Traditional Moroccan riads, tranquil homes of beauty

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Petra Bjelica
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Moroccan riads

Moroccan riads represent the elegance of desert architecture and reflect Islamic cosmology. It is a traditional Moroccan family house, characterized by the open central courtyard. The founder of Marrakesh, Youssef ben Tachfine, was highly influenced by Andalusian art and culture, where the riad model was first adopted.

As in Quran, the reward promised in the paradise of Islam is depicted as a garden – with high walls, four rivers flowing from the center and dividing into four parts, and an eternal springtime.

Clearly, the riad represents Islamic cosmological ideas and gives an almost sacred dimension to the enclosed garden. As a reflection of earthly paradise, the literal translation of riad is exactly that, a garden.

The interior of the courtyard of the Moroccan riad, Author: Barbaragin, CC BY-SA 2.0

The riads are a stark contrast to the busy and dusty city streets for their highly ornamented and decorated interiors, and to the visual and audio overstimulation of Marrakech’s mazes with their peacefulness. As described in the book ‘The Riads of  Marrakech’ by Elan Fleisher ‘Marrakech is baffling, seducing, appalling, always stimulating and never dull.

Panoramic view from the roof terrace, Author: travelwayoflifeRiad Baraka Terrace, CC BY-SA 2.0

Like almost anywhere, it is a place of contradictions, but seldom have these opposites been so acute; one footstep can transport you from a world of energy, discordance, and alertness into a haven of quiet, tranquility and pure pleasure. This is the relationship of Marrakech to its riads.’

Riad Houdou, www.twin-loc.fr, CC BY 2.0

They were once mostly owned by the wealthy elite, but due to the abundance of European homeowners and tourist trade, since the late 1970s, they were mostly restored and transformed into hotels, guesthouses, or restaurants. A wave of restorations did well to preserve the traditional handicraft and artisan trades.

Patio du riad Calipau à Fès, Author: Citizen59, CC BY-SA 2.0

While you linger through the narrow alleys and passages which are separated by largely windowless walls of brick and mud, you will not discover any grand frontage. On the contrary, doors are modest and seamless. They lead to a mellowly lit entrance hall where guests are received.

Fontaine verte, Author: Abderrahman Amazzal CC BY 2.0

After that, you take an angled corridor (in order to shield the interior from sight) and arrive at the open courtyard in the middle or in the house which can be rectangular or square. The light and the structure are in favor of creating a specific atmosphere and experience; one is transported from restrained vision in the passages to the luminous open-air yard.

Pool in the riad, Author: Michael ButtonMarrakech March 2014, CC BY 2.0

In the middle of the courtyard, in the focus of the house, is the fountain or a sahridj. The basin with water in the center of the house has a potent symbolism these desert lands, standing for an idyllic oasis. You can hear the water dripping and gently flowing, rest in the shades of citrus or palm trees, and inhale the fragrance of jasmine. And when you bring your gaze up, you can see the open sky through wast ed-dar or the patio which provides all the light in the house.

Riad in Fez, Author: fredsharples, CC BY 2.0

The walls and surfaces in the yards were highly ornamented with geometric and floral patterns since living figures are forbidden in the Islamic art. The most characteristic features of Morrocan architecture are the plaster tiles called tadelakt and the glazed mosaic ceramic tiles named zelige, as well as the elaborately-carved wooden fretwork or zauq, the colorful handpainted wood. The colors are warm and bright, traditional Moroccan being the deep red.

Riad turned into a restaurant, Author: Michal Osmenda, CC-BY-SA-2.0

Downstairs, along with the lines and faced to the garden are elongated rooms called bayts, and they are used for dining or as narrow public salons with high ceilings. On the upper levels are situated private rooms with low ceilings which are connected only through colonnaded galleries. The private rooms are kept cool and quiet, which is possible because of the thick walls that isolate the heat and sound. In older houses, there were sometimes small rooms with even smaller secret windows from which the women could overlook the home and male strangers visiting. Douriya are small added rooms for the kitchen and washing area that used to also serve as servants’ quarters.

Interior of a riad, Author: Arnaud 25, CC-BY-SA-3.0

Usually, riads are a few stories high and almost without exception have a roof terrace with a panoramic view of the city and an open horizon. Before, these areas were used only by women for laundry hanging, and in accordance with the laws of hijab, they had high walls for privacy. When the hottest nights occurred, the whole family would spend nights up there.

Corridors of a riad, Author: Arnaud 25, CC-BY-SA-3.0

Today, the roofs are usually transformed into solariums, luxurious dining areas, and dipping pools, all in accordance with the touristic trends and offers. A recent wave of investments and renovations into riads along Marrakech and Essaouira pushed them into favorite holiday places for foreigners.