villas in which these and other bronze sculptures were found were adorned with splendid mosaics, displaying scenes from classical mythology and daily life. In fact, Roman and Byzantine mosaics are thought to have inspired a very characteristic Moroccan art form: zillij, or cut tile mosaic, a characteristic feature of Moroccan architecture since the 10th century. Islam, which arrived in Morocco in the early 8th century, restricts the portrayal of living beings, so for zillij the designs were different, the craftsmen created intricate geometric patterns using pieces of coloured glazed terracotta tiles. Monochrome glazed tiles were first fired, then cut into smaller shapes using a broad, sharpened hammer and any sharp edges carefully filed down. The shapes were laid face down on a stencil and backed with plaster to create the panels used to adorn walls and other surfaces.

Mosaic of the Four Seasons in situ in the House of the Labours of Hercules, Volubilis

There are an astonishing 360 different rectilinear and curvilinear shapes or furmah in the full repertoire, each of which has a different name. They include triangles, squares, regular and irregular polygons, rhombuses, diamonds, incredible stars with up to 96 points, and shapes which are named after the objects, plants and animals from which they are abstracted. Thus we find bottles, cups, bracelets, combs, lanterns, ducks, beaks, leaves, ivy, lemons and many, many more. As we discover, Fes – which had good deposits of suitable clay for tilemaking – was one of the earliest centres of the art of zillij. Initially the palette was restricted to white and brown but as the art form developed and flourished under the Merenid and Saadian dynasties (13C-17C), green, yellow, blue and lastly red, representing the four elements, were introduced and the patterns became ever more complex and vibrant.

Skilled artisans use years of knowledge to create traditional hand made tiles

Geometry in Islam was both a highly developed practical discipline and a sacred art, reflecting the creation of the Divine Artisan. Geometrical forms, shapes and symmetries have inner meanings, thus Islamic patterns are both beautiful and a challenge to the mind. Many designs are centred on the khatim, the star, and present a multitude of colourful starbursts. Regular favourites are 5- and 10-pointed stars, which contain the ‘golden ratio’, 6-pointed stars, which relate to the 6 periods of creation, the 8-pointed khatim sulayman, called ‘the seal of the prophet’ and the 12-pointed star, evoking the solar circle divided into the 12 houses of the zodiac. By contemplating such patterns not only the artists but all who looked on their creations could be transported to a higher realm. And geometry was indeed a noble science: the words ‘Let no one ignorant of geometry enter’ are said to have been inscribed above the door of Plato’s Academy, while according to the great medieval Arab historian Ibn Khaldun, who was born in Tunis, ‘Geometry enlightens the intellect and sets one’s mind right’.

A classic example of tile work at Bou Inania Madrasa

At the heart of zillij is the maalem, the master craftsman, who undergoes a long training starting in childhood to obtain the required skills, which are often passed down from father to son. Zillij decorates mosques, tombs, religious colleges, fountains, patios, baths, palaces and mansions and for wealthy patrons it became a statement of luxury and sophistication. On our tour, some of the best traditional zillij we see is in Fes and Marrakesh, in the Bou Inania and Ben Youssef medersas and the Saadian tombs, where walls and floors are clad in exquisite patterns, a feast for the eyes. Zillij reached its zenith in the 14th-16th century and has never gone out of fashion since. In today’s Morocco zillij patterns still decorate buildings of all types, from hotels and restaurants to private homes and modern mosques, although there are far fewer master craftsmen than in the past, and a wider colour palette, which includes bright turquoise and rose-pink.

Ali Ben Youssef Madrasa in Marrakesh
A detail of the intricate tile work in the Ali Ben Youssef Madrasa

One of the joys of Morocco is the modern relevance of its traditional arts and crafts. With one group, travelling southwest from the imperial cities of Fes and Marrakesh towards the semi-desert Berber Sous region, we came across an unusual but very Moroccan sight: tree-climbing goats! The countryside here is peppered with argan trees (Argania spinosa), gnarled and thorny plants with a wide spreading crown which grow up to 10m high and are endemic only to the Moroccan Sous valley and the Tindouf region of southwestern Algeria.

You can never have too many goats up in an argan tree!

Argania spinosa may not be the most attractive of trees, with its rough bark and crooked branches, but it is a protected species. It produces a fruit with a thick, bitter peel surrounding a sweet-smelling pulp that the goats crave. Herds of hungry goats climb the trees for their seasonal feast and up to a dozen at a time may be seen in a single tree, balancing on the precarious branches munching their pickings. It is an extraordinary sight which for some farmers has become very profitable as they charge tourists to take photographs and even haul the goats into the trees outside the fruiting season. So beware the roadside show and head off the beaten track for an authentic viewing!

The goats cannot digest the nuts so when they have stripped the skin and devoured the pulp they either spit out the nut or swallow it whole and excrete it. It is this nut that is prized by the local communities, collected – mainly by the local Berber women – to make argan oil, a precious commodity. Extracting the oil is a laborious process: the nuts are hit with a rock on a stone anvil to crack them open, the kernels extracted and roasted if the oil is for culinary purposes, then ground to a paste with a little water, which is squeezed by hand to extract the oil. It takes more than 27kg of fruit to produce one litre of oil. The remaining press cake can be used as cattle feed.

Making Moroccan argan oil – a laborious process carried out by Berber women

Culinary-grade argan oil is drizzled on bread, couscous and salad, and a delicious dip called amlou is made from the oil and almonds and then sweetened with honey. Claims about argan oil’s beneficial effects range from lowering cholesterol to easing arthritis, and unroasted oil has traditionally been used to treat skin diseases. In Morocco, argan oil is sold as a luxury item and has become increasingly fashionable worldwide since western countries became aware of its special properties. Much coveted by cosmetics manufacturers, it is sold as pure oil for hair and body treatment and appears as an ingredient in many other products – from soaps and shampoos to hand creams, body lotions and eye-tightening serums!

In Morocco, this surge in demand for argan oil has stimulated the creation of women’s cooperatives, providing local women with an income and more autonomy in a male-dominated society. When I use an argan oil product, I often think of the Berber women of the Sous and how they have been empowered by the argan oil trade. It is just another aspect of Morocco’s vibrant arts and crafts traditions, sustained and passed on by countless generations.

Sue Rollin

Sue Rollin

Sue Rollin is an archaeologist, historian and linguist with 30 years’ experience in leading tours to Central Asia, India, the Middle East and countries around the Mediterranean. Her personal interests include art and architecture, comparative religion, gastronomy and walking. Sue has a BA and MA from the University of London, a Diploma in Conference Interpreting from the University of Westminster and held a 2-year research scholarship at Heidelberg University. She has worked as a tutor and lecturer in Ancient Near Eastern history at both Cambridge and London Universities and continues to lecture on a variety of topics for the Art Fund, Arts Society and the Victoria and Albert Museum’s adult learning programme.

Upcoming tours led by Sue Rollin

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