Richard Kurin is the Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture here at the Smithsonian Institution. He is a cultural anthropologist specializing in the study of knowledge systems, folk arts, museums, and development. He is currently Study Leader on our Extraordinary Cultures – An Epic Journey Around the World tour, and will be blogging periodically while traveling. This post is seventeenth in a series. To see the other posts, click here.
Carved doorway at Bahia Palace. Photo: Richard Kurin
Morocco is one of those amazing places where the interplay and blending of cultures produces vibrant artistic, religious, and civic traditions. In Marrakech, Berber, Roman, Arab, Jewish, Moorish-Andalusian, and French peoples and traditions have met. The result is stunning.
Historical battles and conflicts produced major dynasties and rulers, and over time, a society quite tolerant of diversity. Berber culture permeates the city—the high snow-covered Atlas Mountains hearkening to their homeland visible on the city’s horizon. Berber jewelry, leather work, swords, knives in the old city souq (market) and a variety of Berber tea sellers, artisans, and performers in the city’s center attest to that influence.
Arabs brought Islam to the Maghrib—the horizon of the setting sun, or the west, as Morocco is known. The city’s medinah (old quarter), its mosques, minarets, and schools all signal this heritage. Though largely a Muslim society, Morocco welcomed Jews with the start of the Inquisition and their expulsion—along with Muslims—from Spain in 1492. Marrakech hosted a thriving Sephardic community—now evident in the old mellah (Jewish quarter), where Judaic motifs can be found in the architecture and varied artifacts of religious life are found in the shops. But Morocco wouldn’t be complete without it Roman ruins, mosaics, tile work, Andalusian gardens, decorative styles, and especially musicians, as well as its French language and cooking styles—there exists quite a mix.