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.