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Volume 44, Number 2March/April 1993

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Across the High Atlas

Written by Louis Werner
Photographed by David Melody

Morocco's original Arabic name, al-Maghrib al-Aqsa, means simply "the farthest West." Culturally, the country stands at the crossroads of Europe, Africa and the Arab world; in political terms, it was traditionally divided into the bled al-makhzen, the domain of central authority, and bled al-siba , the region of tribal dissidence. But it is the land that is most important: Morocco is a country defined by its geography.

Foremost in Moroccan geography are its mountains. The Rif, the Middle Atlas and the Anti-Atlas - each a formidable range in its own right - together seem quite enough for a country just slightly larger than Texas and 30 percent larger than France. But they are overshadowed by an even more daunting divide: the High Atlas, al-Atlas al-'Ulya, whose name alone lends unparalleled grandeur to the land.

Rising 4167 meters (13,668 feet) to Jabal Toubkal, North Africa's loftiest peak, the High Atlas cuts across Morocco in a great diagonal sweep. On the northwest side lie the imperial city of Marrakech and the lowland routes that lead to Fez and across the coastal plain On thy other side are the oasos and palmeries of the southern water­sheds, isolated Berber strongholds, and finally ... the Sahara.

For centuries, the southern lace of the Atlas was Morocco's front door to the rest of the world. In trekked caravans from the kingdoms of Benin and Ghana, and out rode Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur on his booty-rich campaign against Timbuktu in 1591. Trans-Saharan trade, centered at Sijilmasa - now buried deep in the lafilalt oasis to the southeast - helped create the local wealth and influence from which sprang the Alaouite dynasty in the 17th cen­tury. That dynasty rules Morocco to this day.

From the vantage of Marrakech's balmy Agdal gardens, the High Atlas seems an endless wall whose snowy peaks blend into the clouds. The dis­tance, however, hides the secret of the many paths permitting passage from the southern side. Across these Atlas passes once streamed Ciuinean gold. Saharan salt, and the mounted Berber warriors who founded the Almoravid and Almohad dynas­ties (See Aramco World, September-October 1992, January-February 1993). And across two of these passes, the Tizi-n-Test and Tizi-n-Tichka, travelers today routinely enter and return from the desert on paved roads.

But the old trans-Atlas trails continue to fasci­nate, and none more so than the animal track wind­ing up Mount Tistouit over the Tizi-n-Telouet pass and down the Oued (river) Ounila to the Lionmaned palmeries of the rivers Drâa and Dadès. Fabled kasbahs, mountain strongholds like Tamdaght and Aït Benhaddou, line this rugged way. Travelers descending the valley in late February pass, seemingly from one step to the next, out of a highland winter and into the almond-blossomed splendor of a pre-Saharan spring.

This was the mountain crossing most commonly used until the French Foreign legion completed the Tizi-n-Tichka road in 1936. It was this route that the indomitable explorer Charles de Foucauld fol­lowed in 1883 and described in detail in his Reconnaissance au Maroc, the classic of geographical lore which earned him membership in the French Geographical Society.

On October 16 of that year, having just topped the pass from the north, de Foucauld wrote: "After three more hours of travel through this sad, barren country, I suddenly entered a valley offering the most striking contrast, whose aspect is as gay and cheery as its surrounding solitudes are sad and mournful. At its bottom flows a river whose banks are uninter­ruptedly garnished with gardens and cultivated fields.

"Amid fig, olive, and walnut trees rise clusters of houses and granaries. Everything breathes of plenty. The elegant and pic­turesque architecture continues to amaze me even now: For­tresses with gracious towers, crenelated terraces, running balustrades, walls with paintings and moldings, courtyards covered from top to bottom in arabesque and ornament."

De Foucauld ably described and sketched many of the valley's principal kashahs, but he cautiously skirted Telouet, the seat of the Glaoua tribe's stern Berber lead­ers. It would have been a fascinating visit, though, coming just prior to the tribe's time of glory as the pashas of Marrakech.

In a fascinating sidebar to Moroc­co's early 20th-century history, Madani al-Glaoui and.his brother T'hami eventually raised so brazen and so strong a challenge to Sultan Moulay Hassan that his Alaouite dynasty, seriously shaken, was forced to open the door to French rule in the south. In their time, the Glaouis were so powerful that they entertained the likes of Winston Churchill, attended the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, and sat in high council with the resident generals of the French Moroccan protectorate - until they were so sweepingly double-crossed by the French that their name entered the language as a Verb: glaouiser.

In 1893 Telouet was visited by Walter Harris, the Tangier-based correspondent for The Times of London, whose book Morocco That Was is still much admired. Looking past the kasbah's dramatic architecture, Harris saw only the palace's impending doom. It reminded him of a prison not unlike the Tower of London. "Nothing more dreary or majestic could be conceived," he  wrote, "frowning with its towers and buttresses, seen against a background of torn mountain peaks and snow."

Just as Glaoui power pushed past the confines of the tribe's home valley toward its eventual collapse far beyond, so the precincts of their kasbah spread and grew beyond all reasonable scale. The Glaouis raised fresh battlements long after defeating their last enemies, and built new living quarters for their retinue of a thousand, rather than repair the old.

Telouet today looks like an above-ground archeological dig, fallen kasbah abutting ruined kasbah in an organic chain of rammed earth and adobe brick. More than tribal ambition overreached and tailed here: So too did mud walls and multi-storied towers. Only the last-built complex, the pet project of T'hami's son Brahim, caid or chief of Telouet, remains upright and solid.

Such sumptuous quarters were intended as the Glaouis' High Atlas pleasure dome: Their palace in Marrakech. the Dar al-Glaoui, would serve the more practical needs of administration and adjudication. But T`hami, and with him 11 sons, fell from grace before his vision of the Telouet kasbah was fully realized. He died in l956 and not long afterward, on the return of Moroccan king Muhammad V from exile, the family's power was broken.

As one climbs the sharp incline that sets the kasbah above its village, the ranks of untrimmed, unglazed windows have the look of empty eye sockets in a weathered skull. Inside, patches of concrete stand bare, with rusted reinforcing rods protruding. Only the reception and entertainment rooms are decorated. Only here, standing on the oriental dance floor flanked by men's and women's viewing rooms, does the past fully return to haunt the present.

Master artisans were called from Marrakech to cover T'hami's palace with the same profusion of carved plaster filigree and zellij mosaic star-bursts that adorn that city's dazzling 16th-century Saadian tombs. Stalactite ceilings, horseshoe archways, and millefleur wooden inlay strive to echo the decorative achievement of al-Andalus, Islamic Spain. Behind the ancient artistry, though lurks the inescapable fact that Glaoui aspirations were a 20th-century anachronism. The decoratrive work was begun only in 1942.

A pair of storks returns every year to nest in the minaret of an abandoned mosque in the kasbah building up the old nest each year in much the same way the kasbah itself was built, in a process of annual accretion upon a neglected foundation below. Some years alter its abandonment. Glaoui biographer Gavin Maxwell called the kasbah "ill-ordered, ill-planned, but majestic in its proliferation and complete absence of symmetry."

Telouet sits on the banks of the Mellah river, named for the low-lying salt deposits along its upper reaches. For centuries, salt had been the very coin of the Moroccan realm. In the trading entrepôts of Sijilmasa and Akka, its barter rate for gold had at times reached one-to-one by weight.

The Glaouis' first wealth was based on salt; and as salt will, that wealth finally melted away. But in its time, salt brought camel caravans from the Sahara, from the coastal plain, from the great southern oases, and from as far away as Mauritania and the Sudan region. It was salt that first marked thus route on the map, and that still gives people a livelihood on these barren upland slopes.

Walter Harris described salt-quarrying here in an account of his incognito Moroccan journey entitled Tafilet. All that has changed today is that, with the help of French-made dynamite and winching gear, mining operations have shifted to deep underground shafts. "Only salt and dirt are in this valley," is how one exhausted miner describes the scene today. Pickaxes, human muscle, and the strong backs of donkeys continue to put this man's salt on the Moroccan table.

The watershed between the Mellah and Ounila rivers is not far beyond the mines, and a short way further on one finds the first fruits of the Ounila's sweet waters. Here the valley opens out into terraced fields of beans and winter wheat, the river is dammed in places to fill irrigation canals that run along the contours above the stream bed, and the earth is rich and brown rather than Telouet’s salt-encrusted pale.

The village of Anemiter stands near the head of this valley. Here one finds a kasbah that is a living organism, an example of successful architecture in a difficult environment and the keystone of a village plan worked out over centuries of trial and error. It is here one understands what a southern kasbah really is and how it functions.

In southern Morocco, a kasbah (in Arabic, qasabah) is a cas­tle complex, the stronghold of a ruling family, serving domestic, military, and ceremonial purposes. It is built, depending on local availability, of rock, adobe brick, or rec­tangular casts of rammed earth known in French as pisé. Rock is usually used for the foundation, pisé for load-bearing walls, and the lighter adobe brick for ornamental work on the top story.

Pisé casts usually measure about 180 by 80 by 30 centimeters (70 x 30 x 12 in.) and are often used two abreast to build a wall 60 centimeters (two feet) thick. They are made by pouring damp earth, gravel and an occasional potsherd into wooden forms on site, lamp­ing the earth down hard with a blunt-headed pounder, and allowing the mix to set. What emerges is an uncommonly strong and dense building element of manageable size

A southern kasbahs distinguishing mark is a cubical, generally three-story structure with a high tower rising from each corner. From the inside, however, there is no predictability to the floor plan: Half-stories and split elevations abound. Unlit stairwells become cul-de-sacs; some windowed rooms have no point of interior entry.

Attached to the rectilinear central unit the vil­lage's more humble dwellings are built - or rather, they grow, for the process is almost an organic one. It is this architectural agglomeration of individual units, which from a distance appear all of one piece, that is often referred to as a qsar, or palace.

Anemiter's kasbah and its subsidiary housing teach the lesson of environmental architecture well. Its thick-walled ramparts offer shade and cooler temperatures inside and out. A maze of cir­cling paths and water courses winds around and through. Except at high noon, the sun's rays never fall too long onto any one wall, for most walls loop and twist to every point of the compass. Uninter­rupted southern exposure here, is rare.

Leading due south down the Oued Ounila as it widens into the irrigated flats at Tioughassine, one comes full-face upon the approaching spring. Willow thickets are greening, fig trees budding and almond blossoms nearing their peak. Stands of date palms, seeming out of place at 1700 meters (5600 feet) elevation, still struggle to emerge from the shock of winter. The road, bluntly called a mule track by the guide books, squeezes into the narrowing defile alongside the river and the fields. Here and there, huge boulders have rumbled into the gorge and now sit dumbly in the middle of some unfortunate farmer's beans.

Either by luck or prescient planning, the qsars are built under the valley's most stable cliffs - some in fact are built right into them, in the style of the Amerindian cliff-dwellings of the American Southwest. No rockslide-ruined villages are apparent, though a tumbled qsar - all stone and mud and splintered wooden beams - would soon be almost indistinguishable from the rest of the natural landscape here.

In places the track climbs to the lower canyon's flinty rim, but going from here in any direction but south still leaves the valley's insurmountable upper gallery walls to scale. The detritus of Glaoui watch-towers dots this mid-level desolation. Rain-pecked and wind-lashed, their walls have long since col­lapsed, their service to a fallen caid long obsolete.

From these heights, one has a nearly vertical view into the canyon, and the basic shapes of qsar's elemental geometry are revealed circular threshing floors, well-trodden by donkey hooves, square and off-square buildings atilt to one another, and alleyways which undulate and wriggle door-to-door.

At the valley's narrowest points, its qsars must closely follow the contour line. Here the villages of Tajeguirt, Äit Oumazir, Taghoura and Taguendoucht have learned to expand longitudi­nally, rather than concentrically, as they would on flat land. Each new dwelling is built as another link on a long horizontal chain.

The way soon reenters the valley floor and passes the qsar of Tizgui-n-Barda. Stepping forward as village muqaddam, or mayor, Muhammad ibn Abdullah invites wayward travelers to pass the night. Extra bedding is never a problem in this well-upholstered household, with its ample store of brightly-colored Berber carpets and thick woven blankets.

Seated in the lamp-lit guest quarters after the mint tea has been served, eating a lamb tajine, or slew, and listening to the rising wind, one offers quiet thanks for the unprompted, overflowing hospitality for which the High Atlas is justly known. All Muham­mad asks for in return is news of the city, of Marrakech and beyond, and how the Moroccan ski team fared in the Olympic Games. The battery which powers his television set, he laments, has just now chosen to expire.

Morning comes in four distinct stages in this qsar tucked deep into the canyon: First comes the call to prayer, then the arrival of morning tea, then first light touches the valley's western rim, and finally the sun's rays slide down the bluff to warm the fields and homes below. Almond trees are in full blossom here, the beans are nearly ripe, and, according to Muhammad, Tizgui-n-Barda's storks will arrive in "five more days."

Next along the road is Tamdaght, the first of several sites selected for big-budget movie extrava­ganzas. The kasbah's erect and solitary site, with rock and sand on one side and the confluence of the Ounila and Mellah on the other, is exactly as Hollywood thinks an Arab fortress should look.

However, few location scouts know that Tamdaght's earlier history makes even B-movie plots seem thin by comparison. At the turn of the cen­tury, Tamdaght had been ruled by one of the Glaouis' archenemies, Ali n Aït Haddou, who, in an act of war, blocked the passage of the Glaouis' salt caravans and prevented collection of their taxes. Madani al-Glaoui sent brother T'hami to deal with the menace, and deal with it he did.

The family's Krupp cannon - the only one in the country at the time - blew holes in the kasbah's  two-meter-thick  (six-foot) walls, Ali was captured and beheaded, and his fol­lowers were given the choice of a similar fate or lifelong obedience to Glaoui lordship. Perhaps not surprisingly, many of these proud Berber warriors opted to fight to the death, which, for the captives, was known to be unmercifully slow.

Just past Tamdaght is Aït Benhaddou, a UNESCO World Heritage site and easily south­ern Morocco's most classic fortified village. Here scenes were filmed for Lawrence of Arabia, Romanc­ing the Stone and other epics. And here tourists by the busload come to experience the North African apogee of vernacular mud architecture.

Aït Benhaddou is in fact a complex of kasbahs, with not less than four of these solid strongholds anchored to the steep hillside around which the rest of the village is wrapped. A ruined agadir, or fortified granary, surrounded by a fallen wall, com­mands the hill's summit. A luxuriant palm grove and orchard at its base softens the edge of what otherwise would be a mass almost too insis­tently cubical. Seen in golden afternoon light from across the wide but nearly dry Mellah river, this earthen ensem­ble seems to want to take to the air, to levitate off its rocky bed and become a shining city in the sky.

One movie director, unable to leave well enough alone, decided to build a grand por­tal of concrete and plaster in front of the qsar, apparently for a triumphal entry scene called for in his script. But the truth is that no qsar can have a formal front gate, because no qsar has ever been built to a formal plan. They may grow or shrink, but never can their building program be declared final. Nonetheless, the gate remains standing, marking the spot where Hollywood thinks Aït Benhaddou should end.

Some five miles on, the Mellah empties into the Ouarzazate river, and here the French-built road over the Tizi-n-Tichka branches west. On either side of the river sit two noteworthy qsars, Tikirt and Tazenntoute, both with spectacular front-on views of the snow-topped massif formed by the central High Atlas.

Tikirt's kasbah is now entirely ruined except for its six stork nests, occupied and apparently in good repair. It was here that de Foucauld rested, more than a century ago, before pushing on to Taliouine, Taroudannt, and finally Agadir. As far as it is from the road and with the river still unbridged, one can fairly ask how, if at all, the village has changed since de Foucauld's visit.

Tazenntoute's character has more clearly been touched by the hand of progress. Buses take wage laborers to Ouarzazate's booming building sites. Most recent construction, except for the whitewashed tomb of the local marabout, Sidi Ali Ou Salih, has a modern edge. Fortunately, the roar of trucks climbing a low jabal, or mountain, is muffled by the most densely planted palmery yet encountered this side of the Tizi-n-Telouet.

Just beyond the jabal lies the modern town of Ouarzazate, whose one historic feature, the Glaoui kasbah of Taourirt, has been completely rebuilt by the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. Finally here, after having passed ruined kasbah upon ruined kasbah all on the way down from their seat of power at Telouet, one can see how the Glaoui must have lived in their heyday.

If all roads north across the High Atlas are said to lead to Marrakech, then it is also true that all roads south lead through Ouarzazate to points beyond. For it is here that the main route divides and its distributaries flow in every direction.

One trail heads up the Drâa valley to Zagora, the southernmost margin of Glaoui rule, and on into the Sahara. Another follows the Dadès river past Skoura into what has become known as the "Valley of the Kasbahs." Others take off overland east to the Tafilalt oasis and west toward the port of Agadir on the Atlantic coast.

Once having reached Ouarzazate, a caravan moving south would have left behind the most dreaded perils of the journey: The threats of sudden snow in a High Atlas pass or an ambush in the Ounila's narrowest gorge would now be past. A few more easy ascents, over the Anti-Atlas's Jabal Sarhro or Jabal Bani, and you are well on your way to Timbuktu.

Author and filmmaker Louis Werner studied at Princeton and Johns Hopkins SAIS and lives in Sew York.

This article appeared on pages 16-23 of the March/April 1993 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1993 images.