A Monochrome Medina in Chefchaouen, Morocco

No 24

Chefchaouen is not a town on the water, and yet and its historic center seems to radiate an ocean's worth of blues. There is a tradition in this Spanish-inflected Moroccan city of painting the surroundings blue, everything from walls and doors to cobblestones and flower pots.

The town's now-absent Jewish population started the practice hundreds of years ago. Chefchaouen (or Chaouen, as it's also known) was founded in 1471, and shortly thereafter a wave of Jewish and Muslim refugees arrived from Andalusia, Spain. Jews lived alongside Muslims in Chaouen until 1760, when the local sultan ordered them to move into the medina. Jewish families built there, in the Andalusian style, and in all likelihood started adding indigo into the whitewash at this time in order to differentiate their houses from green-painted Muslim ones.

But Chaouen didn't become “The Blue City" until the 1920s, when the Jewish blue effectively became a trend. (After centuries of enforced isolation from the West, Chefchaouen came under Spanish control in 1927. Foreign rule in Morocco ended in 1956.)

There is no longer a Jewish population in Chaouen, or any definitive reason to keep painting the old quarter blue. One explanation sometimes offered is that the cool shades keep houses from retaining heat. Others say they fend off evil spirits, or insects. Certainly to some degree the pervasive blue-washing conveys civic pride, an appreciation of belonging to a place that has been transformed over generations by endless variations on a single color—a city parts of which, on a bright day, mirror the sky.


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