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.
Hard up against the Algerian border, in the far southeast of the country, the charming oasis town of FIGUIG (pronounced “F’geeg”) is literally the end of the road. The border has been closed since 1994, and so the long slog to get here from Er Rachidia is a somewhat perverse route to take – a lot of travelling in order to complete a loop via Bouarfa to Oujda in northern Morocco. For those that do make the trip (and not many do), the journey is half the fun: spectacular in its isolation and scenically extraordinary, dominated by huge empty landscapes, blank red mountains, mining settlements and military garrisons.
The other half is the town itself. Figuig is notable for the strange, archaic shape of its pink-tinged ksour, their watchtowers having evolved as much from internal tension within the ksour as from any need to protect themselves from the nomadic tribes of the desert. It’s a laidback place, where life ticks by at an addictively slower rhythm, and the simple pleasure of wandering its shady alleys never seems to fade.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The direct route between Marrakesh and Ouarzazate, the Tizi n’Tichka (N9) is a spectacular piece of engineering, its pulse-racing series of switchbacks providing evermore jaw-dropping views until it eventually crests the central High Atlas at its eponymous pass. It was built to replace the old caravan route to the Drâa and the south, which was controlled during the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth by the legendary Glaoui family, the greatest and most ambitious of all the Berber tribal leaders – their kasbah-headquarters, a vast complex of buildings abandoned only in 1956, still stands at Telouet, less than an hour from the main road.
Arrow-straight as it runs out from Marrakesh across the Haouz Plain, the Tizi n’Tichka soon contours forest slopes high above the Oued Ghdat valley, twisting past small villages and fields as it heads to Taddert, the last significant village on the north side of the pass – though most traffic now stops a kilometre on at busy Upper Taddert. The road thereafter climbs in an amazing array of hairpin bends to reach pastureland (tichka means “high pasture”) before a final pull up to the Tichka pass itself (2260m), marked by cafés and the obligatory souvenir stall or two; not far down on the south side of the pass is the turning to Telouet and the Ounila Valley. The main road south winds down through Igherm, 10km further on and home to a well-restored agadir (to find someone to unlock it, ask at the roadside hotel, Chez Mimi), gradually flattening out until it reaches the turn-off to Aït Benhaddou, just 19km before Ouarzazate.
The bizarre Kasbah Telouet is one of the most extraordinary sights of the Atlas – fast crumbling into the dark red earth, but still offering, in parts, a peculiar glimpse of the style and melodrama of Moroccan political government and power still within living memory. There’s little of aesthetic value – many of the rooms have fallen into complete ruin – but nevertheless, even after over a half-century of decay, there’s still vast drama in this weird and remote site, and in the decorated salon walls, often roofless and open to the wind.
The kasbah is an unbelievable labyrinth of locked doors and connecting passages – it is said that no single person ever fully knew their way around the entire complex – though these days you can only access the main halls and reception rooms.The latter, remarkably intact, given the crumbling exterior, at least give a sense of the quantity and style of the decoration, still in progress when the pasha died and the old regime came to a sudden halt. “The outward and visible signs of ultimate physical ambition”, as Gavin Maxwell put it in Lords of the Atlas, they have delicate iron window grilles and fine carved ceilings, though the overall result is once again the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century combination of sensitive imitation of the past and out-and-out vulgarity.
There is a tremendous scale of affectation, too, perfectly demonstrated by the use of green Salé tiles for the roof – usually reserved for mosques and royal palaces. From up here, you can look down upon some of the courts and chambers, the bright zellij and stucco enclosing great gaping holes in the stone and plaster. The really enduring impression, though, is the wonder of how and why it ever came to be built at all.
The extent and speed of Madani (1866–1918) and T’hami el Glaoui’s (1879–1956) rise to power is remarkable. In the mid-nineteenth century, their family were simply local clan leaders, controlling an important Atlas pass between Marrakesh and the south but lacking influence beyond it. Their entrance into national politics began dramatically in 1893. In that year’s terrible winter, Sultan Moulay Hassan, on returning from a disastrous harka (subjugation or burning raid) of the Tafilalt, found himself at the mercy of the brothers for food, shelter and safe passage. With shrewd political judgement, they rode out to meet the sultan, feting him with every detail of protocol and, miraculously, producing enough food to feed the entire three-thousand-strong force for the duration of their stay.
The extravagance was well rewarded. By the time Moulay Hassan began his return to Marrakesh, he had given caid-ship of all the lands between the High Atlas and the Sahara to the Glaoui and, most important of all, was forced to abandon vast amounts of the royal armoury (including the first cannon to be seen in the Atlas) in Telouet. By 1901, the brothers had eliminated all opposition in the region, and when the French arrived in Morocco in 1912, the Glaoui were able to dictate the form of government for virtually all the south, putting down the attempted nationalist rebellion of El Hiba, pledging loyalty throughout World War I and having themselves appointed pashas of Marrakesh, with their family becoming caids in all the main Atlas and desert cities. The French were content to concur, arming them, as Gavin Maxwell wrote, “to rule as despots, [and] perpetuating the corruption and oppression that the Europeans had nominally come to purge”.
The Glaoui’s controversial alliance with the Protectorate continued over the next few decades, and in 1953 T’hami again played an influential part in the dethroning of a sultan, conspiring with the French to overthrow Mohammed V. It was his last act of betrayal. Within a few months of Mohammed V’s return to Morocco in 1955, T’hami was dead, his properties seized by the state and ultimately abandoned to the ravages of time.
As hard as it is to imagine today, the tranquil Ounila Valley, set amid high, parched hillsides and edged in by remarkably coloured scree slopes, served as the main route over the Atlas until the French constructed the Tizi n’Tichka to the west. Despite finally being paved in 2011, the road (the P1506) sees relatively little traffic and makes for a fine two-day walk, following the Oued Ounila as it snakes south to Aït Benhaddou.
The scattered communities here make abundant use of the narrow but fertile valley, which slowy unveils a wealth of dark red and crumbling kasbahs and agadirs, cliff dwellings, terraced orchards and olive trees – and everywhere children calling to each other from the fields, the river or the roadside. The first stop, after 12km, is Anemiter (2hr 30min walk from Telouet), one of the best-preserved fortified villages in Morocco and well worth a visit, even if you go no further. Leaving the village, the main track clings to the valley side, alternately climbing and descending, but with a general downhill trend as you make your way south. After 3km, you cross a sturdy bridge, beyond which the road follows the left bank of the river to the hamlet of Assako (2hr 30min from Anemiter), where it climbs to the left round some spectacular gorges before dropping steeply; walkers should aim to get beyond this exposed high ground before camping. The trail passes the little village of Tourhat (around 3hr 30min from Assako) before bringing you to Tamdaght (another 3hr), a scattered collection of buildings with a classic kasbah. Just 6km from Tamdaght (1hr 15min), along a lush river valley, lies Aït Benhaddou.
Stretching northeast from Ouarzazate, the Dadès Valley is at times harsh and desolate, but there is a bleak beauty on the plain between the parallel ranges of the High Atlas and the Jebel Saghro. Along much of its length, the river is barely visible above ground, making the sudden appearance of its vast oases all the more astonishing. Littered with half-hidden mud-brick houses – the Dadès is also known as the Route of a Thousand Kasbahs, for obvious reasons – the palmeries lie along the N10 from Ouarzazate to Erfoud, offering an excellent and easy opportunity for a close look at a working oasis and, in Skoura, a startling range of imposing kasbahs.
Impressive though these are, however, it is the two gorges that cut from the valley into the High Atlas that steal the show: the Dadès Gorge itself, carving up a fertile strip of land behind Boumalne du Dadès, and, to the east, the Todra Gorge, a narrowing cleft in high rock walls north of Tinghir. Beyond both, roads run into the heart of the Atlas, a wonderful (and, from Tinghir, fairly easy) trip that emerges near Beni Mellal in the Middle Atlas.
To the south of the Dadès, the volcanic rock and limestone pinnacles of the Jebel Saghro offers exciting options, either on foot or on its network of rough piste roads in a 4WD.
For three centuries or more, the Aït Atta tribe were the great warriors of the south, dominating the Jebel Saghro and its eastern extension, the Jebel Ougnat. As guerrilla fighters, they resisted the French occupation from the outset, finally retreating in early 1933 to the rocky stronghold of the Jebel Bou Gafer, a chaos of gorges and pinnacles. Despite the Aït Atta being vastly outnumbered by superior French forces, what followed was, according to David Hart in The Aït ‘Atta of Southern Morocco, “the hardest single battle which the French had ever had to fight in the course of their ‘pacification’ of Morocco”.
The French first attacked the stronghold on February 21, after which they launched almost daily attacks on the ground and from the air – the French are believed to have used four air squadrons at the battle, in addition to some 83,000 troops (the Aït Atta, in comparison, numbered around a thousand fighting men). Many died on both sides, but the Aït Atta, under the command of Hassou Ba Salem, did not surrender for over a month, by which time they were reduced to half their strength and had run short of ammunition.
Ba Salem’s conditions on surrender included a promise that the Aït Atta could maintain their tribal structures and customs, and that they would not be “ruled” by the infamous T’hami el Glaoui, the pasha of Marrakesh, whom they regarded as a traitor to their homeland (see El Glaoui: the Pasha of Marrakesh). The French were content to accept, the battle meaning that their “pacification” was virtually complete, and giving them access to the valuable silver and copper mines at Moudou.
Ba Salem died in 1960 and was buried at Taghia, his birthplace, 5km from Tinghir. Ali, his son, succeeded him as leader of the tribe, and took part in the 1975 Green March into the Western Sahara; he died in 1992 and is also buried at Taghia. As for the battlefield itself, local guides will show you the sites, including ruins of the stronghold. It is still littered with spent bullets, which are covered in spring by colourful clumps of thyme, rockroses and broom.
The long fields of pointed stones that you’ll see thrust into the ground, both here and elsewhere along the oasis routes, are Berber cemeteries. Otherwise unidentified, they are usually walled off from the desert at the edge of the ksour: a wholly practical measure to prevent jackals from unearthing bodies – and in so doing, frustrating the dead’s entry to paradise.
The Dadès Gorge, with its high cliffs of limestone and weirdly shaped erosions, begins almost immediately north of Boumalne du Dadès. A mixture of modern houses and older ksour edge the road, with fields fronting gentle slopes at first but giving way to increasingly precipitous drop-offs as the road nears Msemrir. Most travellers get as far as Aït Oufi, 25km or so into the gorge, before turning back. It’s a fine day-trip, but it would be a shame not to explore the area further – pushing on, the gorge closes to its narrowest point just 9km further along, while a couple of days’ walking in and around the gorge from one of its many hotels will reward you with superb scenery, with plenty of kasbahs and pisé architecture to admire.
Travelling through the Dadès in spring, you’ll find the fields around El Kelâa M’Gouna, 45km east of Skoura, laced with the bloom of thousands of small pink roses, cultivated into hedgerows dividing the plots. The roses – Rosa damascena, probably brought here from Persia by the Phoenicians – are harvested by local women, who start very early in the morning before the heat dries the bloom. Trucks ferry the petals to Kelâa’s two factories, where they’re distilled into the rose oil that forms the basis of all the moisturisers, hand creams and other rose-related products that you’ll see in the region’s shops. The size of the factories reflects the task at hand: there are an estimated 4200km of rose hedges around Kelâa, with each metre yielding around a kilogram of petals, and ten tonnes of petals are needed to produce just two or three litres of rose oil.
In late May (sometimes early June), a rose festival is held in the village to celebrate the new year’s crops – a good time to visit, with villagers coming down from the mountains for the market, music and dancing.
Beyond Bou Thaghrar, the pistes degenerate or disappear altogether, making this prime trekking territory, which for the most part remains blissfully beyond the reach of most 4WDs. Depending on the amount of time you have, a typical route in the region could range from a day hike through the satellite villages of Bou Thaghrar to a ten-day trek north through the magnificent Gorges du M’Goun, a real adventure involving hours of wading waist-deep through meltwater. With three days to spare, the varied (and mostly dry) walk to Ameskar, via Alemdoun and Amejgag – the conventional approach route for mountaineers bound for M’Goun – would be an ideal sampler, passing through a series of pretty villages and some superb gorges.
The Skoura oasis begins quite suddenly, around 30km east of Ouarzazate, along a tributary of the Drâa, the Oued Ameridil. It is an extraordinary sight even from the road, which for the most part follows its southern edge – a very extensive, very dense palmery, with an incredibly confusing network of tracks winding across fords and through palms to scattered groups of ksour and kasbahs.
The grandest and most extravagantly decorated kasbah in the oasis, Kasbah Ameridil may well look familiar: it’s eminently photogenic and features in travel brochures and coffee-table books – and on the front of the current fifty-dirham note.
Ameridil was built in the seventeenth century for the caïd of Skoura, and various implements from the original building line one wall of the courtyard, including some ingenious little locks whose keys doubled as toothbrushes. You can poke around a variety of rooms that once served as kitchens – one still retains the ovens used to cook tafarnoute (bread baked over stones on the ground) and tanourte (bread baked on the the side of the oven) – a Koranic school and a mosque, and bedrooms used by the chief and his four wives.
Few people visit the south without taking in the Todra Gorge, and with good reason. At its deepest and narrowest point, only 15km from Tinghir, this trench through the High Atlas presents an arresting spectacle, its gigantic rock walls changing colour to magical effect as the day unfolds. Faux guides hang around the gorge, but the hassle is generally low-key, and at weekends and holidays, there’s a cheerfully laidback vibe – locals more than outnumber tourists, and families come to picnic by the river.
En route to the gorge proper, the road climbs along the west flank of the Todra palmery, a last, fertile shaft of land, narrowing at points to a ribbon of palms between the cliffs. The really enclosed section of the gorge itself extends for just a few hundred metres and should certainly be walked, even if you’re not going any further, for the drama of the scenery; you can stay overnight here, too, right at the foot of the 300m cliffs (see Across the Atlas), and contemplate your majestic surroundings in relative tranquillity.
Climbers have been scaling the Todra Gorge’s craggy cliffs since 1977, when a group of Frenchmen opened the West Pillar way, and there are now over three hundred routes spread across thirty different sectors. The routes are fairly technical, with most ranging from French Grade 5 to 8 and varying in length from 25m to 300m, so tend to suit experienced climbers more – though the fairly newly developed Kilimanjaro section offers several routes for beginners.
A number of hotels and guides in town rent equipment and run climbing trips: try Hôtel L’Avenir or look out for Hassan Mouhajir, a vastly experienced climber who can normally be contacted through the Hôtel La Vallée near the start of the gorge. If you’re climbing on your own, it’s worth consulting the logbooks at various hotels in the gorge first, which will alert you to any problems on the rock – over the past few years, kids have been known to tamper with several access bolts, and even fixtures for top ropes.
Most of the guides hanging around the gorge try to lead visitors on walks, but the following route (1hr 30min–2hr) can be hiked without assistance. Once through the cliffs that mark the narrowest section of the gorge, look for a side valley leading quite steeply left (south) from the roadside to a pronounced saddle between two peaks – you’ll be able to make out the path climbing on the left flank of the hillside. An easy ascent takes you to the pass (around 45min), from where you could head for the peaks for splendid views over the gorge, or follow the path dropping downhill to your left, keeping to a line of silvery-grey rocks that fringe a dry riverbed. After around thirty minutes, the path then climbs briefly to a second pass, from where it descends to Tizgui, a well-preserved ksar on the edge of the Todra palmery.
There’s a surprising variety of habitats within easy reach of Boumalne. The expanse of hammada, or desert fringe, to the south of town is an austere environment, whose dry, sunny conditions are ideal for reptiles and are frequented by Montpelier snake, Atlas agama and fringe-toed lizard. The grassy plains beyond this provide food for small herds of Edmi gazelle and Addax antelope and shelter for a variety of bird species such as red-rumped wheatear, lanner falcon and the elusive Houbara bustard.
The most rewarding birding trip in the region, though, is to the aptly named Vallée des Oiseaux, which heads off the R6907 from Boumalne to Iknioun in the Jebel Saghro. The Tagdilt track – marked by a line of green shading on the Michelin map and well known to birdwatchers – is home to Temmink’s horned lark, eagle owl and several species of sandgrouse.
South of Ouarzazate, on the other side of a tremendous ridge of the Anti-Atlas, begins the Drâa Valley – a 125km belt of date-palm oases that eventually merges into the Sahara near the village of M’Hamid. It is possible to complete a circuit through and out from the Drâa, heading from the valley’s main town, Zagora, west through Foum Zguid and Tata to the Anti-Atlas, or east to the Jebel Saghro or Rissani and Merzouga. However, most visitors content themselves with a return trip along the N9 between Ouarzazate and Zagora: a great route, taking you well south of anywhere in the Tafilalt, and flanked by an amazing series of turreted and creamy pink ksour and kasbahs; most of the larger and older ones are grouped a little way from the road, up above the terraces of date palms.
A gruelling slog across 250km of barren hammada and scorching desert, the Marathon des Sables is generally acknowledged as the toughest foot race in the world. Runners are required to carry all their own equipment, including GPS (in 1994, Italian runner Mauro Prosperi spent nine days lost in the desert after getting caught in a sandstorm – he survived by drinking bats’ blood and was eventually found in Algeria, 300km off track) and the dozen litres of water they’ll consume during each of the six days it takes to complete the course.
Founded by a Frenchman, Patrick Bauer, in 1986, the race takes place in March or April, and today attracts around 900 runners each year, 250 or so from the UK, from a surprisingly broad range of demographics; in 2012, the French runner Joseph Le Louarn completed his sixth Marathon des Sables at the ripe old age of eighty. The constantly changing route has recently included places such as Foum Zguid and Merzouga. For further information, see w darbaroud.com; UK runners interested in competing should contact Running Sahara.
A small administrative centre built around a café-lined square, M’HAMID (also known as M’Hamid el Ghizlane) was once an important marketplace for nomadic and trans-Saharan trade, but of this role only a rather mundane Monday souk remains. Although M’Hamid is still more low-key than Zagora, you might be forgiven for thinking the village’s main raison d’être these days is getting tourists onto camels – there are any number of operators, official and unofficial, who offer camel trips into the desert proper.
The most easily accessible of the dunes around M’Hamid are those at Erg Lehoudi (“Dunes of the Jews”), 8km north of town, which can be reached, with guidance, in a normal car via a piste just outside the village. They see more than their share of day-trippers (and their rubbish) and hustlers, and despite reaching a height of over a hundred metres, somehow feel rather mundane.
The most dramatic dunes in the entire Zagora region lie some 60km southwest of M’Hamid, where the 300m-high crescents of the Erg Chigaga ripple away into the horizon. The expense and time involved in getting here – a return trip by camel takes around five days; by costly 4WD, you can get there in less than two hours – is well worth it, and with quieter dunes and more spaced-out camps, the desert experience is much more akin to how you might imagine it.
ZAGORA seems unpromising at first sight: a drawn-out modern market town with a big crop of hotels and government buildings and few sights of specific interest. Even the famous Timbuktu road sign that once adorned the edge of town has been removed in an overzealous bout of city-council tidying. As the region’s main staging post for trips to the fringes of the Sahara, it attracts more tourist attention than it deserves in itself, yet still manages to make a pretty agreeable rest stop, particularly if you’re staying in the Amazrou palmery south of town.
Aside from its relative proximity to the desert, another draw are Zagora’s festivals. The Drâa’s big event, the Moussem of Moulay Abdelkader Jilali, is celebrated here during the Mouloud, and like other national festivals in the town, such as the Fête du Trône in July, is always entertaining.
The dates of the Zagora oasis are reputedly some of the finest in the country, a claim you can put to the test at the twice-weekly souk (Wed & Sun), where stallholders sell several dozen of Morocco’s 220 or so different date varieties – look out for mejhoul, bouskri, jihel and, particularly, the sweet boufeggous, which will last for up to four years if stored properly. If you’re not in town for the market, never fear: you can’t get too far along the Drâa’s roads before being accosted by kids brandishing boxes of the sugary snacks, often encouraging you to make a purchase by leaping out in front of your car.
Nearly every tourist in town is here for the Sahara, and yet Zagora is still some way from the desert proper, so make sure you know exactly where your trip is headed. The closest dunes are at Nakhla, northeast of town, and Tinfou, about 25km south along the N9, which are easy to get to but not particularly impressive. Closer to M’Hamid lie the Erg Lihoudi and the Erg Ezahar, though the latter – also known as the Screaming Dunes due to the incredible sound they make (the noise is actually caused by vibrating sand grains) – are usually only offered on trips out of M’Hamid. Finally, around 60km southwest of M’Hamid (and a good 3hr from Zagora), is the unforgettable Erg Chigaga, the real deal, offering relative isolation and a sea of golden sand ebbing out into the distance; though getting here involves a much longer (and expensive) journey.
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.
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.
ERFOUD, like Er Rachidia, is largely a French-built administrative centre, and its desultory frontier-town atmosphere fulfils little of the promise of the Tafilalt. Arriving from Er Rachidia, however, you get a first, powerful sense of proximity to the desert, with frequent sandblasts ripping through the streets, and total darkness in the event of a (not uncommon) electrical blackout. Erfoud once functioned as a launchpad for trips to the dunes at Merzouga, but has been left high and dry with the surfacing of the Rissani–Merzouga road. Now, unless they’re here for the date festival, it tends to be bypassed by travellers who arrive early enough in the day to pick up onward transport.
Erfoud’s only point of (minor) interest is the local marble industry, which produces the attractive black marble that adorns every bar top and reception desk in town. Uniquely, the high-quality stone contains hundreds of little fossils – mostly nautilus and cone-shaped orthoceras – which you can see being slowly revealed in 3D at the Manar Marbre just west of town. It takes an hour for hefty-looking saws to cut the huge blocks into workable chunks, which are then carved, and polished up at smaller hand-held machines.
As with all such events, Erfoud’s lively Festival of Dates, held over three days in early October, is a mixture of symbolism, sacred rites and entertainment – traditionally, dates bring good luck, whether tied to a baby’s arm (to ensure a sweet nature), thrown at a bride (to encourage fertility) or offered to strangers (to signify friendship).
On the first morning of the festival, prayers are said at the zaouia of Moulay Ali Shereef at Rissani, followed in the evening by a fashion show of traditional costumes: a pride of embroidered silk, silver and gold headdresses, sequins and elaborate jewellery. Then there are processions, camel races and, on the last night, traditional music and spiritual songs.
The Erg Chebbi dunes at MERZOUGA are indisputably one of the great sights of Morocco. Rising to 150m in places, these giant sand hills lining the Algerian border may not be as imposing nor as extensive as some in North Africa, but they come closer than anywhere else in the country (at least, anywhere else that’s relatively accessible) to fulfilling most people’s expectations of what a true desert should be. The result, though, is that Merzouga can sometimes feel less like the désert profond than a Saharan circus, with groups of luxuriously turbaned tourists posing for photographs with hommes bleus under the acacia trees or astride camels.
To stand any chance of experiencing the scenery in its essential state, you should aim to come here out of season (Jan & Feb are the quietest months) and choose your spot very carefully. At the height of summer, the few visitors who brave the fierce heat to reach Merzouga are mostly Moroccans, attracted by the reputed power of the sands to cure rheumatism. Sufferers are buried up to the neck for a few minutes in the afternoon – any longer (and earlier) than that can be fatal.
Rising dramatically from a plain of blackened hammada, the dunes of the Erg Chebbi stretch 28km from north to south and are 7km across at their widest point – a relatively modest sea of sand compared with the great Erg Occidental of southern Algeria but still an impressive taste of the Sahara’s grandeur. The highest dunes are those near, or just south of, Merzouga itself, peaking with the aptly named Grand Dune de Merzouga, a golden mountain recognizable – in addition to being the tallest dune around – by the distinctive tamarisk tree at its base. The dunes are spectacular at any time of day, but early morning and late afternoon are the best times to view them; to find a relatively peaceful ridge free of footprints, however, you’ll have to be prepared to walk for an hour, or else arrange a camel trip.
Having crossed Morocco to stand at the edge of the Sahara, you can hardly leave without hopping onto a camel and heading off into the dunes. Rides range from a two-hour lollop over the crescents to catch the sunset (100dh) to a fifteen-night expedition deep into the desert (4500dh); most people opt for an overnight stay at a Berber camp (300–400dh), where you’ll enjoy the clearest of night skies and a memorable sunrise the following day. A cameleer, meals, tea and blankets are included in the price, but it’s advisable to bring extra clothes and a sleeping bag, as nights can get excruciatingly cold. If you’ve never been to the desert before, think about starting with a short trip before signing up for longer journeys – the feeling of pure isolation, surrounded by a seemingly never-ending sea of sand, is an incredible experience (described as a “baptism of solitude” by Paul Bowles), but it’s not to everyone’s taste.
Trips can be arranged through your hotel or at one of the other auberges around Merzouga; Kasbah Mohayut and Nomad Palace are particularly recommended, or you could contact Best of Merzouga, who specialize in longer trips and tours from Marrakesh and Fez. Each outfit works its own jealously guarded routes and camps – the smaller, more expensive setups (usually no more than six people) are more atmospheric but less comfortable than the permanent camps – but it can be a matter of luck whether you hit a crowded section of the dunes or not. Generally, the further from the main group of auberges you go, the more chance you have of avoiding other camel trains and (even more importantly) 4WD drivers and quad bikers, though their noisy antics have been more limited in recent years. Note, too, that the longer multi-day trips stop operating after February, after which time it just gets too hot.
At first glance, the desert seems harsh and inhospitable, a scorched habitat devoid of life bar the occasional scarab beetle leaving tiny tracks across the sand. But there are acacias, tamarisk and calotropis here, and lichens and algae that survive on the dew that clings to the undersides of rocks and stones.
Such modest pickings provide sustenance for the many birds that pass through on their spring and autumn migrations, as well as native desert-dwelling species. Spotted sandgrouse, white-crowned wheatears, Egyptian nightjars, eagle owls and Houbara bustards are just a few of the magnificent species that can be seen, while, incredibly, greater flamingos can sometimes be found at Dayet Sriji and other lakes near Merzouga – but bear in mind that these can disappear to nothing in dry years.
The desert and hammada also house reptiles such as Berber skink, Montpellier snake and fringe-toed lizard, whose feet are perfectly adapted for their desert environment, as well as nocturnal mammals; you’re less likely to see them, but jerboa, desert hedgehogs and fennec (desert fox) make their presence felt by leaving footprints in the morning sand.
Throughout the south, boys bound into the paths of oncoming cars to offer crystalline mementoes of Morocco, and rocks and fossils are staples of most tourist shops across the region. But before you part with your hard-earned dirhams, it’s worth knowing what to look out for: tennis-ball-sized crystals in a hollow geode can often cost more on the Moroccan hard-shoulder than they would in Britain or the US, while brilliant orange and red geodes and slices of rock crystal (quartz) look attractive but are unknown to natural science, as are the quartz geodes given an iridescent metal coating by vendors.
Attractive spirals of ammonites (from Carboniferous to Jurassic) are common in the limestone areas of Britain, but in Morocco they can be bought sliced and polished as well as “raw”. Do not rely on the names you’re given by the shopkeeper – look at the centre of the spiral of the ammonite and at the ridge around its shell to check how far natural features have been “enhanced” by a chisel.
Slightly older than ammonites, trilobites often appear in shops as identical beige-coloured fossils on grey slate. In nature, they are rarely so perfect – beware plaster casts. The early trilobite Paradoxides is about the size of a hand, with long whisker-like spines. A deep-sea inhabitant, it is often found looking rather squashed sideways, where the silts on which it lived have been sheared by pressure. The Calymene and Phacops types of trilobites are about 200 million years younger than Paradoxides, and measure about two inches long, with a crab-like outer skeleton. The half-rounded shield-like skull, often found separated from the exo-skeleton, can appear in a shop with the rest of the skeleton carved around it as a tribute to modern Moroccan craftsmanship.
In the black limestone regions near Erfoud, the white crystalline shapes of nautilus and orthoceras are cross-sectioned and polished to emphasize their internal structure before being formed into ashtrays and even coffee tables (see Manar Marbre), a striking souvenir that can of course be transported for you at a cost – though they never quite seem to look so good back home.
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.
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.
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.
The first thing you hear from the guides on arrival at Aït Benhaddou, 190km from Marrakesh and just 34km from Ouarzazate, is a list of its film credits. Though this is a feature of much of the Moroccan south, the Benhaddou ksar has a definite edge over the competition. Lawrence of Arabia was filmed here, of course; Orson Welles used it as a location for Sodom and Gomorrah; and for Jesus of Nazareth the whole lower part of the village was rebuilt. In recent years, more controlled restoration has been carried out under UNESCO auspices, while film crews have been involved in some “re-modelling”.
With its souvenir shops and constant stream of tour groups, Aït Benhaddou is not really the place to catch a glimpse of fading ksar life, but it is one of the most spectacular sights of the Atlas, piled upon a low hillock above a shallow, reed-strewn river. Its buildings are among the most elaborately decorated and best preserved in the south; they are less fortified than is usually the case along the Drâa or the Dadès, but, towered and crenellated, and with high, sheer walls of dark red pisé, they must have been near impregnable in this remote, hillside site.
As ever, it’s impossible to determine exactly how old the ksar of Aït Benhaddou is, though there seem to have been buildings here since at least the eleventh century. The importance of the site, which commands the area for miles around, was its position on the trans-Saharan trade route from Marrakesh to Ouarzazate and the south. In the twentieth century, the significance of this route disappeared with the creation of the Tizi n’Tichka, which has led to severe depopulation – there are now only half a dozen families inhabiting the kasbahs, earning a sparse living from the valley’s agriculture and rather more from the tourists who pass through.
Follow the network of lanes uphill and you’ll eventually arrive at the ruins of a vast and imposing agadir, or fortified granary, from where there are great views over the surrounding desert.
At some stage, you’re almost bound to spend a night in Ouarzazate, the main access point and crossroads of the south, and it can be a useful if functional base from which to visit the ksour and kasbahs of Aït Benhaddou or Skoura. Although lacking the architectural charm of other settlements down here, the town nevertheless has a buzzy, almost cosmopolitan feel, which contrasts sharply with the sleepier places found elsewhere in the region.
Like most of the new Saharan towns, Ouarzazate was created as a Foreign Legion garrison and administrative centre by the French in the late 1920s. During the 1980s, it became something of a boom town, as the tourist industry embarked on a wildly optimistic building programme of luxury hotels, based on Ouarzazate’s marketability as a staging point for the “Saharan Adventure”, and the town was given an additional boost from the attentions of filmmakers.
Ouarzazate holds a mystic attraction for Moroccans, too – similar to the resonance of Timbuktu for Europeans – and recent years have seen renewed expansion. Vast residential complexes are springing up in response to the growing demand from young people unwilling to live with their parents, as well as an influx from rural areas. An ill-fated golf course development to the north of the city was, unsurprisingly, abandoned, but there are plans to build yet more five-star hotels and a slew of casinos. Whether the region will attract enough visitors in the future to sustain all this development remains to be seen.
Ever since David Lean shot Lawrence of Arabia at nearby Aït Benhaddou in 1962, film directors have been drawn to Ouarzazate, and the area has, over the years, stood in for Jerusalem, Persia, Somalia, Ancient Egypt and even Tibet. Bernardo Bertolucci came here in 1990 to film Paul Bowles’s novel, The Sheltering Sky, while Martin Scorsese based much of The Last Temptation of Christ (1998) and Kundun (1996) in the surrounding hammada – as a tottering Tibetan temple at the Atlas Corporation Studios just outside of town can testify to. Oliver Stone shot Alexander here in 2004, while Ridley Scott can’t seem to get enough of the place, choosing the region for Gladiator (1999), Black Hawk Down (2001), Kingdom of Heaven (2005) and – proving that Ouarzazate has still got what it takes – Prometheus (2012).