What is a Riad?
A Different Time
You heard from your friend about how great his trip to Morocco was. The story in the Guardian and the cheap Ryan Air flight put you over the top. As you step out of your taxi at the mouth of the old medina, you conclude that you must have hit some mysterious time portal as you were driving because now it appears as if you are in a different century and a different world.
Life slows down.
The walls around you look several centuries old. The narrow streets wind in and out around you. Sounds and smells dance through the air, and although you are only a three hour flight from home, you feel a million miles away.
A guide from your riad meets you to lead the way.
After wandering through the maze of the medina for a few minutes you arrive at a large wooden door, that looks like it could have come from a medieval castle. "This is your riad," the attendant says. You are a bit surprised, as you expected it to be a free standing house such like many of the old homes in Europe.
But here this riad stands, nondescript, tucked in a tiny alley, undistinguished from the myriad of other doors on the street. Only the sign by the door lets you know you are in the right place.
This is because the roots of the typical Moroccan riad are in the ancient fortresses of the Berbers, the original inhabitants of Morocco. It was the Berber custom to build walled villages, either out of stone in the mountain or of adobe in the plains.1 Buildings were then integrated in to these establishments.
As the door swings open you are greeted with the traditional Moroccan warmth.
At this point, the riad is still not giving away her secret. You can only see an elbow-shaped hallway in front of you. As you pass this hallway, the commotion of the medina disappears, smothered by the thick riad walls. Ancient Moroccan culture places high value on the home and much care has been put into its making, as the Moroccan proverb goes "The first thing one should own is a home; and it is the last thing one should sell; for a home is one's tomb this side of heaven."
Your eyes are pulled forward by the smooth texture of the walls. In Fes this is called medluk and is a combination of extremely fine sand, lime, egg white and soft soap. With time it looks marbled, and is often adorned with geometric patterns. In Marrakech it is called tadelakt, and has a slightly different appearance because of the difference in the sand and the lime of these two cities.2
As you leave the entryway, you enter the famed courtyard of the riad. It is said that the idea for riads stems from the ancient Roman inhabitation of Morocco.3 Roman villas in Morocco were large central houses with many rooms that would be the central place of administration for their massive farms.4 As time went on, the architectural structure of the villa, became the seed of the riad.
Riad, in classical Arabic means garden, and this open air garden in the middle of the house is the centerpiece of its life. Today's riads often times will have four trees in this garden, typically orange or lemon trees, or possibly a fountain and traditionally was the place to escape Morocco's heat. Around the courtyard you notice highly detailed tile, known as zellij adorning the walls. The intricacy of the interior, juxtaposed with the blandness of the exterior is the fruit of Islamic influence on Morocco architecture. Islamic architecture is typically characterized by nondescript externals and intricately fashioned interiors.5 The repeating geometric patterns that adorn the tiles, the painted wood (zouak) and the carved plaster, are rooted in Islamic theology: "Geometry is God manifest." The unending repetition of the design was associated with the nature of God, with the central circle symbolizing his eternal unity.6
Yours senses continue to soak in what is in front of you.The colors adorning the walls, reds, yellows and blues, vary with the city you are in. Historically, these colors come from the natural resources of Morocco and were utilized in ancient forms of paint making. The soil in the north of Morocco is reddish in color, and the soil near the coast is yellowish. In and around Fes there is an abundance of cobalt rich rocks which can be ground into various shades of blue.7
Next you come to the cusped arches of the doorway, which are a dominant feature of Moroccan architecture and were brought about by Spanish influence.8 In the 11th century, the Almoravid dynasty conquered Spain. These rulers then sent Muslim, Jewish and Christian artisans from Spain back to Morocco to work on monuments. The artisans profoundly influence Moroccan style. In fact Richard Parker says in his book on Moroccan monuments, "The most dramatic and direct impact on Morocco, however, obviously came from Muslim Spain."9 In addition to the arches, these artisans brought the concept of arranging the rooms of the house around the central open-air courtyard that defines the riad.10
As for what you find from here, your experience will vary widely.
The Evolution of the Last 20 Years
The roots of Moroccan Riads are built on the base of the Berber, Arab and Spanish influence. But now, modernity has influenced her development. For many years, these ancient riads existed as family homes, palaces for nobility or even harems. As the French brought the ville nouvelle, families began leaving their riads to move out of the medina and live in the new towns. These families would then rent their riads to people from the countryside, who did not keep them in good repair. As the houses became dilapidated, the owners began selling them and stripping them of their ancient décor, sometimes even using the wood from 300 year old doors as firewood.
Around twenty years ago, according to Abdellatif Ait Ben Abdallah, director of Marrakech Riads, and expert on Marrakech riads, Westerners moving to Morocco began showing interest in buying these houses and rehabilitating them, first for personal dwellings and later to rent as guest houses.11 As this idea caught on, more and more foreigners began buying these houses, and as they renovated them, began to create something suited to their own tastes.
Today's riads vary as much as their owners.
Some traditional riads, retain many of the same features, stylings and colors as are fitting with the roots of the riad. Others, are a combination of modernity and tradition, while others are strictly modern styled riads, pulling inspiration from all over the world. Some budget riads have been transformed to accommodate those travelling on limited funds, and others have been turned into luxury riads, servicing clients looking for a 5 star experience in the form of a riad.
1-Howe, Marvine. Morocco: The Islamist Awakening. Oxford University Press.
2- Riad Zany's What is a Riad?
4- Rogers, Barnaby. A Traveler's History of North Africa. Interlink Books
5. Howe, Marvine.
6. Islam Online
9. Parker, Richard. A Practical Guide to Islamic Monuments. Baraka Press
11. Delorme, Anne-Claire. Marrakech Evasions. Bab Sabaa.