Anyone who visits Morocco and doesn’t feel at least tempted to take home a piece of it is a cool customer, indeed . . . especially when it’s so easy to do so! Creating handcrafted items and traditional artworks is so ingrained to the culture of Morocco that over 7 percent of the country’s population are employed in such fields. Adapted to the needs of modern life, Moroccan handcraft production relies on tradition, offering a wide variety of products ranging from small works of art to the simplest utilitarian objects. In fact, most of the craftwork produced is made to be utilized in some way, be it made of leather, wood, textiles, metal, or ceramic.
Leather working is so important to the Moroccan culture that entire districts in Fes and Marrakech are devoted to the tannery. These famous tanneries are operated by worker co-operatives usually composed of many different families who have worked in the leather industry for generations. One does not need to look far to see what the tanneries are so renowned: nearly every person walking down the street is wearing leather sandals or slippers, donkeys are laden with leather saddles and saddlebags, and leather attaches and knapsacks are commonly seen being carried by those passing by. At one time, books bound in Moroccan leather, such as Webster’s Dictionary, were the prize of any respectable library.
At one time, books bound in Moroccan leather, such as Webster’s Dictionary, were the prize of any respectable library.
Four types of metal are most often crafted into goods in Morocco. Wrought iron can be seen everywhere along the streets, from balconies to window decorations to street lights and lamps. Insides the home, copper is used for utilitarian items like cookware. The cheaper alternative to brass is found only in decorative pieces, but the real metal of choice is handcrafted bronze serving trays and presentation dishes made by master craftsmen. Real and fake can be deceptively similar, so be sure to ask a guide or Moroccan friend the difference between brass and bronze before buying.
Of all the artisan traditions in Morocco, carpet weaving goes back perhaps the farthest. Carpets can be recognized and priced according to their age, place of origin, and density of the knots. The most renowned are the Rabat carpets, due to their high thread density (about 10,000 per square meter). Carpets known as “royals” or “orientals” are similar to Rabat carpets, and usually boast rich shades of red and blue. Some carpets of Berber origin are made from camel hair. It is said that 15 camels are needed to make one small rug. Kilims, or flat-woven carpets, are hallmarks of the Middle and High Atlas Berbers. Authentic kilims made with the best quality wool and all-natural dyes can be found in the markets of Midelt, Azrou, or Asni. The Berbers of the Rif Mountains produce rich quality wools and create beautiful blankets called fouta.
Silver is the most abundant precious metal in rural Moroccan jewelry. Gold is most valued in the urban areas and is usually imported from India, Europe, and other parts of Africa. Rural pieces tend to feature coral and amber; they have a heavy and somber look to them. Other precious stones such as emeralds, pearls, and turquoise are also used in the creation of rural jewelry. These jewels are not simply confined to rings, necklaces, pendants, diadems, bracelets, and anklets — gold and silver daggers are inlaid with these precious stones as s gin of wealth and prestige. The best jewelry souks in Morocco are in Tiznit, Marrakech, and Essaouira. Amazingly, silver jewelry is frequently sold by weight, with little value added for the artistry!
Many Moroccan carpenters and woodworkers ply their trade with aromatic cedar wood,although thuya, olive, and lemon-tree is also used. Craftsmen in Essaouira specialize in inlaid work and carving, while the woodworkers of Fes and Meknes specialize in window coverings and lattice work with sophisticated, geometrical designs. Popular throughout Morocco is the art of zwark, or painted wood, usually applied to boxes, shelves, and cradles. The best examples of these hand-painted crafts are typically found in the north, particularly Fes, Tetouan, and Chefchaouen.
No visitor travels far in Morocco without finding one of the most traditional pieces of Moroccan pottery, the tagine.
No visitor travels far in Morocco without finding one of the most traditional pieces of Moroccan pottery, the tagine. Considered the slow cooker of Moroccan and Mediterranean cuisine, tagines for cooking are made of terra cotta to prepare savory stews and other dishes. Presentation tagines that are used only as serving dishes are made of painted and glazed ceramic. Some of the best quality terra cotta tagines are found in the local markets of Asni, near Marrakech, and along the northern coast, such as Oued Lou. Fes is famous for its blue and white designs made from incredibly durable gray clay. Meknes and Marrakech also lay claim to highly skilled potters, but the town of Safi, on the Atlantic coast, is best known throughout the country for turning out high-quality, colorful ceramics.
One of the most versatile, yet most difficult to master of all the Moroccan crafts is embroidery. This art form can be seen on tablecloths, caftans, napkins, scarves, and handkerchiefs, often brightly colored and bearing the name of the place in which it was created. Watching women in the souk performing their art of embroidery is reminiscent of watching a spider weaving her intricate web. The best place in Morocco to find authentic and fine embroidery is Fes. Antique examples of silk lamé or traditional styles of embroidery are found in the shops by the fabric souks of Fes.
Hand-woven baskets, boxes, and trays are found in nearly every town and village in Morocco. In the northern Rif Mountains, Berber women are often seen wearing large straw hats decorated with colorful threadwork and pom-poms. Fes, Marrakech, and Salé feature entire souks dedicated to basket weaving.
Shopping in Morocco can be a daunting affair, especially as many Western visitors are unaccustomed to the atmosphere of the souks, and the fact that prices are not fixed. It can also be overwhelming to observe he sheet diversity of shops and products on display. Delving into the souks in search of the perfect gift or souvenir can be uncomfortable at first, but it’s worth it to witness the beauty of the handcrafted goods that only travel a few feet from production to sale.
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