Category Archives: Tourism

I don’t like to think of myself as a tourist, but that’s part of what I am, here in Morocco. Tourism is one of the anchors of the Moroccan economy. There’s also a new academic field called tourism studies, one strand of which focuses on how to make tourism more ethical and effective, both for the tourist and for the host group or nation. How can tourism become a productive cultural encounter?

An Amazigh family in the sands

As we ride up on our tourist camels, an old woman is pulling dates off their orange stems in the shadow cast by a square Berber tent.
Young Lahcen, our guide, leads us near the encampment.  As the camels fold themselves down onto the sand, he pulls off the blankets that have served as saddles and hauls the food bag toward a separate tent that is clearly reserved for visitors.

Khalid, the father of the family, comes to greet us with a warm hand and a warm smile.  Two of his sons head off with a loaded mule, one riding, one leading.
There’s another smaller boy sitting beside the old woman, eating dates while pretending to help pull them off the stalks.  We approach the date pile, asking tentatively whether we can help.  The old woman gestures: feel free.  Zoe, Jeremy, and I sit down and start to work, while James wanders around the camp.

Khalid returns and we go through the introductions: our names, their names.  The boy is Hassan.  He insists he’s ten.  He’s smaller than Jeremy and he’s missing a lower front tooth, so I would guess five or six.  (His brother Mohamed later confirms that Hassan is 5; he himself is 6.)  The old woman is “Hajja” says Khalid, which is a term of respect.  Zoe and I are fascinated by the deep red of her fingernails and the base of her feet.  She grabs a stalk of the date and runs her hand down it so the dates fly off in all directions: much more efficient than pulling off a date at a time.  “Oh, and there’s Omar,” they say, gesturing at a small green scarf bundled on a rug in the shade of the next tent over.
Oh! we say, surprised.  We would never have known that was a baby.

James comes to tell us that there’s a woman baking bread and he feels intrusive as a single foreign man, so I go with him up the side of the dune to see a small oven built out of mud or cement in the windbreak of a small shrub and a kind of lean-to made of a rug and a stick.  Fatima, the mother of the family, pulls out a third loaf, wraps it in cloth with the other loaves of bread, feeds the fire, banks it, and heads down the slope into one of the family tents.

We wander back to the date work and a few minutes later, Fatima appears with a couple of bowls and a handful of vegetables.  She picks up the green bundle, wraps herself and the baby in the folds of her black scarf and proceeds to feed him.  A few minutes later, she reemerges, with the baby draped across her lap, at which point she begins scraping and chopping vegetables.
Moroccan women rarely bother with cutting boards and the good sense of this is forcibly born in on me in this context: with a cutting board, you’d inevitably get loads of sand in your food.  I go to sit near her and practice my little Darija.  A month old? I ask.  Aren’t you tired?  I was tired the first months after my kids were born.  Fatima and Hajja laugh at this, quite emphatically.

Fatima pulls back the green scarf—green for Islam?—to give me a better look at Omar’s face.  He has eyebrows drawn on in a thick black paste.
“Zween,” I say admiringly.  Handsome.  She hands him to me and I dandle him.  He’s tied up in a small package: white wrapping inside the green cloth.  His feet are tied together with a soft rope.  His hands are inside the white swaddling: also tied?.  Around his neck there’s a string with beads and a small square of folded paper taped up or wrapped in plastic.  It makes me think of an amulet, but when I ask, Fatima says it’s just decoration.
The swaddling seems to work: he’s a remarkably quiet and placid baby.  With his head uncovered, he peers dimly at me.  When I remember to take off my sunglasses, he smiles.

Khalid and his mother pick through the huge pile of dates, though I have a hard time telling whether they’re trying to sort out the half-eaten and rotten ones, or pick out the ripe ones.
I try handing Khalid bunches of each sort and he sets them aside together. Oh, for better language skills!  I ask where the dates come from and Khalid gestures over a dune: they’re from a nearby palm, shared with another Berber family. Khalid brings two large empty bags and we fill them with the dates we’ve plucked.  Half will be sold; half eaten by the family.
I think back to Aki or Karim telling us that his dates are premium dates—the best to be found.  They certainly seem more appealing than these—but I’m probably biased by the flies everywhere.  Why does no one talk about flies in the desert?  I point to what looks like mold covering the surface of many of the dates.  No problem, Lahcen says, and Khalid clarifies: a little cold will take care of that.  So first the dates are ripened with heat, then they’re cooled and cleaned to remove the mold.

Slowly, we see a little of the rhythm of the day.  The two older boys, Hamid and Mohamed, have taken a load of dates off to a little hut to ripen.  Hajja and Khalid are preparing another load of dates.  Khadija, the oldest of the children and the only girl, has been doing laundry: she lays the clothes out on the sand to dry.
Fatima has been baking bread and working on lunch and possibly dinner for her family.  Along with piles of finely grated carrot, onion, potato, there’s also a large joint—by which I mean a two gray bones attached by a tendon or ligament—which joins some more coarsely chopped vegetables in the ubiquitous and efficient pressure-cooker. There’s a cooking hut with a small solar panel on the sand outside.  Inside, there are multiple gas-fired burners.  I imagine that donkey earns his keep carrying gas canisters back and forth to Merzouga.
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Lahcen in the cooking hut, working on a veggie lunch for us.

Khadija comes to check on the baby and corrects me when I remark with wonder at his being only a month old.  Not yet! she insists.  Only twenty-six days.  As I’ve been holding him, he’s definitely done a poop, but no one seems very interested in changing him.  Still, there seems to be a pile of disposable diapers bagged and waiting for disposal near the dead tree.

We eat lunch in the guest tent.  Khalid has propped up the side wall, opposite the door, with a stick, to allow for some breeze, but it’s still oppressively hot.  There’s a nice cold salad assortment and “Berber pizza” or “sand pizza”—a traditional dish more conventionally known as medfouna (a word that means buried).  A tomato-onion mixture is “buried” in ours.  Hassan sits with us and plays at feeding Jeremy sections of hard-boiled egg; Jeremy reciprocates with medfouna, cucumber, and other sections of egg.  After lunch, we head back to the shady wall of the main tent, where the heat is a touch less oppressive.

James does card tricks to delight Khalid, Lahcen, and the boys.
The women have retreated with Omar to one of the straw-walled huts: cooler in this heat.
Hassan and Mohammed play Connect 4 with Jeremy, though it takes a while to get the concept of the game across.
Likewise with logic puzzles.

Khadija comes and draws patterns in henna on my hands and on Zoe’s.  In the morning, she had asked me if I’d like some henna, but she only starts on Zoe after I request it, confirming our assumption that no one in Morocco can quite tell whether Zoe is male or female.
Jeremy shows Mohamed how to fold a secret letter; the two communicate very well with no common language beside gesture.  Both Mohamed and Hassan use the crayons to draw on paper, but they look oddly at Jeremy’s (admittedly idiosyncratic) drawing of a camel and the accompanying narrative he spells out alongside.

The donkey comes back, driven by Hamid perhaps, and has had a feed before wandering off.  The camels, hobbled lightly, have disappeared over the dunes.  The boys head off to retrieve them.  Brought back to the blanket depot, the camels collapse onto the sand, rolling occasionally with high comic effect.
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A group of four sheep come scampering in for a meal, chased by one of the boys, before heading back to the slim shade of their scrubby bush.

By about 3:30, it’s time to head back to base camp.  There’s a lovely breeze.  Mohamed and Hassan claim a couple of half-empty water bottles as loot; given the rest of the family’s water supply, I’d snag fresh water, too.
The boys are playing on their swing set
and waving to us as we pass the four sheep huddled under a shrub.

Three minutes later, they are all hidden behind a dune; we might never know they were there.

A great big sandbox

It’s hard to say what’s so compelling about the Erg Chebbi dunes, other than the obvious.  The sand is so sensuous, the light and lines so abstract and evocative…IMG_1583 - Version 2

the invitation to play so irresistible.
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So we had to go back, this time to camp a couple of nights in the desert itself…
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and maybe catch another sunrise.

Unfortunately, James had such a bad cold that he, like Zoe’s beleagured camel, barely made it to the camp before collapsing and crawling into bed.
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but the rest of us climbed the massive dune behind the camp to watch the stars rise.  I haven’t seen the Milky Way since I was a child in the Adirondacks–or perhaps a college student in Vermont.  It’s a humbling, overwhelming sight.  No camera on hand–nor would any camera we had do it any justice.

We were cold, waiting for supper, but the food was good and the candlelight atmospheric.

Similarly, the beds were a little lumpy and sandy, but we enjoyed yet another attempt to catch that elusive sunrise…
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even if we knew were were being a little goofy about it.IMG_1199

We stopped by to see the camels, hobbled in a way that was new to us, before getting changed.
One hour past sunrise, and we’ve already shed about four layers.  We’re ready to demolish some breakfast!

And after a day of visiting an Amazigh family in the dunes (see next post), we had to do it all over again.

The view from the dune down over the camp (looking like a small bush below Jeremy) is close to vertiginous.

It’s an amazing thing, to run straight down that incline, sinking into sand half-way up your calf with every step.

And though the Erg Chebbi dunes are pretty small–only 22 km north to south and 5-10 km east to west–you wouldn’t know it when you’re out there.

Like the ocean, the dunes (and their visitors) have many colors and many moods…
IMG_1313 IMG_1315and we liked all of them.





Atlas movie studio

… is a great place for small children–at least it was for our small boy.  What’s not to love about a place where you can…

travel to Tibet…
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go back in time to ancient Rome…
visit an Egyptian street,
or imagine (in total safety) the life of a galley slave?

Jeremy decided he would come back here to star in a movie some day.
Small boy as intrepid adventurer…
perhaps becoming an Egyptian priest!

Such a bummer when your stones melt in the rain, though (see upper left corner of building).

And I wonder if the proliferation of films using Ouarzazate as a stand-in for ancient lands and far away places isn’t part of the tendency to look past this place and people on their own terms.


Oh, Mum, can’t you stop, just for today?
(OK, no more killjoy.  Ersatz pleasure, here we are!)

Meknes and monuments: the mausoleum of Moulay Ismail

John keeps reminding us of the difference between the visual restraint of Alawite style as opposed to the decorative intensity of the Marinids, embraced and extended by the Saadian dynasty.  Remember that the Alawite dynasty came north out of the Tafilalt, where we saw some of that visual restraint at work.  Basing their power in their descent from Muhammed, the Alawites eschewed exuberant design in order to insist (as Muhammed insisted) on simplicity.

This doorway into the courtyard of Moulay Ismail’s mausoleum certainly reminds me of the Qsar Al-Fidha down in Rissani:

The courtyard itself is similarly restrained, with only a zellij floor and a small strip of zellij along the bottom of the walls.

The calligraphy here is one of the Alawi mottos:
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Al Aali Allah: God is very high (or superior).  The other two include the Baraka Muhammed added to the Bou Inania
and “Al Afia” which means “Pardon” in fusHa, but “fire” in Darija.  (It’s written abundantly within the mausoleum, to ambiguous effect.)

But here in the courtyard, one might say we find functionality in place of decoration: a fountain for ablutions, a sundial for timekeeping:


But let’s face it, you can only take restraint so far, especially when we’re talking about the final resting place of the man who (rather brutally) shaped the Maghreb into a modern nation.
The tomb itself, in a prayer space, is only visible from a distance for non-Muslims, but the antechamber is gloriously wrought:

The details are extravagantly beautiful:

And it’s hard to imagine a more intricately painted ceiling:

Apologies for the very blurry picture of one of the two grandfather clocks sent from Louis XV to Moulay Ismail.
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The story that comes with them goes like this: Louis XV offered his sister to Moulay Ismail as as one of his wives; when the sister was informed, she said there was no way she would go to Morocco.  In her place, Louis XV sent these two clocks, with a note saying that they would be more constant than his sister would have been.


Yet even in the midst of all this grandeur, there are designs that conduce to calm and simplicity:

I love that green!  And I’m not the only one…

Meknes and monuments: the (other) Bou Inania

It feels as if we’ve only just returned from the Tafilalt, but John Shoup is taking a group of students to do field exercises in Meknes, and he’s agreed to let us tag along again: he’ll show us some of the monuments in Meknes while the students are busy with their exercises.

It’s a drizzly day, and the hour-long bus ride seems a little subdued.  We pass fields with these odd-looking structures.


When we first arrived, I asked someone about the long strips of piled stone: were these stone farms, I wondered?  Did construction companies come and gather a strip of stones at a time for building purposes?    No, no!  It’s busla! (Onions.)  The area between Ifrane and Meknes is a big onion-growing area, and these strips are a storage technology.  The stones keep the onions off the ground and away from (at least some) moisture.    Within the curve of the stone, you place a layer of straw, then a pile of onions, then more straw, and finally plastic to keep the rain off.  Insh’allah, the onions will keep through the winter, to furnish the souqs and the hungry people around Morocco.

The students are being sent out in groups of 3-5 people (with at least one good Arabic speaker in the group) to try to identify which parts of Meknes are successful neighborhoods.  At lunch, one group shows us their photos: a friendly woman invited them into her house (hugs all around) and introduced them to some of her neighbors.  The students are thrilled with their experience.  This is one of the reasons John likes Meknes: the town is both smaller and friendlier than Fez, and people welcome his students and their endeavors.

The entry into Meknes does not give that impression, however: Moulay Ismail (1672–1727), who made Meknes his capital city in order to snub the uppity Fassis, invested heavily in stone as a demonstration of state power.  Driving into the center of the city, we took the path diplomats would have followed, along two kilometers of a walled corridor that would have been lined with thousands of soldiers.  Passing through a tunnel, we arrive at the mashwar or the fore-court of Moulay Ismail’s (second) Dar el Makhzen palace, where those diplomats would have been received.


The courtyard may seem large, but the “Pavilion of Diplomats” in the upper left corner is small enough to administer a snub: you’re not worth my full attention.  In fact, John tells us that Lalla Aouda, wife to Moulay Ismail, was an unusually active member of her husband’s government, and often met visiting dignitaries in her husband’s place.  In the macho culture of early modern Europe and Morocco, that too might have seemed a snub to foreign diplomats.

The small structures emerging from the courtyard provide ventilation for the vast storage chambers underneath.  These were used to store grain and other food.  Two years ago, John was present when workmen were installing chains to go along with the more intriguing story that these chambers were a dungeon.  “No truth in that story,” notes John.  “The chains are only two years old.”


We cross Lalla Aouda square, with the minaret of the Lalla Aouda mosque in the background (photo Eric Ross).

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This is the forecourt of what was once Dar Lakbira (the Big House), Moulay Ismail’s first palace–of the three he built.  As Eric notes on his blog,

“Over the course of his reign [Moulay Ismail] built three successive palaces, and surrounded these with multiple ramparts that enclosed an area more than ten times larger than the pre-existing city of Meknes, still largely confined within the Almohad walls. The palace-city included neighborhoods for civil servants and the army (largely slaves), vast storage facilities, stables, reservoirs, flocks, fields and gardens. So large was Moulay Ismail’s imperial city that within its walls, today, we find: the current Royal Palace (the second to be built by Moulay Ismail), dense urban neighborhoods (some old, others new), a military academy, a horticultural institute, a track for horse races and other outdoor sports facilities, a golf course, a university campus, as well as monuments open to the public.”

The Bab Mansour (also known as the Victorious Gate) connects the old medina to the palace-city of Moulay Ismail.  The gate is named for its architect, El-Mansour, who played on Almohad design patterns and used marble columns from the Roman ruins of Volubilis (Oualilia or Walïlï).  Moulay Ismail supposedly inspected the gate upon its completion and asked El-Mansour if he could have done better.  El-Mansour felt obliged to answer yes–and in frustration, Moulay Ismail chopped off his head.  The only problem with this story is that the gate was apparently completed five years after Moulay Ismail’s death.  In any case, the glory of its architecture is addressed not to foreigners entering the city, but to the inhabitants of the city itself, when they turn toward their king.  The gate is now a gallery which one enters through a side door, creating an uncanny tension between grandeur and indirection.

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John leads us first to the Bou Inania medersa.  This, like its larger namesake in Fez, was built under the Marinid dynasty (built 1331-1351).  I’m struck by the way the lower level of the building, lined with zellij and cedar screens, gives the effect of being underwater, or a watery reflection, as if the main level of the building started half a story above ground.


The zellij here is truly remarkable, with all the sophisticated complexity of the Andalusian style:

John tells us to find the center of the pattern (here, the black eight-pointed star) and count the number of layers of decoration radiating out from that center.  I count nine layers out to the light blue stars, for what it’s worth.  But notice too the excruciatingly small black and white tiled circles around the outside of the pattern.  I’m very taken with the multitude of shapes and play of colors here.

In other places, the zellij is quieter, more subtle, in a way that seems sophisticated to me:
Shadow patterns within patterns.

The plaster work also strikes me as quite phenomenal.  Is it easier to follow, or am I getting better at seeing the grid?

I like the integration of calligraphy and biomorphism here:

And the stark geometry of the medallion, surrounded by biomorphic design here:

And what about rosettes intersecting with other rosettes here?

John tells us a little about the work of the medersas, an intermediate level of Islamic schooling.  Students would have begun their educations in kuttabs or msids, schools often attached to a mosque or a zawiya.  Such schools would teach the beginning elements of Arabic speaking and writing, along with memorization of early (shorter) surahs.  More talented and motivated students would arrive at medersas, and their goal would be mastery of the Qur’an in its entirety.  Students would also study astrology, astronomy, and law.  Astrology was linked to the human body and its health; astronomy was important for Islamic practices, ranging from certainty about when to perform the five daily prayers to advance warning about the timing of holy days.

In studying law, the student’s job was to memorize not only the primary texts of the law or sharia, but also all subsequent discussions of the primary text within the tradition.  This education would conclude with an oral exam in which each student would be presented with a hypothetical legal case and asked to solve it by quoting from memory (word for word) both the main source of law in this area plus all subsequent texts on the subject, along with an account of how the student would apply these texts.  Students who passed this test would be awarded an Ijazah and given a robe and a turban–the origin of graduation robes and mortarboards in the West, where educational systems lagged behind this level of medieval Islamic development.

At Independence, 30% of the Moroccan population was educated (could read and write) and almost 100% of those educated people came from these medersas.  The medersas were closed in the 1960s, to be replaced by public schools.  The fact that the Bou Inania no longer functions as a school or a religious center means that we can climb the stairs to look at the student dormitories.


This room might have housed two older boys: windows became available as you moved up in the hierarchy.  Larger rooms would have housed four boys.  There would never have been much space to spare.  Yet you would have been fed, and housed, given one new set of clothing each year, plus enough freedom from other tasks in order to dedicate yourself to mastering the Qur’an and its applications to law, life, and theology.  Medersas and their students were funded by wealthy merchants or craft guilds for the honor they brought to the city.  Still, everyone knew boys would be boys: the doors to these rooms lock from the outside, and there were common accounts of students slipping away from the medersa over the rooftops and trying to sneak back in again late at night.


We climb up to the roof ourselves to look at the renovated minaret.  In 2010, the minaret of the nearby Bab Berdieyinne Mosque collapsed during Friday prayers, killing 41 people and injuring many others.   The king ordered that minaret rebuilt to historical specifications and other minarets inspected and renovated to prevent further damages.

James likes the beldi (traditional) tile of the rooftop.

We ask John the meaning of the three golden balls mounted on the top of many minarets in Morocco.  He tells us the traditional story: the chief wife of a sultan in Marrakesh is supposed to have broken her Ramadan fast with 3 pomegranate seeds; in remorse, she had all her gold jewelry melted down and made into three “seeds” to be mounted on the Koutoubia minaret in Marrakesh, to the glory of Allah.
Time to leave and wander the medina for a while.  SONY DSC
Look familiar?  Think of the Attarine in Fez…

October in the Middle Atlas

Life goes on.  It’s the end of October, but the world around us seems brimming over with life and fertility, from our neighbor’s hedge, full of bees and butterflies,SONY DSC

to the praying mantis on our bicycle wheel,

to the monkeys (Barbary apes) we see once we manage to get off on our bicycle ride up to the Ras el Ma (the head of the stream).

In the afternoon, we drive around the “lake circuit” near Ifrane and marvel at the color of the (sorry to say) scum lightly coating the nearby lake, Dayat Hachlaf,

the birds on the lake, undeterred by the odd coloration

and the cows and sheep grazing nearby, with boys playing football in amongst them.

Our favorite lake is the largest, Dayat Aaoua:

We climb the hill above the families picnicking with their impromptu barbecues and marvel at the wildflowers.  Who says there’s no second spring?  In Ifrane, with the September rains, the ground turns green and a multitude of flowers appear.
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Zoë and I go for a little extra wander.  In the upper left of the photo, you can see one of the many local orchards, with netting spread over the small trees to offer shelter from the blazing summer sun.

Meanwhile, James and Jeremy play peekaboo by the lakeside.

Back home, at dusk, a boy and his dad turn a plastic bag and a couple of sticks into a kite to fly into the sunset…


Erg Chebbi

The last day of the trip began with a sunrise camel trek into the Erg Chebbi dunes for those willing to get up early enough to go.  After the rich experiences we’d been having with John and Eric, I was a little reluctant to go on the unabashedly-touristy sunrise trip to the dunes of Erg Chebbi.  So here’s my confession: I had a blast.

I was not, for instance, looking forward to getting up at 4 to drive for an hour in a land-rover across the hammada (stony desert).  But the drive was less bumpy than I had feared, and it was undeniably atmospheric, to see loads of camels awaiting us, with the “blue men of the desert” costume adding a touch of color to the scene.
The blue outfits are pure window-dressing.  The Amazigh people of this region are not Tuareg (“blue men of the desert”): they just dress up for the tourists.  But they’re kind enough to help us dress up, too: arranging scarves into turbans and even bringing along a bag of extra outfits for any students who want to try them on.

Riding the camels through the dark, with the star-studded sky overhead was also intensely satisfying.  I thought it would be the best part of the morning, until the light started to work its magic:

Oh, the many shades of sunrise:

And then there’s all the delight of the world’s biggest sandbox:
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We were so taken with the sand and its subtle color changes that we almost missed the moment of the sunrise, which comes shockingly fast:
The guides had to call  to get our attention, and we shouted to the students, one of whom lifted Jeremy up in his own ritual greeting to the sun:


Even Zoë felt the pull of the dunes:

But I’m glad to report that she came back to us, eventually:

And yes, we were as taken with the camels as anyone is likely to be, despite our young friend Colm’s minute-by-minute warnings to Jeremy: “Does it hurt yet, Jeremy? It’s going to!”  (None of us found the ride as uncomfortable as we were warned it would be.)
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So, even if it seems a bit of a come-down, from the 12,000 camels of Ibn Battuta’s day to the  multiple camel caravans of the costumed and touristed sunrise,IMG_1379

the stars and the dunes were still far more exhilarating than we had dared to hope they could be.

Khettaras: ingenious irrigation

The sheer labor required to maintain an oasis might be part of the answer to the slavery question–the puzzle of Sijilmassa’s path from radical equality (the Kharijites) to promoter of the salt/gold/slave trade.

And some of the most invisible labor of the oasis is hidden underground.

SONY DSCThere you are, driving through the desert, and you see a bunch of enormous anthills.  Really?  Ant-hills?  Maybe mole hills? How big are those moles?  The size of camels?

What are those things?

Those are khettara, “an ingenius technology to harvest hidden groundwater and deliver it to the surface by means of gravity alone.”*  Who knew?
The khettara is essentially a tunnel or gallery, large enough to walk in (though perhaps only in a bent over or crouching position), and often several kilometres long.  Khettaras (called qanat in Iran and other countries) serve to move water from a higher place to a lower place–in this particular case, the khettaras are moving water from the piedmont (the foothills) of the High Atlas to the extended oasis of the Tafilalt: a total of 48 kilometers.  Mind-boggling!

SONY DSCWhat’s visible on the surface are merely the waste piles: the heaps of sand and scree dug out of the water channel and removed to the surface of the earth.

The brilliance of this irrigation system is hard to overstate: these khettaras can move water up to 48 kilometers while keeping it underground, minimizing evaporation and maximizing irrigation potential.
Satellite image of a single khettara (made visible through the line of access shafts) crossing under the national road–taken from Eric Ross’s blog:

Without the khettara, Fitzwilliam-Hall suggests, the date palm oases of southern and central Morocco might never have existed.  (Lightfoot and Miller suggest, conversely, that khettara only came into use in the Tafilalt region after the fall of Sijilmassa: the city’s central government could maintain the network of canals watering the city, but khettara were more suited to the dispersed, decentralized labor available to the individual qsar.  In this case, the role of the Haratine in Sijilmassa must have been more related to field work than to khettara irrigation.)

There’s a rest stop along the road between Erfoud and Tinerhir where you can see a model of how the khettara might have worked: under the ground, a man would be filling up buckets or baskets with sand and sludge; above ground, another man would lie on his back and use his feet to turn a kind of wooden pulley to raise the baskets of sand up to where they could be emptied.
Multiply this labor by a factor of thousands.  Remember that each khettara includes many many access shafts (hassi in Arabic; tasfalt in Tashelhit).  Simon Fitzwilliam-Hall inventoried 1600 khettaras in Morocco in 2009, though he counted only 350 still functioning.  Let’s randomly imagine an average of 30 hassi per khettara for a total of 48,000 hassi.


So who did all that work?  Some scholars estimate that creating the Almoravid-era khettaras near Marrakesh would have required 12 specialists and 200-300 laborers working for 30 years; 20,000 Christian prisoners-of-war were allegedly sent from Moorish Spain to Marrakesh to provide unpaid labor.  More commonly, the Haratine (see earlier post) are on record as khettara diggers.

This roadside rest stop is historical tourism: a delightfully dry tunnel, hollowed out deeply enough that it’s easy to walk in; atmospheric darkness, punctuated by the light of the access shafts.  
But imagine this instead: slogging barefoot through a stream of water, crab-hopping Golum-like  down the channel but still scraping your back or your head on the roof of the tunnel; struggling to shovel sludge into a woven basket that is undoubtedly broken and leaky; dragging that broken and breaking basket to your next access shaft.  Imagine having no choice about this labor, no ownership in the products that depend upon the irrigation you so laboriously provide.

Both survival and the means of production seem complicated here.

*Simon Fitzwilliam-Hall, “The Living Khettaras of Southern Morocco: A Traditional Water Harvesting Technology on the Brink”

Dale Lightfoot and James Miller, “Sijilmassa: The Rise and Fall of a Walled Oasis in Southern Morocco”


Minerals and fossils are big business in Morocco: tourist stops across the country present them for sale.  The aridity of the landscape works to preserve specimens, I’m told, but I think the broad expanse of land not being used for other purposes plus the availability of labor also contributes to the concentration on fossils.  Online, I see many warnings about “fake Moroccan trilobites” being shipped abroad, but the Tahiri fossil museum in Rissani is, as too many other shopkeepers have (over-enthusiastically) promised, “a feast for the eyes.”

The mounted dinosaur skeletons are satisfyingly predatory: don’t let yourself be swallowed,  stomped, or spiked!

Some of the fossils remind me a little to vividly that I’m looking at evidence of a world covered in bugs:

But other carefully prepared samples evoke a wonderful underwater world:

And the highly polished tablets of ammonite and orthoceratoid fossils somehow make me think of planets and shooting stars:

Or shoals of fish:

Back in the workshop, we watch as samples are cleaned using dental equipment to polish away fragments of dirt and sand.
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Members of staff here have contributed to the relatively recent discovery that trilobites could curve themselves into extravagant shapes–and that they were among the first creatures to develop complex eyes, some of them on stalks.SONY DSC

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It’s a weird and wonderful world.  Imagine having time enough to explore all these fossils, and the piles of geodes waiting on the tables out in the back, on the edge of the desert.


The road to Sijilmassa

The road south from Ifrane to the Tafilalt oasis is marked by a beautiful stream that always lifts my heart,
more commonly by dry river washes,
(where water remains, somewhat surprisingly, just a foot or so below the surface), and perhaps most consistently by the evidence of remarkable geological forces at work:
If you’re six, however, the road is punctuated primarily by sandwiches and animated videos:
Thank heavens for well-equipped friends!  It’s a long road.

We’re tagging along on a trip with Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), the culmination of their 7-week sojourn in Morocco, doing an integrated field study project.  John Shoup, anthropologist, and Eric Ross, geographer, both of Al Akhawayn University (AUI) are leading the trip. (Both photos lifted from the internet: apologies.)
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We’re headed to the Tafilalt oasis and to the site of a powerful medieval city, Sijilmassa.

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Lightfoot and Miller, 2006.

Sijilmassa was once one of the most powerful urban centers of the Maghreb; one medieval chronicler [Mas`udi] claimed it took half a day to walk Sijilmassa’s long main street.  The eleventh-century writer Edrissi described it this way:

As for Sijilmassa, it is a big and populated city, visited by travelers, surrounded by beautiful gardens and fields inside and outside [the ramparts]; it does not have a citadel, but it consists of a series of palaces [ksur], houses and fields, cultivated along the banks of a river coming from the Western side of the Sahara; the floods of this river, during summer, resemble those of the Nile, and its waters are used for agriculture in the same manner as those of the Nile are exploited by the Egyptians. [qtd in Iliahane (2004), 40]

I’m a little obsessed with Sijilmassa.  It seems to me that the vicissitudes of this vanished city are somehow central to the aspects of Morocco I find most baffling: the nearly miraculous creation of a nation on the edge of a desert; the (disputed) segmentation of Maghrebi society, with Arabs, Berbers, Jews, “blacks” and other foreigners remaining quite distinct despite general insistence on social pluralism; the perhaps-related silence around race; the reverence accorded the king; the role of Islam in public understanding of the nation.

Bear with me, if you will, as I look into the history of the region and the city in a series of related posts, focusing (albeit not in any particular order) on (1) irrigation technologies (for building or maintaining oases in the desert), (2) Sijilmassa’s founding and social history, (3) agriculture or permaculture: the growing patterns of the palmeries, (4) the religious institution of the zawiya, (5) the architecture of a royal qsar in relation to local resistance to French colonialism.

Dale R Lightfoot & James Miller, “Sijilmassa: The Rise and Fall of a Walled Oasis in Medieval Morocco” in Annals of the Association of American Geographers 86:1 (Mar 1996), 78-101.

Hsain Ilahiane, “Ethnicities, Community-making, and Agrarian Change: the Political Ecology of A Moroccan Oasis” (University of America Press, 2004).