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Exploring Islamic Design in Morocco

Exploring Islamic Geometric Design in Morocco

As you journey through Morocco, you’ll encounter the intricate beauty of Islamic geometric design, a harmonious blend of mathematics, art, and history. These mesmerizing patterns adorn mosques, madrasas, palaces, and private residences, adding vibrant splashes of color to the architectural landscape. From kilim carpets to zellige tilework, these exquisite designs grace walls, fountains, pillars, doorways, furniture, ceilings, staircases, courtyards, and gardens. While many travelers marvel at the abstract intricacies of these designs, they often seek deeper insights into their origins and meanings. To illuminate this art form and provide context, we’ve crafted a guide to help you navigate the world of Islamic geometric design. Consider visiting the Al Attarine Madrasa in Fes for a firsthand experience of this captivating artistry.

Islamic patterns trace their origins back to the 7th century, a time when craftsmen drew inspiration from Persian and Roman cultures, incorporating their designs into ornamental decorations for Islamic places of worship. Unlike other artistic traditions, Islamic art abstains from depicting religious figures, focusing instead on shapes, repetitive patterns, and calligraphy to evoke a sense of spirituality and inspire prayer. The abstract repetitions of geometric patterns gained prominence during the 8th-century Islamic Golden Age, a period marked by significant advancements in mathematics and science. Intricate designs featuring floral and vegetal motifs adorned carpets, textiles, and tiles, symbolizing the eternal and boundless beauty of creation.

In the twenty-first century, Islamic patterns have experienced a resurgence in Moroccan interior design. Throughout Morocco’s medinas, these geometric designs are prevalent in architectural embellishments, retail establishments, and fashion trends. Riads, traditional Moroccan homes, undergo renovations that prominently feature zellige tilework. These tiles adorn stairways, wall fountains, interior courtyard floors, walls, and serve as decorative accents, infusing spaces with vibrant colors and intricate patterns. Additionally, riad ceilings are often vaulted and coffered with cedar, adding to the architectural charm and authenticity of these renovated homes.

Islamic designs often feature intricate patterns known as tessellations. These tessellations are created using three primary shapes: the equilateral triangle, square, and regular hexagon. Each of these shapes can be replicated infinitely to cover a plane without leaving any gaps. The process typically begins with a circle drawn using a compass, which is then divided into sections using a ruler. The manner in which the circle is divided determines the style and design of the tessellation. Circles are commonly split into 4, 5, or 6 equal sections, with each division lending its own unique stylized pattern. To identify whether a design is based on 4, 5, or 6-fold symmetry, one can examine the center of the tile for a star and count the number of rays and petals surrounding it. A star surrounded by 6 rays indicates a 6-fold symmetry, while a star with 8 petals will have 4 rays, belonging to the 4-fold symmetry category.

Tessellation, at its core, embodies mathematical elegance. Despite the intricate appearance of these designs, they are always rooted in hand-drawn grids. Additionally, Islamic design draws heavily from Greek geometry, adhering to the fundamental belief that complexity can be attained through the use of simple tools. This philosophical approach underscores the notion that even the most elaborate patterns can be derived from basic geometric principles, highlighting the inherent beauty and symmetry found within Islamic art.

Beyond Islamic architecture, tessellation manifests in various everyday items, such as oriental carpets, quilts, origami, and even modern artworks like those of M. C. Escher. Escher, in particular, gained renown for his intricate tessellations featuring irregular interlocking tiles shaped as animals and natural objects. His innovative approach to tessellation transcended traditional boundaries, captivating audiences with mesmerizing visual illusions and exploring the inherent beauty of geometric patterns in nature.

An intriguing aspect often overlooked in the study of Islamic patterns is the prevalence of stars. Many researchers in the field of Islamic culture and architecture suggest a symbolic connection between these star shapes and astronomy. In countries like Morocco, where Islam is predominant and the call to prayer occurs five times daily, stars are believed to serve as guides, indicating the direction of Mecca for prayer. Furthermore, star gazing acts as a natural compass, particularly significant for nomadic tribes residing in remote mountainous regions and the Sahara Desert. For these communities, star navigation is an essential skill for traversing vast and often unforgiving landscapes.

Exploring Star Patterns: Benches, Fountains, Walls, and Moroccan Zellige Tiles

A common motif prevalent in Morocco is the intricate star pattern often seen adorning various architectural elements, particularly in the form of zellige tiles. Zellige, meticulously handcrafted glazed terracotta tiles made from natural clay sourced from regions like Fes and Meknes, are highly esteemed for their quality, vibrant colors, and traditional craftsmanship. Historically, zellige originated in Andalucia during the Moorish rule of Southern Spain, with further refinement during the Nasrid, Merinid, and Zayyanid dynasties. Over time, the color palette of zellige expanded to include blue, green, yellow, and red hues, resulting in tiles characterized by variations in tone, shine, flatness, transparency, and depth of glazing. Each tile is unique, contributing to the overall richness and diversity of patterns found in riads, private residences, parks, fountains, walls, and floor installations.

Exploring Arabesque Patterns

Arabesque patterns, characterized by their flowing lines of branches, leaves, and scroll-work, exude elegance and grace. These patterns can be classified into two main modes: the first mode imbues each repeating geometric form with symbolic significance, representing elements of nature such as earth, air, fire, and water, while the second mode draws inspiration from the organic forms of plant life, symbolizing the nurturing and life-giving feminine essence. Additionally, some argue for a third mode, rooted in Islamic calligraphy. Arabesque patterns adorn various architectural elements and artistic mediums, including book covers, page decorations, and calligraphy.

Exploring Muqarnas

Muqarnas, also known as honeycomb vaulting, serves as ornamental vaulting designed to create a seamless transition between straight walls and domed spaces. This elaborate architectural feature is commonly found in coffered ceilings, half domes, niches, arches, iwans, and upper corners of square rooms. Constructed from plaster, wood, or bricks covered in plaster or ceramic clay, muqarnas adds a distinctive touch of sophistication to Islamic architecture, showcasing intricate geometric designs and craftsmanship.

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