Morocco: distinctive architecture & distinctive people

By Wayne Wirtanen

(Part 3 of 3 on Morocco)


“Come wiz me to zee casbah,” Charles Boyer supposedly said to Hedy Lamarr in the movie “Algiers.” This legendary romantic line never was used in that classic 1938 film, but the myth lives on.

What is a casbah, anyway? A casbah (kasbah) is a walled, fortified residential/commercial center, originally an extended-family compound or a mini-village. Casbahs eventually evolved into large compounds housing large populations. (Quite a few casbahs have been refurbished and are used today as luxury hotels.)

Casbahs can be found in Arab countries in the north of Africa, but the Dades Valley in central Morocco has long had the nickname “Valley of a Thousand Casbahs.” The Dades River provides a long, narrow oasis in an otherwise arid desert. The contrast between the desert and the quarter-mile-wide, dense, dark-green agricultural river area is striking. Since Neolithic times (3000 to 1500 B.C.), fertile soil and water have made this an affluent area. For security from roving bands of bandits, early residents built casbahs here.

Built of unbaked mud brick generally to a maximum height of only two stories, most of these casbahs have long since disappeared, but a few are visible on high ground along the highway running parallel with the Dades River.

I visited the casbah Ait Benhaddou in central Morocco. It is quite large, exotic and one of the best-preserved casbahs in Morocco. It receives maintenance support from UNESCO as a significant historic/cultural site. Its fame will endure because it has been the location for many movies.

On my visit to Ait Benhaddou, I could see that quite a large number of families live there in tidy but spartan conditions as their ancestors have for centuries, but I was not able to get anyone to guess about current population numbers.

Elaborate gates

In early Arabic times, city gates provided access to walled cities. Gates were, at first, heavy security doors but later became elaborately decorated entryways. The extent of expensive appearance was a visible symbol of the city’s affluence.

Now the tradition continues in entryways to palaces, government buildings and private residences. The simplest small town will have a formal gateway opening of some sort curving over the road — the equivalent to our signs that say something like “Welcome to Central City.”

Distinctive people

Morocco has had a long tradition of being the most tolerant of countries. Ethnic and religious groups have lived there in harmony since earliest times. There does not appear to be a major Jewish presence these days, but, in the heart of the Muslim world, Jews have long been welcome, with synagogues present in most of the major cities.

The present population is predominately Arab/Berber and Moor, with a colorful minority of Tuareg (Blue Men of the desert).

Berbers there are known for producing fine jewelry. The classic casbah Ait Benhaddou is the best-known example of Berber architecture. (Arab casbahs are somewhat different and are more correctly called ksars.) Berber women decorate their hands with semipermanent henna tattoos. I saw itinerant henna tattoo artists plying their art in the main square in Marrakech.

Berber carpets are popular these days in modern American homes. I learned the reason for the relatively loose weave of these carpets. It is to let sand through to the floor below. In spring and fall, carpets are lifted up in Berber homes to allow the sand to be swept up and disposed of. Berber carpets are then turned over.

Traditional Berber carpets have different textures on each side — a tighter weave on one side for coolness in the summer and a softer, somewhat more plush surface for warmth underfoot during the winter.

The Tuaregs are primarily desert dwellers and they form a tiny but colorful minority in Morocco.

Plan a trip

On this trip I was a guest of Oussaden Tours (New York, NY; 800/206-5049 or, which offers a variety of tours to Morocco.