Story and photos by Barbara Angelakis
The Blue City on the Hill
Chefchaouen, Morocco is one of the most picturesque hill towns in a country overflowing with picturesque cities and villages! We stopped to take photographs of the sparkling blue city from a distance but the impact does not truly hit until you enter the city gates and get your first close-up look at Chefchaouen.
In the 14th Century the village barely consisted of 8 or 10 houses occupied by Imazighen -- translation “free men” (singular: Amazigh) more commonly referred to as Berbers. In the Berber language the name “Chef” translates to look and “chaouen” to horns and reflects the geological position of the city set into the hillside between two prominent mountains of the Rif chain.
During the 1471 hostilities between Morocco and Portugal, the Sultan of Morocco turned Chefchaouen into a military installation and fortification against possible Portuguese incursions. He sent troops to the area and housing was constructed to garrison them, which accounts for the symmetry of the dwellings we see today.
It wasn’t until the expulsion of the Jewish and Moslem populations from Spain in 1492, that the village expanded to give them sanctuary. Due to their shared experience, they continued to live and work side by side as they had done for generations on the Iberian Peninsula. The small Berber presence integrated with the incoming populations and apparently, many converted to Judaism or Islam attracted by the concept of One God, and for some time they co-existed in peace and prosperity.
Originally, all the houses were constructed of the same tan-colored earthen bricks. According to our guide Youssaf Shu, a lifelong resident of Chefchaouen, the Jewish population either began painting the bottom half of their houses blue to remember the sunny sky of Andalusia… or to symbolize divinity, because blue is the color of the sky and sea… I leave it to each person to decide which version works best for them. Moslems responded by painting their houses white, the color of Islam. Initially the paint covered as high as the house’s occupant could comfortably reach, and as the people were not very tall, only the bottom half of the house got color.
Over the years, as the population expanded a Mellah (Jewish quarter) developed around the Synagogue but in general Jews, Berbers and Moslems, continued to work side-by-side. The homes were designated by a rounded or arched door while shops were entered into though a square door.
At some point an enterprising Jewish resident – no doubt to show off his wealth -- decided to paint his entire house blue and decorate it with flowers. The house got much attention; people even came from surrounding villages to marvel at the blue house. Village residents began a friendly competition for attention and… ergo, the birth of tourism in Chefchaouen. In 1994 blue became the official color of Chefchaouen and although there are no longer any Jews living there, every year when the houses are cleaned in preparation before the Moslem Holiday of Ramadan, the women of the town repaint their houses in the shade of blue that is popular or most available that year. This contributes to the various shades of blue, sometimes even on the same house, that makes the town so appealing.
Currently tourists come from all over the world to take pictures of this charming town. The Chinese especially seem to be enchanted and visit in droves, so much so that in this town of roughly 42,000 people - and according to Youssaf more than 3,000 cats – that is located in the mountains that can only be reached by a precipitous winding road and virtually in the middle of nowhere, Chefchaouen’s central square now has restaurants serving Chinese dishes.
Wandering through the town and peering up and down the alleyways veering off the main street is a photo op bar none. I took dozens of pictures because around each corner a new must-have visual caught my eye. But, I was not the only one pointing out picture-perfect views; all around me were tourists as enthralled as I was, clicking away. Periodically I would stop to shop for souvenirs at one of the many stores lining the streets offering hand crafted items. Eventually we had to leave this charming town which was probably a good thing as my camera was running out of memory and my pocketbook was running out of funds.
For information on Chefchaouen and other captivating sites, visit the Moroccan National Tourist Board www.visitmorocco.com
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