Traditional Moroccan riads, tranquil homes of beauty

Petra Bjelica
Bahia Palace located in Marrakech, Morocco

Moroccan riads represent the elegance of desert architecture and reflect Islamic cosmology. A riad is a traditional Moroccan family house, characterized by the central garden courtyard.

The founder of Marrakesh, Youssef ibn Tachfine, was highly influenced by Andalusian art and culture, where the riad model was first adopted.

In the Quran, the heavenly garden paradise of the afterlife, or Jannah, is depicted as a garden with high walls, four rivers flowing from the center dividing it into four parts, and an eternal springtime.

Clearly, the riad represents Islamic beliefs 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. Barbaragin, CC BY-SA 2.0

Moroccan Riads create 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 Marrakesh’s mazes with their peacefulness.

As described in the book The Riads of Marrakech by Elan Fleisher, the city “is baffling, seducing, appalling, always stimulating and never dull.”

Panoramic view from the roof terrace of Riad Baraka, Chefchaouen. travelwayoflife, 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, Marrakesh., CC BY 2.0

They were once mostly owned by the wealthy elite but since the late 1970s, due to a growing number of European homeowners and the now burgeoning tourist trade, many have been 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. Citizen59, CC BY-SA 2.0

While you meander through the narrow alleys and passages, which are separated by largely windowless walls of brick and mud, you will not discover any grand frontage.

Contrary to the ornate interior decor, doors are also modest and seamless. They lead to a mellowly lit entrance hall where guests are received.

Fontaine verte. 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 of the house.

The light and structure create a unique atmospheric experience; one is transported from restrained vision in the passages to the luminous open-air yard.

Pool in the riad. Michael Button, CC BY 2.0

The most important feature of the courtyard is the sahridj, a fountain or basin that has a potent symbolism these desert lands. It is the focal point of the house, 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 above the patio that provides all the light in the house.

Riad in Fez. 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 Moroccan architecture are plaster tiles called tadelakt and glazed mosaic ceramic tiles named zelige, as well as the elaborately-carved and beautifully hand-painted wooden fretwork, or zauq.

The colors are warm and bright, with plenty of traditional Moroccan deep red.

A traditional riad turned into a restaurant. 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 them from 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. Arnaud 25, CC-BY-SA-3.0

Usually, Moroccan 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.

Traditionally these areas were used only by women for hanging laundry, and in accordance with the rules of modesty, they had high walls for privacy.

When the hottest nights occurred, the whole family would spend nights up there.

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

Today, the roofs are often transformed into solariums, luxurious dining areas, and dipping pools, all in accordance with the touristic trends and offers.

The ancient Nabataean city of Petra

Bahia Palace – a grand palace built for a former slave who became Grand Vizier of the Sultan

A recent wave of investments into Moroccan riads throughout Marrakech and Essaouira pushed them into a tops spot as favorite holiday places for foreigners.