The Mediterranean: Summer Blues

I’ve got the summer blues—but it’s not what you might think. Yes, I am sad about bidding summer goodbye, but what might typically be seen as melancholy in this instance is positive, even forward-thinking. I am looking to the future—post-COVID, when I can venture beyond our shores and immerse myself in the blues of the Mediterranean.

From sky and sea to blue shutters and blue chairs, from blue cities to blue domes, from the bluest eye of the Wadjet (Eye of Horus) pendant to the Nazar amulet, blue reigns supreme in the Mediterranean basin. But, did you know that in the days of old, Homer’s time to be exact, they had no word for blue? Remember the ‘wine-dark’ seas of The Odyssey and The Illiad? It seems a word for or the color blue wasn’t part of their lexicon.

Scientists have proffered ancient people were color blind, since they only ever mentioned red, white, black and, later, yellow and green. That didn’t hold true for all, however, Egyptians were using blue 6,000 years ago.

Egyptian Blue tomb decor

In addition to using Lapis Lazuli they imported from Afghanistan in their jewelry and decorative arts, they also created a pigment that came to be known as Egyptian Blue. After combining ground limestone, sand and copper, the mixture was exposed to high heat. Once cool, it was ground again and mixed with egg whites, so it would adhere.

In time, Egyptian Blue made its way to neighboring civilizations around the Mediterranean. This milky blue can be found in the expressive frescoes of the Minoans (c. 3000 – 1050 BC) on the Cycladic islands of Thira (now Santorini) and Crete, in the playful frescoes of the Etruscans (c. 900 – 27 BC) in Central Italy, and in the sometimes explicit wall paintings in Pompeii (c. 800 BC – 79 AD). The popular pigment continued to be used throughout the Greco-Roman period (332 BC – 395 AD) until other methods of color production appeared.

The Holy Family with a Shepherd by Titian (c. 1459 – 1576)

Blue didn’t make it into the vernacular in Europe until the Roman Catholics began color-coding saints in the year 431 AD, when they decided Mary’s robes should be blue. The rise of Christianity and the cult of Mary increased the color’s popularity. Blue got a bigger boost when Italian traders began importing Lapis Lazuli in the late Middle Ages.

Shades of blue

There are literally hundreds of shades of blue. From ultramarine to azure, from turquoise to peacock blue, each were created as the minerals and gemstones they were derived from spread from the mountainous regions of the near East in the packs of traders, down the Nile, around the Mediterranean and to the shores of Europe.

Often used to describe the sky, azure, a bright blue, linguistically comes from the same root as azul in Spanish, azur in French and azzurro in Italian. Each in turn derives from the Persian word, lazaward, which originated in the area Lapis Lazuli was mined near Badakshan, Afghanistan at the source of the Oxus River.

Ultramarine pigment made from ground Lapis Lazuli (Image: Wikipedia Commons)

Ultramarine made its entrance in the Middle Ages, when Italian traders began importing Lapis Lazuli. The name is drawn from ultramarinus—Latin for “beyond the sea.” This vivid shade of blue was the most expensive pigment used in the Renaissance and was considered as precious as gold. It was so expensive only artists sponsored by the very wealthy had the privilege of its rich blue hue.

Turquoise gemstone (Image: Wikipedia Commons)

Turquoise, the universally popular bluish-green color, is named for the gemstone it evolved from. The word itself dates to the 17th century and derives from the French turquois for “Turkish”, since it was brought to Europe by way of Turkey. It was mined in Iran, formerly Persia. Turquoise is said to bring good fortune and has been used as a talisman for thousands of years.

No matter your favorite, blue is undoubtedly one of the most important colors worldwide. It inspires a sense of safety, of calm. It is symbolic of heaven and all things spiritual. Our human response to color, however, is not fixed. Associations, like the work of a favored artist, a myth, a poem, or a favorite place, can influence a person’s response to a particular color.

Blue has always been one of my favorite colors. Growing up at the nexus of three lakes in northern Michigan, there’s little wonder my favorite colors exist in shades of sky and sea. I have always been drawn to the Mediterranean and my love of blue lead me to wonder exactly why blue and white play such an important role in the architecture and furniture of the region.

I did a bit of digging and discovered that contrary to accepted thought, the blue and white color scheme in the countries in and bordering the Mediterranean is less than 100 years old. Whether synchronicity was at play or the color scheme a coincidence, the shift to white buildings with blue architectural details and blue buildings in general, all began in the first third of the 20th century—not in ancient times, as one might believe.

The blue and white color scheme is most prevalent in Greece’s Cycladic islands, in a lone village high above the Bay of Tunis, and in a 500-year-old town tucked into Morocco’s Rif Mountains.


Santorini – whitewashed buildings & blue-domed churches overlook the Aegean

On Santorini, one of the most famous Cycladic islands, white buildings, blue doors, blue shutters, blue window frames and blue furniture remain as popular as ever. Here, as in Ancient Egypt, blue retains its psychological pull. Though available materials influence the architecture, the white wash or calcium carbonate covering the stone walls came about as a result of a cholera epidemic in Greece during the 1930’s.

Said to possess antibacterial properties, Greek Dictator Ioannis Metaxas saw whitewash as one solution to help limit the spread of the outbreak. Whether it was efficacious, the verdict is unclear. The use of whitewash, however, proved successful in one way—it reflected the sun, making Greek homes cooler. The use of blue as a dominant accent color began about this time as well.

Local color – white walls, blue doors, red geraniums

It took until 1974, however, for the Greek government to decree that all buildings in Greece be whitewashed. The blue and white color scheme established in the 1930s in the Cyclades and on Santorini remained in place until 2005.

After receiving several petitions over the years requesting other colors be allowed, the Greek Central Archaeological Council handed down the decision to allow accent colors other than blue on Santorini. Now, colors like pink, red, and gold appear mixed with the blue. Whatever the timeline, there is no doubt the iconic color scheme has done much for Greece’s tourism.


Sidi Bou Said with the Mediterranean beyond

The Tunisian village of Sidi Bou Said is a chip off of Santorini’s block, as all of the buildings are whitewashed and the color blue is predominant. The charming tumble of buildings draped in flaming bougainvillea hugs the contours of the cliffside above the Bay of Tunis on the north coast of Africa.

Located within eyeshot of the capital, Tunis—the largest city of the Maghreb, Sidi Bou Said has long been a convenient getaway for its well-heeled residents. The architectural influences of the Ottomans, Spanish, and French mixed with North African style has proved popular with bohemians the world over. In fact, the blue and white color scheme can be attributed to one of those bohemians.

In the early 20th century, the wealthy music lover, artist, Arabist, and bohemian himself, Baron Rodolphe d’Erlanger, found his way to Sidi Bou Said. He fell for her charms and settled there, building a harmonious home in Neo-Moorish style.

After his death, Ennejma Ezzahra became a museum and center for the study and preservation of Arabic music. A champion of Tunisian culture, d’Erlanger was responsible for inspiring and lobbying for the village’s color scheme and protected status. His respectful efforts have kept this treasured place safe from development for over 100 years.

As on Santorini, the architectural details—doors, window frames, latticework, and window screens—are painted blue. More precisely, the imperial blue of a peacock’s tail. Only in the bougainvillea draping the buildings and in the doors studded with traditional motifs of crescents, minarets, and stars does the color palette vary. Here and there, you’ll find doors painted vivid shades of red and bright yellow. Like Santorini and the Cycladic islands, Sidi Bou Said owes its providence to the efforts of one man’s vision.


Chefchaouen – Morocco’s “Blue Pearl”

Chefchaouen, on the other hand, has a group of people to thank for its color scheme—the Sephardic Jews. They brought their tradition of painting buildings blue with them when Ferdinand and Isabella forced them out of Spain during the Reconquista in 1492.

Over 50 shades of blue adorn the walls of Chefchaouen. From sapphire to teal, turquoise to ultramarine, indigo to sky-blue, cobalt to peacock blue, the list goes on. This charming village is perhaps the most beautiful settlement in all of Morocco and is definitely the most photogenic.

Chefchaouen hamam or bathhouse in a calming shade of blue (Image: Wikipedia Commons)

Prior to the 1930s, only buildings in the mellah or Jewish part of the medina (non-European part of an African city) were painted blue. Some say the color blue was used to ward off mosquitoes. Others say it was used to temper the heat. For the Jewish population, it was likely used to honor God. Chefchaouen’s Jewish residents may be long gone, but their tradition has spread far beyond the mellah’s walls. Now, blue buildings line every lane and alleyway.

In the Jewish tradition, the color blue represents the sky and, thus, closeness to God. In Islamic culture, blue represents happiness and optimism. Whether Jewish, Muslim or something else, the blue buildings create an unparalleled aesthetic appeal, making Chefchaouen very popular with tourists and travelers alike.

That being said, you now have three places to add to your post-COVID bucket list. Even more so if blue is one of your favorite colors. Whether you choose Santorini in Greece’s Cycladic Islands, Sidi Bou Said in Tunisia, or Chefchaouen in Morocco, I doubt you’ll be disappointed—all are a feast for the eyes, more than capable of inspiring a calm sense of well being. Start dreaming or get planning, there are places to be discovered and explored!

– by Tammy L. Currier – who, when she isn’t reading, writing or dreaming about travel, is designing floral arrangements for an appreciative clientele.

Did you know:

  • Santorini, AKA Akrotiri in ancient times, is the site of one of the largest volcanic blasts in history. Unlike other historic eruptions, the volcanic island the seafaring Minoan civilization made its home slowly blew its core over a period of time, casting a plume of ash, pumice and boulders far and wide. Once the cone had completely burned itself out, it collapsed around 1600 BC, creating a massive tidal wave that reached Knossos on Crete—the seat of Minoan government. The catastrophic damage weakened the once prosperous Minoans, allowing them to be conquered by the Mycaeneans. Rumored to be the site of the lost city of Atlantis and the source of the twelve plagues of Egypt, Santorini with its vast caldera is one of the most scenic spots in all of Greece.
  • Sidi Bou Said just may be one of the prettiest villages you’ve never heard of. Named for a Sufi holy man & scholar, Abu Said Khalafa Ben Yahia sought refuge on what was then called Fire Mountain in the 13th century. So-named for the beacons lit there in ancient times by the Carthaginians and Romans to guide sailors into the Bay of Tunis, there was little left when he arrived. His tomb became a place of pilgrimage after his death and the picturesque village bears his name.
  • Chefchaouen sprang up around a fort built by the Berbers as a defensive against the advancing Portuguese in 1471. In 1492, when the Ferdinand and Isabella drove the last Moors and Jews out of Spain, the town was inundated with refugees. Fast forward a few hundred years and we find Spain advancing on Northern Morocco. In 1920, Chefchaouen and the surrounding area became part of Spanish Morocco. Imagine their surprise when the Spanish soldiers discovered a small enclave of Jewish residents speaking Ladino—a Spanish dialect 400-years-old. Written in Hebrew, Ladino is an archaic form of Castilian mixed with Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Turkish, Greek, French, Bulgarian and Italian, making it truly a multicultural language. Though most of the Jewish residents fled Chefchaouen for Israel after Morocco gained independence from Spain in the 1950s, their practice of painting buildings blue remains.

7 thoughts on “The Mediterranean: Summer Blues”

  1. Very beautifully written! And you reminded me in the little book I am writing I should know a bit more about Tunisia if I am going to write about it! Thank you for sharing,, Hopefully one day I can visit one of these lovely locations.

    1. Thank you, Cecelia – I am so pleased you enjoyed this piece – it was fun to research and put together. I have only been to Santorini, so I would like to visit Sidi Bou Said and Chefchaouen, too! Good luck with your book!!!

  2. Excellent story of the color blue in the Mediterranean. Great info! I also visited Santorini a long time ago and was mesmerized by their black sands.
    Can’t wait for your next blog…

    1. Thank you so much – it was fun to research! I never made it to the beaches on Santorini – spent most of my time exploring and watercoloring! Would like to another time, though!

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