Monthly Archives: September 2013


It’s a little hard to believe that something like this:
fj4WAjGD-M5AtA37jkX3Y_VWdtNE1AgjMjoqiIwS4xwstarts out something like this:

Or, to be more accurate, it starts as a bit of mud, which is shaped into a tile and glazed; those glazed tiles then have patterns sketched upon them and a maalem or master craftsman cuts the tiles precisely into tiny khatams, safts, and related shapes. 

The last day of the Art of Islamic Pattern study tour, we visit a zellij workshop.  The maalem or zellij master sits cross-legged on the floor all day, chipping the tiles into shape.

He set up a chair for us neophytes, though, insisting that it was too difficult for us even to attempt to chip a tile from a cross-legged position.SONY DSC

The chisel is heavier than you might think, and some coaching is in order:SONY DSC

It turns out that the crucial factor is the angle between the chisel, the tile, and the thin metal surface on which the tile rests.

Adam, a sculptor, says that this is a little like splitting stone: get the angle right, and a single blow on a huge block of stone will split it down to the floor.

Pages from a long-ago magazine article are posted on the walls of the workshop, showing various steps of the process:

Once everyone who’s interested has had a chance to try cutting the zellij, we go downstairs to the room where the zellij are actually assembled.

Sometimes, a frame is used…

But clearly, some of the designs are created freehand:

Notice that the patterns are constructed face down, with the colors obscured.  Imagine getting a color wrong in a split-second of distraction and discovering the mistake only at a much later moment of truth.

James arrives with Zoe and Jeremy just as we are about to make our own little tiles, so I let the children take over my piece:

Once the pieces are arranged in the appropriate order, a temporary wooden frame is placed around them to hold them close together.  Then some grouting powder is sprinkled over them…

and water is flicked onto that grouting powder with a paintbrush.  What fun!

Then comes the plaster, rapidly applied by one of the apprentices of the workshop:

While the plaster is drying, Jeremy tries out other patterns as the maalem (master) rapidly creates a few additional shapes for other people’s patterns.

Finally, voila: the finished tile.

Now we just have to extend that pattern a hundred-fold or so to arrive at a small fountain design…

Replicating and generating patterns of Islamic art…

is a whole lot harder than you might think–but also kind of obsessively compelling.bV90jY4TdgxKR9EQ32sl5tPrKBkHQk9MdCQS8rgczvM
Here, Adam is trying to teach me how to see the patterns, the grids, underlying biomorphic designs in the Al-Attarine, but really, it’s a bit of a hopeless task.  Take this panel, for instance:
I thought this little creature with eyes should be the repeating motif.  So adorable!
Oops.  Probably that’s not meant to be a creature at all.  The double loop at the center of the image below (and placed in the four corners of the design as well) is a better unit to focus on for tracking the extension and tessellation of the image.  See the grid that comes into focus around that repeated double loop?  You’re looking for a rhomb, a dynamic (or diagonal) square shape that repeats both vertically and horizontally.
And now can you see why some of us might find this process challenging?

The plaster carvers would have created a cardboard (in medieval times, stiff paper or vellum) template to draw the design grid on the fresh, damp plaster.  Then they would have “pumiced” the shape through the template, leaving black pigment on the plaster–and then they would have used fine, sharp tools to carve out the plaster into these shapes.

Adam has carefully parsed pattern after pattern for us.  Here’s just one example: the stunning door and knocker at the Al-Attarine.  The knocker itself is a khatam (static square plus diagonal square extended out from it), extended further into an eight-pointed star…P1000939
What about the door behind the knocker?  It’s almost like a variation on my beloved “breath of the compassionate” pattern: khatams, some surrounded by four dynamic squares, diagonal crosses, plus safts (or petals) to fill out the pattern.

Adam takes the analysis one step further, drawing out the incredibly fine (and faint) biomorphic design traced within each of those large safts:P1000941
Isn’t this amazing?  First, the painstaking detail of the design–and then the painstaking, even meditative recreation of that design.
Not to mention the painstaking correction of student errors in attempts to further replicate those designs…

Geometry and generation:
On the geometrical side, meanwhile, Richard (having walked us through the many stages of creating a 12-fold rosette among other patterns), asks us to think about the shapes that can be generated from a khatam.  Some of us understand the question well enough to sketch some possible shapes.  (Tip: think about cutting pieces out of a khatam or possibly extending corners out to make a new shape.)

Richard chooses the most useful propositions and has us cut out templates for creating watercolor zellij–paper versions of the cut tiles used in Maghrebi mosaics.
We paint and cut out the shapes, and then we play with different arrangements, from small to large:
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Some principles for productive play: 1) think about the white space; 2) join shapes point to point, not side to side; 3) follow straight lines to extend patterns; 4) be intentional about color patterns; 5) share your pieces; 6) have fun!

Breath of compassion

If you’re like me, all that beauty is still too much.  So let’s concentrate on geometry alone for the moment–geometry in the form of zellij:


I’m still overwhelmed.  Five-pointed stars, ten-pointed stars, safts (petals) of many different varieties.  How do I make sense of unity and variation here?

According to Critchlow,“Islam’s concentration on geometric patterns draws attention away from the representational world to one of pure forms, poised tensions, and dynamic equilibrium, giving structural insight into the workings of the inner self and their reflection in the universe.”

I need a little help translating that structural insight.

Critchlow and his students, including Richard and Adam, work to articulate those structural insights by reconstructing the geometrical forms one step at a time.  Implicit in this workshop is the sense of a spiritual discipline in following, re-enacting the construction of a pattern, as if those of us laboriously following the model before us could also abstract ourselves from three dimensions to two or even one, from embodiment to spirit.  Certainly the room is full of concentration, and amusement at our struggles.
BbAileQRyw5Cmsh_c0y7NvBparVQvXWVH83ZKr4JR50,yczdbh7v_akZCgyFX1PA5EGU7W8U18QUyvUsL9yNo7MSama straightening out one of my many confusions…

Geometric patterns in the Maghreb are most consistently based on four-fold symmetry, Richard tells us.

Richard begins with first principles: the point as abstract concept and its material embodiment; the line coming from the point, defining the horizon; the circle, drawn from a point on that horizon, representing unity: the heavenly circle.
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He draws two departing circles, with the same radius, centered where the circumference of the original circle meets the horizon:
Centering the compass on the top and then the bottom of each vesica (intersecting shapes–see handwritten note above), we draw intersecting arcs to define a vertical line.

Next, we place the point of the compass at the intersection of the vertical line with the original circle and draw semi-circles touching the line of the horizon: this produces four petals.
If we draw diagonal lines out from the center, passing through the outer intersection point of each petal, we will have marked eight points on the original circle: these eight points define the shape of the khatam or seal of Solomon, a static square with a dynamic or diagonal square intersecting.
Richard speeds through this introduction and goes on to develop the basic relationships sketched here into a pattern with four- and twelve-fold symmetry.  But I’m lost, still stuck back on a phrase lightly tossed off: a pattern of khatams touching at the points of the dynamic squares creates a pattern known as the breath of compassion (or breath of the compassionate), after the work of medieval Islamic philosopher Ibn Arabi, who spent time in Fez.

After class, I ask Richard to explain the pattern and the reason for its name more fully, then I go back to my hotel room with its functioning internet and look up Ibn Arabi.  Here’s what I find:

“Ibn al-‘Arabî looks at God’s creativity as an analogue of human speech. Just as we create words and sentences in the substratum of breath, so God creates the universe by articulating words in the Breath of the All-Merciful (nafas al-rahmân), which is the deployment of existence (inbisât al-wujûd); indeed, existence itself is synonymous with mercy (rahma).” [“Ibn Arabi,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, online, first published 2008]

I’m reminded of the Tibetan Buddhist practice of tonglen, where one works to breathe in suffering, and breathe out compassion.  To think of existence as synonymous with compassion offers a wonderful (if sometimes distant) ideal.  This month (September 2013) a Pakistani Christian church will be bombed and a Kenyan mall violently occupied by terrorists.  Breathe in suffering, breathe out compassion.

The breath of compassion pattern expands into khatams, then compresses back into a cross or x form as each point of the khatam folds in.  This visual, from, makes it easy to see the relationship between the two forms:


The pattern can be elegantly simple, or marvelously complex:
images from and

Daud Sutton says that the naming of this pattern after Ibn Arabi is a relatively recent phenomenon, but the pattern itself is clearly of long standing.  I like connecting this pattern to a sense of divine creativity, and to the central prayer of Islam: Bismillah ir-rahman ir-rahim.  In the name of God, the most compassionate, the most merciful.

Monumental art and contemplation

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The problem with entering a space like the courtyard of the Bou Inania or Al-Attarine is that the design is overwhelming: it feels impossible to process all the wealth of visual detail and beauty.  (Rather than focusing on a single place in this post, I’ll be using images from both medersas [Islamic schools]  as I wrestle with the kinds and inter-relationships of Islamic patterns.)

Perhaps if one were a student here, living and studying and praying in this space every day, the pattern would work on you at a subliminal level—or perhaps each day you might pick out a different element, a different image or detail, as a kind of meditative practice, focusing your mind.

But for those of us merely passing through, how can we receive the gift of this place more deeply than a superficial, dizzying glance?

Does analysis help?  Isolating specific elements to try to understand their meaning, before reconsidering them in context?



Maybe if you’re Adam or Richard, it helps significantly.  But even for me, slowing the eye, forcing it to rest and register, is a useful exercise.


How do we learn to look in this kind of a space?  Let’s start with the architectural layering:
geometric patterns on the floor
speaking to the zellij on the lowest level of the walls,
with calligraphy at eye level,
then biomorphic plaster carving
leading up to intricately carved cedar wood,
which leads the eye still higher, to the heavens.  The cedar may be the only original component here: the plaster has certainly been renewed, and some of the zellij shows its age.

According to Daud Sutton, “The visual structure of Islamic design has two key aspects: calligraphy using Arabic script—one of the world’s great scribal traditions—and abstract ornamentation using a varied but remarkably integrated visual language.” (Islamic design: a genius for geometry, 2007, 1)

Calligraphy tends to be placed at eye level or slightly above—never below the head—and it turns the oral tradition of the Qu’ran (which, as you may know, is the recitation of the visions granted to Mohammed, and only belatedly a written text) into luxuriant visual beauty.  For anyone struggling to read Arabic script, the beauty quickly overwhelms the meaning, but for students writing and memorizing different verses of the Qu’ran on a daily basis, the beauty presumably extends the meaning of the verse.


Geometry and biomorphic design
The ornamentation surrounding this calligraphy “revolves around two poles: geometric pattern, the harmonic and symmetrical subdivision of the plane giving rise to intricately interwoven designs that speak of infinity and the omnipresent center; and idealized plant form or arabesque, spiraling tendrils, leaves, buds and flowers embodying organic life and rhythm” (Sutton, 1).  Infinity and the omnipresent center: Allah is the center of all things, of the infinitely varied development of the universe.  For Keith Critchlow, geometry “reflects the facets of a jewel, the purity of the snowflake and the frozen flowers of radial symmetry” while biomorphic design registers “the glistening flank of a perspiring horse, the silent motion of a fish winding its way through the water, the unfolding and unfurling of the leaves of the vine and rose.” (Islamic Patterns: An Analytical and Cosmological Approach, 1976, 8)  All three aspects of Islamic pattern inter-relate: biomorphic pattern relies on geometrical relationships for its tessellation and expansion;

and different modes of Islamic calligraphy may lean toward biomorphic flowing lines on the one hand

or more fixed geometric shapes on the other.


Biomorphic design
Adam stresses the logic inherent in the biomorphic elements of Islamic design: spirals are curves that look back to their points of origin.  Biomorphic designs flow out, then back, bowing in humility to the creator.  Balance is central to biomorphic design: nothing should stand out.  All is humility and peace.


And well-nigh impossible beauty:


Fès: domestic architecture and its logic

In this post, I’m trying to reconstruct a presentation given by Alla of Dar Seffarine, an architect originally from Iraq, but now a long-time resident of Fès.   Alla and his wife Kate own the guesthouse Dar Seffarine; Alla also specializes in reconstructing traditional houses in the Fès medina, so he has thought deeply about the architectural features of the typical Fassi house.

Imagine these words as spoken by Alla, as he gestures towards the features recorded in the photos.  (All errors, of course, are mine–and the first photo is actually of David Amster showing our group an entry to a derb, where the door and the guardian would have been located.)
Alla: Every derb, or residential street, should have a door at its beginning, and that door should be watched by a guardian.  The guardian will ask of each visitor: where are you going? who are you coming to see? how long will you stay?  Only in the past 60-70 years has the tradition of the doors been lost, the doors themselves sold, the guardians unemployed.  This entry (to Dar Seffarine) is actually the door to the street.  Since there are only two houses on the street, the government lets us maintain the street door between us.
The riad is the garden (visible just through the window above the right-hand door); the house or dar exists just beside the garden.  A duera is a small house connected to another house: servants’ quarters, housing the servants and slaves who served the family of the dar.
When you come to the house proper, you will notice that the door that opens for daily use is on the right side.  You use your right hand to open the door. All this emphasis on the right hand comes from the Quran, which teaches that the right hand is the good hand.
The door opens to the inside of the house, and you find yourself in the corridor.  Every house has a corridor: it is an essential part of the house.  Sometimes, the corridor is only a meter long; sometimes it is much longer and has a door at each end; but all traditional Fassi houses have a corridor.  To be polite, you stand in the corridor as your host goes into main part of the house and tells the women to leave, that a guest will be entering.
Notice the square holes down at foot level: these are ventilation for the basement.  Fassi houses have basements, with columns and arches, where one can escape the heat of the summer.  Some houses, you enter, and then go four or five steps down: again, the principle is to use the cooling available below grade.
Also in the corridor, you may see windows to the street: this will help with ventilation.
The street itself may be roofed (as seen in the second photo of this post) to create a tunnel to help move the breeze through the space.
Above your head, you may see a boxed in area.  This is a storage space for taxes, or zakat, the charitable giving obligatory in Islam.  At the end of Ramadan, each household had to give 1.5 kilos of flour to the poor [multiplied by some factor, it seems to me—bb].  That boxed area made it possible for householders to buy the flour when it was cheap, store it, and then distribute it at the appropriate moment.
Immediately inside the door to the house, you see another door, leading to an internal staircase: this allows the man of the family to visit one of his wives without the others having to know.  Separate doors for separate wives: this minimizes conflict within the family.
On the wall in our corridor, we have hung the contract of sale for our house.  As you can see, this is a large document, recording the most recent three sales.  The three pages—one for each separate sale—are bound together.  Every time the house is sold, the oldest contract is removed, and the newest contract connected to the document.

At the end of the corridor, we have another door—a door within the door.  The larger door allows for large items to enter or leave the home; the small door, for everyday use, forces the person entering to duck.  You must enter the house with respect.  When you have stepped through the doorway and you straighten up, you raise your eyes to the calligraphy opposite, which reads: “All this belongs to God” or “There is no power but God.” This saying counterbalances pride in the owner of the house and envy in the visitor.
Finally, you find the courtyard on your right.  You will never enter a traditional house directly: always, you turn to discover the house, the central courtyard.
That courtyard is open to allow for gradual cooling overnight.  Houses in Fès were single-storey buildings originally.  Seffarine’s small minaret tells the story: the minaret must always rise above surrounding buildings, but today that minaret is dwarfed by the houses and buildings around it.  Originally, the houses would have been a single story, but as the city grew and wealth increased, homeowners expanded their houses upwards, building additional living quarters around the existing courtyard.
On either side of the courtyard, two salons face each other: one salon is for family use; one is for entertaining guests.  This salon is a man’s space.

Above, there is a mezzanine for the women’s use, where the women could sit and listen to the men’s conversation without being seen.
[BB: From the inside, the mezzanine is fabulously decorated with ornate zouaq–painted wood–but it’s a small space, too low to stand in.  Definitely only a space for sitting on the floor and listening.]
The norm in domestic architecture as in more monumental or sacred spaces, is to decorate the floor and lower areas with zellij, tiles in complex geometric patterns; above the zellij comes plaster (often plain, then carved), calligraphy (in plaster or tile), and then carved or painted wood.  Dates in houses are recorded in terms of the Hijra or Islamic calendar–a lunar calendar starting with 622, the year Mohammed moved to Medina–and they normally just register the date the most recent plaster was finished.

To complement Alla’s presentation, here’s a map of a traditional Fassi house before the Protectorate from Roger Le Tourneau’s book:

Here you can see the stairs, the bathroom, the kitchen, and the entryway.    But what stays with you after a visit to Dar Seffarine is the glory of that courtyard, lifting the eye to  wonders overhead.


Craftspeople in the Fès medina

As part of the study tour, Jess Stephens split us into two groups and set up a series of visits with artisans working in the Fez medina.

Seffarine square is the brassworker’s square, with metal being hammered, joined, and heated.  To make a brass pot, for instance, first the side is hammered out, then the base, then the two are joined.
Small pieces of brass and aluminum are combined to make the seam, then the seam is heated in an open fire:
Once the pot comes out of the fire, it’s beaten some more, to smooth and strengthen the seam.

Finished pots are lined with aluminum; they’re surprisingly light-weight.

Around the corner from the brassworkers is a quiet square known as Carpenter’s square, though there’s only one woodworker still present, urged by city government to remain.
He makes simple three-legged stools for other artisans in the medina; he can also make musical instruments, or even a peg-leg (a small model hangs in the doorway of his workshop as a way of clarifying specifications).


The dyer’s street (As-Sabbaghin) is also located near Seffarine square, along the river dividing the Karouine bank of Fes from the Andalusian bank.  On a cool morning, the steaming pots of dying fabric have the feel of magic potions.
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And it is a kind of magic, to watch the newly dyed fabric drawn up out of the bucket where it has been steeping:

Dark colors are died in hot water, light colors in cold water.  These days the alum (to fix the color) is included in the dye.  Traditional dyes drew colors from banana leaves, from henna, from kohl, from mint leaves, from zaatar (oregano).

Even the original silk is luscious, satisfying even just to look at: the colors gild the lily.  The “silk” itself is imported from India, but it can also be sourced in Morocco from agave plants (sabra).  Sabra silk is preferred to silk from silkworms because Mohammed banned his male followers from wearing gold or silk, but Sabra silk is a vegetable fibre, exempt from this prohibition.

The knife sharpening shops were not as picturesque as some of the other workshops, but here I had a sense of the ongoing life of the medina.
Everyone needs sharp knives and scissors, after all.
And the shop next store was well-stocked with the small motors that are used to twist the braids that are used to trim djellabas–and we had been ducking those twisting threads at various points on our wanders through the medina.

Fès used to have a public bakery in every neighborhood; people would make their bread at home, and then carry it to the public bakery to be cooked.  Now, as more and more people have ovens at home, the public bakeries are becoming increasingly scarce.  A pity, since the smell of baking bread wafting through the streets is pretty wonderful.

The horn-carver also seems poised on the brink of the past: very picturesque, but I suspect he survives mostly on purchases from foreign tourists.  He takes a sheep horn, and straightens it with a vise to flatten it out.
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Then he cuts, trims, and carves different shapes and utensils out of that horn:
The smallest shapes, like toothpicks, involved fine levels of sanding (and tough heels!):
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The metal embossing seemed most directly relevant to our study of Islamic pattern: the tools, the patterns, the geometric relationships.

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The artisan had worked all over the world: Spain, the United States.  But Fès is home.
Some of his work is drawn from patterns; other pieces he seems to know by heart.

In early fall, by the time you see the sign for the tannery, you’ve already been smelling its potent presence for a while.  Jess handed out squares of ambergris to sniff as a kind of antidote for the smell.

We started up in a shop overlooking the tanneries.  Here you can get a kind of overview of the process: (some of) the pools of white are filled with chalk and salt, to separate the skin from the fur.  Then there are the pools of pigeon droppings, to soften the leather.  SONY DSC   SONY DSC

The dying containers are filled with colors derived from vegetables: red from poppy, blue from indigo, tan from a combination of saffron and mimosa.  There are no yellow vats: unadulterated saffron is so precious and powerful that the dye is painted directly on the pre-softened skins.

The men who work in the tanneries coat their bare legs and hands with olive oil to protect them from the dyes.  (But I don’t imagine the work is good for one’s health.)

That was the overview.  Then two of us went into the tannery itself for a closer look:
Lots of skins.  If you can get past the corpse effect, you can see why softening might be desirable.
Painting the skin with chalk-salt solution just inside the entrance to the tannery:

Scraping fur from leather:



Clearly, the work is physically hard; there’s also an art and a rhythm to it.


And a community among the tanners:

The dyed skins are laid out to dry on any available surface: rooftops, hillsides (near the Merenid tombs).



After drying, the skins are scraped with a half-moon shaped knife, to soften them even more.  FInally, the carefully treated leather is cut and stitched into bags, shoes, belts, and other accoutrements.


Fès the palimpsest

Narrowly defined, a palimpsest is a piece of writing material that’s been used more than once, so that earlier writing has been erased or covered, but traces of that previous text still remain.  Fès is like that, with medieval elements peeking through its modern modes of functioning.  The two time periods intersect most obviously, perhaps, in the fact that the both the UPS guy and the Coca Cola truck are… donkeys.

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The cry of the medina: Andak! Balak!  Look out: donkey coming through!


Can we recreate the previous writing of this palimpsest?  Maybe not.  Who really knows what the oldest layer of Fès (the Idrissid period) looks like?

Alla, Iraqi-Moroccan owner of the guesthouse Dar Seffarine and an architect specializing in Fès restorations, focuses on some basic elements. “Fès had water and materials for building. Mud houses had existed here for many many years, but with the major construction of the city in the 8th century, they imported architectural principles from the East.”

Some of Fès’s rivers are still visible, channeled through cement, but not yet covered over.  The river still serves (and suffers from) the crafts practiced through the city: here, the tannery…
and, hidden under the bridge, some small-scale metalworking.

Materials for building:
The foundational material is “medlouk” (I think this is the regional word for what Marrakshis call tadelakt): 50% lime and 50% sand. The lime (chaux in French) is composed of limestone, marble, and shells; Romans similarly used limestone and volcanic rock to make a kind of concrete.

Medlouk takes its form from the “lime cycle,” connecting the architecture of this area with the limestone of the landscape. What’s the lime cycle? you ask. (Well, let’s pretend you want to know.) When heat is added to limestone, a chemical reaction occurs: CaCO3 turns into CaO (quicklime) plus CO2. When you add water to quicklime, you get slaked lime: CaO + H20 = Ca (OH)2. Expose slaked lime to air and it will slowly react with carbon dioxide to form calcium carbonate or limestone, plus water: CaCO3 + H2O. So here’s one way to think about all this: the buildings in Fès are made out of limestone–mined, fired, and reconstructed limestone. Its architecture is recycled rock–mineral shaped and transformed by humans, but still rock–almost a living, breathing stone.

David Amster, a resident of the medina and a passionate advocate for this traditional building material, says lime mortar is “like a solid sponge.” Because it’s porous, it insulates well: medlouk lets moisture escape. It’s also oddly flexible: in the slaking and the curing process, molecules themselves stretch. Medlouk distributes the weight of the walls–otherwise, the stone at the bottom of a tall Fassi structure would explode from the weight of the upper (stone) stories. In case of seismic activity, medlouk has some “give” to it; if it cracks, it can heal itself. By contrast, cement sets fast but it is brittle–and unlike medlouk, cement is not porous, so it traps moisture.
Cement covered with more traditional plaster

David leads our study tour on a walk through the medina, working to disprove the myth that Fassi exteriors were unimportant in comparison with interiors.  David insists that the original façades were beautiful–though he grants that the interiors were still more beautiful.  The highlights of our walk touch on elements that could have come from many different periods of Fès’s history, though they stress the basic elements of water and building materials.

Until recently, water in Fès was free, available through an ancient system of fountains and pipes.  A siqaya is a public fountain, built by a wealthy homeowner as a public benefit (the plaque on the right announces the name of this siqaya:
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This particular siqaya shows the distance between earlier craftsmanship and more recent repairs:
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The left shows the original zellij; the right shows the relatively shoddy repair work.

The black calligraphy around the fountain is produced by glazing the tiles black, then carving out the negative space around the shapes and letters.  Once again, the recent repair work (visible in the right hand image, in the odd little alien-esque figures) seems laughably poor in comparison with the original.
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Medlouk as an exterior surface has a certain austere beauty, but it could be decorated by pressing wire into the plaster surface before it dries, as in the example of this carefully remodeled house, Al Adir:

Or this more extravagant design:

Below is another design pattern, with bricks visible below. Bricks were expensive, so they would have been left exposed (while stone would be entirely covered with medlouk):

Carved wooden surfaces offer another medium for elaboration: amazingly detailed even when  discoloured by age, and half-hidden by an unattractive street lamp.

Other arches sport small decorative zellij and calligraphy at the keystone:
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David persuaded a friend to restore a wall within the medina to the standard he thinks would have obtained during original construction in ancient Fès : exposed bricks, interesting design, elegant medlouk.  Imagine an entire medina like this:

Architectural principles from the east:
After water and building materials comes architectural principles.  Alla describes  simple shapes, responsive to the environment. Lines: “Follow the breeze. The old street plans are a diagram of the movement of air. The plan of the city sent all roads to the north. But then in the summer came sandstorms, and they moved some of the streets to block the storms.” Circles: “The medina is an organic form. At the center of each neighborhood, there is a mosque. Around the edges, the free façade of that mosque, some trading develops into a suq. Around the suq, houses are built; around the houses, gardens; around the entire area, a wall.”

This map from shows some of the street layouts defining Fès today, though most of the derbs or residential streets don’t appear.  The rivers that watered the ancient city are still visible at the margins.

But descriptions of Idrissid Fès, according to Wikipedia, describe a rural town, a far cry from the sophisticated cities of Al-Andalus (Moorish Spain) and Ifriquia (Algeria/Tunis).  Imagine two small centers, with open areas surrounding them.

The Almoravids
After Idrissid Fès comes Almoravid Fès.  In 1070, the Almoravid Ibn Tashfin conquered Fès and transformed its two rural towns into a single city. Walls separating Medinat Fès from Al-Aliya were taken down, bridges were built over the river, and a new wall was built to connect the two centers. The Qarawiyyin mosque was expanded and renovated in 1134-43 and Fès became a famous center for Maliki legal scholarship. (The Malekite school is one of four major traditions within Sunni Islam: more details coming on a historical reference page.)
Image from Walter B. Denny Islamic Art Photographs, University of Washington Digital Collection

The next dynasty, the Almohads (1121-1269), broke down the old Idrissid city walls and constructed new walls which still define the outer boundaries of Fes el Bali, the old city.  Under the Almohads, Fès became a major center for trade, the largest city in the world in the years 1170-80.  Part of this merchant city’s structure were the funduqs that served as hostels for traveling merchants, with an open courtyard for pack animals surrounded by artisan’s workshops on the groundfloor, with rented rooms on the floors above.

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The magnificently restored funduq now serving as the Nejjarine Museum of wooden arts and crafts was built much later (1711), but it gives a (grander) sense of what the earlier funduqs might have been like.

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Still, I think everyone would agree that the Marinid dynasty (1244-1465)  left  the most extravagant visual effects, particularly in  medersas like the Bou Inania and the Attarine.

Bou Inania

These architectural gems are so complicated, though, that they deserve a post or more just for themselves.   Coming up soon!

Imperial cities: Fès in context

OK, this is a geeky post, with maps and dates.  But where else are you going to find these kinds of details, right?  [Correction: now you can find a much fuller introduction to Fès on my friend Eric Ross’s blog at] Still, I have to get this out of my system before I move onto all the photos of the highly photogenic Fez medina….

Morocco’s four imperial cities—Fez, Marrakech, Meknes, and Rabat—survive with one foot in the present and one in the past in part because they shared the status of “imperial city” with one another for many years.

Fez was founded as Morocco’s first imperial city by the first Moroccan dynasty, the Idrissids.      Actually, it was founded as two separate cities.  First, Idris I founded “Medinat Fas” in 789; then, Idriss II founded Al-Aliyah twenty years later (809).

SONY DSCNotice the important rivers (wadis or oueds) running between and around the two towns

The two towns remained distinct, separately walled, for centuries.  In a bid to gain greater independence from his local Berber protectors,  Idriss II, identifying as an Arab, welcomed two waves of Arab immigration into the city of Fez: first, 800 refugee families from Cordoba settled in Medinat Fas in 818; second, 2000 refugee families from Kairouan settled in Al-Aliyah in 824.  (You can find both cities on the second map below, the one with trade routes: Cordoba in Al-Andalus [modern day Spain], and Kairouan below Tunis, near Sousse.)

SONY DSCImagine, if you can, 2000 families moving across the top of Africa en masse–or 800 families crossing the Straits of Gibraltar.  What chaos that must have been!  Imagine 2800 families–maybe 10,000 people? more?–settling into two tiny towns of mud buildings and trying to build a city big enough to hold them.  The pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock look like pretty small potatoes in comparison.)


Both groups (from Kairouan and from Cordoba) were displaced by conflicts within the Islamic empire, but they arrived in Fez with different cultural assumptions and expectations–and they seem to have maintained those distinct cultures as they maintained the walls of their separate villages (and mosques).  Jama’a means gathering–in the context of the map above, it means the gathering of the faithful in a congregational mosque.  Fatima el Fihri, daughter of a wealthy businessman from Kairouan, founded the Qarawiyine mosque in 859, just 35 years after the refugees arrived in the city.  The medersa, or Islamic school associated with the mosque, is the oldest continuously functioning university in the world.
Photo by Hans Munk Hansen, in the David Collection, Copenhagen

Now if all that that wasn’t complicated enough, let’s add in another factor: shortly before the founding of Fez, another important Moroccan city was founded: Sijilmassa,  gateway to the Sahara and to the lucrative gold trade with Western Africa.  Fez and Sijilmassa were cities in competition with one another, but their fortunes were also closely linked by the trade routes that fed them both.  (Sijilmassa is in the midst of the palm tree symbols below Fez.)


Fez enjoyed the status of (contested) imperial capital for a couple of hundred years before being displaced by Marrakesh, a capital founded by the new dynasty of rulers, the Almoravids.  The next dynasty, the Almohads, founded Rabat in their turn.  But Fez continued to grow and thrive, becoming by some accounts the largest city in the world at that period (1170-1180).  And the next dynasty, the Merenids, turned back to Fez, creating a new capital in Fez Jdid, effectively building a new city beside the old medina of Fes elBali, just as the French would do many centuries later with the “villes nouvelles” of the protectorate era.

Despite its imperial vicissitudes, then, Fez grew and prospered throughout the medieval period, thriving on the trade routes that brought wealth and culture to its many doors.  And the Alouite dynasty, reigning from the seventeenth century to the present day, made a practice of ruling as a kind of circuit court, visiting each imperial city (and potentially troublesome region) of the kingdom in turn.  This practice meant that each of the major cities shared in the royal attention and resources.   As a result, the modern city of Fez–like the other imperial cities, only more so– is a kind of living palimpsest, with layers of history piling one on top of another.


Fassi nostalgia

The city of Fez is shrouded in a mist of nostalgia.LdE9gPyyjd1oe4NVXMeW2JmkdqmwBUTJmDuO6s9RP0E[Note: Fez in Arabic is spelled Fas; the adjective for things associated with the city is Fassi.]

Everyone who writes or speaks of it—and there are many people who love this city deeply—seem also to speak of its present state as a dim reflection of its past glory; often, they describe the city as perched on the brink of destruction.

The local bakeries are closing; the public fountains are drying up. The buildings themselves are on the edge of collapse, some or many of them, depending on whom you talk to.IMG_0662
I find myself totally caught up in this sense of imminent ruin, only to remember that Edith Wharton was already marking the city’s demise in the 1920s, and Paul Bowles foretold its end in the 1950s.  [In what follows, I don’t mean to downplay the real threats of overcrowding and limited resources–I’m just struck by the persistent perception of imminent demise.]

Wharton, an enthusiastic supporter of empire, is hard to read today: her prose is at times wonderfully detailed and energetic, but it is almost always marked by a willful prejudice, a pre-judging of what she sees.  Her “first vision” of Fez is introduced by the ideological (and clearly false) claim that “Nothing endures in Islam except what human inertia has left standing and its own solidity has preserved from the elements.  Or rather, nothing remains intact, and nothing wholly perishes, but the architecture, like all else, lingers on half-ruined and half-unchanged.”  I want to distance my view from Wharton’s, but she too is focused on Fez’s liminality.
“There it lies, outspread in golden light, roofs, terraces, and towers sliding over the plain’s edge in a rush dammed here and there by barriers of cypress and ilex, but growing more precipitous as the ravine of the Fez narrows downward with the fall of the river.  it is as though some powerful enchanter, after decreeing that the city should be hurled into the depths, had been moved by its beauty, and with a wave of his wand held it suspended above destruction.”  Note how “dammed” evokes the idea of damnation just before Wharton changes direction from religion toward a narrative that might have come from the Thousand and One Nights.

Paul Bowles had his own predispositions.  He wrote in his preface to The Spider’s House, “I wanted to write a novel using as backdrop the traditional daily life of Fez, because it was a medieval city functioning in the twentieth century.”  The struggle for independence intervened, however: “I soon saw that I was going to have to write, not about the traditional pattern of life in Fez, but about its dissolution.”
P1000846 But has traditional life really dissolved?  Or has it just morphed to include high top sneakers and modern shoes along with seasonal mandarins and beans?

Sure, there’s an uncanniness here: a medieval city in the modern world,minaret with satellite dishes
minaret with satellite dishes

an acclaimed World Heritage Site that survives partly on its own terms, but largely as a simulacrum of itself, offering up its performance of authenticity to the tourists whose influx of money keeps the life support functioning.  I don’t mean this critically: I’m fascinated by the liminal status of Fes, and even more fascinated by the length of time that liminality has lingered.

I hope you will linger in Fez with me for the next week or so.  I have come down the mountain from Ifrane to Fez to take a study tour of “The Art of Islamic Pattern” led by two British artists and teachers: Richard Henry and Adam Williamson.
The course includes teaching sessions on the geometrical and biomorphic patterns of local Islamic art, along with tours of the medina—tours focused on architecture and traditional arts.  Disclaimer: as a result, my image of Fes is shaped by a number of English-speaking interpreters, guides, teachers (and of course books in both French and English).  So here’s what’s coming up: a quick primer on the history of Fez in relation to the rest of Morocco and the Islamic empire; a glance at Fez as a palimpsest, full of historical layers and overwriting; an overview of domestic architecture; a glance at some of the logic underlying geometric pattern in Fassi zellij or tile mosaics; a still briefer glance at some principles of biomorphism in Fassi plaster and wood carving; and a trip through the artisanal centers of Fez, divided into four separate posts.  Lots of photos and not too many words, I promise!