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