Deceptive beauty is a phenomenon we regularly observed in Morocco, and one that we first experienced while wandering the Medina of Marrakech.
While certain structures – such as mosques or palaces – displayed outward beauty to the world around them, most buildings we wandered past appeared to be relatively plain on the outside. Heavy wooden doors provoked our curiosity. Tall, nondescript, imposing walls – usually without windows – left us wondering “what’s inside?”
Most of the time, this question was left unanswered. But when we did have the opportunity to actually enter one of these buildings, we became awestruck by the splendor of Moroccan architecture, art, and attention to detail:
Brilliantly-colored zellige tilework covers floors, walls and ceilings, each piece hand-carved with the skill & precision of centuries-old craftsmanship. Ornate fountains boast intricate designs, often serving as the centerpiece of the internal space.
Our guide described this phenomenon as blind architecture: the beauty hidden behind every wall.
What was the motivation behind this style of design?
Why is this exquisite beauty kept secret from the outside world?
Many buildings in the Medina of Marrakech were constructed nearly 1000 years ago, and the architects who designed them can certainly be credited with practicality:
The architectural approach of combining high walls with open-air courtyards helps keep temperatures cooler on the inside than the desert’s unforgiving heat on the outside.
The next concept we explored is well-documented & supported: privacy.
The lack of windows makes it impossible for inquisitive outsiders to ‘sneak a peek’ inside; rooms typically have windows and balconies facing inward to the courtyard… This inward-facing design allows the family privacy from the outside world.
On another level, this approach to construction seems to address the two most basic human needs: physical survival & safety.
High, imposing walls are difficult to breach; thick, robust doors are reinforced with bolts & sophisticated locks; the lack of windows helps keep hidden any riches that may provoke intruders… All of these design elements combine to provide an effective means of protecting the inhabitants.
Thus far, all of these concepts seemed logical, rational and relevant to both ancient times and the modern day. But then our minds were opened to another concept, more ideological in nature: modesty & humility.
High, window-less walls and a plain exterior serve to shield those less fortunate on the outside – from the affluence possessed by those on the inside – so as not to incite feelings of jealousy, envy or a low sense of self-worth.
This very human way of explaining the hidden approach to construction was described to us quite simply as being “a fundamental notion of Islam.”
There are certainly many ways to view this phenomenon. What’s your perspective?
Whether this concept of blind architecture was truly born of humility, the desire for privacy or the more practical need for home security, one thing is certain: most of the beauty we discovered within the Medina of Marrakech… was on the inside.
Somewhat poetic, when you think about it…
For further reading on this topic: