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.