You who enter my door, may your highest hopes be exceededInscription above the door of the Medersa Ali Bin Youssef
Some of the most beautiful architecture I have seen has been in the Islamic world. Islamic art shuns the depiction of living figures, whether human or animal, partly to avoid any suggestion of idolatry and partly because it is believed that the creation of living forms is Allah’s prerogative. Instead the emphasis is on geometric forms as well as calligraphy and abstract floral motifs.
The designs employ everything from simple circles and squares through more complex lozenges and stars. Typically the shapes will be repeated and overlapped to create more elaborate and intricate patterns. For instance, two squares can be overlapped and one turned through ninety degrees to form an eight pointed star, a very common motif. Octagons can be tessellated with small squares, or triangles linked in chains with star shapes formed between them. Circles are used extensively too, symbolising unity and diversity in nature.
Let me take you on a tour of a few buildings in Marrakesh to show just how beautiful these designs can be. All are created through the clever application of geometry, the theme of this week’s Sunday Stills challenge.
El Bahia Palace: the palace of Ba Ahmed
My first thought on visiting the El Bahia Palace was that the one-time slave and his son who built it, Si Moussa and Ba Ahmed, did all right for themselves! This is an impressive and beautiful complex, seeming more fit for a ruler than for that ruler’s servants; but these were no ordinary servants. Si Moussa had risen from his lowly start as a slave to become Sultan Moulay Hassan’s chamberlain, and then his grand vizier. He started to build his palace, on the foundations of several old houses on the northern fringes of the Jewish quarter of Marrakech (the Mellah), around 1860. He named it for his favourite wife; a fitting name, as it translates as ‘Brilliance’.
Si Moussa’s son Ba Ahmed, also a grand vizier and later regent to Moulay Hassan’s son Moulay Abd el Aziz, continued to enlarge the palace. Ba Ahmed was one of those people who just didn’t know when to stop! His additions to his father’s rather more harmonious palace were somewhat piecemeal. When he wanted more space, or was able to acquire some land through the purchase of neighbouring houses or even streets, he added a few more rooms.
The palace can therefore seem rather chaotic in terms of design. But at its heart is Dar Si Moussa, the grand courtyard, an impressive yet tranquil space. It is built in white Carrara marble, which in the bright sunlight when we visited was almost painful to look at. The floor is criss-crossed with relatively restrained zellige tile-work forming squares. But it is the vivid blue and yellow painted diamond lattice work decorating the arches between the pillars that makes the most striking impression. There are three round marble basins along its centre; and around its perimeter are the rooms that once housed the harem. These are shielded from view with ornate grilles and windows filled with stained glass imported from Iraq.
The colonnades are further ornamented with elaborate painted ceilings with a myriad of stars, hexagons, triangles and other geometrical shapes.
Musée Dar Si Said
This building dates from the nineteenth century. It was built by Sidi Said, a royal vizier (minister). He was the half-brother of Ba Ahmed Ben Moussa, the former slave who built the El Bahia Palace. Although smaller than the latter, it is still sumptuous while at the same time feeling much more like a home.
While it serves as a museum (and does house some lovely and/or interesting objects) it was the building itself that made by far the strongest impression on me. On a scorching hot day, it was a pleasure to wander its (relatively) cool rooms and linger in its courtyards.
Some of the most spectacular decorative features are to be found in the suite of rooms on the first floor. The centrepiece is a stunning wedding-reception chamber. The work of artisans from Fez, it has a carved and painted domed ceiling and exquisite stucco and zellige work.
My feature photo above was taken here, and the further images below feature stars, diamond lozenges, circles, triangles and many other shapes. See how many you can spot!
Medersa Ali Bin Youssef
This former Koranic school no longer functions as such. Thus it offers the non Muslim visitor to Marrakesh a relatively rare opportunity to see inside a traditional religious building (mosques and active medersa being off-limits there).
I have tried to establish the history of this wonderful building, but there are conflicting accounts online. The official website says that it was named for a 15th century Marinid ruler; while Wikipedia claims its namesake to be a 12th century Almoravid sultan who founded the neighbouring mosque. Both though agree that the bulk of the current structure dates from the mid 16th century, under Sharif Abdallah al-Ghalib. It was once the largest Koranic school in North Africa, accommodating 900 students in 132 dormitory rooms. It was renovated in the 19th century and continued to operate until 1960 when it closed down. Following restoration work it was opened to the public in 1982.
Above the entrance is an inscription: ‘You who enter my door, may your highest hopes be exceeded’. And if what you hope for is a stunning, incredibly photogenic building, those hopes may well be, if not exceeded, then certainly fulfilled. The decorative work here is really exquisite, and nowhere more so than in its main courtyard. The lower metre or so of the walls is covered in five-colour zellige tiles; the small diamond lozenges are arranged to form star shapes.
Above this runs a line of calligraphy; above this the rest of the wall is a riot of stucco work. Beams, door and window frames are in cedar wood, and the mihrab on the western side is carved in white Italian Carrara marble.
Looking up to the first floor you can see the windows of the dormitory cells, from which the students would have looked down; and climbing the stairs either side of the courtyard entrance you can do the same. Find a cell that is empty of other tourists and try to imagine the many young boys who would have occupied it and studied here. And then get your camera out, as the opportunities for beautifully symmetrical, elegant images abound.
Musée de Marrakesh
This museum is housed in a former palace, the Dar Mnebhi. It was named for its former owner, Mehdi Mnebhi, who was the country’s defence minister during the reign of Sultan Moulay Abdelaziz around the turn of the 20th century. Mnebhi was the object of a rather sneaky plot; while he was away in England, receiving a medal from Queen Victoria, England conspired with France and Spain to colonise North Africa. Mnebhi’s palace was seized by the somewhat infamous Pacha Glaoui, who collaborated with the colonising French. Later this palace became a girls’ school, before being adapted to house the museum in 1997.
It is worth visiting as much, or even more, for the building itself as for the exhibits. The latter are an eclectic mix of contemporary art and objects relating to Moroccan culture and daily life: pottery, costume, teapots and more. They are displayed in a series of small rooms leading off the spectacular central courtyard. This is now roofed and has an equally splendid wooden chandelier. The columns around its perimeter are decorated with hexagonal zellige tiles, arranged to form diamonds. And the alcoves have more zellige tiles, this time lozenge shaped, which are clustered into squares, circles, and stars.
More Marrakesh geometry
I’ll finish with a selection of other geometrical shapes spotted in various Marrakesh locations.
I visited Marrakesh in 2009 and 2016; all these photos were taken on that second visit