The Architecture and the Decoration of the Moroccan Mosque
Al Qaraouine Mosque as a Model[sep height=”30″]

Building and decorating mosques has always been a priority for the states and the philanthropists in the Muslim world. Similarly, Muslim architects and craftsmen representing all kinds of decorative arts have been creative particularly in embellishing mosques. This is mainly because it is a consecrated place of worship and the only place where everybody feels equal as all worshippers from all walks of life stand shoulder to shoulder, barefooted, facing the same direction and praying for the One and Only.[sep height=”30″]
The basic architectural structure of mosques in the Muslim world does not greatly differ. Most mosques constitute of a minaret, one or many domes, high ceilings, a mihrab and an open courtyard. However, Moroccan architects and craftsmen have developed a distinct architecture and distinguishable decorative arts to present mosques in the best possible image. For example, unlike most minarets in Muslim countries, the minarets of the Moroccan mosques are square-shaped, and their domes and ceilings have a pyramid-shaped exterior which is decorated with green bricks. Before providing more details on the architecture of Al Qaraouine and its elements of decoration, I shall briefly provide a historical overview of this academic and religious center.
Al Qaraouine mosque is not only one of the leading spiritual and educational centers in the Muslim world but it is also considered to be the oldest continuously operating institution of higher education in the world by the Guinness Book of World Records. Al Qaraouine’s presence in the aural and written Moroccan history and literature is almost inevitable. Interestingly enough, Al Qaraouine mosque was founded by a female philanthropist in 859. Her name was Fatima El Fihria who lived during the reign of Yahya ben Mohammed ben Idriss. Since then, the mosque has witnessed a series of expansions and restorations the last of which was during Mohammed VI, the current king of Morocco.[sep height=”30″]
The mosque constitutes of two sections. The first one is the prayer space; it is covered by high ceilings and contains the mihrab, a couple of domes and al maqsoura. Al maqsoura is an enclosed separate room where the imam gets ready to lead the prayer and where the khatib prepares his sermon for the Friday prayer. Al maqsoura does also host al minbar, the platform on which the khatib stands to give the Friday sermon. Within this first section, there is a smaller prayer space for women; it is usually separated from the main prayer space by musharabia or carved wood panels. The minaret is mostly built perpendicular to the miharb and on the mihrab’s wall, few shelves are built to put the Korans which can be used by worshippers before or after the prayers. Last but not least, it is important to point out that the windows of most mosques tend to be highly placed and variously decorated with musharabia panels, plaster and colored glass.[sep height=”30″]
The second section of the mosque is a courtyard, an open space that contains a central fountain and one or two wall fountains for taking wudu or ablution before the prayer. Restrooms are usually built outside of the mosque and outside of the mosque, also, an annex is built to accommodate the imam, visiting scholars and can be used as a madrassa where students memorize the Koran and learn the basics of the Islamic jurisprudence.[sep height=”30″]
As I pointed out earlier in this section, Moroccan craftsmen have been more creative in decorating mosques in comparison to houses and even palaces. The mosque’s elements of decoration vary greatly and so are its methods. As for the elements, there is zellij, wood, plaster, brass, stone, marble, wrought iron, and green bricks. These elements can be presented through various methods such as geometry, floral, calligraphy and muqarbas. The following paragraphs describe the mosque’s interior and exterior elements of decoration as well as their placement.[sep height=”30″]
To begin with, the exterior decorations are mainly placed on the arches of the main doors. These arches are mostly decorated with plaster or carved stone using geometric or floral patterns. Nicely decorated wood sharafat covered by green bricks are installed above the arches to protect them from rain. The exterior doors are usually made of cedar wood; they are decorated with iron nails and can be covered by brass on which various geometric or floral motifs are carved. The square-shaped minaret is decorated with stone or zellij and sometimes both. A special pattern called derj wa ktef is used to decorate the four sides of the minaret in addition to various creative patterns of small arches. The bigger part of the minaret ends with a serrated sharafa that embellish the base of the smaller part. The smaller part, which looks like the head of the minaret, is decorated with green bricks and three brass balls that range in size and on top of which there is a crescent; next to the crescent there is a piece of wood on which a white flag is raised on Fridays. As for the exterior parts of the ceilings and domes, they are dressed in green bricks which are placed in harmonious rows.[sep height=”30″]
The interior decorations are centered on the mihrab. In fact, one can find almost all elements and methods of decoration on and around this symbolic place. There is a harmonious and creative co-existence between zellij, wood, plaster, marble and brass. In addition, the mihrab typifies the beautiful marriage of all methods of decoration, especially geometry, floral, calligraphy and muqarabas. Furthermore, the mihrab also hosts the minbar, a mobile platform on which the imam stands to give the sermon on Friday. Almost all minbars represent a masterpiece which testifies to an unparalleled creativity in both construction and decoration. A few examples of such masterpieces are the minbars of Al Qaraouine and Al Andaluss mosques in Fes, the Bouanania School in Fes, Al Kutubia mosque in Marrakesh and the Great Mosque in Taza.
The central dome of the mosque and the arches below it remain the second important after the mihrab in terms of the beauty of decoration. Using muqarbas on wood and plaster is very common in the central dome; in addition, it is also dressed up in various carvings on both wood and plaster. Similarly, the ceilings that cover the other parts of the mosque are adorned with carved or painted cedar wood. As an alternative, plain horizontal cedar wood pillars called legouayez are also used.[sep height=”30″]
The arches around the mihrab and below the central dome enjoy a particular and meticulous attention in comparison to the other arches in the mosque. The interior part of the arches is ornamented with plaster muqarbas; however, the exterior part is usually decorated with beautiful floral patterns that are carved or painted on plaster. The least important element in terms of decoration is the column and its crown. Columns are mostly covered by plain plaster or zellij with a little plaster carvings on the crowns. Last but not least, old mosques and schools such as Al Qaraouine and Al Bouanania contain solar watches that are put on the main wall of the courtyard to keep track of the prayer times.