29 January 2013

Marrakech, Morocco - Part II

Many of the pictures I took in Morocco were of art and architecture.  Moroccans have definitely taken an incredible amount of time designing, constructing, and decorating their buildings.  They are intricately and beautifully detailed.  The art is quite amazing and unique as well, thanks to some of the artistic taboos in Islamic culture.  I've tried to capture the results here... Morocco leaves one spellbound and in awe of the details that surround you, even more so when you consider that everything was designed and put together by other people.

So, this post will focus more on some of the museums, art, and architecture of Marrakech.  I love art and architecture... they are two wide open windows to a culture and its particular point in history, a peaceful way in which people from a particular society and point in time can showcase their feelings, ideas, and ideals to the world.  If I haven't conveyed it clearly enough in the last message, Marrakech oozes character.. like this assortment of signs on a corner.

First stop, the Marrakech Museum...

Housed in a 19th century palace, the museum showcases traditional and contemporary Moroccan art, but the palace itself is arguably the star showpiece.

I loved these paintings.  The artist skirted the Islamic taboo of painting people's images by using this hazy, dream-like style, which blurs the features and most importantly the faces.  The colors in the painting above just drew me in... the Tuareg blues with the golden sands and brown skins.  The Tuareg are a Berber people that live in the desert regions of northwest Africa.  They are a very interesting, traditionally nomadic people, and I'll discuss them in more detail in the desert posts.  

Another painting by the same artist depicted a cavalry charge in which the riders fired their rifles into the air.  This is focussed in on one of the riders and his horse... it's amazing how blurred the picture really is, but when you step back, the subject and content are very clear. 

The inner courtyard.  The lighting in here is very yellow because of the sunlight coming through the canvas that covers this once open-air area.  The brass lamp hanging above the central fountain is enormous.  Like more standard Moroccan homes, palaces are not very ornate on the outside, but instead focus on beauty on the inside, particularly centered around the central courtyard.  This is very much reflective of the culture itself and has much to do with privacy for women.  Facades might seem dull or rough, but inside things are beautiful, inviting, and bright.

This was where I first started to realize just how incredibly intricate Moroccan architectural decoration is.  Everything is seemingly very finely detailed... the closer you look, the more intricate it gets.  It's beautiful, especially for someone with an appreciation for mathematics... very fractal-like.

Even this old wooden door was immaculately decorated.  The designers were masters of geometry... filling essentially every bit of available space with detail, but making it all fit together so well, like a very intricate puzzle.  Carved cedar wood is a common feature of Moroccan motifs.

This post won't have too many written details...I'll save that for the photos.  The basis for Moroccan architecture comes from the Arabs and the Middle East.  Over centuries though, Moroccans have added their own twist to things, most of which comes out in the decorative forms.

Beautifully painted wooden ceilings are another typical motif.  I was held nearly hypnotized by this one, which was in an otherwise empty room (aside from a hanging lamp) off of the central courtyard.

The museum also showcased some of the traditional textile art from around the country.  As with everything else, these rugs and blankets were beautifully and colorfully decorated and must have taken a very, very long time to produce.

Arches and archways are also very popular in Morocco... the rounded horseshoe and more traditional Middle Eastern pointed arch being the most common, both of which can be seen here.

Just around the corner from the Marrakech Museum is the Ben Youssef Medersa (madrasa), which is open to tourists.  Medersas are religious schools, where students come to learn about Islam.  Ben Youssef is possibly the most beautifully decorated place I saw in Morocco as well.

Carved stucco and zellij tile-work.  Zellij mosaics are often based on star patterns in the center, with other features emanating radially outward, as you'll come to see again and again in this and later posts.  The stucco at Ben Youssef was just overwhelmingly complex too.  With all of these pictures, just consider the symmetry... the spaces are filled nearly perfectly by the designs, which is not an easy task.

Anyone familiar with Arabic will recognize the writing that is worked into the designs.  This is a common feature of Islamic buildings.

I became obsessed with the details... hypnotized by the intricacy of it all.  The attention to detail and display of patience and devotion and commitment makes it that much more spectacular and beautiful.

The scale of the detail is just overwhelming at times.  Looking out into the courtyard like this, particularly when you are standing there and have full knowledge of just how big the whole thing is, really fills one with a sense of awe.  I was very much impressed and humbled by the medersa.  I can see how it would be a very inspirational place to work and learn.  The building alone seems too complex for any human to conceptualize on their own, provoking thoughts of the divine.  It is also a wonderful thing that, unlike mosques, medersas are open to non-Muslims.  I genuinely appreciated being able to experience this, though I was also haunted by the fact that many medersas around the world function as hives of hatred and ignorance.  Often funded by wealthy Arab states or individuals, medersas have been established in many, many poor communities throughout Africa and Asia (e.g., Afghanistan), offering the seemingly too-good-to-be-true opportunity of a free education for impoverished children.  In many cases, this is a good thing, and children really do receive a decent education in the schools (albeit with a heavy religious influence/skew).  In some cases however, the medersa can be administered by extremists, who only poison the minds of the students, breeding more extremism.  In my personal opinion, education should be as open minded as possible... with teachers providing students with viewpoints from all sides of any issue or history, providing them with the tools to draw their own conclusions in their own time.  

OK... back to the architecture... this keyhole arched doorway was wonderfully unique. 

A calm pool in the central courtyard.  The central courtyards often focus around a source of clean, fresh water, like a fountain or pool.  Some in wealthier homes (see below for example) even housed gardens with various fruit trees and herbs and vegetables.

Looking across the courtyard from the second floor.  The second floor was very interesting; unlike the large, open rooms of the ground floor, the second floor was compartmentalized into a hive of small, dark living spaces.  Supposedly, even the smallest alcoves were occupied by students or teachers.  Many were very dark, and the devoted academics would spend their spare hours in prayer, meditation, or reading the Koran by candlelight.  At its height, 800 students were supposedly housed here, which is almost unbelievable despite the significant size of the complex.

In the central courtyard of the Bahia Palace.  Technically, this is a riad, an enclosed garden, though most now think of riads as former mansions or palaces that have been converted to hotels for wealthy tourists.  On the southern end of the medina (city center), on the other side of the Djemaa from the Marrakech Museum and Ben Youssef Medersa, lies the Royal Palace complex.  Like any other place where a wealthy, powerful ruler lived, the aristocracy that formed the royal court had places of their own nearby.  The Bahia Palace is one such "home" of a 19th century family that was very influential in the lives of the ruling sultanate.  

I'd suggest a visit to the Bahia Palace.  When I was there, there were only a few other tourists, many of whom were Moroccan.  The atmosphere was cool, calm, and peaceful... allowing me to really take in and appreciate a lot of the details.  

The palace offers all of the now familiar motifs of Moroccan architecture.  It feels somewhat dead though, as did the rest of the historic buildings like this I visited in Morocco, due mostly to the lack of any furniture or decorations (beside from that of the motif).  The modern riad hotels however offer a lot of this plus that genuine, lived-in feeling.

I really appreciated the decorated undersides of the pedestals at the tops of door-frames (as seen here in the upper right corner).

I reflected a lot on how this complex was really the home of a very, very wealthy and powerful family. It made me wonder at the similarities to wealthy families today.  I'm always disturbed at the incredible difference between those with very little and those with very much, and Morocco was no different than pretty much anywhere else in the world, whether it be 200 years ago or today.

The Bahia Palace was expanded upon over several generations in the family.  It is a massive complex, which is nearly impossible to discern from the street.  From outside, it seems tucked away behind drab, high walls.  This hides the true interior... probably originally for safety reasons.

Storks on the Royal Palace walls... there are nests of the large birds all along the top of the walls of the enormous Royal Palace complex.  In the apparent style of things there, the Palace itself is not visible from the outside...only these incredibly (seriously like around 8 meters or so) high mud walls. 

Ruins of the El Badi Palace.  The only part of the Royal Palace complex that is open to tourists (or even visible) is the old El Badi Palace... which is a ruin.  The modern Royal Palace is supposedly privately owned by a wealthy French businessman.  These ruins of El Badi hail from the 16th century, and other than the size of the complex, they aren't terribly impressive.  I'm sure in its prime, though, it would have been incredible.  The sunken gardens and central pools are pretty neat features, and the place really is huge.  The views over the city are definitely worth the price of admission too.

Apparently the Palace is being restored, at least partially.  It will be neat to see how it looks after it's done.

Nearby the palaces is the Kasbah Mosque.  This includes darj w ktaf decoration (the fleurs de lys pattern on the facade), which is another popular motif in Moroccan architecture.

And adjacent to the Kasbah Mosque are the Saadian Tombs, which are most definitely worth a visit.  Along with the El Badi Palace and Ben Youssef Medersa, these tombs hail from the 16th century, with the oldest dating to 1557.  

The mausoleum is just stunning... there is this eerie light and all of those intricate details.  The burial places themselves, marked with those tiered carvings on the floor, stand in stark contrast to all the rest.

The detail is just incredible... it seems almost organic in places.

Most of the classic Moroccan features were also present at the tombs.

There was a line to see the tombs while I was there, but the complex is a little bigger, with a small garden at the back end.  If you're patient, it's not difficult to just wait for the crowd to wane and enjoy a little time to yourself in this incredible setting.

Note how the lines in this zellij are woven together...supposedly it is all just one line...everything is connected.  You see this a lot in the zellij and cedar carvings.  I couldn't find break points (outside of the edges, which are all one white line anyway), so it might be true!  Mention somewhere above that since images are not big in Islamic art/culture, geometry and intricate details are popular.

Here's my door shot... I really do have to get a coffee table book made up with my pictures of doors from around the world.

The simplicity of the tombs just contrasted so well with the complexity of the surrounding architecture.  It is powerfully quiet.

Now, back at the hotel.  This was the courtyard at the quaint little place we stayed at.  Everything was covered in tiles... it was really quite impressive and a little bizarre at times too.  

I thoroughly enjoyed the recycled sections, where they had used old tile fragments to decorate the walls... very cool!

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