Chefchaouen Blues

Chefchaouen is situated in the Rif Mountains, just inland from Tangier and Tetouan. The city was founded in 1471 as a small fortress which still exists to this day, by Moulay Ali Ben Moussa Ben Rached El Alami (a descendant of Ibn Machich and King Idris I, and through them, of the Islamic prophet Muhammad) to fight the Portuguese invasions of northern Morocco. Along with the Ghomara tribes of the region, many Berberes, Moriscos and Jews settled here after the “Spanish Reconquista” in medieval times. In 1920, the Spanish seized Chefchaouen to form part of Spanish Morocco.

Spanish troops imprisoned Abd el-Krim in the kasbah from 1916 to 1917, after he talked with the German consul Dr. Walter Zechlin (1879–1962). (After defeating him with the help of the French, Abd el-Krim was deported to Réunion in 1926.) Spain returned the city after the independence of Morocco in 1956. The name refers to the shape of the mountain tops above the town, that look like the two horns (chaoua) of a goat. "Chef Chaouen" derives from the Berber word for horns, Ichawen.

One distinction possessed by Chefchaouen is its blue-rinsed houses and buildings. Chefchaouen is a popular shopping destination as well, as it offers many native handicrafts that are not available elsewhere in Morocco, such as wool garments and woven blankets. The goat cheese native to the area is also popular with tourists.

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 and place. 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.

This series “Chefchaouen Blues” is part of my main long term documentary named “Lands of Allah”, a historical and social research about the Berbere People, the initial inhabitants of North of Africa.

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