What is henna?
Henna is a type of plant that grows in the Mediterranean area. The leaves of the henna plant are ground to form a fine powder, which is then mixed with water to create a thick mud-like paste. Artists use a brush, stick, or fine plastic nozzle to apply the paste to the skin, creating intricate patterns and designs on various parts of the body. It is common to drizzle a mixture of sugar with either lemon or lime juice over the completed design to help seal the pattern and enhance the colour. Some people wrap plastic film around the design for a few hours to encourage longevity. The paste hardens and eventually cracks and falls away from the skin, leaving behind the colourful pattern on the skin. Henna designs can last for several weeks. In Morocco, it is most common for people to decorate their hands and feet with henna.
Henna can also be used to colour the hair and nails. Muslim men may also dye their beards with henna.
Historic use of henna
Also known as mendhi, the use of henna to adorn the body is thought to have originated in North Africa, eventually spreading to the Arabian Gulf, India, and Asia by way of travelling traders. Written accounts of henna use date back to the Bronze Age, and henna features in centuries-old mythological tales.
Henna designs in Morocco can be traced back to the times of the early nomadic Berber communities that roamed the lands. Henna was used, whenever possible, at almost any joyous event. Battle victories, births, weddings and religious celebrations were all occasions when people would decorate themselves with henna.
Henna designs and symbolism
While many visitors appreciate henna art for its visual beauty, many Moroccans attach a greater significance to the artwork. Stemming from Berber beliefs, many Moroccans still see a henna tattoo as a symbol of good luck. Some people also strongly believe that henna can help to guard against ill fortunes and the evil eye, particularly when designs incorporate the hamsa, an eye, or diamond shapes. Other common henna designs include twists and swirls, geometric shapes, floral patterns, and linear designs.
People performing manual work, such as working in fields, traditionally applied henna because they believed that it would help to strengthen the hands and feet. Other beliefs attached to henna use is that it can encourage a bountiful harvest, ensure sufficient rains, help to prevent infertility and make childbirth easier, ward of sickness and misfortunes, help families to make a living, and promote harmonious relationships.
Typical henna patterns can vary a fair amount around Morocco, with intricate and delicate floral designs common in northern regions and larger, bolder designs more popular in southern areas.
Henna at weddings
Part of a traditional wedding is the henna party that takes place the evening before the wedding ceremony. The bride-to-be and female relatives and friends come together to chat about married life. Older married ladies impart words of wisdom on the young bride and prepare her for the wedding night. Henna is applied to the bride’s hands and feet, marking her journey from childhood to womanhood. Some brides may discretely include the groom’s name in the design.
It is also customary for female members of the bride and groom’s family to have henna designs created for the special day, although theirs will generally be less elaborate than the bride’s. Henna may also be sprinkled in a bride’s shoes on the day of the wedding ceremony to help protect her from unseen earth-dwelling creatures known as djinn.
Henna at circumcisions
Male circumcision is an important event in Morocco, as with other parts of the Islamic world. In times gone by, public ceremonies were common. While rituals may be more private today, henna decorations are still commonly applied to the young boy and his close family members as part of the celebrations.
Henna at festivals
Ladies often use henna to enhance their appearance during important religious events. Men too may choose to decorate parts of their body with henna. Eid al Adha, the festival of sacrifice, is one such event when henna tattoos are common.
Henna, Morocco, and tourism
Almost all tourists in Morocco will come across henna artists at some point during their stay. Many hotels and riads can arrange henna art services, whereby an artist comes to your accommodation to give you a stunning design.
Djemma el Fna in Marrakech is known for its abundance of ladies offering henna designs, though do be aware of common scams. The city also has several respectable henna cafés and stores offering beautiful designs. Place el Hedim in Meknes, Agadir beach, and the Henna Souk in Fez are other popular places for tourists to have a henna design applied. Henna artists can be found in many souks around the country, and it is also possible to buy supplies if you want to attempt to create your own skin art.
Although Moroccan henna is usually applied to the feet, hands, wrists, ankles, fingers, and toes, many tourists opt for henna tattoos on other parts of the body. Both men and women can have henna tattoos.
Tourists should be wary of people offering black henna designs. Black henna is derived from a different plant and may contain a chemical known as PPD. Not being true henna, the black dye can cause severe allergic reactions.