With a tumultuous history of successive conquerors and a diverse array of landscapes, Morocco’s architecture reflects the peoples, religions and natural forces that have shaped the modern-day country. It stretches from the arid deserts of the Sahara across the snow-capped Atlas peaks and down to the wind-swept coast of the Atlantic Ocean, with earthen villages, lavish palaces and Roman ruins dotted throughout. For architecture enthusiasts, Morocco is an alluring destination to explore and here are five places to have at the top of your list.
Ait Benhaddou, Ouarzazate
On the desert outskirts of Ouarzazate, the ancient ksar of Ait Benhaddou is one of Morocco’s most impressive examples of earthen clay brick architecture and was used as a setting for both “Gladiator” and “Babel”. This collection of fortified kasbahs and dwellings are nestled into the southern slopes of the High Atlas Mountains, serving an ancient trade post en route between Sudan and Marrakech. Wander through the narrow winding streets that lead between crumbling fortifications and watch the sunset across the surrounding desert from its hilltop granary.
'Sunset over the ancient ksar of Ait Benhaddou from the hilltop granary'
Palais Bahia, Marrakech
Considered a masterpiece of Moroccan architecture, Palais Bahia was built in the late 19th century on the edge of Marrakech’s bustling medina. It was designed by Moroccan architect El Mekki for the sultan’s grand vizier, Si Moussa, and includes lavishly decorated courtyards combining both Islamic and Moroccan designs. It’s a magnificent complex to explore, with lush courtyard gardens, exquisite tiling and intricately painted ceilings, as well as a harem surrounded by rooms for Si Moussa’s concubines.
'Intricate tiling in one of courtyard hallways of Palais Bahais, Marrakech'
It might come as a surprise to many that Morocco had a Roman settlement, with the ruins at Volubilis marking the empire’s southwestern extent. Now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the ruins are believed to date to the 3rd century BC when they were initially established as a Phoenician settlement. The city was later expanded under Roman rule thanks to a thriving olive industry but was captured by local tribes at the end of the 3rd century AD. It was established as the centre of the Idrisid Dynasty in the 8th century before being abandoned, with its archaeological site a fascinating place to explore today.
'Looking through a stone archway at the Archaeological Site of Volubilis'
University of al-Qarawiyyin, Fez
Hailed as the oldest educational institution in the world, the University of al-Qarawiyyin was founded in 859AD by Fatima al-Fihri. It lies at the heart of Fez and has long been renowned as a hub of spirituality and learning in the Muslim world, with the university focusing on Islamic religious, Classical Arabic studies and Maliki law today. The stunning architecture combines endless arches and elaborate decorations that include Kufic calligraphy, geometric and floral Andalusian artwork.
'Exploring an alleyway in the Fez medina surrounding the University of al-Qarawiyyin'
Morocco’s far northwest is renowned for its fusion of Spanish and Portuguese architectural elements and there’s nowhere this is more striking than in the fortified medina of Asilah. It has a tumultuous history of Arab, Portuguese, French and Spanish occupation that dates back to around 1500BC when it was established as a Phoenician trading base. Today, Asilah’s atmospheric, whitewashed streets are scattered with street art while the beautifully preserved ramparts offer sweeping views across the Atlantic Coast.
'A whitewashed street in the ancient medina of Asilah'