Chefchaouen: The Blue City and the Moroccan Quest for Independence

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For Your Consideration:
  1. How does the story of Chefchaouen reflect the larger history of Morocco?
  2. How did Chefchaouen become blue?
  3. What makes your town unique?  What kind of viral marketing campaign could you create around these characteristics?  Design it and share it with the class.

The Medina of Chefchaouen.
The medina of Chefchaouen – densely clustered, multipurpose buildings, many of which are both homes and businesses.

Chefchaouen is a small town of about 45,000 people that looks like it was made for Instagram, or at least some Moroccan-themed section of Disney World. It dates back to 1471, when it was simply called Chaouen, or “the peaks,” a reference to the tall, foreboding mountainside onto which this fortified city was built – a base for the fierce Berber resistance against the nearby Portuguese invasion of North Africa.

In this, the founders of Chaouen were moderately successful – this remote village was never directly conquered by any European power until the French arrived in the twentieth century – though it must as also be stated that no Berber resistance would ever dislodge a European power from Morocco by force, either.

This was a sudden reversal of fortunes for the Moroccans.

The Islamic Almohad dynasty – based in what is today Morocco – and surrounding states, including the Christian kingdoms of Portugal, León, Castile, Navarre, and the Crown of Aragon, c. 1200.  Before the Christian kingdoms united to conquer the area that would become Spain, that territory was controlled and colonized by Moroccans.

For centuries, successive Moroccan empires had been the dominant power in this part of the world, ruling over the Iberian Peninsula – modern Spain and Portugal – which they called Al-Andalusia. This rule brought Moroccan influence to the language, art, and architecture of these European countries – but also resentment. Local Christians in Spain and Portugal fought a century long struggle for independence from this North African dominance. It turns out that Moroccans offer one of the few examples in world history of a non-European empire colonizing Europeans instead of the inverse.

The sun rises between the towering peaks that lend Chefchaouen its name.

In 1492, Chaouen received Jewish and Muslim refugees, expelled by royal decree from the unified Christian Spain that would in the same year send Columbus on a voyage of conquest and religious evangelism to the Western Hemisphere. Such was the outpouring of Christian zeal and nationalism on the part of the newly independent Spanish.

This traumatic arrival would transform Chaouen for all time.

You can force the people their homeland, by they will always carry that homeland with them in their language, their art, their architecture, and in their hearts. Chaouen had been a small Berber military enclave – suddenly it was a cosmopolitan blend of Maghreb and Andalusia. The new refugees built new homes in the Spanish style – with tiled roofs, around open courtyards, with room for the extended family. They continued to speak a form of Spanish that would persist – blended with Berber and Arabic – until the modern day.

And reportedly, for centuries afterward, Christians would be banned upon punishment of death from entering this walled city. A lingering, telling example of how traumatic acts of prejudice can be cyclical for generations, long after the original wrong has faded from living memory…

In 1912, during the final decades of the European colonial scramble, Morocco fell decisively under the dominion of France and Spain, a prize divided to keep Germany out, with no input from the Moroccan king or his people. The long arc from mighty empire to dependent colony was complete, after a thousand years.

By virtue of this European treaty, Spain would control the northern swath of the country that included Chaouen. Spanish soldiers occupied the town during much of the colonial period – which lasted from 1912 to 1956 – except during the Rif War of the 1920s, when it was the ever-reliant Berber rebels in this region of the country who rose up in a brief but valiant attempt to once again claim independence and self-rule for their homeland.

It was after this time, and for reasons lost to history, that the town took on its distinctive, omnipresent blue color. – associated by various tour guides with the clear, cloudless sky or the town’s Jewish heritage – but certainly with the town’s independent spirit. Until the 1930s, Chaouen’s buildings were a white-washed stucco, reminiscent of Spain, with a bold Muslim-inspired green for doors, window shutters, and trim.

Who was the first resident of Chefchaouen to paint her house blue, and who was the first neighbor to say, “Hey, that looks pretty good – I’m going to do that, too!”

We’ll never know, but it was a viral trend that anticipated social media by one hundred years, bringing the town an outsized fame among travelers from the United States to China – for anyone looking to snap a picture of a place that seems to have arisen in some other, more magical, whimsical world.

Every year, a town founded on resistance to foreign control of Morocco now welcomes hundreds of thousands of foreigners enchanted by its singular beauty and spirit.