Morocco’s art of metal engraving granted Intangible Heritage status by UNESCO

In the heart of Fez, Morocco skilled artisans have been practicing the craft of metal engraving for many centuries.

Passed down through generations, these techniques have become a cornerstone of the African country’s cultural identity.

“Metal engraving is an ancient craft, and it means engraving on copper, silver, and gold. This craft began in Morocco in the late twelfth century and early thirteenth century. It began in the city of Fez, and over the years it spread to other cities in Morocco, especially Marrakesh,” says Mohamed Arnani, owner of an engraving workshop in Fez.

The process involves a meticulous series of steps, each contributing to the creation of engravings that tell tales of tradition as well as craftsmanship.

“Engraving on metals depends on three forms, the most important of which are multiple geometric shapes, including underlining. There is also botanical engraving, which is inspired by nature, for example, roses and leaves. There is also the abstract engraving, through which the artist relies on engraving shapes inspired by his imagination,” explains Arnani.

The journey starts with the careful selection of high-quality copper.

“The first step is the drawing step, where the craftsman relies on creativity and accuracy in measurements. This is followed by the cutting stage, then comes the engraving stage, and here comes the stage of assembling the pieces,” says Moncef Adyel, the owner of a copper workshop in Fez.

Craftsmen use a combination of traditional tools to bring the designs to life on the metal surface, using different types of engraving, each with their own characteristics.

Bas-relief engraving creates a design that is slightly raised from the surface, making a tactile effect.

Intaglio engraving involves incising the design into the metal, resulting in a more subtle outcome.

These techniques, for centuries passed down from master to apprentice, highlight the diversity and depth of metal engraving in Fez.

The marketing of the creations plays a crucial role in ensuring the continued survival and relevance of the craft.

As the designs take shape, the artisans work to balance tradition with contemporary demands.

“We always aspire to renew this craft. Therefore, we are working on developing several technical things. For example, we are working on modern paintings and tables that are different from what is traditional. For example, the most famous chandelier in Morocco is the traditional chandelier that is found, for example, in mosques. Now we have created several modern shapes of the chandelier,” says Adyel.

In recent years, Morocco has made efforts to promote its metal engravings both domestically and internationally.

Morocco has taken proactive steps to safeguard this intangible heritage.

Initiatives include educational programmes to ensure the transmission of knowledge to future generations.

“Unfortunately, they are a craft threatened with extinction, but Morocco’s efforts are protecting this heritage. Its inclusion in the World Heritage is an added value to preserving this heritage and giving it the value that deserve those skills associated with engraving on metals,” says Mustapha Jellok, director of the cultural heritage youth, culture and communication ministry in Rabat.

Local markets in Fez serve as a vibrant platform for showcasing and selling the art.

Tourists and collectors are drawn to the medina, where workshops and galleries display an array of designs.

By recognising metal engraving as part of its cultural heritage, Morocco aims to protect and promote the identity woven into each meticulously crafted piece.