The Moroccan pre-Sahara begins as soon as you cross the Atlas to the south. It is not sand for the most part – more a wasteland of rock and scrub, which the Berbers call hammada – but it is powerfully impressive. There is, too, an irresistible sense of wonder as you catch a first glimpse of the great southern river valleys: the Drâa, Dadès, Todra and Ziz. Lush belts of date-palm oases, scattered with the fabulous mud architecture of kasbahs and fortified ksour villages, these are the old caravan routes that reached back to Marrakesh and Fez and out across the Sahara to Timbuktu, Niger and old Sudan, carrying gold, slaves and salt well into the nineteenth century.
Most travellers’ first taste of the region is the Tizi n’Tichka, the dizzying pass up from Marrakesh, and the iconic kasbashs at Telouet and Aït Benhaddou – an introduction that is hard to beat. Benhaddou is less than an hour’s drive from Ouarzazate, a modern town created by the French to “pacify” the south and one of the area’s few urban centres of any significance, buoyed in recent years by its association with the film industry. From here, you can follow the old trading routes: south through the Drâa to Zagora and the fringes of the desert at M’Hamid; or east through the Dadès to the towering Todra Gorge and, ultimately, the dunes at Erg Chebbi near Merzouga. These are beautiful journeys, the roads rolling through crumbling mud-brick villages and past long ribbons of deep-green palmeries as they stretch out towards the Sahara.
The southern oases were long a mainstay of the pre-colonial economy. Their wealth, and the arrival of tribes from the desert, provided the impetus for two of the great royal dynasties: the Saadians (1554–1669) from the Drâa Valley, and the current ruling family, the Alaouites (1669–present) from the Tafilalt. By the nineteenth century, however, the advance of the Sahara and the uncertain upkeep of the channels that watered the oases had reduced life to bare subsistence, even in the most fertile strips. Under the French, with the creation of modern industry in the north and the exploitation of phosphates and minerals, they became less and less significant, while the old caravan routes were dealt a final death blow by the closure of the Algerian border in 1994.
Although the date harvests in October, centred on Erfoud, still give employment to the ksour communities, the rest of the year sees only the modest production of a handful of crops – henna, barley, citrus fruits and, uniquely, roses, developed by the French around El Kelâa M’Gouna for the production of rose-water and perfume. Severe drought in the 1990s had a devastating effect on crops, including dates, and forced much of the male population to seek work further north, but since 2007 the water levels have greatly improved and the palmeries are returning to their picture-book lushness once more.Read More
Ksour and kasbahs
Ksour and kasbahs
Arguably the defining image of the south, ksour (ksar in the singular) and kasbahs are found throughout the region, peeking out of palmeries and edging the roads that cut through the great river valleys, most notably the Dadès, the so-called Route of a Thousand Kasbahs, and the Drâa.
A ksar (or ighrem in Berber) is essentially a fortified tribal village, while a kasbah (or tighremt) is a fortified home made for the ruling family. They are massive structures, built – in the absence of other available materials – out of the mud-clay pisé of the riverbanks. A unique and probably indigenous development of the Berber populations, they are often monumental in design and fabulously decorated, with bold geometric patterns incised into exterior walls and slanted towers. Seasonal rains wash off some of the mud, so the buildings require constant upkeep – once a kasbah has been left unmaintained, it declines very fast, with twenty years enough to produce a ruinous state if the walls are not renewed.
Agadirs, also variants of the ksar structure, used to serve as a combination of tribal fortress and communal granary or storehouse for the villages.
The Drâa kasbahs
Few of the ksour and kasbahs that shadow the Drâa can be more than a hundred years old, though you frequently see the ruins and walls of earlier ksour abandoned just a short distance from their more modern counterparts. Most are populated by Berbers, but there are also Arab villages here, and even a few scattered communities of Jews, still living in their Mellahs. All of the southern valleys, too, have groups of Haratin, descendants of West African slaves brought into Morocco along the caravan routes. Inevitably, these populations have mixed to some extent – and the Jews here are almost certainly converted Berbers – though it is interesting to see just how distinct many of the ksour still appear, both in their architecture and customs. There is, for example, a great difference from one village in the Drâa to the next as regards women’s costumes, above all in the wearing and extent of veils.
The Dadès kasbahs
Though several of the Skoura kasbahs date, at least in part, from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the majority of kasbahs in the Dadès oases are relatively modern. Most of the older fortifications were destroyed in a vicious tribal war in 1893, and many that survived were pulled down in the French pacification of the 1920s and 30s. The kasbah walls in the Dadès, higher and flatter than in the Drâa, often seem unscalable, but in the course of a siege or war there were always other methods of conquest – a favourite means of attack in the 1890s, according to the writer Walter Harris, who journeyed here in disguise, was to divert the water channels of the oasis round a kasbah and simply wait for its foundations to dissolve.
Life in the palmeries
Life in the palmeries
The vast palmeries that carpet the Drâa, Dadès and Ziz valleys are the historical lifeblood of the Moroccan south – indeed, oases down here are traditionally measured by the number of their palms, rather than in terms of area or population – and they still play a vital role for their communities. Families continue to toil over individual plots that have been handed down through the generations, growing apricots, pomegranates, figs and almonds among the palms, and tomatoes, carrots, barley and mint in the shaded earth below.
Irrigation methods have barely changed in centuries, either. The fields are watered by a combination of communal wells and khettara, underground channels that can run for large distances across the hammada. Water is funnelled off to each plot in turn, with every family receiving the same amount of time to replenish its crop.
The greatest threat to this traditional way of life is Bayoud disease, a fungus that attacks the roots of palms, killing them off within a year and leaving a gap in the protective wedge of trees through which the wind (and destructive sand) blows through. First detected in the Drâa in the second half of the nineteenth century, Bayoud disease is reckoned to have infected two-thirds of Moroccan palmeries, wiping out nearly 12 million trees over the last century or so. Recent years, however, have seen the successful introduction of disease-resistant hybrids, which, together with increased rainfall, has led to much-improved health in the majority of the region’s palmeries – in addition to the palmery at Agdz, there are fine examples at Skoura, Tinghir and in the Ziz Valley.