The great date-palm oases of the Oued Ziz and the Tafilalt come as near as anywhere in Morocco to fulfilling Western fantasies about the Sahara. They do so by occupying the last desert stretches of the Ziz Valley: a route shot through with lush and amazingly cinematic scenes, from the river’s fertile beginnings at the Source Bleue, the springwater pool that is the oasis meeting point of Meski, to a climax amid the rolling sand dunes of Merzouga. Along the way, once again, are an impressive succession of ksour, and an extraordinarily rich palmery – historically the most important territory this side of the Atlas.
Strictly speaking, the Tafilalt (or Tafilalet) comprises the oases south of Erfoud, its principal town and gateway. Nowadays, however, the provincial capital is the French-built garrison town and administrative centre of Er Rachidia, a convenient pit stop heading north, through the great canyon of the Ziz Gorges, to Midelt and Fez, or east, on a much less-travelled route, to Figuig – an important crossing point into Algeria when the frontier was open.Read More
The Ziz palmery
The Ziz palmery
Trailing the final section of the Oued Ziz, the road south of Er Rachidia (the N13) is one of the most pleasing of all the southern routes – a dry red belt of desert just beyond Meski, it suddenly drops into the valley and the great Ziz palmery, a prelude of the Tafilalt, leading into Erfoud. Away from the road, ksour are almost continuous, glimpsed through the trees and high walls enclosing gardens and plots of cultivated land.
If you want to stop and take a closer look, the ksar at Aoufouss, 40km from Er Rachidia and the site of a Thursday souk, is perhaps the most accessible, though Maadid, off to the left of the road as you approach Erfoud, is also interesting – a really massive ksar, which is considered to be the start of the Tafilalt proper.
- Merzouga and the Erg Chebbi
The Berber kingdom
The Berber kingdom
Sijilmassa was founded in 757 AD by Berber dissidents, who had broken away from orthodox Islam, and for five centuries, until its collapse under civil unrest in 1393, it dominated southern Morocco. The kingdom’s wealth was built on the fertility of the oases south of Erfoud, a string of lush palmeries that are watered by the Oued Gheris and Oued Ziz, which led to Sijilmassa’s description as the “Mesopotamia of Morocco”. Harvests were further improved by diverting the Ziz, just south of modern-day Erfoud, to the west of its natural channel, thus bringing it closer to the Gheris and raising the water table. Such natural wealth was reinforced by Sijilmassa’s trading role on the Salt Road to West Africa, which persisted until the coast was opened up to sea trade, particularly by the Portuguese, in the fifteenth century – coins from Sijilmassa in this period have been found as far afield as Aqaba in Jordan.
Most historians agree that the ancient city of Sijilmassa stretched for 14km, from just south of El Mansouriya to a point near the ksar of Gaouz, on the “Circuit Touristique”, though opinion is still divided over its plan: some see it as a fragmented city, comprising several dispersed ksour, much as it was after the civil war at the end of the fourteenth century, others as a single, elongated city, spread along the banks of the rivers.
The garrison underwent a major restoration by the Alaouites, who brought Sijilmassa to renewed prominence as the provincial capital of the Tafilalt in the seventeenth century, but it was destroyed – this time for good – by the Aït Atta in the early part of the nineteenth century.
In the mid-1990s, the ruins were on the radar of the World Monuments Fund as an endangered site in need of urgent attention. But despite a decade of excavation (finds of which can be seen at the Alaouite research centre in town), no further preservation work has been carried out since 1998, and the ruins continue to slowly recede into the dry earth of the Tafilalt. With thanks to Dr Ron Messier
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The tale of the Tafilalt
The tale of the Tafilalt
The Tafilalt was for centuries the main Moroccan terminus of the caravan routes – the famous Salt Road across the Sahara to West Africa, by way of Timbuktu. Merchants travelling south carried weapons, cloth and spices, part of which they traded en route at Taghaza (in modern-day Mali) for local salt, the most sought-after commodity in West Africa. They would continue south, and then make the return trip from the old Kingdom of Ghana, to the west of Timbuktu, loaded with gold (one ounce of gold was exchanged for one pound of salt at the beginning of the nineteenth century) and, until European colonists brought an end to the trade, slaves.
These were long journeys: Taghaza was twenty days by camel from the Tafilalt, Timbuktu sixty, and merchants might be away for more than a year if they made a circuit via southern Libya (where slaves were still sold up until the Italian occupation in 1911). They also, of course, brought an unusual degree of contact with other cultures, which ensured the Tafilalt a reputation as one of the most unstable parts of the Moroccan empire, frequently riven by religious dissent and separatism.
Dissent began when the Filalis, as the Tafilalt’s predominantly Berber population is known, adopted the Kharijite heresy, a movement that used a Berber version of the Koran (orthodox Islam forbids any translation of God’s direct Arabic revelation to Mohammed). Separatist tendencies date back much further though, to the eighth century, when the region prospered as the independent kingdom of Sijilmassa.
In the fifteenth century, the region again emerged as a centre of trouble, fostering the marabout uprising that toppled the Wattasid dynasty, but it is with the establishment of the Alaouite (or, after their birthplace, Filali) dynasty that the Tafilalt is most closely associated. Mounted from a zaouia in Rissani by Moulay Rachid, and secured by his successor Moulay Ismail, this is the dynasty that still holds power in Morocco, through Mohammed VI. The Tafilalt also proved a major centre of resistance to the French, who were limited to their garrison at Erfoud and an outpost of the Foreign Legion at Ouled Zohra until 1931.
The Tafilalt today
Deprived of its contacts to the south, the Tafilalt today is something of a backwater, with a population estimated at around eighty thousand and declining, as the effects of drought and Bayoud disease have taken hold on the palms. Most of the population are smallholding farmers, with thirty or so palms for each family, from which they could hope to produce around a thousand kilos of dates in a reasonable year – with the market price of hybrid dates around 15dh a kilo, there are certainly no fortunes to be made.