Morocco’s sensational cultural capital, Marrakech, is a traveller’s dream. This fascinating city set against the jaw-dropping backdrop of the Atlas Mountains dazzles visitors with its beautiful architecture, sumptuous cuisine, elegant gardens and the bustling beating heart of the Medina, in which you can find its famous souks, a dizzying labyrinth of semi-casual market stalls which come together in a kaleidoscope of colour, selling everything from leather shoes to aromatic spices to gorgeous Persian rugs. For those new to the city, it can leave quite a first impression.
But while the wild diversity of the souks offers a huge array of products, fragrances, flavours and colours, the Medina - the old town of Marrakech and the cultural center for both tourists and locals alike - does display a striking uniformity when it comes to one thing…
All its buildings are a deep reddish colour. It is this peculiarity that has lent Marrakech its moniker “The Red City”, a distinctive characteristic that only adds to the allure of the city. But why are all the buildings this particular colour and why have they remained so for so long?
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The answer lies in the early history of the city and its particular geographic characteristics.
Originally founded in 1062 by the Almoravid leader Abu-Bakr Ibn-Umar to provide an overflow city to avoid the then-capital Aghmat becoming too overcrowded, the new city of Marrakech and its construction soon became something of a symbol of power for the Almoravids. The ambition was to create one of the great imperial cities, one without parallel in all of North Africa, and in order to do so, craftsmen were drafted in from Cordoba (then part of Moorish Al-Andalus, modern day Andalusia) to create the city’s celebrated palaces, gardens, bathhouses and mosques, bringing interesting European influences with them. The project was such a huge success, with the city enjoying huge historic growth and gaining such significance that, not only did it become the capital of the Almoravid's country but Morocco would later derive its name from the city of Marrakech (itself possibly derived from the old Berber words amur akush – ‘Land of God’). In fact, from Medieval times until the early 20th century Morocco was known as The Kingdom of Marrakech, a name that persists in Persian, Urdu and a host of south Asian languages to this day.
This opulent North African jewel and the people of Marrakech also required protecting, and so from 1122-23 a huge 10-mile wall, standing approximately 20 feet high, was constructed as a means of fortification for the old medina of the city, and indeed the people of Marrakech. These ramparts were punctuated by 200 towers and 20 gates, the most famous of the latter, Bab Agnaou and its great stone arch, with its distinctive decoration, is well known to anyone who has ever visited Marrakech.
To create such a magnificent city the Almoravids drew on the ancient building practice known as tabia in Arabic and pisé in French, and which is more commonly known in English as ‘rammed earth’. This construction technique has been used for thousands of years, with some evidence suggesting it was used as far back as the Neolithic period, and was particularly prevalent in China, where it was applied to many ancient monuments, the Great Wall chief among them. Its application was also hugely popular in the Middle East, from which it may have been brought to Africa.
The rammed earth method used local materials and benefitted from low cost and relative efficiency. In the case of Marrakech, the local material was the oldest construction material used by humankind: an abundant supply of clay, sourced from the nearby Al Haouz plains close to the beautiful olive tree-dotted Ourika Valley. Although rich in often clear or white quartz and silicon dioxide, the clay from the area derives its particularly reddish colour from the high concentration of iron oxide – or rust – present in its composition: a red that, in turn, lends the city its distinctive hue. This can be seen throughout the original buildings and constructions of Marrakech and the salmon-coloured earthiness of the surrounding villages.
The rammed earth, or tabia, method involves mixing damp clay and sand with straw and lime to improve cohesion and durability, before placing it inside a carefully arranged wooden frame measuring around 50 to 70 cm in length. It is then compressed using a tamper to around a half of its original size. The process is then repeated with another sediment on top and so forth until the frame is filled with this newly compacted clay composite. The wood scaffolding is then removed to reveal a large free-standing 'brick' which, when stacked, in turn becomes a wall. A hallmark of this method is the lines of small holes across the face of the wall, left behind from where the scaffolding once stood. It is also said that these holes allow the walls to ‘breathe’ and to this day, such holes can be seen all over the famous walls of the Marrakech.
This technique endured through the city’s period as the residence of the Almohads and beyond, and is evident throughout the Medina of Marrakech, a UNESCO world heritage site, with the salmon-red tone of the walls and buildings as iconic as the great minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque, the vast palm grove of the Palmeraie, the snake charmers of the famous Jamaa el-Fna city square and the Majorelle blue of the iconic garden of the same name, famously redesigned by Yves Saint Laurent.
The practice of rammed earth declined during the 20th century - in the early part of which Morocco was a French protectorate - as the use of concrete became prevalent the world over. However, throughout the storied past of Morocco, Marrakech has managed to preserve the distinctive hue of the old Medina. While many of its newer buildings do not necessarily employ the rammed earth technique, strict planning laws ensure that the uniformity of its salmon-like colour, in existence since its inception, is upheld to this day. It forms an unmistakable visual identity, and provides much of the aesthetic glory of the famous Red City, evident everywhere, from the lush Agdal Gardens to the vibrant marketplaces of the old town, and the 16th century El Badi Palace.
But the story doesn’t end there…
Not content to be viewed as a mere cultural heirloom from a bygone era, it is possible that the ancient technique of rammed earth is poised to make a comeback, with an increasing number of advocates emphasising its relative sustainability and lesser environmental impact than that of concrete. Indeed, with the construction sector responsible for some 30% of all man-made carbon emissions, a return to greener and more efficient building methods are being explored worldwide. A technique that uses local materials and produces less waste than the ‘pulverising-rock-to-make-rock’ method employed by concrete production is hugely attractive.
Furthermore, the thermal properties associated with rammed earth constructions are highly favourable for those looking to stay both warm in cooler climates and cool in the heat without needing to resort to energy-intensive heating and air-conditioning. Rammed earth is a sustainable option both economically and environmentally, as the high thermal mass of the constructions alongside well-designed room layouts - including open, shaded courtyards for ventilation (another hallmark of classic Moroccan design) - contribute to a more balanced room temperature. Meanwhile, the density of rammed earth walls significantly reduces the transmission of outside noise, something for which the many thousands of people who stay in the medina of Marrakech each year are no doubt grateful.
As we move into an era of higher population density and a warming planet in which we need to find ways to reduce energy consumption, live in closer proximity to others and adapt to a changing climate, the benefits of rammed earth need no further explanation.
So, the next time you're strolling through the fabled streets of the historic Kasbah or gazing upon the ancient walls of the old town of the Red City, take a moment to consider the traditional tabia technique and how looking back to the knowhow of the past may point the way forward to the buildings of the future.