Stepping into the medina of Chefchaouen one enters a maze of luminous blues that is at once Moroccan, Mediterranean and otherworldly. Houses, doors, stairs and passages are painted in shades of blue ranging from aquamarine to cobalt. In some places the feeling is open and light. In other places it’s cave-like and cool. But it all works together to form a singular and uplifting experience of color
Situated between two peaks of the Rif Mountains and surrounded by unspoiled landscapes sprinkled with streams, olive trees and wildflowers, Chefchaouen is the highlight of Morocco’s Berber country. Tranquil and tolerant, Chaouen, as it’s locally known, is in many respects a Spanish town. Founded in 1471 by Moorish exiles from Spain, the small town became one of the largest sites of Jews and Moors fleeing the Spanish Reconquista. Those refugees built the Andalusian-style whitewashed houses with red tile roofs that give Chefchaouen its distinctly Spanish character. From 1920 to 1956, the town was occupied by Spain as part of Spanish Morocco, and today Spanish is still widely spoken by the Chaouenis. The blue-washed legacy of Chefchaouen began in the 1930s with the town’s Jewish residents. Painting the lower half of buildings blue is common to many places in the Iberian peninsula as it helps keep them cool in summer and wards off insects, but what one finds in Chaouen are houses painted entirely blue, inside and out, even down to the flower pots and wrought-iron window grills. The motivation behind this, it’s believed, is spiritual.
The color of the sea and sky, blue has been a sacred hue since ancient times and is said to aid in contemplation, meditation and spiritual awareness. In Judaism, blue is symbolic of the sky, God and heaven, and in ancient times a blue dye called tekhelet was used in numerous ways signify this. It was used in sacred tapestries and the clothing of the High Priest, and the Torah commanded Jews to weave a twisted thread of tekhelet into the fringes of their prayer shawls. Although the knowledge of tekhelet was lost long ago, it’s believed the dye was extracted from a small shellfish called hilazon and the color it produced was close to indigo. A possible inspiration for Chefchaouen’s Jewish residents to paint their houses blue can be found in Safed, one of the four holy cities of Israel. After the expulsion of Jews from Spain during the Reconquista, many prominent Kabbalists (Jewish mystics), rabbis, scholars and spiritualists made Safed their home. A picturesque city of cobblestone streets, stone houses and ancient synagogues, numerous doors and buildings in Safed are painted blue to remind people of God and heaven.
The Jews of Chefchaouen lived together peacefully with their Muslim and native Berber neighbors for centuries, but beginning in 1948 they all emigrated to Israel. Despite this, the Chaouenis keep their blue-washed tradition alive. Blue pigment in various shades is sold around the medina, and residents repaint their homes every spring, mixing the pigment with whitewash and applying it with special brushes distributed by the local government. Splashes of pink, yellow and green can be found around the medina too. But blue is king in Chefchaouen. “The Chaouenis genuinely like the blue. They think it’s pretty and it keeps the medina cool. They’re also very traditional and their culture is very communal. Keeping this tradition alive allows them to participate in their community and culture. The women especially take pride in making their town beautiful and showing it off,” shares Lise Cruickshank, an Australian and part-time resident of Chefchaouen who takes part in the house painting ritual each spring.
The charm of Chefchaouen lies not only in its calming blue hues, but also in the traditional community life that conducts its life in the town’s streets. Women carry large trays of uncooked bread to the wood-fired community ovens for baking. Men dressed in thick, earth-toned djellabas congregate outside the mosque at Plaza Uta el-Hammam. Boys play soccer in long alleyways. Girls share homemade cookies on cobblestone stairs. Stray cats wait patiently outside doors for scraps of food. Berber women dressed in red and white striped overskirts and straw hats sell homegrown vegetables at the market. Hand-loom weavers craft the region’s famous blankets and rugs. Merchants carefully arrange their goods on the walls outside their shops. Young families stroll through the Plaza at sunset. And so on. On the brilliant blue stage upon which this peaceful way of life unfolds, Chefchaouen continues to evoke the spirit of the Divine.
by Julie Hall