Thursday, 16 April 2009

Walls, Walls, Walls

Walls in the West have a bad name. The Berlin Wall, symbol of oppression. Prison walls (Stone walls do not a prison make / Nor iron bars a cage). The most frightening thing for many of us is a wall without windows, a room from which you can't see out on to the street.

In the other hand, in Morocco walls seem to be a joy and a delight. In Meknes, Moulay Ismail's great buildings seem to be nothing but walls. Walls around the royal palace, walls around the Dar-el-Kebir. Walls that stride a kilometre without a break. Walls that are by now built into the structure of the city, so that houses are built against them, and streets flank one side, so that sometimes the only time you see the wall is in the tiny gap between two houses when you catch a sudden glimpse of crenellation. The huge open space in front of the Dar el-Kebir is hardly a real square, as it would be in Italy, say; it's just the result of building two huge sets of walls a little apart from each other.  The walls are the point - the space is just what happens once you've built the walls.

Now here's another thing where the idea of Moulay Ismail's Meknes as the Moroccan Versailles breaks down. Nowhere at Versailles are you aware of walls, as such; indeed the front wall of the courtyard is made transparent by railings, and the frontage of the chateau is a deep U that draws you in, not a flat wall that holds you off. You are meant to see the splendour; you are meant to guess at what's inside. And in the gardens, it's the avenue that dominates, the panorama controlled by perspective - you are meant to see all the way to the horizon; walls are banned, as they'd impose an end to the view, implying that the King's dominion was limited and his reign impotent.

But at Meknes the whole point is that you don't see anything of Moulay Ismail's palace. The walls exclude. It's an inward-looking culture; the palace has to be guarded against attack, against impurity, against the quotidian. There are no windows in the walls; who wants to see the chaos of the streets outside? The dirtiness of the gutter?

So the symbol of Moulay Ismail's rule is the blank wall. No windows.  Gates where the ornamentation privileges the flat surfaces of the wall, rather than the arch of the gate. Walls that surround, that blank out the exterior world. There are no vistas, no panoramas, and that may be why so many of these Moroccan walls are determinedly un-picturesque, unphotogenic. The walls at Avila make you want to take pictures; the walls at Meknes don't.

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