Travellers, authors, poets and musicians from all over the world have written about their love stories with Morocco. It is no secret that this country can enchant you, whoever you are and wherever you may be from. The feeling, impalpable as it may be, leaves you longing to experience it again. Deep within, you know that your enchantment goes far deeper than your love of its culinary genius, its vibrant colours and the warm smiles of its locals. Much more powerful than the visual, Morocco’s real wealth is in the unspoken. What makes Morocco visually astounding is the result of an accumulation of imprints left behind by many before us, from far and near. Unpacking the history of these imprints could help make sense of the Morocco we know today, the one whose charm we have all fallen under. Follow me on a journey through Moroccan crafts.
By virtue of its geographic location, Morocco is exposed to many external influences. Overlooking the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, physically and culturally African, having been part of the historical Silk Road, it was a natural consequence that several of these cultures would leave their traces in this Moroccan crossroads. More so, it is interesting to study how these external influences were re-interpreted and incorporated into handmade Moroccan crafts.
Understanding Moroccan Culture by Looking at Walili (Volubilis)
To demonstrate this interplay of influences, Walili, an archaeological site located near the city of Meknes, will serve as a primary example. Latinized as Volubilis, Walili is often referred to as a Roman ruin. Several attributes of the Roman Empire could be observed in Walili such as the characteristic stone masonry in many Roman cities, but crucial elements never existed in Walili which could be seen in even the tiniest of Roman towns (such a coliseum, theatre and circus). This is an indication that Walili is more accurately described as a Berber (or ‘Amazigh’, referring to the native population) town that was Romanised. Even the mosaics show signs which dominate in Berber folk art.
The line and crosses that surround the edges of this panel of mosaics are motifs that are heavily used in Berber rugs of the Middle Atlas. This tower-shaped line is understood to represent the ‘male’ in Berber symbology. Male motifs almost always surround the edges of the carpet in Berber weaving art (much like in this panel), with female motifs such as lozenges within the perimeters of said lines, linking these to the dominant themes of fertility in traditional Berber folk art. Studying Volubilis reveals that there is a certain degree of Roman influence in this historically Amazigh site, and the two cultures’ overlap can be observed in handmade craftwork.
Moroccan Crafts: Origins of Moroccan Embroidery
It is safe to say that the caftan and Moroccan embroidery have become international icons in the fashion industry, but how much do we really know about their origins? Much like how Moroccan embroidery continues to defy the physical geographical boundaries to reach the most recognisable fashion runways, the caftan was initially born out of this constant movement of people. Its history is tightly knit with that of artisans of different faiths who fled Visigoth Spain in 1492.
Andalusian embroidery common in northern cities of Morocco tells the story of Levantine concubines who lived in the harems of Fès, who made the journey from the Ottoman Balkans in the 15th and 16th centuries. We now know that this time frame overlaps with Ottoman presence in the Balkans, and Jewish migration through the Balkans, to the south of Spain to Morocco.
Looking closer at Moroccan crafts gives us a deeper understanding of what endows Morocco with a particular quality that would let anybody feel at home; Morocco as we know it is an eclectic mix of the several influences that passed through here. This is why, in an age of increasingly machine-made goods, ‘artisanat’ (handcraft) remains a pillar of Moroccan livelihood; it connects us to others by connecting us to our past.
Moroccan Crafts: Symbols in Popular Culture
Symbols in craft tell the tale of customary beliefs in Morocco. Many of these take the form of animals which feature in items of everyday use (such as in embroidered caftans, rugs, jewelry, ceramics…). Some of these animals are the bird, the snake, the lizard and the camel.
The Symbol of the Bird
Birds are generally considered to be beneficial; they bring a strong ‘baraka’ (blessing). The only exceptions are the ravens and night birds, due to their behaviour, their colour, and their cry. Birds commonly feature in superstition and popular belief. In Marrakesh and other mellahs (Jewish neighbourhoods), some Jews believed that the birds uttered curses against the home. Some birds are endowed with saint-like qualities, such as eagles and birds of prey, as well as the swallow, sparrow and turtle doves.
Because birds live in the sky, they are believed to be the intermediaries between the land and sky. It is believed that fortune tellers have their tame birds which bring them news uttered by public criers forty days before they occur on earth. Birds of all sorts flutter amongst the flowers on embroidered pieces of Rabat, whether on caftans, in gold thread, or on ceremonial cushions.
The Symbol of the Snake
The snake, by sharp contrast, is understood to be the king of the land, possessing knowledge of secrets of the territories it roams. Symbol of knowledge endowed with protective qualities, the snake often features on talismans and are also nicknamed the ‘guardians of treasures’.
The Symbol of the Lizard
As for the lizard, it is known to be in constant pursuit of the sun, which in popular culture grants it the reputation of a contemplative soul, as well as an immortal quality due to its regenerative tail.
The Symbol of the Camel
I’ve had people ask me on several occasions if students rode camels to schools in Morocco. For those who are still curious—we do not, but they were for a long time just as necessary! Camels were used for moussems (folkloric festivals). Paraded around the neighbourhoods of Marrakesh and then sacrificed in the village of Moulay Brahim, camels were believed to collect the citizens’ sins.
When talking about a country as diverse and culturally-rich as Morocco, it is important to do so with a certain level of depth that goes beneath our enchantment with its colours and tastes. Although Moroccan crafts are known to be aesthetically pleasing, I believe it becomes even more fascinating when we dig beneath the surface to unpack the cultural significance behind this beauty. Morocco is inspiring, humbling, and full of wonder. The origin of its charm lies beneath what meets the eye, and this is why it grasps the hearts of its passers-by and its locals all the same.
© All photos via Maha Alouani