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.

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 that, 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.

Published in Hand/Eye Magazine, Issue 6, Global Color