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Photo by Evan Thornton

Morocco: A Handicraft Lover’s Mecca

If you’re an ardent handicraft pilgrim like myself, the medinas of Morocco will be your mecca—especially the UNESCO World Heritage–listed walled city of Fez.

In the winding alleyways of Fez, one of Morocco’s four historic capitals, artisans have been creating gorgeous handmade wares for hundreds of years—from embroidered goatskin slippers and engraved copper salvers to kaleidoscopic mosaics. The city developed a reputation for arts and learning under the patronage of the Almoravid dynasty in the 11th and 12th centuries, and later, the Marinid sultanate, attracting skilled immigrants from across North Africa and the Mediterranean. Today, thanks to a robust tourism industry and support from the Moroccan government, many of the country’s medieval crafts have survived the onslaught of mass production and are on display within the walls of old Fez like in few places in the world.

Read on about five fascinating crafts you’ll get a chance to see on one of our Morocco trips, and—provided your bargaining skills are up to scratch—be able to take home with you at an enviable price.

Ceramics

Why eat dinner off a plain old white plate when you can feast from a Moroccan platter? Moroccan ceramics are known for their vivid hand-painted designs, and no matter how many pottery shops you wander past in the souks, it’s hard not to get lured into those mesmerizing whirlpools of color.

Photo by Manal Khan

In Fez, we visit a pottery workshop just outside the city for a behind-the-scenes look at the production process. First, raw clay from local quarries is hammered down to a fine powder and mixed with water. The clay is then rolled out and kneaded vigorously by foot before being transferred to the potter’s wheel, where it takes on interminable forms—plates, bowls, cups, tagines, salt-and-pepper shakers, urns, teapots. The clay vessels are dried for several days in the sun, baked in a kiln, then covered in a milky white glaze and set out to dry once more. At this stage, the artisans begin to paint the vessels with the finest of brushstrokes, embellishing them in hypnotic geometric motifs, florid arabesques, or tribal symbols drawn from an age-old repertoire. The painted wares are returned to the kiln for a final fire, from where they emerge resplendent and durable, ready to elevate your dinner table or any bare nook in your home.

Mosaics

Mosaic ornamentation, or zellige, is ubiquitous in Morocco; you’ll find it in hotel lobbies and restaurants, in mosques and palace chambers, even in the bathrooms. Though the art of mosaic tilework goes back to the Bronze Age civilizations of the Mediterranean, zellige developed uniquely in Morocco. The Moors then took it with them to Spain and Portugal, where it thrived under a different name: azulejo.

Photo by Evan Thornton

Perhaps the most laborious of Moroccan crafts, zellige production begins with quality clay, akin to its sister craft, pottery (“Fez has the best clay in the world,” our guide at the workshop proudly informs us). Wet clay is fashioned by hand into squares, air-dried, and fired. The tablets are then painted in solid colors and popped back into the kiln, resulting in a collection of monochromatic glazed tiles. Next, an artisan draws a grid of shapes onto the surface of each piece—octagons, triangles, diamonds, stars, crosses—while a second artisan chisels out the shapes with a tool called a menkach. These roughly cut pieces are then fine-tuned by a third artisan, assembled into a pre-designed pattern, and glued together or set in plaster to form a complete sheet of mosaic tiles. The zellige can now be applied to walls, floors, or ceilings, fountains, mirrors, and table tops—transforming even the most ordinary of objects and places into a delight for the eyes.

Photo by Manal Khan

Leather

The first thing that hits you when you approach a Moroccan tannery is the pungent, indeterminate smell, which you hasten to mask with a sprig of fresh mint. Morocco has been exporting handcrafted leather products since the 15th century, and in the tanneries of Fez, you can witness leathermaking techniques dating to Roman times.

Photo by Evan Thornton

At the Chouara Tannery, the largest in the city, vats of multi-hued dyes are arranged in the courtyard like an enormous artist’s palette: indigo blue, henna orange, mint green, poppy red, cedar brown. Here, raw hides are cleaned, treated, and dyed before being delivered to the craftsmen, who work the brightly colored sheets of leather into an array of products. Whether you’re looking for a pair of babouches in saffron yellow, or whether it’s a lavishly embossed handbag you’re after, you’ll find it all in the shadowy cave of riches that is the Chouara Tannery.

Photo by Manal Khan

The best way to check if a Moroccan leather item you’re tempted to purchase has been produced the artisanal way? Just sniff it! If it gives off the telltale whiff of ammonia, you know it’s the real thing.

Metalware

On our guided walk through the souk of Fez, a chaotic warren of alleyways straight from the pages of an Arabian Nights tale, the sound of loud clanging brings us to a small, pleasant square—Place Seffarine, or the coppersmiths’ quarter.

Photo by Evan Thornton

Here, glossy copper and bronze objects have been handwrought and hammered for centuries, from utilitarian pots and candleholders to filigreed lanterns, trays, and teapots. We listen, transfixed, to a young smith rhythmically pounding a large metal bowl into shape; and at a nearby shop, we watch an apprentice craftsman etch intricate designs on the surface of a golden platter using a pen-like tool—a technique similar to damascening, which is believed to have been brought to Morocco by the Arabs and carried on to Spain. It flourishes today in the Spanish city of Toledo.

Carpets

Near the fortified mud-brick village of Aït Ben Haddou—a UNESCO World Heritage site—the owner of a small weaving workshop unfurls stacks of vibrant, dusty carpets all around us. We are now in the Atlas Mountains, where the traditions of Morocco’s indigenous Amazigh (Berber) people hold strong.

Photo by Evan Thornton

Carpet weaving is one of them, and the women of each Amazigh tribe are the keepers of the craft. Sheep’s wool or camel’s hair, dyed naturally in a bold spectrum of colors, is woven on a handloom using a combination of two techniques—the pile knot and the flat weave. A single rug can take between a week and six months to complete, depending on its size and complexity, and no two pieces are quite alike.

The women at the workshop invite us to try our hand at the loom. Our clumsy fingers fumble, they laugh and take over, weaving deftly, following no instructions or sketched out pattern save the ceaseless flow of their imagination, rooted in the creative wisdom of the tribe. The owner of the shop comments, “In an Amazigh carpet, you can read a woman’s entire story.”

Photo by Evan Thornton

National Geographic offers you many ways to explore the cultural wonders of Morocco, from our signature land trips or a private expedition to trips offered in partnership with G Adventures. Take a closer look at our Morocco itineraries.