The city of Tangier in northern Morocco is just a stone’s throw from Europe. The ferry from Tangier to Spain takes only 30 minutes. This easy access has made Tangier a veritable expatriate melting pot. Between 1923-1956, Tangier was an international zone, governed separately from the rest of Morocco by a loose coalition of foreign governments. The cosmopolitan environment and laissez faire attitude attracted many libertine creatives from Europe and America.
Several prolific American writers have famously called Tangier home, including Paul Bowles and William S. Burroughs. French painters Eugene Delacroix and Henry Matisse also spent significant time there. Bowles, in fact, spent the last 52 years of his life in Tangier, and wrote three novels set in Morocco.
Yves Saint Laurent bought the beautiful Majorelle Gardens in Marrakech in 1966, and split the remainder of his life between the adjoining estate and another home in France. John Paul Getty Jr. and his wife, Talitha hired design visionary, Bill Willis, to revive their run-down Marrakech palace . Many famous friends came to visit, including the Rolling Stones, to record part of their album, Steel Wheels.
The Rolling Stones in Morocco in 1964
Morocco’s rich culture of craft and long history of acceptance has fostered a diverse expatriate community. Countless artists, musicians, designers, and travelers have explored this special land, and many have decided to call it home.
Want to read more about interesting expats in Morocco?
If you ever walk through the European Art wing of a museum, you might notice that the Virgin Mary almost always wears a blue cloak. This color symbolism can be attributed to a myriad of explanations, the simplest one being this: blue was the most expensive pigment throughout much of history. Ultramarine, meaning “beyond the seas,” was known to come from a land so far away that no European had actually been there, not even Alexander the Great. Ultramarine paint is made from the semi-precious stone, lapis lazuli (meaning “blue stone”). It is found only in Chile, Zambia, a few small mines in Siberia, and – most importantly- in Afghanistan. With few exceptions, all of the real ultramarine in both Eastern and Western art came from mines in Afghanistan. By the time it made its way down mountain passes, across ancient trade routes and into Europe in the 13th century, it had already been assigned a high value. By standardizing liturgical color codes in the 16th century, reserving blue for the Virgin Mary, Pope Pius V bestowed even more prestige upon the color. Ultramarine retained its high status until a synthetic version of the color was discovered in France in 1828. However, almost all of the masterpieces of the European Renaissance owe some of their charm to the beautiful blue paint that originated in the mines of Afghanistan.
Pietro Perugino’s “Virgin with Child and Angels”
The streets of the Middle East and North Africa are abound with stalls selling fresh juice of all sorts. You can stop for a moment, pay a few cents, and enjoy a glass of fresh-pressed-just-about-anything. There is something a little extra regal about pomegranate juice, though, and whenever I see it available, I always stop for a glass.
The pomegranate, which originated in Persia, is now abundant throughout the Middle East. It is a nutrient dense, and antioxidant-rich fruit, which carries much symbolism in Egyptian, Greek, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic cultures. Throughout history, it has symbolized prosperity, ambition, abundance, fertility, resurrection, and good luck. It is often offered as a wedding or a housewarming gift, and is featured prominently throughout art history.
Boticelli’s “Madonna of the Pomegranate”
Bouguereau’s “Girl with a Pomegranate”
Pomegranates are also quite versatile in the kitchen. Try this recipe with pomegranate seeds and pomegranate molasses: Pan-fried heloumi with figs and pomegranate!
This type of tile work is called “Zellij,” it is in the Moroccan style and is mainly found in Fez. Zellij is comprised of interlocked shapes, with the number 5 being very prevalent (pentagons, 5 and 10 point stars, 5 colors). The number 5 is a significant number in Islam, there are 5 pillars of faith, 5 prayer times each day, and the hamsa (the Arabic word for 5) is used as an amulet for protection from evil.
Properly executing zellij designs requires steadfast attention to detail and strict adherence to mathematical calculations. Thanks to measures taken by the Moroccan government, this technique has been preserved, and many capable Moroccan artisans remain to perpetuate the craft. In fact, Moroccan artisans, renowned for their skill, are often hired throughout the Middle East to undertake restoration projects.
Artisans from Fez were hired to recreate a traditional Moroccan court within the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York when it remodeled its Islamic Art wing in 2011. The result is an example of the highest level of Islamic craft possible today, created within the walls of a museum, and available for all to appreciate.