Medina / Chefchaouen, Morocco / May 2016
On shades of blue, the history of Chefchaouen’s particular hue, and an epic sunset.
How many different shades of blue can you imagine? Wikipedia lists 67 varieties, including cobalt, baby, Yves Klein, sky, and denim. One walk through the Chefchaouen medina, though, would suggest that number might be a severe underestimate. The city exists on its own spectrum that reveals new hues even as the sun arcs through the sky, throwing sunlight and shadows on the walls. To walk through the medina is to live in a color study, to watch as an invisible artist uses the walls as a palette to mix ever more vibrant blues.
Chefchaouen1was founded in 1471 as a fortress to fight Portuguese incursions from northern Morocco. The town’s location – cradled between two rugged Rif peaks (Ech-Chaoua, or “the horns”)2– provided natural geographic buffers from invasion, and the town remained largely isolated until it was finally absorbed into Spanish Morocco in the 1920s. During the 15th century, and at the height of the Spanish Inquisition, a large number of Jewish refugees made their home in Chefchaouen. Story has it, this is where the city’s famous blue tradition came from: the Jewish community painted every building in the medina blue, the color of the sky and a reminder of the divinity there.3The tradition remains to this day, with frequent and regular repainting to preserve the medina’s characteristic colors.
Walking through the medina was like a breath of fresh air – crisp, mountain air, to be precise. While Moroccan medinas are typically chaotic, bustling spaces, the ubiquitous blue has a serene, calming effect. Birds chirp in the background, leafy vines creep on trellises overhead for shade, and clean grey cobblestones branch out in any number of directions on paths that will take you to stunningly photogenic corners. Brightly colored flowerpots – magenta, yellow, green, purple – often line the walls as a break from all the blue, and extravagant turquoise doors with black studs mark entranceways. In one alley a line of Riffian women were adorned in the fetching characteristic garb of the region – conical straw hats with neon pom poms, and red and white vertically striped wraps worn as skirts. They sat with their backs against the walls holding baskets that overflowed with herbs, lettuces, radishes, and other root vegetables. The produce had clearly just been plucked, as you could almost feel the water from the greens evaporating into the air.
At dusk, we hiked to the Spanish Mosque on the outskirts of town. The trail begins just past Ras el Maa, a miniature waterfall where locals do their washing. On this day, a haphazard patchwork of freshly-washed carpets lay drying on the walls near the river. Up the rocky slopes and past some goat herds we reached the mosque, a lonely whitewashed minaret on the top of a hill facing the town. The mosque was built by the Spanish in the 1920s but later abandoned, though its location remains spectacular. Perched on the wall, we watched the sun set over the hills behind Chefchaouen, all of the white and blue buildings bathed for moments in a pinkish glow, and all the orange terracotta roofs looking veritably ablaze. The nagging sensation I’d had all day returned – a primal urge to paint or photograph or otherwise capture this moment and sear it in my brain for all eternity. Sometimes a place is so aesthetically pleasing it seems impossible that it is anything but a dream that will slip beyond memory. And yet I could not help but feel that any attempt to document Chefchaouen would be futile. For you can look at a painting, but to stroll through Chefchaouen is to live inside one.
And . . .