Threading a Trail Between Morocco’s High and Mid Atlas Mountains

Today’s long, 5.5-hour drive with our driver/guide Moha, from Over Morocco, took us partway from Erg Chebbi to Marrakesh via a route that threads the country’s two greatest mountain ranges. It is also studded with many historic ksars and ksours and ventures into the edge of the High Atlas for a drive through the Toudra Gorge, the deepest (985 feet) and most dramatic in the country.

But before we could even get onto the main road that would take us there, we requested a stop—to the factory that mines and makes the beautiful fossil pieces (from 600 million year-old sedimentary rock that was buried under the sea) that we have been admiring since our stop in Midelt. We stopped at Macro Fossiles Kasbah, where quarried blocks of rock are taken to be cut into slabs with a large diamond-tipped saw and then wet to identify the color (based on the percentages of various metal deposits) of the rock and the types and dimensions of the fossils in contains. The staff then identifies the best uses of each piece and processes it into different shapes, from large, three-dimensional fountains, to small 3D fossils of trilobytes and other prehistoric creatures, and two-dimensional designs, such as of younger (only about 200 million years) precursors to clams, snails and squid.

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The slabs are cut in a way that is intended to maximize their value, polished with a sandstone wheel and polished with rapidly spinning disks of blue denim that spreads indigo dust on the surface. The results are, as would be expected, on display and for sale at the shop. And yes, we did end up with a small cheese plate.

17th-Century Aqueducts. A few miles down the road we saw long, parallel piles of dirt spread across a large field. Moha explained that they were wells atop long aqueduct tunnels and he just happened to know a person who could explain and take us down into the system. As we learned, the system consists of 15 kilometers of underground tunnels that were built in the 17th century (from an ancient Phoenician practice) under which an aquifer located at a higher elevation can be gradually drained by building tunnels that are roughly 30 feet deep (and covered to limit evaporation). But why so many mounds? Each mound (which are prescribed distances from each other) represents a well that was designated to specific tribe to ensure that each would get its share of the water while avoiding conflicts.

But, while the system worked well until about 1980, a long series of droughts reduced replenishment to a point that the water level is now below the tunnels.

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Tinerhir

We continued on to Tinerhir, a town at the entrance to the Todra Gorge which has a couple of sights of its own. First is the Tinerhir Mellah (Jewish Quarter), which Berber Jews largely, but reluctantly evacuated in favor of Israel in 1948 amid widespread rumors that all Jews in Morocco would be killed as soon as the country gained its independence. The town also offers some stupendous views down into the Todra Valley.

It also has a good lunch spot, Innass, where we had the usual appetizers salad and omelet) and desserts (fresh fruit) along with a decent chicken skewer, a very good kefta tagine and also a house specialty of sseffa (vermicelli with cinnamon and powdered sugar).

Then we got to the Todra Gorge which is the deepest and the most dramatic in Morocco. The 7.5 mile gorge, which runs along a fault in the earth’s surface, houses a river that provides the water required to feed a large palm grove and that used to also support up to 100 families who  lived in one of several ksour (most notably the Ait Boujane and Asfalou Ksours) that lined the river.

The gorge, however, is also one of Morocco’s primary rural tourist attractions owing to its great depth (985 feet), its dramatically steep walls and its miles of cool, shaded walking paths.

Todra Gorge

The Road of 1,000 Kasbahs

The road generally from Boumalne du Dades to Ait Benhaddou is known as the Road of 1,000 Kasbahs, and for good reason. Although there may not be 1,000, dozens and dozens of rich 18th- and 19th-century merchants built such fortified palaces. Although similar in concept to ksours, which were fortified villages intended to protect communities, kasbahs were built for rich individual families; not just for protection, but also for prestige. They were surrounded by four tall towers surrounding imposing earth/straw walls that were often decorated with incised patterns and pierced with windows secured by wrought-iron grills.

Although many of these kasbah are now empty or even in ruins, some are still occupied and a growing number are being renovated as hotels and inns, just as the Dars and the Riads in which we have been staying in the larger cities.

Some are quite lavish, others are primarily defensive. Some, such as the the Ait Abou and the Amridil in the town of Skoura, go beyond the normal concept of kasbahs. Ait the Abou, for example, is six stories and 82 feet tall. Amridil, which we visited, has five turrets—the fifth of which has a very unusual function. Built in the 17th century primarily for defensive purposes, the Kasbah and the next door ksar (which housed the family’s soldiers, servants and other retainers) remains in the same family—the Glaoui’s who effectively ruled the southern provinces and controlled access to the High Atlas.

Once inside, we engaged a guide who took us through the entry area and storerooms which, being at ground level, had a very secure door with two elaborate lock systems, with the only light coming from a skylight through the courtyard. The towers, which did serve as family rooms during times of peace, were designed for use by guards in the case of an invasion. Stairs were steep and irregular, doors so small that invaders had to duck to enter, and windows narrow and angled to provide wide exterior views and shooting angles from the inside, and from the outside, make it almost impossible to either see or shoot in.

The first floor housed the kitchen and surrounding rooms that now double as museums of kitchen and other household products of the time, while the second floor was devoted to family rooms. The rooftop provided outdoor space and access to the top of the towers. This property had a fifth tower, which was effectively a composting toilet. Animal waste was put in on the ground floor and the second floor had a human toilet—both of which vented from the fifth tower. The waste, combined with ash, was used for compost for the gardens. The roof also allowed the family to see what was happening next door.

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But while existing kasbahs are being abandoned, falling into disrepair or being converted into hotels or museums, the concept is regaining popularity. So much so that new hotels, government offices and rich individuals are now designing new buildings in the form of kasbahs.

Finally we reached our night’s destination in Ouazazate, were we stayed at Dar Chamaa. Fortunately, it was a nice comfortable hotel as you wouldn’t want to go wandering outside due to the area it was in. Dinner was a nice three-course dinner that actually offered a real salad (after we begged off on their normal first dish of vegetable soup) and turkey in a nicely herbed cream sauce. The only downside was the loud musical “entertainment” at the beginning  of our meal which made it impossible to hear each other. Oh well.

After a good night’s sleep, we continued on the road to Marrakesh, first going by Taourirt Kasbah (another huge Kasbah owned by the above-discussed Glaoui family), just to see yet another example of excess.

Ait-Ben-Haddou: A Ksar or Kasbah

We passed on visits to the city’s movie studios and sets (including sets that have been used in Western movies, such as Kudran and the Sheltering Sky) to allow us to spend a bit more time in our primary morning destination—the UNESCO site of Ait-Ben-Haddou.

Ait-Ben-Haddou was a small town on the 16th-century caravan route: a wealthy town in which some families made a small fortune mining and selling salt, and then converted these into big fortunes through trading. Each built its own Kasbah in which to live and for protection and then decided on the need to provide additional protection around both their own kasbah and the people who worked for or otherwise supported them. They, therefore, build a ksar, fronted by a large gate, that encompassed multiple kasbahs—a total of about 25 additional homes plus common facilities including a public square, a mosque, a madersa (educational institution), a watchtower and, outside the wall, a facility for milling grain.

Ait-Ben-Haddou, however, suffered the fate of many other ksours. It was abandoned by most of its families (especially the well-off, who had more options) and began to fall into disrepair. Today, only six families remain. Even so, there are plenty of indicia of the town’s past glories and beauty. It was certainly the most interesting of all the ksours we saw.

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We then took off for the remainder of out 2.5-hour drive through the High Atlas Mountains to Marrakesh. This part of the trip looked like we have as well been in the American southwest, red rocks and all. Even the dramatic mountain pass, with its roads ripped up due to reconstruction are reminiscent of the U.S.!

This illusion, however, was broken by the buildings, the minarets and the villages—especially the 19th-century Berber villages and others made out rock that so blend into mountainsides as to be easily missed.

 

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And then we reached Marrakesh and it was time to say good-bye to Moha and to start exploring on our own again.

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