Hopperstad Stavekirke: Under the Surveillance of Wooden Dragons

The Normans! It is hard to imagine how much indescribable fear these sea peoples triggered in Europe throughout the entire ninth century (Rops 1969:495). When these terrible pirates appeared at the mouths of the rivers, the bells rang with alarm; all city gates were shut up, and its terrified defenders appeared on the ramparts (Ibid.:495-496). Whole groups of miserable people fled from farms and monasteries; they were to be met by a massacre rather than rescued (Ibid.:496). Surrounded by a mystery like by a thick fog, from which they emerged like ghosts, infamous Vikings haunted Europe as a living symbol of punishment for its transgressions (Ibid.:496).

The Church not only resisted the invaders, but in line with its conduct, it also carried out missionary activities against them (Rops 1969:501). After years of efforts undertaken by European missionaries, they finally succeeded in establishing two Christian centers in Viking lands, Birca (Birch Island) in present-day Sweden, and in Ribe, a today Danish town in south-west Jutland (Ibid.:501-502). The apparent result was modest, but it was of great importance to the future of the Catholic church (Ibid.:502). It was just a preview of the evangelization of Scandinavia that eventually took place around 1000 (Ibid.:502).

Amazing wealth of nature in Norway. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Today Scandinavia seems to be a peaceful land filled with love for the landscape and nature. The vast areas of Norway seem like an enchanted and silent country inhabited by good spirits of lakes and forests rather than by the bloodthirsty ninth-century Vikings. The Scandinavians of the twenty-first century are actually considered the most peaceful nations in Europe (Żylińska 1986:9).

Christianisation of the sea pirates

An exciting missionary adventure had taken place in Scandinavia, but it cannot be followed in detail as there are large gaps in the historic records; yet it is known that the history of the Christianisation of the North is full of very interesting episodes and interesting people (Rops 1969:626).

By the fjord. July of 2014 was surprisingly hot and dry in Norway. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In three centuries, from the ninth to the eleventh, the Scandinavian world passed from paganism shrouded in the fog of great dreams to the Christian faith (Rops 1969:626). Those corsairs who plundered Christian countries themselves were baptized, sometimes even in places where they had previously plundered, and their new faith made them later steal relics more willingly than treasures, which was then evidence of their great devotion (Ibid.:626). At the same time, missionaries set out to these savage lands, mainly under the influence of the Archbishops of Hamburg (Ibid.:626-627).

The history of the Christianization of Scandinavians, closely related to the military operations that led to the settlement of the people of the North, first in France and then in England, truly had the features of an epic (Rops 1969:627).

In front of Nidaros Cathedral, situated in the city of Trondheim. It is built over the burial site of King Olav II (c. 995-1030, reigned 1015-1028), who became the patron saint of the nation, and is the traditional location for the consecration of new kings of Norway. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The very history of establishing Christianity in these areas bears names of great heroes, such as Saint Olav, king of Norway, this former sailor who, with the help of priests and monks brought from England, worked effectively to eradicate paganism from his territory (Rops 1969:627). The richest personality was undoubtedly Canute the Great (1016-1035), who around 1028 created a wonderful empire that encompassed the British Isles, Denmark and almost all of Scandinavia, and who worked bravely to transform his country into a Christian state (Ibid.:627). In the countries that emerged after the collapse of his kingdom, Magnus of Norway, a worthy son of Saint Olaf, and Emond Gamul of Sweden, remained faithful to his principles (Ibid.:627). Around 1050, northern national Christian communities were formed with their own hierarchy, dependent directly on Rome (Ibid.:627).

Sacral architecture

Today, Norway is home to a mixture of ancient traditions, artifacts and structures left by different eras, including Christian sacral architecture built by the Christianised Vikings to celebrate the birth and development of Christianity in Norway (Norwegian Reward 2019). Although the Christian art was created to express the values and truths of the new faith, it still had preserved its pagan face mainly in its decorations and ornaments. Artistic expressions of pagan ancestors are usually visible in wonderful decorations of wooden or metal objects (Białostocki 2008:69). This style of art was typical of all Germans, including the Vikings; their architecture was covered with intricate weaves of the  floral and zoomorphic ornament (Ibid.:69).

In the Vikings’ art, this was usually a representation of the mythical Yggdrasil – the mighty ash tree whose roots were the foundation of the world, as it is seen on the eleventh century wooden portal of the stave church of Urnes in Norway (Turowska-Rawicz, Sypek 2007:30).

Carved wooden head of a queen on the canopy above the side altar. Source: Havran J. (2014) Norwegian Stave Churches, p. 39.

In its tangled limbs, woven into nine mythical lands, various animals lived (Ibid.:30). Like in other examples of German art, these are usually the motifs of animal bodies, claws, beaks, tails, paws shattered in an impenetrable tangle of lines describing zigzags, knots, forming a braid (Białostocki 2008:69). Sometimes there is a more geometric ornament (Ibid.:69). At other times, also human figures are entangled in this extraordinary world of fantastic imagination (Ibid.:69). But even when Germanic art took up the figural theme, it was many a time captured in a geometric way that bordered on abstraction (Ibid.:69). This world was not only to decorate Christian truths, but also to express its own legends and symbols in their new entourage,  within Catholic medieval churches.

Hopperstad Stavekirke

The Hopperstad Stave Church “is located in beautiful surroundings about one kilometre from the fjord. […] In the beautiful rural community of Vik on the Sognefjord [there] are [actually] two medieval churches, Hopperstad Stave Church and Hove stone church. Few other places in Norway can boast having two such treasures” (Havran 2014:38).

It was a hot July, which does not often happen in Norway. We left behind the hills covered with patches of snow and headed for the edge of the fjord. Then we took a ferry from Dragsvik to Vangsnes and afterwards travelled farther south to Vik, along the Sognefjord, which is the longest and deepest fjord in Norway. Wonderful views accompanied us throughout the whole journey, and their beauty was just breathtaking; the blue of the sky and the depth of the fjord intertwined with lush greenery and the colors of small, low houses scattered around in the valleys.

Hopperstad Stavekirke up the green hill. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Less than an hour later I saw the steep roofs of the church, with its sloping silhouette against the juicy colors of nature. In order to enter the church, we had to climb up a green hill with a graveyard, atop which it is standing. It looks just as a medieval stave church should: “with a clever cascading tier-roof design, external galleries and carved dragons on the ridges of the roofs” (Havran 2014:19). The church only lacks more typically protruding dormers, definitely featured by another stave church, Borgund, which actually “served as a model for the construction of Hopperstad and Gol stave churches” (Ibid.:46).

Historians usually claim that the mythical animals carved on the church, such dragons, represent the evil banished by Jesus Christ out of the holy place (Białostocki 2008:69). So they meekly crouched on the church’s roof as much as grotesque gargoyles encrusted Gothic cathedrals (see Barron 2000:87-93). “And from the edge of the roof jut menacing serpent-like beasts who appear ready at any moment to pounce on some unfortunate passerby” (Barron 2000:88). In the Vikings’ world, serpents or dragons could fly and speak human voice (Turowska-Rawicz, Sypek 2007:85). They also breathed fire or suffocating fumes and guarded countless treasures (Ibid.:85). But were they evil as it is taught by the Christian Church? Dragons certainly embodied powerful forces and natural element, like Jörmungandr, the sea monster wrapping his gigantic body around the earth and grasping his own tail (Ibid.:85).

Dragon at the roof’edges of Hopperstad Stave Church. Photo by Nina Aldin Thune (2005) Source: Wikipedia Commons (2020).

The Hopperstad Stave Church was built in  the mid-1100s but “was in a ruinous state by the 1800s and was scheduled to be pulled down when the new Vik Church was completed in 1877. Fortunately it was purchased at the last minute by the Society for the Preservation of Monuments in Bergen, led by architect Peter Blix. During the 1880s he personally restored the stave church to its present appearance” (Havran 2014:38).

Hopperstad Stave Church is located in beautiful surroundings about one kilometre from the fjord, in the beautiful rural community of Vik on the Sognefjord. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“In terms of construction, Hopperstad Stave Church is related to Urnes and Kaupanger stave churches. It is of the type having a raised centre room, with preserved structural components from the Middle Ages. [Its] massive staves with bell-shaped plinths accentuate the sacred ambience of the church. […] The nave is dominated by a stunning side altar and Blix’s gravesite beneath the floor. […] The stave church has three portals, the large western portal and two smaller but rare portals. […] The upper portion [of the western portal], however, was reconstructed in conjunction with a restoration during the 1880s” (Havran 2014:38,41-42).

“The main altar is from 1621. The chancel screen is not original, but dates from the Middle Ages and is the only one preserved in any stave church. It has Gothic-shaped openings and probably dates back to a reconstruction during the 1200s” (Havran 2014:38).

View of interior with the side altar and an empora (matroneum) with St Andrew’s crosses. Photo by Micha L. Rieser (2010). Source: “Hopperstad Stave Church” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

“The medieval inventory item deserving a closer look is first and foremost the altar baldachin [or canopy] above one of the side altars. [it is dated back to 1300s]. The baldachin is a simple stave construction with rich carvings, the underside of the vault painted with scenes from the life of Mary [and Jesus’ childhood]” (Havran 2014:38,40). One of the wooden carvings represents a head of a queen (Ibid.:38).

“Hopperstad Stave Church is still the property of the Society for the Preservation of Norwegian Ancient Monuments […] and is a museum church” (Havran 2014:38).

Made of upright staves

Stave churches (stavekirke) “were found across the northern parts of the European continent, including in Scandinavia. [Today] it is virtually only in the rugged landscape of Norway that these unique buildings have survived, from the Middle Ages and up to the present” ( 2019).

Massive staves with bell-shaped plinths accentuate the sacred ambience of the church. Source: Havran J. (2014) Norwegian Stave Churches, p. 43.

The stave churches’ structures are made entirely from wood (Norwegian Reward 2019), with their walls constructed of upright planks or staves (Ingebresten’s Nordic Marketplace 2009-2020). “The staves, or columns, are bearing elements that give stave churches their name, but there are many other structural elements that are unique in these churches. True enough, the portals served no structural function, but they are also unique [in their artistic expressions]” (Havran 2014:17). “A stave church with a raised centre room can comprise as many as 2000 different parts, and most of these were shaped beforehand. All of the structural components are perfectly joined and adapted to one another, using no nails” (Ibid.:19). The type with the raised roof predominates today among the remaining stave churches (Ibid.:14). “The reason why [such churches] survived is that they were the largest, finest and most decorated” (Ibid.:14).

Sitting behind Hopperstad Stave Church, down the hill. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“Craftsmen during the Middle Ages were conscious of the importance of the building with quality materials. They almost exclusively used pine core from pristine forests that grew untouched for several hundreds of years. In addition, the trees were left to dry on the root for several summers before they were felled. Core pine contains a high concentration of resin, which is a natural impregnating agent. When the stave churches in Numedal were examined some years ago it was found that the wood on the loft that had been unexposed to light was as solid as newly felled timber” (Havran 2014:17-18).


“In terms of construction, the stave churches are wonders of engineering art. Over the centuries they have surely weathered many a storm, and they have not been toppled. Documentation does exist, however, that one stave church was blown down in a windstorm” (Havran 2014:17).

Western facade of the church with the main entrance; an external gallery and a beautifully carved portal. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Additionally “[ground] work has contributed to the longevity of stave churches over the centuries” (Havran 2014:18). “[The] corner posts (staves) and wall planks were set on beams or sills of stone above the ground. Their structure of columns, planks, and supports were joined by dovetailing, pegs, and wedges, never by glue or nails. They were therefore completely flexible and could easily expand and contract depending on the weather” (Ingebresten’s Nordic Marketplace 2009-2020). “Stability problems were solved in a highly refined and indigenously constructive manner. A complex system of knee brackets and braces ensures that the church stands firmly” (Havran 2014:19).

Successive stages of the construction of a typical stave church in Norway. Source: Valebrokk E., Thiis-Evensen T. (2000) “Norway’s Stave Churches: Architecture, History and Legends”.

How were the stave churches built? It is “not known whether the carpenters used drawings [beforehand]; perhaps they scratched designs onto wood or slabs of slate” (Havran 2014:19). According to the description given by the authors of Norway’s Stave Churches (2000), Eva Valebrokk and Thomas Thiis-Evensen, the churches’ construction resembled arranging the wooden puzzles in a very imaginative way (Ingebresten’s Nordic Marketplace 2009-2020).

Western portal in Hopperstad Stave Church. Photo by Nina Aldin Thune (2005). CC BY-SA 2.5.
Source: Wikipedia Commons (2020).

“The raft beams were first placed on the foundation of stones. They intersect one another at the corners and continue outward to support any adjacent galleries or transepts. The tall staves which framed the nave were inserted into the mortised raft beams and joined on top by a new square section of beams. This supported the sharply pitched triangular roof trusses. These again supported the roof and the bell tower which straddled the ridge of the roof. At this point the structure still needed added support to prevent it from collapsing in the wind. First, a continuous ‘belt’ of cross braces followed the periphery of the room. Also, there were arches inserted between the staves in the form of curved wooden brackets. Lastly, the low aisle section resting on the raft beams protruding from the nave was also very critical to the structural support of the church” (Valebrokk, Thiis-Evensen 2000).

View of the church from the east; a wooden apse and cascading roof among the green hills. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As stave churches have never rested on the ground itself, but on a foundation, they have been therefore exposed to the open air (Havran 2014:18). “Lessons were obviously learned from the problems with the earlier churches, where the supporting posts had been embedded in the ground, [where the wooden construction rapidly rotted]. The post churches did not last long, perhaps no longer than 100 years” (Ibid.:18).

Medieval master carpenters

“It is probable that there were teams of carpenters who would raise several churches. In Topo Stave Church runic inscriptions were found, including ‘Torolf made this church …’, along with seven other names, who must have been his journeymen” (Havran 2014:18).

Dragons breathing fire at the roof of Hopperstad Stave Church. Photo by Nina Aldin Thune (2005). Source: “Hopperstad Stave Church” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The same inscription was found in the demolished Al Stave Church, although with the names of other assistant workers. The Torolf in question was probably a master builder who travelled around and raised several churches” (Havran 2014:18-19).


“Stave churches were built over a period of 200 years […], from the first half of the twelfth century until the Black Death devastated Norway in 1349” ( 2019). “[The] oldest and most precious member of the stave church family [is Urnes Stave Church, which] was included on UNESCO’s list of the world’s foremost cultural and natural heritage sites. […] Perhaps more than 1000 [medieval] stave churches were built in Norway” (Havran 2014:12). Consequently, “more than a thousand villages, maybe even more, had [such a wooden church]” ( 2019).

Hopperstad in 1885 before restoration work. Photo owned by The Directorate for Cultural Heritage (Norwegian: Riksantikvaren or Direktoratet for kulturminneforvaltning). Source: “Hopperstad Stave Church” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

“After the Black Death in 1349, there were no longer enough people and resources to maintain […] all [these wooden constructions]. By the time the population had recovered, two hundred years later, they were building log churches” ( 2019). “Few documented stave churches were constructed after the Black Plague” (Havran 2014:12). “Only 240 of the original thousand or so stave churches were still standing in 1650. Another two hundred years later, there were only sixty left” ( 2019).

View of the church during the restoration work. hoto owned by The Directorate for Cultural Heritage (Norwegian: Riksantikvaren or Direktoratet for kulturminneforvaltning). Source: “Hopperstad Stave Church” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

“Almost miraculously, they narrowly avoided total obliteration at the end of the 1800s” (Havran 2014:12); “the Church Act of 1851, which made stipulations about the size of the church in relation to the number of people in the parish, virtually [had given] the go-ahead for demolition” ( 2019). Only “[thanks] to painters Johannes Flintoe and I.C. Dahl, as well as the Society for the Preservation of Norwegian Antiquities (today called the Society for the Preservation of Norwegian Ancient Monuments) and a handful of other enthusiasts, Norway has managed to preserve portions of this cultural heritage” (Havran 2014:12).

Decreasing number of the wooden treasure

“The majority [of stave churches] were likely lost  due to the drastic decrease in population, which fell by two-thirds during the Black Plague. It was not until the 1600s that the population again reached the same level as before the Black Plague. One needs only imagine what 200 years of neglected maintenance can do to a wooden church. Church constructions did revive, although no longer using the stave technique, but rather notching” (Havran 2014:12-14).

The Hopperstad Stave Church after the restoration. Photo by Axel Lindahl – Galleri NOR Tilvekstnummer; created: between 1880 and 1890 date. Source: “Hopperstad Stave Church” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

“In 1650 the number of stave churches had fallen to 270, and by the turn of the [nineteenth] century there were only about 70 left. […] Most of the 70 churches that survived up until 1800 were probably among the most valued buildings. [It is documented that about] 40 stave churches, [most of the finest specimens], were also pulled down during the 1800s, the last of these during the early 1880s. […] When needed, however, they were expanded rather than [demolished]” (Havran 2014:14-15).

“About half of the stave churches [today] are in use as regular parish churches, while others serve more as museums and are used only on special occasions, such as weddings and christenings. The Society for the Preservation of Norwegian Ancient Monuments owns and administers eight of the stave churches, while three are in open-air museums” (Havran 2014:16).

Types of stave churches

In Norway, “[the] oldest stave church is Urnes. Borgund, however, is the most authentic in appearance. […] Nearly half of the remaining stave churches in Norway are of the type with a raised centre room, but some have mid-masts and are of the so-called More type. However, there is reason to believe that the simplest and smallest type, with a somewhat larger nave and narrower chancel, such as Haltdalen, was the most prevalent type of stave church during the Middle Ages” (Havran 2014:19-20).

View from the east on Hopperstad Stavekirke. Photo by Peter (2006). Source: “Hopperstad Stave Church” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Taking into account their geographical placement, “the stave churches were distributed widely throughout the entire country. Unfortunately none are documented from the northmost countries; it is likely that they disappeared more quickly there because of the harsh climate. Many of the remaining stave churches are located on the Sognefjord […], in Valdres […] and in Numedal […], that is in areas with the milder and drier climate. The distance between Valdres and Sogn is insignificant, as well, and the stave churches there share many common characteristics. It is for this reason that they are jointly considered as belonging to the Sogn-Valdres type. In the lowlands of Eastern Norway, in Trondelag and in Rogaland, stone churches were more prevalent. Of the nearly 300 stone churches built in the Middle Ages, about 150 are still standing today” (Havran 2014:20).


Unfortunately, “[there] is no documentation showing how the interiors of stave churches appeared in the Middle Ages (Havran 2014:20). “Borgund stave church is the stave church that has weathered the centuries best, without major changes” ( 2019). But even it is the most authentic of all the stave churches, it “was altered several times during the 1800s. Today this church is practically empty” (Havran 2014:20-21).

“The stave churches were built in the Catholic Age” ( 2019). “Following the Reformation, all inventory was to be renewed” (Havran 2014:21), and “major changes were made in church interiors” ( 2019). “The division between nave and chancel no longer considered important, and much of the décor of the Catholic era – the Madonna and figures of saints, crucifixes and other items [such as side altars] – were removed from the churches” (Havran 2014:21; see 2019). “A few examples were fortunately preserved and are found today in the churches or museums” (Havran 2014:21). “Pulpits and pews were installed, and, with time, windows as well. Many of the stave churches were in a state of decline” ( 2019).

Remains of the glorious past

Critically looking “at the remaining stave churches today, [it must be admitted] that several of them are not stave churches at all, in the strict sense of the word” (Havran 2014:16).

Under the guard of the wooden dragons
looking down from the roof. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“Most of them have been altered or extended, and many no longer look like stave churches” ( 2019). “[Some] have retained only a few of their original [medieval] building components” (Havran 2014:16). “The churches that have survived are often located in small communities that could not afford to build new ones” ( 2019). “In addition to the [preserved] 28 churches in Norway, one other Norwegian stave church is located in Poland. When Vang Stave Church was to be pulled down in 1841, it was purchased by the Prussian King, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, disassembled, stored for a period of time outside Berlin and later erected on his territory at the time, now [belonging again to Poland, the same territory is known as Karpacz in the Karkonosze mountains]” (Havran 2014:16). Frankly speaking, it is a shame I have never visited the Vang Stave Church, which is in my own country. I promised myself to do it in the future.

Additionally, “it has been recently documented that Grip Stave Church was not built until the 1600s” (Havran 2014:16).  

Modern alterations

A wooden pyramid of the church with all its intricate architectural details. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“In addition to the 29 remaining stave churches today, there are some 50 more that are well documented and from which a few building components have been preserved. Among the preserved components, portals and other carved elements are well represented. Throughout history, the stave churches have been subjected to many [alterations], expansions, additions and replacement of inventory, so today they stand as evidence of changing stylistic periods. During the 1900s several of the stave churches were returned to their ‘original’ appearance. Judged from the perspective of restoration concepts and knowledge in our modern era, the type of restoration practised at the time was equivalent  to ‘free interpretation’ on the part of the architect. Nevertheless, in line with restoration philosophy today, it is preferred to preserve the churches as they are, because they are regarded as documentation of a period and taste at the time of restoration, even though they may not be totally ‘historically correct’ in appearance” (Havran 2014:15-16).


Throughout years, however, there was “a dramatic decrease in the number of stave churches” ( 2019). Some have been set on fire and burnt to the ground, already after their modern reconstruction (Havran 2014:15,22; 2019).

Nowadays, there are only 29 out of over 1000 stave churches, built once in Norway. Hopperstad Stave Church is one of the remaining medieval architectural masterpieces. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The greatest threat to the wooden construction has been always fire (Havran 2014:15,22; 2019).). There is one stave church lost as recently as 1992 (Ibid.:15,22; Ibid.). It was Fantoft Stave Church just outside Bergen, originally known as the Fortun Stave Church from the innermost reaches of Sognwas, which was deliberately set on fire (Ibid.:15,22; Ibid.). “Almost all the burnings [of the churches in Norway were deliberate and] have been attributed to a small but zealous group of Satanist-nationalists and their followers” ( 2019). The very similar problem concerns nowadays Europe and its medieval sacral architecture, which greatly suffers from the hands of various harmful extremists.

Modern fame and restoration

“Even though [stave churches] have been subjected to many [threats and] changes, they represent a cultural treasure paralleled by very few other cultural monuments in Norway. They are visited and admired by tourists from all over the world, by architects, engineers and art historians, but also by the general public. Visitors come to see the magnificent constructions, the shapes, designs and ecclesial art, and not least of all to sense the special atmosphere evoked by a medieval sanctuary” (Havran 2014:21-22).

In front of the main entrance to the church. I could spend there ages. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Hopefully, “the stave churches will [not] be lost in the foreseeable future. As a rule, they are very well maintained. The Directorate for Cultural Heritage’s ‘Stave church programme’ ensures that all of the stave churches will be restored so that they will remain in good structural condition, the décor and inventory will be conserved, and the churches will be well documented” (Havran 2014:22). “As of [2015], conservation measures have been completed in [28] stave churches” (Ibid.:22).

The significance and future of the stave churches

“The unrivalled [medieval] stave churches are Norway’s most important contribution to the world’s architectural heritage. Several of these unique structures have withstood the teeth of time for nearly 900 years, and they are admired by architects and engineers from all over the world” (Havran 2014:12).

Typical stave church of Norway: clever cascading tier-roof design, external galleries and carved dragons, some breathing fire on the ridges of the roofs. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

All being well, “the family of stave churches will remain intact in the years to come and […] the future generations will continue to be able to enjoy this unique cultural heritage” (Havran 2014:22).


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Within the Walls of Imperial Cities

We were slowly moving in the direction of the magical Red City, Marrakesh. It was going to be my second visit in this amazing place and though it was a few years ago I still remembered delightful activities it offered: a walk through the charming and mysterious Medina, a visit to the Ben Youssef Madrasa, one of the largest and best Koranic schools in the Maghreb countries, then to the famous Miracle Square – Jemaa el-Fnaa, where the largest in the world, undirected street spectacles begin at sunset. There, one could admire snake charmers, dancers, acrobats, musicians and local healers, all amidst exotic sounds, rhythms and fragrances.  

Miracle Square – Jemaa el-Fnaa, Marakesh. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Behind us there was left the magical world of a ‘Thousand Kasbahs’ (see Road of a Thousand Kasbahs). Ahead of us there were Rabat, Meknes, Fez and Marrakesh – imperial cities.

Luxurious SPA in an unfriendly landscape

It was early in the morning when our coach was climbing through the High Atlas mountains. It finally stopped at the picturesque Tizi-n-Tichka Pass, at an altitude of over 2260 metres above sea level. A strong wind was pulling my hair and blew into the folds of my clothes as I tried to embrace the charm of the country’s magnificent views that stretched across the mountain landscape.

The Almoravid army managed to transferred through this hostile environment four hundred horsemen, eight hundred camel-riders and two thousand foot soldiers (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Whereas the army was composed of desert warriors, the mountains were a completely different environment to them (Ibid.). Yet they had a clear goal: reaching the northwest of the mountains, where lived the tribes of Berbers considered by them as heretics (Ibid.).


In 1058, first people to feel the force of the Almoravid army were the rulers of Aghmat, a small city nestling in a lush valley on the northern site of the mountains (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Eventually, the town became a new headquarters from where the army took further their jihad against the Berber tribes dwelling nearby (Ibid.). For long Aghmat was thought to be a lost city (Ibid.). After being localized, the site has been excavated but a carried study has revealed only its small portion so far (Ibid.).

Aghmat, a former Almoravid capital city. It was thought to be a lost city. After being localized, the site has been excavated but a carried study has revealed only its small portion so far. Source : Babas (2019).

One of the most substantial finds of the town is an almost intact hammam or a bathhouse, which is also one of the oldest in Morocco and one of the biggest in Maghreb (500 square metres) (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). In this context, it is regarded as an architectural masterpiece; the bathouse required an expert knowledge for heating and water supply for such an enormous space (Ibid.). The bathhouse was not made of mud, like kasbahs, but of stones and mortar, which made it a more solid construction (Ibid.). Its remains also illustrate the scale of the settlement in the medieval town and how expertly its inhabitants understood how to use water, which is a very important recourse in the area even today (Ibid.). As it turned out, water was not only used in public places as the hammam, mosque or the palace, but it was also utilised for irrigation (Ibid.). Accordingly, water had two distinct uses :in a first place it was used for public buildings and private houses, and after three days, the same water was used for irrigation of the fields (Ibid.).

Beginnings of Marrakech

With time, the Almoravids started to appreciate a city life but for desert nomads the city was in a wrong place (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Surrounded by mountains and hills from three sides, Aghmat was not in a good defensive position as an army was used to fight in the open space (Ibid.). After a decade, the Almoravids stared looking for a new base from where they could expand and take on more territory (Ibid.). Eventually, they chose a flat dry open piece of land over thirty kilometres from the foothills of the Atlas Mountains; it was the city of Marrakesh (Ibid.).

Marrakesh, the so-called Red City due to its ochre colours of the walls. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The founding of the city in 1070 represents a point in history, when the Almoravids became an imperial force (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). What began as a collection of tents rapidly became an established city and the Berbers who settled there were offered security in return of their taxes, which were used for the further expansion of the Almoravids’ territory (Ibid.). The city only lacked water (Franus 2012:159). This problem was handled by a smart engineer from Baghdad who designed a system of channels to bring water from the Atlas (Ibid.:159). Since then, Marrakesh has been drowning in flowers; now every wealthier family has got a garden, where figs, palms, roses and jasmines are grown (Ibid.:159).

Red City

When Abdullah Ibn Yasin died, Youssef Ibn Tachfine took charge of the jihad and made a great contribution to the dynasty than any other man; he turned a fledgling kingdom into an empire (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Firstly, he developed the urban area of Marrakesh (Ibid.); “a circuit of walls around the city was built to defend it (Jacobs 2019). “Made with red earth from the surrounding plain, the walls [have been in the colour of] ochre” (Ibid.), and hence “[some call it the Pink city while for [others] Marrakech represents the feisty shade of [red]” (Toa 2017) and is called the Red City (Jacobs 2019). “Today, even outside the walls, in the modern Ville Nouvelle, buildings are still faced in that same hue. It looks particularly beautiful on the ramparts along the west side of the Medina when lit up by the setting sun” (Jacobs 2019).

As we were approaching the city, I looked for a characteristic picture: palm trees rising from behind the red wall, in the background of which mighty mountains loomed (Franus 2012:158). The city of Marrakech is today a fairy-tale metropolis known for its beautiful gardens, excellent cuisine, reliable weather and an atmosphere of eternal fun (Ibid.:158-159). “[Its] souks […] are a feast for [human] senses. [One’s] eyes are treated to a blast of colours, while [their] olfactory organs are welcomed by the enticing fragrance of honey-cakes and spices. As one strides through the crowded souks, one gets a glimpse of the lifestyle of common man. A further walk into the interiors of the city [takes] to the traditional courtyard homes of the city known as ‘riadas’. […] Adjacent to a mosque in medina, lies a huge plaza known as the [Jemaa el-Fnaa] that was historically the centre of Marrakech. Water sellers, snake charmers, musicians, dancers and food throng the square, which was once the spot for public executions” (Toa 2017).


After the creation of the Almoravids’ capital the Berbers set out establishing an empire (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Their army took the jihad north, taking city after city, Fez – Tangier – Algiers, expanding their influence eastwards, well beyond what it is now called Morocco (Ibid.). And having conquered the north-western Africa, the Almoravids extended their jihad beyond it, to Europe (Ibid.).

Ben Youssef Madrasa in Marrakesh; one of the windows in the gallery of the courtyard. carved stucco decoration, including an Arabic inscription in kufic script. Below part is carved of cedar in square patterns. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

A parallel Islamic world had existed in Spain and Portugal since the eighth century and was known as Al-Andalus (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). The south of Spain had flourished under the rule of the Caliphate of Cordoba into a rich civilization of lavish palaces and elegant gardens (Ibid.; see Architectural Oasis of Al-Andalus). Yet in the eleventh century, the caliphate broke up into weak city-states being attacked by Christian armies from the north of Spain (Ibid.). Therefore, Muslim rulers of Spain appealed to the Almoravids for help (Ibid.). Youssef Ibn Tachfine repelled the Christians but he was disgusted by the European Muslims’ lack of dedication to Islam (Ibid.). Consequently, in 1019 he returned to Andalusia in force and deposed its Muslim rulers (Ibid.). Afterall, the Almoravids ruled over a vast kingdom that stretched out from the Sahara to Spain, and from the Atlantic coast to Algeria (Ibid.). It was the first time, the vast Muslim territory had been united politically and spiritually under one management and the people who achieved it – the Berbers, those who had been previously referred to as the barbarians of the desert (Ibid.).

Medieval charms of Fez

I was looking down the hill at the medina of Fez; the city consists of almost a thousand tangled streets, tens of thousands of low houses, madrasahs, palaces and mosques (Franus 2012:153).

A bird’s eye view of Fez. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Two hundred thousand people live and work there (Franus 2012:153). The largest medieval place in the world is impressive when viewed from above, but it seemed more orderly than up close (Ibid.:153). After crossing the gate, we immediately fell into the city’s labyrinth and my already poor orientation completely disappeared in this maze (Ibid.:153). Fortunately, I was not on my own and one of my friends, who is an architect, features extraordinary orientation skills. Nevertheless, finding the right path turned out to be more than difficult. We had headed for the famous Fez tannery. When we finally reached our destination, someone gave us mint leaves and suggested that we put them to our nose (Ibid.:158). Then we went up the narrow stairs to the terrace; the smell coming from the tannery was getting there really intense and not very pleasant (Ibid.:158). Mint was supposed to neutralize it. Below, the coloured eyes of the vats filled with urine and dyes sparkled in the sun (Ibid.:158). Hence the awful smell. People were bustling around them and occasionally dipping a batch of fresh hides into the paint (Ibid.). The technology of work at the tannery has not changed here since the Middle Ages (Ibid.:158).

Fez tannery; the technology of work at the tannery has not changed here since the Middle Ages. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Back in the streets of Medina. The heat was pouring down from the sky and the white walls were making us blind by reflecting a strong sunlight (Franus 2012:153,158). In summer, the temperature in the old streets of Fez reaches almost 50 degrees Celsius, so wherever possible, there are nets or mats that cut off the flow of sunlight (Ibid.:153). Besides, the streets are so narrow that it is not possible to see anything but the sky (Ibid.:153). Once entered the maze, one just needs to give up their senses and get lost, and then find themselves again by means of a courtesy of an inhabitant of the medina (Ibid.:153). Fes el Bali quarter, the oldest walled part of Fez has not changed for hundreds of years (Ibid.:153; see (“Fez, Morocco” 2020). It was founded by the Almoravid Sultan Yusuf ibn Tashfin who had united two previously competing and autonomous settlements and rebuilt the city until the eleventh century (“Fez, Morocco” 2020).

Fes el Bali quarter, the oldest walled part of Fez with narrow streets and alleys. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

With the stubbornness of a maniac, we walked through the old town; the streets were getting narrower and narrower, so that sometimes we had to squeeze sideways (Franus 2012:153,158). Another time we had to give way to loaded donkeys, the only means of transport in the local alleys (Ibid.:158). On the way, we passed by hundreds of small shops with items so beautiful that I could not take my eyes off them (Ibid.:158). Moroccans love beautiful products and prefer handicrafts to mass production (Ibid.:158). The greatest Moroccan artists are actually in Fez (Ibid.:158). Their ancestors have settled there since the time Fez was founded under the Idrisid rule between the eight and the nineth centuries as the two separate settlements, and Fez’s craftsmen have constantly improved their skills (Franus 2012:158; (“Fez, Morocco” 2020). However, only “[under] the Almoravid rule, [did] the city [gain] a reputation for the religious scholarship and the mercantile activity” (“Fez, Morocco” 2020). In the twelfth century, also scientists, clergy and mystics came to Fez, making it the medieval center of Morocco’s science (Franus 2012:158).

Nevertheless, the reign of the Almoravids dynasty was relatively short-lived (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012).

Enemy came from the mountains

High in the mountains behind Imperial Cities of Morocco, a new force had been born; rival Berbers holed up in the High Atlas Mountains (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). While, the Almoravids had never felt comfortable in the hills, a new group of Islamic revolutionaries laid there the groundwork for their domination over the mountainous region (Ibid.). They were called the Almohads, which stand for the people who believed in the unity of God (Ibid.). The Almohad movement was founded in the twelfth century by Muhammad Ibn Tumart among the Berber Masmuda tribes in the south of modern Morocco (Ibid.). The leader was not a desert warrior like the Almoravids (Ibid.). He lived in the mountains, where he spent decades studying Islam (Ibid.). He claimed to have been divinely chosen to restore the true faith as he understood it (Ibid.).

The Tin Mal Mosque is a mosque located in the High Atlas mountains of North Africa. In this area the Almohads’ revolution started. Source: Atlas Mountain Guides Compony (2020).

Tinmel is the village, where the revolution started (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). From there, Ibn Tumart preached against the arrogance and corruption of the Almoravids (Ibid.). In fact at that time, Moroccan society was purely Muslim (Ibid.). Therefore, Ibn Tumart’s role was not to convert the society to Islam a second time; he only used religion to legitimize his political project and, eventually, create a large Islamic empire in the western Mediterranean (Ibid.). Tinmel was his starting point towards Marrakech (Ibid.). In 1130 a long  military campaign started between two groups: the Almohads and the Almoravids (Ibid.). Eventually, in 1147 the dynasty of the the Almoravids was fought back (Ibid.).

Building a new empire

Once the Almohads were within the walls of Marrakech, they wanted to stamp their authority on the city (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). They started by replacing the most significant of the Almoravids buildings with their own (Ibid.). Legend has it that the architectural predecessors of the mosques built by Almohads in Marrakech were all pulled down as they had not been correctly aligned with Mecca (Ibid.). This was a big bold message to the people of Marrakech; the Almohads made it clear that their interpretation of Islam was the correct one (Ibid.). Today, the Almohads’ Kutubiyya Mosque is the largest mosque in Marrakesh (Franus 2012:159). Its squared minaret tower is seventy meters high and is a great landmark for newcomers (Ibid.:159).

Kutubiyya Mosque is the largest mosque in Marrakesh. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

One of the greatest mosque, however, was going to be built in Rabat at the end of the twelve century (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). It had four hundred columns and pillars and it was big enough to hold the entire army (Ibid.). It would have been the largest mosque in Maghreb, if not in the entire Muslim world (Ibid.).

The unfinished architectural project of the mosque in Rabat, stopped after four years since it was started in 1995. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The architectural project of the mosque was as ambitious as the great architecture of the North Africa or the buildings of Mecca (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Yet it has become just an unfulfilled dream (Ibid.). The reason why there is no top of the minaret or a lack of the roof over the prayer hall is that the third Almohad Muslim Calip, Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur, died in 1199, just four years after the project started, and the mosque remained in an unfinished state (Ibid.). Its grand vision had been never completed (Ibid.). To this day, only the forty-meter-high Hassan tower has survived (Franus 2012:149). It was designed in the manner of Moroccan minarets (Ibid.:149).

Behind the gate, enchanted gardens of Rabat surrounded us; the air smelled wonderfully of roses, oleanders and belladonna, called deadly nightshade, a plant with magical properties (Franus 2012:149). Although it is poisonous, Roman women used it to dilate their pupils, which made them look more seductive (Ibid.:149). White ibises walked among the trees and storks nested there as well (Ibid.). We were accompanied by a pleasant breeze from the Atlantic (Ibid.:149).

Like a watered garden

Gardens in Rabat. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

All that the Almohads used to create were composed of all the traditional elements of Berber culture, also applied by their predecessors (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Nevertheless, the scale of their intellectual achievements seems much higher (Ibid.). Some medieval poet compares their empire to the watered garden in a perfect balance of the monarch’s power and people’s prosperity (Ibid.). In such a favourable environment, there was a place for an artistic development (Ibid.).

Marrakech’s most impressive gate constructed in 1185 by the Almohads is Bab Agnaou (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012; Jacobs 2019).

Bab Agnaou in the 1920s. Source:“Bab Agnaou” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

It leads to the later built Kasbah within the already walled Medina (Jacobs 2019). The gate was originally just the main southern entrance into the city (Ibid.). Unlike the walls and the other gates, Bab Agnaou is not red, but green, made from a locally quarried stone (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012; Jacobs 2019).

It is richly ornate which makes it different from rather simple and modest gates of Marrakech, designed at the time of the Almoravids (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012; Jacobs 2019). It is carved with embellished scallops and floral designs, which makes it very sumptuous with layers upon layers of decorations (Ibid.). They are, in turn, “surrounded by Koranic quotations written in an Arabic […] script called kufic” (Jacobs 2019). The gate’s “name means ‘Black people’s gate’, possibly because it was used by black slaves of African descent, or perhaps because it leads south, across the Sahara to West Africa” (Ibid.).

The glory days have gone

Almost all that the Almohads has built seems now more impressive than constructions left by their predecessors, and that also applies to their Berber kingdom (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). As for the Almoravids, the Almohads used Marrakech as their imperial base for a further expansion, which was even more successful and ambitious than previously (Ibid.). The Almohads not only took over the territory, which was run by their opponents but also seized the neighbouring lands of Africa, which stretched into what is now Libya, whereas in Andalucía, they made their second capital in Sevilla (Ibid.). Consequently, after the Almohads, the empire became even stronger force in the Mediterranean (Ibid.).

The Tin Mel Mosque. Tinmel was the cradle of the Berber Almohad empire. Source: Marrakesh Day Trips (2020).

Intellectually and economically, the Almohads were in charge of an empire that ranked alongside the greatest of that time in the world (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). This was the high point of the Berber kingdom but controlling such a massive realm brought its own problems (Ibid.). The death of the last great leader, Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur, meant the beginning of the end of the Almohad dynasty (Ibid.). Squabbles over his succession allowed rival Berber tribes to divide the power over the empire (Ibid.). The Almohads were also humiliated by the Christians in a decisive battle in Spain, from which their army had never really recovered (Ibid.). Simultaneously, the authority of the Almohad rulers in Africa was lost as Arab tribes rebelled against (Ibid.). None of the Berber dynasties that succeeded the Almohad dynasty was powerful enough to control the North Africa (Ibid.). Any attempts to return to the glory days of the Almohads failed (Ibid.).

Last night in Marrakech

I made my way through the perpetually jammed street to reach the most famous square in Marrakesh and in all of Morocco, Jemaa el-Fnaa (Franus 2012:159).

A view from one of the gallery windows facing the courtyard of Ben Youssef Madrasa in Marrakesh. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

My companion, Iwona, decided to buy a few mint seedlings to plant them in her garden upon arrival. The seller offered a thousand and one of their varieties, which were highly valued in Morocco and used to brew the famous Moroccan mint tea. We drank litres of it here (Franus 2012:159). Only for the sake of the tea serving ceremony, was it worth ordering this famous drink, which not only invigorates but also quenches thirst. I also decided to treat myself with a Moroccan souvenir – henna (Ibid.:159). After a while, my hand looked like a work of art woven into orange lace (Ibid.:159).

It was terribly hot (Franus 2012:159). After a while we ran away to the hotel and returned to the square around 7 in the evening (Ibid.:159). At that time, nothing was left there from the sleepy afternoon atmosphere (Ibid.). The crowd in the square thickened and it reached its peak one hour later (Ibid.:159). I felt like being at a festival of street performances, but here all the actors performed simultaneously (Ibid.:159).

The clamour, the smells of spiced dishes and music vibrated in the air and deafened (Franus 2012:159). In one of the streets leading from the square, I bought and dressed jellabiya (a traditional dress) to blend in more with Moroccan folklore (Ibid.:145,159). After a while we were sitting in a restaurant resembling a Moroccan palace: the stuccoes, mosaics and carpets were filled with the sounds of enchanted music and dancing of an orientally dressed dancer (Ibid.:158).

The heirs of Maghreb

In the sixteenth century, the Kingdom of Morocco was revived but it was built by a different dynasty claiming the right to rule as true interpreters of Islam (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Although this dynasty has got the Arabic origins not Berber, they have declared themselves the heirs of the kingdom the Berbers had earlier created (Ibid.). One of the cities the Arabic monarchs developed is Meknes, known as the Versailles of the South (Franus 2012:149). It is surrounded by a twenty-five-kilometre-long wall that winds like a serpent through fertile fields, vineyards and fruit orchards (Ibid.:149). Today the city is a provincial centre, but in the seventeenth century it was the capital of Morocco (Ibid.:149).

It flourished during the reign of Moulay Ismail Ben Sharif, the second ruler of the Alaouite dynasty, established by the Arabs (Franus 2012:149). Moulay Ismail Ben Sharif himself was one of the country’s greatest and bloodiest sultans (Ibid.:149). Therefore, it seems strange the fact that his tomb has become a destination for pilgrims from all over the world (Ibid.:152). Even at the beginning of his reign, the monarch cut down seven hundred slaves as a warning to his enemies, and decorated the walls of Fez with their heads (Ibid.:149,152). He had no mercy on anyone, not even his own children (Ibid.:152). He himself did not feel safe as he made Meknes an impregnable fortress, able to resist possible enemies for years, but at the same time it was supposed to be full of gardens, palaces and fountains (Ibid.:152). The city itself impresses with the colours of the Greek islands, where blue and white dominate. It reminded me a little my favourite city in the north of the country, Chefchaouene, which is called the Blue City due to deep blue colours of its walls (Ibid.:151).

Royal horses and the largest gate of Africa

In royal granaries, consisting of a series of rooms connected by corridors, grain and legumes were collected (Franus 2012:152). The supplies were to feed the population during the long siege. Only walls covered with wild vines and bushes remained of the equally impressive Royal Order Stables (Ibid.:152). There is not enough money for a restoration or thorough excavations. Some sources mention twelve thousand horses that were supposed to be kept there (Ibid.:152). However, the calculations show that there were no more than 1,200 of them, although it is still impressive (Ibid.:152).

Mansour Gate. Photo by Jerzy Strzelecki (2011) CC BY 3.0. Source: “Mansour Gate” (2019). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The horses had royal conditions there (Franus 2012:152). They were even supplied with water via an underground system (Ibid.:152). The most famous decoration of the city, however, is the main gate of the Old Town of Meknes, Bab Mansour, known as Africa’s largest gate (Ibid.:152). It stands opposite a huge souk, where you can buy olives arranged in giant pyramids and supposedly the best sweets in Morocco (Ibid.:152). “The gate structure was completed in 1732 by Mulay Abdullah who was the son of Sultan Mulay Ismail. This gate marks the main entrance of the imperial palace built for Isla Mulay and the ancient city of Meknes. The door was designed by a Christian converted to Islam whose name was ‘Mansur’, hence [the gate’s] name. Adjacent to the gate within the walls are the Royal Order Stables, the Royal Prison and the Meknes City Museum” (“Mansour Gate” 2019). Bab Mansour itself looks like a gate to another world (Franus 2012:152). It is ten meters high (Ibid.:152) and “is decorated with green ceramics with paintings with Islamic motifs. [Its] white pillars are columns that [once] used to stand in the Roman city, Volubilis, which is about [thirty kilometres] north of the city” (“Mansour Gate” 2019).

The Alaouite dynasty is still in power today (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Nevertheless, the Berber story and their large achievements deserve their place among great histories of Africa (Ibid.).

Waterfall and the ocean

Just before heading off to Agadir, we stopped yet at Ouzoud Falls. The heat of the sun hid for a moment in the crowns of dense trees and in the splash of falling water. Macaques were popping out of the bushes, in hope for a delicious bite from the tourist’s hands. The heavenly smells of tagines, which were served in the open air, were hanging around, inviting for a Moroccan feast.

In the late afternoon, I was already standing on the wide beach near Essaouira, a charming port city and resort on Morocco’s Atlantic coast. I watched the ocean waves washing away the sun-heated sand (Franus 2012:137).

Everything seems extraordinary in this country. From the multi-colours of the mountains, the fairy-tale kasbahs, the green of palm groves rising up among the sands, the architecture of imperial cities, people who look like they have just been transferred from the past, to craftsmanship that captivates with its unique fantasy (Franus 2012:135).

By the Atlantic Ocean. Copyright©Archaeotravel.


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Architectural Oasis of Al-Andalus

‘It is said that whoever has not seen Granada has seen nothing’, said our guide breathing in the air coming from the river. It was filled with the magic of spices and the scent of flowers.

Granada is one of the most popular cities in the Andalusia region. It stretches along the Genil River, right at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. This picturesquely situated town is famous for its unique architecture from the One Thousand and One Nights and well-preserved monuments that simply took my breath away.

Andalusia in Spain looks like a fairy-land from the stories of the One Thousand and One Nights.

We left the river behind and slipped through the narrow streets of the souk among the stalls with pyramids of spices and colorful fabrics. It was already our second week we were spending among the treasures of southern Spain with its strong oriental character singing in one voice with the Christian spirit and the bells of Catholic churches and cathedrals; Seville, Cordoba and finally Granada have shared with me their secrets.


Royal Alcázar of Seville

In January, 1492, the last of the Muslim rulers in Spain surrendered in Granada to the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile. To commemorate the great triumph of Reconquest, a silver Cross and a pennant of Saint James were erected at the top of one of the towers of the fortified palace of Alhambra. Catholic kings placed a pomegranate in their coat of arms, probably without expecting its seeds would sprout and give wonderful fruits of art over time.

Mudejar Style and its Creators

One of the artistic expressions was the mudejar style. It had grown out of the roots of Moorish art but gained a unique character from combining the latter with the Christian tradition. Despite the victory of the Reconquest, this unique style did not disappear from the art of Spain converted back to Christianity, but it was further continued by more or less Christianized Moorish artists and craftsmen who remained in the lands of Spain to serve Catholic rulers. They were called mudajjan, or people who were allowed to stay, and hence the Spanish term mudejar, which refers to the products of art and their creators.

An extremely important decorative element of Moorish art are the so-called azulejos, which are ceramic tiles covered with enamel used for lining the walls both inside and outside, decorating the exterior of the building.

According to the terminological Dictionary of Fine Arts, mudejar is a style in the architecture and decoration of Spain, developing from the eighth to the seventeenth century AD. Its development is noted especially in the end of the Moorish reign, that is from the fourteenth to the fifteenth century. The style was definitely closer to the Gothic than to the Italian Renaissance, with which it quarreled.

The Alhambra gardens name is really Generalife.

Still the style of mudejar itself and contemporary European style influenced the character of the Spanish Renaissance and then Baroque. The dominant feature of mudejar is the astonishingly rich decoration made in stucco, especially visible in vaults carved in wood and covered with polychrome, horseshoe arches, azulejos and muqarnas (mocárabe) – a motif that adorns column heads, or the so-called stalactite vaults. A particularly important feature of the mudejar style is a colorful or gilded ornament of oriental origin – arabesque or moresque, Arabic inscriptions, and stylized figurative and animalistic motifs, characterized by a much greater freedom of composition in comparison with the art of Islam developing outside the Iberian Peninsula. The projecting of mudejar-style sacral buildings usually is of the western type, while the secular architecture is dominated by rather oriental patterns. In addition to architecture, the style was also mastered by craftsmanship, which played a leading role in the development of  the Moorish art. In the mudejar style, for example, the rich Alcazar decoration in Seville was made.

Muqarnas – a motif that adorns column heads, or the so-called stalactite vaults.

Due to the strongly established influence of Islam in Andalusia, the Moorish art has found its place and expression in many products of architecture and the craft of Christian Spain. It was also present in literature and music, and what is more, it became one of the most important stages of the development of art on the Iberian Peninsula. After the Moors retreated, they left behind silent witnesses of their domination in Spain, and the splendour of Islamic culture and art. Those were remains of secular and sacral Moorish architecture – castles, palaces and mosques.

The Court of the Myrtles; the Pool plays an important part in the architectural and aesthetic definition of the site.

A large number of architectural works of this style have grown into a Christian structure imposed on the older. More often, however, architectural works were dismantled to become a source of valuable building material for new creations of the Christian architecture; Moorish columns, capitals and precious marble have become elements of a new, alien to them constructions. Islamic defensive castles were taken over by Catholic kings. In the process they were gradually destroyed, changing into ruins but preserving their picturesque remains for the landscape of today’s Andalusia.

Gardens of Alhambra full of various flowers, plants and fruits.

Among the secular architecture left by the Moors the most beautiful is the Alhambra, a palace rising from the thirteenth to the fourteenth century on a hilltop, overlooking the majestic city of Granada, and challenging the snow-capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada. The Alhambra is today the most exquisite example of the genius of secular architecture and artistry created by the Moors. The latter were Muslims who invaded the Iberian Peninsula from North Africa at the beginning of the eighth century. Under the pressure of the Muslim invaders, Visigothic Spain had failed and surrendered. The green banner fluttered in Spain over the following centuries until the Reconquista. Without a doubt, it was a period when one of the most outstanding chapters of art was written in the background of world art. The uniqueness of the Moorish art in Andalusia – the Arabic Al-Andalus – became possible because of the relative integration of Islamic, Christian and Jewish cultures that sought to live side by side in peace and symbiosis, complementing each other to some extent.

Similar conditions ensured rapid development of human spiritual needs: literature, music, crafts, and architecture. On the other hand, the closeness of monotheistic religions, their values ​​and artistic achievements, as well as the background of the culture of the Visigoths, was not without significance for the shape of art sprouting in the areas of Andalusia at that time.

More oriental palace than the buildings preserved in the very Orient

The Alhambra Palace is a kind of labyrinth of shady courtyards, halls, magnificent arcades, marble columns, fountains and ponds.

Palace pf Alhambra

The walls of the majestic building are covered with intricate patterns similar in lightness to intricate laces and shimmering in the colours of the rainbow with glass tiles. The palace’s beauty is also glorified by poets, lyricists and singers, such as Loreena McKennitt.

I’d long intended to make a pilgrimage to Spain and to visit the palace called Alhambra. [And] I finally travelled there. I discovered the Moorish towers built by a thirteenth century Muslim sultan, interior courtyards with pools of water, elegant pillars and intricate tracery.All designed to duplicate famous descriptions of paradise within Islamic poetry. For centuries it served as an oasis for nomads and travellers, a meeting place for cultures and traditions, a crossroads for religions, where Muslims, Jews and Christians once coexisted in harmony. It’s a place where darkness gives a way to life, every stone has heard a 1001 secrets and where distance feels so near. It’s a place of infinite beauty, a Mystic’s dream, Alhambra.

Loreena McKennitt, Nights from the Alhambra.

After J. Pijaon the Alhambra is today a more oriental palace than the buildings preserved in the very Orient. An extremely important decorative element of Moorish art and the palace’s decoration in Granada are the so-called azulejos, which are ceramic tiles covered with enamel used for lining the walls both inside and outside, decorating the exterior of the building.

The Palace of Charles V is a Renaissance building, located on the top of the hill of the Assabica, inside the Nasrid fortification of the Alhambra. Its architecture strongly contrast with a delicate beauty of the medieval Moorish Palace.

This art was introduced by Arabs from the Iberian Peninsula in the fourteenth century, and after the Moors were driven out of Spain it was still cultivated by Christian artists; in the seventeenth century, mainly in Seville, but also in neighboring Portugal, from where it reached the New World, and they have decorated the facades of the buildings in the capital of Brasilia. At the beginning of its history, azulejos, the term from Arabic az-zulayj, which means a small stone, were monochromatic, mainly blue. Hence it is not without significance that azul means blue in both Spanish and Portuguese. Over time, however, the tiles began to adorn strongly geometric, multi-colored floral motifs, but also depictions of military or humorous scenes.

Alhambra Granada Spain; Hall of the two Sisters or Sala de las dos Hermanas. The muquarnas cupola, which is a decorated vaulted stalactite ceiling.

Apart from azulejos, the most captivating in the Islamic art are the decorations in the form of stalactites forming the shell of the Alhambra palace’s vaults, which seem to explode like gigantic starfish. The effect of vibrating stalactite forms is present especially in the decoration of the dome in the Abencerrag Hall and the dome in the Hall of the Two Sisters in the Alhambra. Made of stucco elements and embedded in wooden frames, the vaults resemble a diagonally cut honeycomb. As in many other examples of Arab art, the motif of stalactite brings to mind the creations of nature and their glorification in art. The Arabs were once a nomadic people, dependent on nature and sensitive to its beauty and life, which flourished in oases in a barren desert. Organic elements, like water and greenery, are also an inseparable element of the architecture of bands such as Alkazar and Alhambra.

Patio de los Arrayanes, Alhambra.

After the Reconquest, the mosque, the so-called mezquita in Spain, was most often turned into a church. The place of mihrab – a niche in one of the walls of the books, which went towards Mecca, the holy city of Muslims, was replaced with a Christian altar. According to the principles of Christian art, the altar was to be orientated towards the east. In Spain, the mezquita wall with the mihrab were mostly oriented southeastwards. Hence the unique orientation of Christian altars in the churches of Andalusia, adapted to the location of earlier Moorish constructions and their purposes. A similar procedure was used in the case of a minaret – a slender tower from which the faithful were called to pray. From then on it served as a belfry, as it was applied, for example, in the Cathedral of Seville.

Sacral Hybrid of Styles

The most important and undoubtedly the most famous example of the Moorish church building is the Mezquita – the Great Mosque of Cordoba.

Fountains in the Alcázar of Seville.

After Spain was overtaken from the Morish hands, the Mezquita was clasped within the Catholic Cathedral. The whole structure is a sacral hybrid of styles arising from the needs of two religions, which, however, have not succumbed to any of them. Thanks to this, the building is so unique in its form. On the one hand, the elements of Muslim and Christian structures seem to quarrel and push away each other, on the other, the duality of styles argues that there are artistic currents prevailing in both sacred arts, stemming from the values ​​of both religions.

Mezquita – the Great Mosque of Cordoba. After Spain was overtaken from the Morish hands, the Mezquita was clasped within the Catholic Cathedral.

The choir of the Christian cathedral with figural representations of angels and saints, made in the Spanish Renaissance style – plateresco, known as the goldsmith style, is in conflict with the interiors of the Mezquita. Sometimes the contrast between the Muslim and Christian understanding of the sacred is difficult to withstand, and even shocking. In the Christian temple the mihrab has been preserved and so it creates the sacred space together with the Christian altar, to which the main nave of the temple created by the Christians leads. Despite its importance, the building of the Gothic cathedral of Crdoba is visible only from the bird’s eye view, somewhat embedded in the center of the whole massive structure of the Mezquita, with the tower of the minaret-belfry rising in the north.

Court of the Lions in Alhambra; detail.

To raise the place of prayers in Cordoba, the Muslim invaders used half of the Visigothic church of St. Wincenty, built on the site of the pagan temple dedicated to Janus. The basic element of the Mezquita became the ancient and Visigothic columns, acquired on the spot or imported. Jan Białostocki compares the layout of a large number of columns forming nineteen aisles to “an unbounded stone forest, as if the people living in the desert shaped their world into a shady oasis.” Because of the original purpose of the building, the columns do not set the direction towards the current sanctuary, as it is intended in Christian basilicas. The lack of a central axis, also visible in the façade of the temple, actually evokes the impression that one has just entered the interior of the dense forest of columns that are diverging in various directions. Among the low trunks of columns deprived of bases there is a twilight.

The walls of the majestic building of Alhambra are covered with intricate patterns similar in lightness to intricate laces and shimmering in the colours of the rainbow with glass tiles.

During the Moorish times, there were small lights flickering around, now one entering from the outside is suddenly plunged into the darkness of the temple dedicated to the God being called the Light. The columns combine double, two-colored bows and the more one approaches the mihrab, the more their forms seem intricate. The spaces defined by the strips of running columns hide vaults in the form of domes in the shape of an eight-leaf rosette or a half-cut orange.

The well-known fountain epitomizes ornamental richness and illustrates the complexity of the hydraulic system operating on the site.

The dominant element of the Mezquita in Cordoba is the horseshoe arch. This is the main element of the local mihrab. Probably this shape of the arch already existed in the territory of Spain during the Visigothic times. The Arabs took over many elements from the art of conquered cultures of Asia and Africa. In the case of Spain, it was the artistic style created by the Visigoths, assimilated and in time adapted to the needs of the invaders. While the first Arabian buildings in Egypt are characterized mainly by the form of a pointed or ogival arch, in Spain dominates the horseshoe arch, with a clearly rounded shape. This bow decorates the Mezquita in Cordoba. It was only from Andalusia that a similar form of the arch spread further in North Africa and was commonly used in Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian buildings.

Lost Paradise

Andalusian Paradise

The exuberance, elegance and decorative culture brought by Arabs in Spain testify to the high level of their contemporary intellectual and artistic life. As such the Moorish Andalusia was an enclave of light and a real phenomenon in the history of European art. For the defeated Moors, it became a symbol of the lost Paradise.


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Road of a Thousand Kasbahs

“It is difficult to give an idea of the impression made on the voyager […] by the sight of a ravishing oasis, forming a dazzling band of green, above which rise the crenellated towers, massive bastions, richly crowned with ornamental architecture and fortress walls. If one has a chance to penetrate such a charming place at sunset, it is a veritable fairyland reminiscent of [an oriental] décor. It is a different world opening before us, a curious and strange, made of truly original traditions that make us forget the colourlessness of modern life” (Minca, Wagner 2016:174).

The Ksar Ait Bin Haddou and the Route of a Thousand Kasbahs. Photo taken by Iwona Wilczek.

On the way southwards

Our journey to the world of refreshing pools and paradise gardens started in Agadir, a famous holiday resort on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, usually fulfilled with the hordes of tourists taking advantage of the sun and endless sandy beaches. We did not stay there long. The following day, we were already on the way to the southern Morocco, driven through the plain of Sous, luxuriantly overgrown with citrus trees and filled with their delicate orange fragrance. The landscape was awash with charming argan trees bending under the weight of mountain goats climbing into their branches. Such a view gracefully builds the picturesque Moroccan landscape. Inspired by traditional Berber methods of production, the argan oil is itself regarded as the gold of Morocco and an essential elixir of youth and beauty.

The landscape was awash with charming argan trees bending under the weight of mountain goats climbing into their branches.

In the afternoon we reached the fortified city of Tarudant, which had belonged to one of the richest and most powerful cities in all of southern Morocco till the seventeenth century. Apart from majestic, long defensive walls with impressive bastions and gates, my attention was caught by simple but elegant traditional Berber flat roofs made of wood and typically applied in the earthen Moroccan architecture. After leaving Tarudant behind, we followed a scenic route along the Drâa River with its green oases, charming villages and lush palm groves. With each kilometre southwards, red silhouettes of kasbahs were appearing more often on the hills, inviting us to enter their fairyland. Following them like signposts, we continued further along the edge of the Sahara desert and in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains.

Travellers to Kasbah

Throughout Morocco, from the track of kasbahs to the country’s imperial cities, one’s senses seem heightened. They “are teased awake and gently assaulted by the tinkle of water from a fountain, by the heady pungent air of the attarine (spice street) in the souk (bazaar), by the spiced tartness of cracked olives, by the vivid hues of saffron, lapis, amethyst and jade, and by the smooth velvet feel of a long-simmered tagine sauce as it first caresses the tongue” (Crocker 2005:vii)

Souk in Tarudant. Photo taken by Iwona Wilczek.

“Even today, travellers to Kasbah […], who chance upon a sheltered courtyard and pause in the cool shade of a fragrant jasmine or bay tree […] might catch a fleeting glimpse of the sensual delights borne by the Moors [centuries ago]” (Crocker 2005:vii).

Moroccan gardens are luxuriantly overgrown with citrus trees and filled with their delicate orange fragrance.

The Moors stood initially for the Berbers from Maghreb – the North African countries of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria (Crocker 2005:vii). Maghreb means the land where the sun sets, as “for the seventh century Arab conquerors, this part of the Mediterranean lay far to the west of their own Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo” (Ibid.:vii).

Moroccan cuisine looks and tastes delicious. Photo taken by Iwona Wilczek.

The Berbers

Nowadays, Morocco is a modern Islamic state which is ruled by Arab kings but they rule over the country with a culture and history as diverse as its landscape (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Morocco has got its coasts facing the Atlantic and the Mediterranean Sea (Ibid.). Snow-covered peaks of mountains of Atlas range are towering from one side of the country, whereas the bone-dry fringes of the Sahara Desert spreads out from the other (Ibid.). Dominant languages spoken in the country are Arabic, French and Spanish in the north but nearly half the population still speak Berber, the language of the indigenous inhabitants of these lands (Ibid.).

The Berbers’ origins are shrouded in mystery (2006:ix). It is deepened by the fact that members of some tribes have got green or blue eyes and red or blond hair (Medina, Juilleret 2016; New World Encyclopedia 2020). Generally, it is said they are mostly “the remnants of the original inhabitants of North Africa, presently living in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya” (Woronof 2006:ix). Still they also live in Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, with smaller minorities in Niger (Ibid.:ix). The word Berber has originated from the Greek barbaroi (Ilahiane 2006:xxx) which described people “who spoke neither Latin nor Greek or to refer to non-Phoenicians within the Carthaginian state. Ancient Greek writers also used ‘Libyan’ as another name to refer to the inhabitants of North Africa while also speaking of other Berbers as the Numidians [– the ‘Nomands’], a name that reflected that most of them practised pastoral nomadism” (Ibid.:xxx). But although the Berbers are usually thought as nomads, the majority are farmers (New World Encyclopedia 2020).

The Berbers describe themselves in their own language as Imazighen (singular Amazigh) (Ilahiane 2006:xxx), which means ‘free men’ (“Berbers” 2020). This is, in turn, perfectly reflected by their flag, where the Yaz (ⵣ) symbol, looking like a man with raised hands, stands for the Berbers motto : ‘Free Man, Free Woman. Free People’ (Ibid.). The symbol is red, which signifies life (Ibid.). Moreover, each colour of the flag “corresponds to an aspect of the territory inhabited by Berbers in North Africa: blue represents the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean” (Ibid.), green stands for nature and yellow for the sands of the Sahara Desert (Ibid.)

Oum (2013) “Taragalte” (Soul Of Morocco) Official Video.

Turning point in history

Whereas, a thousand of years ago, the present lands of Morocco belonged to the Berbers, today, these are the inner parts of the Atlas Mountains and the southern fringes of the desert that remain as predominantly Berber homelands (Chijioke Njoku 2006; Casely-Hayford 2010-2012).

Arid peaks of Atlas Mountains look like mushroom heads or multi-layered hats.

Since ancient times, the Berbers were not unified by a nation-state (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Instead, on either side of the Atlas Mountains, there existed small independent Berber clans of farmers, traders and nomads (Ibid.). Although these people had been converted into Islam, they maintained their traditional Berber customs and they did not always follow the new religion to the letter of the law (Ibid.)

On the way through the southern Morocco. Photo taken by Gosia Nowa.

In 1050, the situation had drastically changed (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). This happened because of one Berber man who studied the Quran and became a charismatic, fiery preacher (Ibid.). Idealistic and uncompromising, he had a clear mission to change his fellow Berbers into proper Muslims, schooled in the strict fundamentals of their religion (Ibid.). His travels to Islamic centres of learning had left him a student of a strict legalistic interpretation of the Quran (Ibid.). As such, he has gone down into history (Ibid.). His name was Abdullah Ibn Yasin, the North African religious chief of the Moslem Almoravid movement (Your Dictionary 2010). He ran his converting mission in the Western Sahara, where he pulled together an alliance of tribes and he appointed himself a spiritual leader (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012).

Gate to the Sahara Desert.

Consequently, from the Sahara Desert, a small group of Nomads came to transform the northwest corner of Africa into a vast empire that stretched from the Sahara to Spain (Ibid.). What started with one man’s mission grew into a kingdom which lasted for centuries (Ibid.). Its rulers generated tremendous wealth, created great architecture and promoted sophisticated ideas in an ordered society (Ibid.).

From Sijilmasa to Awdaghust

In 1054, Abdullah Ibn Yasin became a leader of an army of thousands of nomads who headed for Sijilmasa, one of the most important medieval cities in Africa and a major trading post at the northern edge of the Sahara Desert (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Since then, the war described as jihad had started (Ibid.). For Ibn Yasin it was a holy war to uphold a true understanding of Islam but it was also aimed at his fellow Muslim Berbers (Ibid.).

Sijilmasa ruins. Source: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia (2020).

All that is left now of the city of Sijilmasa are but spectacular mud ruins (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). The city was once built in the middle of one of the largest oasis in Africa and was inhabited by over fifty thousands of people (Ibid.). Date palms and irrigated fields at the site hide clues to a much bigger and more significant past than it is visible today (Ibid.). The taking of the city would be the first major foundation stone of the Moslem Almoravid Kingdom (Ibid.). Dr Eric Ross, an expert in Islamic studies, has been involved in the recent archaeological studies of the site (Ibid.). He says that in the eleventh century, Morocco was not looking towards Europe or the Atlantic but across the Sahara, which was wide open to trade, stretching all the way from West Africa to South Asia (Ibid.). So the city of Sijilmasa itself became a prosperous trading hub of cloth, manuscripts, horses but especially gold coming there from present areas of Mali and Senegal (Ibid.).

Argan trees and goats – typical landmark of Morocco. Photo taken by Gosia Nowa.

Once Ibn Yasin had the city under his control, the Almoravids secured the source of the city’s gold trade (Ibid.). Therefore, they went south to the opposite side of the Sahara and seized the trading town of Awdaghust (today Mauritania) by controlling the supply of gold across the desert (Ibid.). By doing so, they had a virtual monopoly on one of the most lucrative of trades and they could carry on their jihad beyond the Sahara Desert (Ibid.).

In the grove of date palms. Moroccan dates are delicious! Photo taken by Gosia Nowa.

We were just approaching the ancient Sijilmasa. Passing by the towns of Tazzarine and Al-Nif, known for fossils mined by the local population, we were lowly moving along one of the most picturesque routes of southern Morocco, in the direction of Erfoud and through Ar-Rajsani, with the most famous souk in the region. In this town, routes begin leading through the Sahara. Along the way, the green swath of palm groves snaked up among fortified villages and Berber granaries, integrated into the landscape of green oases and mountains.

Gate to Sahara Desert

Can you remember the last time you saw a spectacular sunset over the desert?

Dark silhouettes of our caravan cast against the dunes. Photo taken by Iwona Wilczek.

It was in the small Saharan oasis Merzouga, where Erg Chebbi begins. It is the most popular part of the Sahara Desert in Morocco, with its impressive dunes of pristine sand rising to the height of two hundred and fifty metres and stretching for thirty kilometres around. We rode camels for hours through the gentle golden-orange waves of the desert, climbed up and slid the dunes, enjoying like children golden snowfalls of sand.

Can you remember the last time you saw a spectacular sunset over the desert?

With the afternoon coming, dark silhouettes of our caravan, cast against the dunes, were stretching like a ribbon along the way. As we progressed, the colours of the desert kept changing with time from glistening golden-yellow to extremely intense brick-orange with some reddish contours hovering on the horizon. Finally, the camels sat down and we could climbed down our mounts. The sun had slowly started to set sleepily sliding its last lights over the sand. It seemed as if the waning ball  was stripping all the desert off colours, leaving us behind among faded and cold hills of sand, in utter silence of the night.

Life-giving katara system

Apart from gold, essential for the successful mission of the Almoravids was also water (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012) and the Berbers “had the knowhow to find and move the scarce resource of water under the arid Sahara desert through katara – a part of the ancient irrigation system made up of a complex network of underground tunnels for funnelling water” (Toa Correspondent 2017). By its means, water could be provided where it was needed across the arid and dry landscape. The whole system is now visible by mounds stretching out across the landscape and it shows the Berbers’ ability to understand their land and work with it (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012).

The system looks on the surface like rows of mole hills but underground it reveals the Berbers engineering knowledge. When we stepped down to the man-made tube-like tunnels, we found ourselves in a parallel world of subterranean caverns and narrow passages, simply lit by the light from the “mole” chimneys opening to the sky. Such was an ancient experience and mastery of the Berbers that they use their katara underground complexes even today.

Riding camels across the Sahara Desert. Photo taken by Iwona Wilczek.

Across the Atlas Mountains

Finally, with a powerful army, Ibn Yasin had a potential to create an Islamic Berber nation (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Yet, before the Almoravids set the foundations for their imperial cities, such as Marrakech, they had to first cross the Atlas Mountains (Ibid.). It was because the Atlas range, rising to over four thousand metres above sea level, has formed a natural border between the desert in the south and more fertile and populous lands in the north, which the army was planning to conquer (Ibid.).  

Tinghir looks like a mosaic of blue, pink and grey tesserae, scattered between the green swath of palm trees and arid flattened peaks.

Having traversed the Sahara Desert, we also headed off to the mountains. We took our journey through the Tinghir oasis enclosed by a palm grove, and stopped at the Todra Gorge. Nestled in a surrounding of brick-coloured waves of mountains, the village of Tinghir looks like a mosaic of blue, pink and grey tesserae, scattered between the green swath of palm trees and arid peaks.

The Todra Gorge attracts many amateurs of climbing. Photo taken by Iwona Wilczek.

“Here, both the Todra and Dadès Rivers have carved out cliff-sided canyons [of several hundred meters long, stretching] through the mountains” (Jackson 2020). The Todra Gorge itself is quite narrow, with its walls rising to around three hundred metres. The river has shrunk so far, allowing “only the imagination to picture the powerful natural forces that once carved this region” (Ibid.). Enchanted by its irresistible magnitude, we spent a while to examine the gorge, and then returned in the area of Tinerhir to enjoy our next Moroccan meal full of colours and spices while “[relishing] this oasis town situated in the heart of an overwhelming fantastic region, [densely covered in] olive, pomegranate, [and] date palms” (Salloum 2020).

Tinerhir oasis in the heart of a beautiful region of olive trees, pomegranate, and date palms.

Leaving behind one of the most charming landscapes of the southern Morocco, we drove along the Dadès River Valley to the town of El Kelaa de Mgouna. This region is famous for growing the extremely aromatic Rosa Damascena, also known as the Rose of Castile (Brooke 2020). Its exceptional scent hovers in the air of local valleys and is responsible for a “fragrant resurgence of [roses] in perfumes” (Ibid.). Millenia ago, the pre-Saharan valley of the Dadès carried one of the main trade routes through the mountains, which made it attractive also to thieves. Today it overlaps with the so-called Road of a Thousand Kasbahs, “fairy-tale forts, built by magical hands” (Salloum 2020).

Road of a Thousand Kasbahs

By Tinerhir and El Kelaa de Mgouna, we had entered the kingdom of kasbahs and their famous route. The outlines of adobe towers were “to be spotted at every corner […], while speeding 4x4s [moved] between different locations and the next thé à la menthe and couscous aux légumes” (Minca, Wagner 2016:165). Along our way, the fortified castles kept “peeking out of palm groves and edging the roads that cut through the valley” (Rough Guides 2020). They literally dot the landscape of the region (Minca, Wagner 2016:165).

Terracotta-like colour of the kasbah walls are blending with the colours of the surrounding arid hills. Photo taken by Iwona Wilczek.

The so-called “kasbah effect” (Ibid.:165) most notably dominates the areas of the great river valleys, namely the already visited Drâa and the Dadès, which encompasses the Route of a Thousand Kasbahs, we were just driving along (Rough Guides 2020). The land of kasbahs consequently covers a vast southern region of Morocco, from the city of Tarudant in the west till “possibly Erfoud at the most extreme eastern tip of this [route]” (Minca, Wagner 2016:165), and includes such cities as Skoura, El Kelaa de Mgouna, Tinerhir, and Boulmane du Dades (Ibid.:165). The itinerary following their monumental castles “hypothetically starts in Ouarzazate, but that is anticipated by the [Ksour] Ait ben Haddou to continue for more than [three hundred kilometres] along the edge of the desert, [till] Merzouga” (Ibid.:165).

Tales of kasbahs

Kasbahs are first of all the significant Heritage of Earthen Architecture in Morocco (Marcus, Smith 2016). There are thousands of fortified earthen complexes and villages, known as kasbahs and ksour, found in southern Morocco (Ibid.). Nowadays, “the Berbers have, with some modifications, retained the fortress-like forms of architecture, [which was in the past] typically constructed to withstand enemy assault” (Chijioke Njoku 2006:66). Like in the painting from an oriental fairy-tale, “the Kasbah is an image of a mud castle in a desert-like landscape, the image exotic and typical of an orientalist idea of the people living at the edge of the Sahara. […] In this sense, the Kasbah is often represented as the ultimate castle in the desert, a fortress perfectly complementing the soft colours tainting the arid landscape” (Minca, Wagner 2016:165).

One of a few preserved kasbahs, situated on top of the hill. Photo taken by Iwona Wilczek.

Kasbahs were “built, in the absence of other available materials, out of [straw] and the mud-clay pisé of the riverbanks. […] They are often monumental in design and fabulously decorated, with bold geometric patterns incised into exterior walls and slanted towers. Seasonal rains wash off some of the mud, so the buildings require constant upkeep – once a kasbah has been left unmaintained, it declines very fast, with twenty years enough to produce a ruinous state if the walls are not renewed” (Rough Guides 2020; see Barriault 2013:35).

Native Berber architecture

The definition of kasbah has got a very wide meaning, “from a fortress isolated in the country to a city neighbourhood, where the members of the administration and the army lived” (Mimó 2020).

Kasbah remains at foot of the mountains. Photo taken by Iwona Wilczek.

However, in southern Morocco, the word kasbah is usually applied to an earthen square structure featuring four towers at the corners (Ibid.) and usually owned by powerful families of viziers (provincial or local governors) or qaids (local judges) (Chijioke Njoku 2006:66). So originally, in the Berber country, the kasbah was a fortified medieval castle, sometimes with the interconnected parts enclosing a village (Chijioke Njoku 2006:66) and “harbouring [its inhabitants] within its bewildering passageways” (Barriault 2013:35). Such functions of the Berbers medieval castles were used especially “[in the era of the Islamic invasions of North Africa and Spain, [when] a fortified section of the kasbah […] was where royal residents sought protection in time of danger” (Chijioke Njoku 2006:66).

Kasbah towers are still well visible among the ruins.

Kasbah as an architectural construction is originally “Berber and in this language it is called Tighremt. The word kasbah is recent and linked to the arrival of Arab citizens to areas where there were such monuments” (Mimó 2020). There is yet another definition to describe the Berber architecture, linked to the notion of kasbahs. This is ksar or Ighrem in Berber (Rough Guides 2020). In the Sahara and pre-Sahara valleys of the Atlas Mountains, the Berber population lived within the ksar “which generally refers to fortified and walled villages” (Chijioke Njoku 2006:66; see Mimó 2020). In such a sense, the ksar could include one or a few kasbahs within its walls (Mimó 2020). On the other side, according to other sources, ksar may also stand for “a fortified section of the [kasbah]” Chijioke Njoku 2006:66). However, a ksar (plural, ksour) is usually translated as a walled town with monumental, decorated gates and protected by watchtowers (Mimó 2020). It includes private houses, the mosque and a communal square (Ibid.). Ksour are said to be even more ancient than kasbahs (Ibid.). The oldest kasbahs preserved to our times are dated back to the seventeenth century, however, they may have appeared even millennia ago (Ibid.). There are also some ksour and kasbahs built in the nineteenth century by formerly nomadic tribes (Ibid.).

The range of High Atlas Mountains in the distance.

At the time of the Almoravid expansion, medieval kasbahs were fortified houses, owned and used by Berber wealthy families and merchants (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). They served “as both residential [but fortified] houses and storerooms” (Chijioke Njoku 2006:66), used to house goods of trade, such as gold and silks, which came across the desert (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). They had to be fortified because it was a dangerous territory (Ibid.). As such, kasbahs “were built [upon] hills with meandering paths and secret passageways for defence. Enemies were sure to lose their way, defeated by the residents, whose peace the invaders wanted to disturb” (Barriault 2013:35). On the whole, they are magnificent buildings but their fortifications give a sense of what it was like in those days (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012).  

Doors to the glorious past

“French academic engagements with kasbahs re-emerged in the decades following the World War I, as waves of rebellion across the Protectorate rescinded and the southern regions became more passable by civilians (Minca, Wagner 2016:171).

Intense reddish colours of mud-bricked architecture. Photo taken by Iwona Wilczek.

Moreover, “the magnificent castles described by nineteenth century travellers [could be already reached by cars]” (Ibid.:171). It also brought “a new wave of researchers on the region – whose focus was the specificity of Berber social organisation and architecture in the timelessness of these untouched and authentic territories. All this investigation was framed as documenting ‘Berber’ life” (Ibid.:172), as opposed to the Arabic culture of the contemporary Imperial Morocco (Ibid.:172). Accordingly, anthropologists describe such architectural structures as kasbahs as non-Arabic  (Ibid.:172) and find their roots “delving into ancient global histories like Roman, Greek and the nomadic Sahara. Though they edge towards anthropology, these interpretations are less reflections of use by the inhabitants of kasbahs, and more archaeologies of living monuments, rendering kasbahs into authentic artifacts, even while they are serving as actual living spaces for their residents” (Ibid.:172).

Adobe ramparts of a kasbah among date palms. Photo taken by Iwona Wilczek.

Today, “the adobe ramparts, pathways and doorways [still] retain that majestic mirage [of the Berbers’ glorious past], though very independent homeowners and squatters now inhabit the endless apartments locked within fortified walls” (Barriault 2013:35). For centuries, visitors to Morocco have been “driven by the appeal of these mythical building style. [This is why] they have become an important form of tourist accommodation” (Minca, Wagner 2016:165), sometimes the result of the imaginative conversion of former abandoned or semi-abandoned original structures, which once were real houses (Ibid.:165).

Most prominent of all

Finally, we reached the altitude of 1160 metres above sea level, and the city of Quarzazate or Ouarzazate. It is the capital of southern Morocco, and because of its location, it gives an amazing view of the Atlas range on the horizon. Historically it was the intersection of trans-Saharan trade routes, where the multitude of fortified architecture had escorted us since we left the Sahara Desert and started approaching the mountains.

The most famous of all kasbahs preserved in Morocco is the Kasbah of Taourirt. Photo taken by Iwona Wilczek.

The most famous of all kasbahs preserved in Morocco is the Kasbah of Taourirt (Marcus, Smith 2016: Salloum 2020). It is located in the city of Ouarzazate and is “considered to be the mother of all kasbahs” (Salloum 2020). The earliest parts of the mud castle date back to the seventeenth century but most of the complex was constructed in the late nineteenth century by Si Hammadi el Glaoui, the ruler of Taourirt and of the powerful Glaoui family, who controlled the southern part of the country (Marcus, Smith 2016; Salloum 2020; see Barriault 2013:35). Si Hammadi expanded the Kasbah from a small group of buildings into a large defensive palace (Marcus, Smith 2016). It included stables, servants’ quarters, workshops, a market, wells and baths, and residences for his wives and children (Ibid.).

The Kasbah of Taourirt with lavishly ornamented walls with geometric motifs: hazarbaf. Photo taken by Iwona Wilczek.

Accordingly, the structure encompasses a series of crenelated towers, rising out of a mass of closely packed houses and lavishly ornamented walls with geometric motifs (Salloum 2020). The latter are made with the decorative brickwork technique of hazarbaf, literally meaning ‘thousand weavings’ (Dictionary University 2020). In architecture it is a surface decoration where the exterior wall of the building is geometrically patterned in relief with bricks that create a play of light and shadow (Ibid.). Among the relieved ‘thousand waves’, there are wrought iron bay windows and other intricate traditional architectonic ornamentation, like alfiz, which all adorn the exterior (Marcus, Smith 2016).

The family’s private apartments are particularly richly decorated (Marcus, Smith 2016). Inside the Kasbah, the whitewashed are painted halfway up, whereas the lower parts of the rooms are usually covered in colourful zellige tiles, with the predominance of blue (Barriault 2013:36). Above the windows positioned at the ground level, there are either belts of tiles or stucco friezes running around the room with similar medallions between them. They all are filled with rhythmic linear patterns of arabesque, koranic verses or girth lines decorating the tiles. Ceilings of the private apartments are abundantly carved in cedar wood, subsequently pained in vibrant colours, whereas lesser rooms or passageways are covered with the traditional Berber wooden roofs with visible beams and geometric decorations filling the space between them. We had already observed the very same technique in the wooden roofs of Tarudant and other Berber cities on the way.

All the architectural elements and decorations applied in the Kasbah of Taourirt repeat themselves more or less in other earthly Berber structures, depending on the level of their usage and preservation. It is also worth to note that kasbah elements subsequently influenced and enriched the architecture of the Berber imperial cities, such as Marrakech. It is even believed that an outstanding square-shaped tower of Moroccan minaret (in other Islamic countries, it is usually round), took its origins from the Berber architecture of the kasbah tower. On the other side, the ingenious “Moroccan architecture has been [also] heavily impacted by the Islamic traditions and later European influences. [Modes] of religious worship and rituals, regional histories, and local material, [all that] have combined to give Moroccan architecture a diverse but unique expression” (Chijioke Njoku 2006:65).

Rehabilitation of kasbahs

Inside the Kasbah of Taourirt. Photo taken by Gosia Nowa.

Unfortunately, kasbahs important and fragile architecture is threatened by abandonment and is being lost (Marcus, Smith 2016). Although the Kasbah of Taourirt was designated a Moroccan national landmark in 1954, it has suffered a gradual deterioration over the years and was mostly abandoned until the 1990s (Ibid.). Currently, it is under the protection of CERKAS, a public institution under the authority of the Ministry of Culture, which aim is to preserve the architectural heritage found in the Atlas Regions and the pre-Saharan Valleys of Morocco (Ibid.). In 2011, the Getty Conservation Institute and CERKAS partnered to develop a methodology for preserving the Kasbah and other sites featuring the earthen architecture in southern Morocco (Ibid.).

Typical elements of the earthen Berber architecture (clay and straw) are very present in modern day hotels and private houses. Photo taken by Iwona Wilczek.

Structures in the Kasbah are now being stabilized and restored using traditional earthen construction and conservation techniques (Ibid.). Local materials from Ouarzazate region are being used and skilled craftsmen are training labours in traditional building crafts and techniques (Ibid.). Wall painting conservators are also working inside the richly decorated Caid Residence to preserve and protect important wall paintings (Ibid.). Generally,  the rehabilitation of Kasbah Taourirt can serve as a model for conservation of similar earthen sites in the region (Ibid.).

Mud-red fortress

Towering from the edge of the river valley, the Ksar Ait Bin Haddou contains some kasbahs and the most beautiful in all Morocco fortified ochre-coloured Berber village.

One of the most famous landmarks of southern Morocco: thr Ksar Ait Bin Haddou.

The whole complex looks like a massive red bulk of the flat mountain, encrusted with squared houses and sticking towers. Sitting atop a gorge, the fortress is accessible only by donkeys or on foot (Barriault 2013:36). To reach its entrance, we crossed the modern bridge suspended over the nearly dry bed of the Imarene River, which separates the ksar from the neighbourhood town buildings (Ibid.:36). For a moment “we stood in awe, just before beginning the trek upward. There, on low ground, we beheld a huge arched entrance, the same [terracotta-colour] of the imposing kasbah that rose behind it” (Ibid.:36).

The whole complex looks like a massive red bulk of the flat mountain, encrusted with squared houses and sticking towers. Photo taken by Gosia Nowa.

Many ksour, like this one, must have existed in Maghreb in the Middle Ages (Ibid.:36). They were cities “unto themselves – slave and villager quarters at the base, the ruling family ensconced in the fort at the top” (Ibid.:36-37). Like in the case of the Kasbah of Taourirt, the family owning the Ksar Ait Bin Haddou was the same “notorious Glaoui clan – a ruling French partisan family during the early twentieth century who completed the fortress” (Ibid.:37). We kept climbing the steep and narrow switchbacks of the ksar, leading past red adobe dwellings to its highest pyramidal-like stepped, mut-rutted terraces (Barriault 2013:37). As we were traversing our footpath, we encountered either goats or donkeys ramming the passageway or the natives selling their goods to passing tourists: colourful paintings, fabrics, herbs and spices (Ibid.:37). Some also offered the tastes of the Moroccan cuisine – a hot smoking tagine, hidden under a conical terracotta cooking pot and surrounded by sweet-smelling with rusted meat and spices (Ibid.:37).

“The higher we climbed, the fewer the inhabitants, the wider the view of the mountainous terrain that crested above the surrounding valley. The brown, barren earth unfolded before us like a forsaken moonscape. Certainly, approaching visitors, hostile or friendly, would be spotted from this height long before they actually arrived. The views of the sweeping mountains that rimmed the bleak plains more than compensated for our efforts to reach the pinnacle that afforded such sights” (Ibid.:37). We were standing there, “elevated above the impoverished lives below us” (Ibid.:37), and listening to the blows of wind sliding down the ridges of mountains. It was high time to go down. Still nobody moved as if enchanted by thousand tales of kasbahs.

In front of the Ksar Ait Bin Haddou.

Time to cross the mountains

Mysterious Maghreb culture can be compared to its indigenous shelter – the Berber kasbah (Barriault 2013:35). It is at once exotic, inaccessible, misleading but irresistible (Ibid.:35). It appealingly intoxicates our senses with a mystical and elusive essence of the damascene rose petals, drizzled on top of exotic dishes with spicy and herbal flavours; it wraps our skin with the melting velvet of argan oil and dresses it with delicate laces of henna tattoos. At once, it stimulates, clears the mind and brings relaxation.

With each rhythmic strike of a tambourine and magical sounds of Moroccan strings, we stepped back further in fabulous times. The Moroccan journey had led us far to the corners of this semi-abandoned but vibrant spectacle of the past.

Barrage El Mansour EddahbiLake in Ouarzazate. Photo taken by Iwona Wilczek.

“Marrakesh, [and other imperial cities], teeming with seductive life and sunshine, [were always] ahead” (Barriault 2013:37) but we were still lingering between the desert and the mountains, embraced by the arms of red mud-bricked walls.


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Mount Sinai Trekking

That night was simply full of magic and mysticism. When we reached our starting point to head off the Mount Sinai, the world had already laid down in darkness, yet disfigured with a thousand spots of light coming from clusters of bonfires and torches. Black silhouettes of Bedouins and camels were standing out sharply against their orange flames, casting their elongated shadows on the rocky ground, like the finest dancing lacework. Above us,  the navy-blue dome of the sky was spread out, sprinkled with shiny stars.

Mount Sinai
Mount Sinai, Egypt

Awe Inspiring Feeling

I felt at once happy, excited … and cold. It was January. By the Red Sea, about three hours away, the weather was much warmer, letting me swim and sunbath all day long, but here the temperature was far lower, and suddenly I felt a freezing blast of air all over my body. I trembled from cold and quickly started to follow an example of my friend putting on herself subsequent layers of a pullover, waterproof jacket, scarf, winter hat and gloves.It’s difficult to imagine I was wearing my bikini yet in the afternoon …

Egypt or Saudi Arabia

Covered from head to toe, we were ready to take a night time hike up the legendary mountain of Sinai.

With its peak reaching up to the height of 2285 meters, the mountain is placed on the Sinai Peninsula, close to the famous monastery of Saint Katherine, situated just at its foot. According to the biblical tradition, Mount Sinai was once climbed up by Moses, where he was given Ten Commandments by God, as the set of laws and teaching instructions to mankind. For this reason, the track leading up the mountain is usually called The Path of Moses and as such it has drawn pilgrims for over a thousand years. Some scholars disagree with a common belief that the Old Testament event took its place in here. Actually, the tradition of placing the biblical meeting of Moses with God on the Sinai in Egypt was started in the fourth century, by Constantine and his mother, Saint Helen. Furthermore, the same scholars argue that according to the Bible, a “real” Mount Sinai is located in the ancient land of Midian, and it is nowhere else but in Saudi Arabia.

Mount Sinai
At the beginning, the rocky track was wide enough to walk more comfortably.

Yet it is difficult to gather enough evidence to definitely prove the theory and convince all who still doubt it, but as long as there are questions waiting to be answered, the quest for the truth will hopefully go on.

Before going on a spiritual journey

It was about 1 or 2 AM when we headed off our torch lit trail of pilgrimage with an intention to catch sunrise from its summit. It was going to take us about three to four hours to get there. However, the time taken usually depends on people’s ability and physical condition. We need also take into account regular stops to rest and warm up, preferably at small stalls along the way with hot water and blankets. It’s also useful to have a bottle of mineral water with you and a bar of chocolate (just in case you need to charge up your batteries) in your backpack.