Category Archives: MOROCCO

On the Southern Side of the Strait of Gibraltar

Yesterday we crossed the Strait of Gibraltar from Algeciras in Andalucía (South of Spain) to the port of Tanger-Med, in Alcazarseguir (Morocco), fifty kilometres away from Tangier. The crossing took us one hour and a half by ferry. As soon as I put my foot on Moroccan land, I felt the difference between European and African way of welcoming.

In a narrow street in Medina of Asilah. The walls are decorated with various colorful murals. Here a long wave of a multicoloured frieze. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Together with my suitcase I was thrown into a chaotic whirlwind of events, full of noise, hustle and bustle, and calls of touts, offering their baggage and transport services, of course for an appropriate fee. Were it not for my determination and calm, my suitcase would inevitably be grabbed by one of them and carried with me to a pre-arranged taxi. My thoughts calmed down only in a hotel in Tangier, where I stayed with my younger sister, Agnieszka and my cousin, Alicja.

Tiled alcove in Tangier

Later on the same day, we all headed off to the city’s old town, Medina. First, we came across Grand Socco, surrounded by shops and small restaurants, where women were selling circle loaves of delicious bread, and hooded men were meeting in an irregular square (Stannard, Keohane. et al. 2009:117). From there, we walked through the keyhole gate to Medina and ended up in a world of 1000 and 1 nights (Ibid.:117). Intensive colours of the facades of the old towns’ houses and the Moroccan vegetation were already beautifully rendered by the painter Matisse, who stayed in Morocco and admired Tangier in 1912 (Ibid.:116). The high walls and the stepped streets of the Kasbah sparkled with colours of the facades and wall paintings of a diverse and refined character, both decorative and narrative (Ibid.:117).

An intricately tiled and carved alcove (a recess in the wall) at Kasbah in Tangier. Today, its refined art is a famous landmark of the city. In a narrow street in Medina of Asilah. The walls are decorated with various colorful murals. Here a long wave of a multicoloured frieze. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

I was especially delighted with an intricately made alcove at Kasbah, which was tiled with ornate mixture of blue, green, yellow and orange tiles, and decorated with stone carvings.

Blue-washed Chefchaouen and colourful Asilah

We experienced such an intense sensations of colours and shapes only in Andalusia, we had just come from, and in two other cities in the north of Morocco. It was when I walked along the narrow lanes of Chefchaouen, with its washed colours of walls and houses, covered in multiple layers of white plaster and bright blue paint, and its roofs with red tiles, outstanding vividly against the background of cold shades (Lonely Planet 2021). On the other side, Asilah, a town south of Tangier, is one of typical Spanish enclaves on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, which attracts various artists like a magnet (Stannard, Keohane. et al. 2009:130-131,146). Fragrant citrus trees grow along its streets, fish taverns put small wooden tables outside, and the walled Medina shines with the white facades of numerous houses, which are additionally enlivened by colorful murals (Ibid.:145-146). Some building are painted in various shades of colours so that the narrow streets and passages create a real rainbow.

Chefchaouen,is a city in the Rif Mountains of northwest Morocco, which is famous for its picturesque, blue-washed buildings of the old town, Medina. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As it soon turned out, this part of the world is not only welcoming to artists and tourists with its colourful atmosphere but also to visitors, who are eager to step in an archaeological mystery and listen to ancient legends and myths.

Towards Cap Spartel

The following day, we travelled westwards, along the Atlantic coast. The beautiful Cap Spartel, situated fifteen minutes west of Tangier, offers great long sandy beaches on the most north-western point in Africa (Stannard, Keohane et al. 2009:122; Peters 2019:no page provided; bctermeulen et al. 2021). When the wind blows from the east, it gives holidaymakers better protection from its unpleasant gusts (Stannard, Keohane et al. 2009:122; Peters 2019).

Relaxing moments at the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

This “extraordinary cape […] wraps around the north-western edge of Africa. From [there, it is] possible to see [how] different waters of the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean mingle” (Peters 2019: no page provided). The most interesting road to the headland is Mountain Road, leading next to exclusive properties belonging to the Moroccan royal family and the residence of the ruler of Saudi Arabia (Stannard, Keohane et al. 2009:122). The hill itself is, in the words of Joe Orton (1933-1967), “a replica of the Surrey countryside […] with its winding lanes, foxgloves, huge pink climbing roses, tennis courts and gardens irrigated by sprinkles” (Ibid.:122). Then the road bends near the headland, passing a trail that leads to the Cap Spartel lighthouse, built by foreign diplomats between 1861 and 1864 (the lighthouse marks the entrance of the Strait of Gibraltar), and to several bays with sandy beaches and deep turquoise blue sea, each with its own restaurant (Stannard, Keohane et al. 2009:122; bctermeulen et al. 2021).

Africa in the Grottes d’Hercule

We took the direction of the stunning caves of Hercules (Grottes d’Hercule). They are located just south of the Cap Spartel (Peters 2019: no page provided). The caverns have got two entries or rather openings; one facing the land is an actual entry for coming visitors, created by the local Berbers, who cut stones from the rock (bctermeulen et al. 2021).

One of the openings of the Grottes of Hercules is highly intriguing; looking out towards the Atlantic ocean, it closely resembles the shape of the continent of Africa, featuring even the island of Madagascar. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The second opening is highly intriguing; looking out towards the Atlantic ocean, it closely resembles the shape of the continent of Africa, while being observed from outside (bctermeulen et al. 2021; Peters 2019: no page provided). Inside the cave, one can see Africa’s mirror image, with its island of Madagascar on the wrong side. Scholars claim it was geologically carved by waves of the sea, whereas others suggest the opening was created by Phoenicians who established their colonies along north-western Africa, in the regions of ancient Maghreb, namely Mauretania and Numidia (modern-day Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco) along with the city of Carthage (Tunisia), developed later in the Carthaginian Empire that existed between the seventh and second centuries BC., when the so-called Punic Wars took place (bctermeulen et al. 2021).

Past and modern guests to the caves

Nonetheless, the caves had been already inhabited since prehistoric times (Stannard, Keohane et al. 2009:123). Pomponius Mela, the earliest Roman geographer (the first half of the first century AD) living on the Bay of Gibraltar, wrote of the caves as of great antiquity already in his time (Du Pouget 1892:33). Undeniably,  the caves have revealed numerous traces of human activity in Stone Age; researchers have found there a great amount of worked flints, such as knives and arrow-heads (Ibid.:33). As a popular story goes, the caves constitutes the one end of a twenty-four kilometres subterranean tunnel between Morocco and Spain; it is so believed that the renowned macaque monkeys at the rock of Gibraltar came to Europe from Africa just this way (bctermeulen et al. 2021; Odyssey Traveller 2020).

Although there has never been any trace of the monkeys inside the caves, once the cavities were surely used to organize receptions; it was there that an English photographer, Sir Cecil Beaton, threw a party, during which his guests were served hashish and sea-chilled champagne (Stannard, Keohane et al. 2009:123).

Stepping into ancient myths

When we were approaching the entry of the caverns, we first encountered typical stalls offering souvenirs to tourists on the terrace (Peters 2019:no page provided). Then I noticed a comic, though charming mural on the rock, representing a smiling and bearded Hercules, who looks like a packed bully with highlighted washboard abs, overhang on skinny legs.

A comic, though charming mural on the rock, representing a smiling and bearded Hercules, who looks like a packed bully with highlighted washboard abs, overhang on skinny legs. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Once in the cave, it is important “to look up to see where locals have carved out round stones from the cave walls, used for milling grain, for generations” (Peters 2019:no page provided). But what I like most about the place is that the cave complex is surrounded by ancient myths and legends. (bctermeulen et al. 2021). It is rumoured that the site was the resting place of Hercules (Peters 2019: no page provided; bctermeulen et al. 2021). According to some versions, the hero took a nap there either before or just after he completed his eleventh of the twelfth labours, given to him by King Eurystheus of Tiryns (Peters 2019: no page provided; bctermeulen et al. 2021; Odyssey Traveller 2020). The task in question was to retrieve the golden apples from the garden of Hesperides, who were Atlas’s daughters, assigned to look after the tree and protect their apples (Odyssey Traveller 2020). The fruits were not valuable just because they were of gold but because their flesh could bestow eternal youth on humans who ate them (Ibid.). After ancient writers, the garden with the golden apples may have existed in nearby Roman city of Lixus, which is the modern day city of Larache at the Atlantic coast (88,5 kilometres south of Tangier) (bctermeulen et al. 2021; Stannard, Keohane et al. 2009:148).

Inside the caverns, there are visible oval or round cut shapes, protruding from the walls; accounts say it is the effect of the rock being carved out by locals, who have used it for milling grain. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The ancient city had been founded by the Phoenicians, around 1100 BC., as one of the first of their colonies and trade centres in Northwest Africa (Stannard, Keohane et al. 2009:147). Apart from a few megalithic stones built into the citadel, only sparse remnants of the pre-Roman period have survived, and apart from the Roman mosaic representing Oceanus, most of the finds were transferred to the museum in Tetouan (Ibid.:148).

Pillars of Hercules

The former BBC North Africa correspondent and author, Richard Hamilton describes the route that the hero took to accomplish this impossible task; accordingly, “[he] travelled [first] to the lower slopes of the Atlas Mountains to find the garden and tricked Atlas himself […] into giving him the apples” (Odyssey Traveller 2020). A Roman version adds that while Hercules (or rather Heracles) “was on his way to the garden, he found he had to cross a mountain, [which, however, blocked [his way. Thus], using his superhuman strength, Hercules smashed through the mountain, splitting its rocky face in half and separating Europe and Africa. This was how the Strait of Gibraltar was born and the reminders of this act can be found in the Rock of Gibraltar and the Jebel Musa, east of Tangier” (Ibid.).

Yet, according to a Greek version of the myth, the Strait of Gibraltar should be rather ascribed to the tenth labour of Hercules, which was to steal the cattle of the three-bodied and three-headed giant, Geryon (Perseus digital library 2021). The giant is believed to have lived on an island Erythia, which was located in the proximity of the border line between Europe and Libya (Ibid.). Geryon kept there a herd of red cattle guarded by a two-headed hound, called Orthus (Cerberus’s brother) and another giant, the herdsman Eurytion (Ibid.). When Hercules finally reached the island, possibly to mark the track of his long journey, he erected there two enormous mountains, the first one in Europe and the second in Libya (Ibid.).

The photo I bought from one of the souvenir sellers, offering such to tourists in front of the Caverns of Hercules. The photo represents the African outlines of the opening facing the Atlantic Ocean with a Moroccan man standing on the cliff, in the background, and wearing a traditional djellaba with a baggy hood called a qob. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Another story, parallel to the Roman version above, says that Hercules encountered a massive mountain in his way and so he split it into two (Perseus digital library 2021). Either way, these two peaks or the parts of the previous mountain became known as the Gates or Pillars of Hercules and the strait between Spain and Morocco became the gateway from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean, referred to by numerous ancient writes as the feat of Hercules (Ibid.). Moreover, according to ancient accounts, the mythological landscape of the Mediterranean may have differed at the time of Hercules from what is observed nowadays and so there was a mountainous landmass between modern day Spain and Morocco in the time of the events described by myths.

Giants in the way of the hero

It is also worth mentioning that Atlas himself was one of the leading titans, which stand for giants in the Greek mythology. He was actually the son of the titans, Clymene (or Asia) and Iapetus (“Titanomachy” 2021). After the Titanomachy (the war of gods) Zeus condemned Atlas to hold up the sky on his back and herby he is usually represented in art (“Atlas (mythology)” 2021). The Greek poet Hesiod writes (between 750 and 650 BC) that Atlas stood at the edge of the world in extreme west, which immediately brings to mind the northwest Africa (modern Morocco) (Ibid.). As a matter of fact, Atlas had become associated with this particular region over time; he is a reputed father of the nymphs, Hesperides, who guarded the golden apples beyond seawaters in the extreme west of the world (Hesiod’s Theogony, c. 700 BC) (Ibid.). Therefore, Atlas also appears in the myth of the eleventh labour of Hercules, while the hero travels around the region of northwest Africa in search of Hesperides’ Garden (Ibid.).

The north-western coast of Morocco with Cape Spartel; from there one can observe how waters of various shades of blue mingle between the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The extreme west of the world was also a dwelling place of the Gorgons who lived in the Gorgades, islands in the Aethiopian Sea, which may, in turn, correspond to the islands of Cape Verde due to Phoenician exploration (“Atlas (mythology)” 2021). After killing one of the Gorgones named Medusa, another demigod, Perseus flew over the region and used the chopped head to turn Atlas into a mountain range (Ibid.). Accordingly, “Atlas’ head [became] the peak, his shoulders ridges and his hair woods” (Ibid.). Additionally, the blood of Medusa’s head dropping down the ground during Perseus’ flight over the region gave rise to venomous Libyan snakes (Ibid.). Consequently, Atlas became commonly identified with the range of mountains in northwest Africa and by the time of the Roman Empire, associating the Titan’s’ seat with the range of Atlas Mountains, which were near ancient Mauretania and Numidia, was strongly established (Ibid.).

The Titan and the King

In Plato’s Timaeus-Critias (the fifth century BC.) Atlas is described as the firstborn son of the god Poseidon (the titan Atlas’ cousin) and the mortal woman, Cleito, who inherited the crown of Atlantis (“Atlas (mythology)” 2021). Additionally, Atlas described by Plato was possibly the same individual as the recorded first legendary king of Mauretania (Ibid.), which supports the thesis the real island of Atlantis may have been located in the Eye of Africa (Richat structure), beyond the Pillars of Hercules and in modern-day Mauritania (see: Sunk Island in the Sahara Desert).

The mixture of various colours on the walls of the city of Asilah. The very same concept also appears in the old town of Tangier. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Hence, it seems there were more than one character bearing the same name: Atlas the Titan and Atlas, the demigod and king. Although both were relatives (Atlas the Titan was Poseidon’s cousin), it seems that the heroes named ‘Atlas’ have often been confused, even in ancient times. For example, the works of Diodorus of Sicily (the first century BC.) and Eusebius Pamphili (the fourth century AD.) give an Atlantean account of Atlas, where his parents are titans, Uranus and Gaia (Poseidon and Atlas’ grandfathers) (“Atlas (mythology)” 2021).

Antaeus contra Hercules

Another son of Poseidon that Hercules met in his way to a successful accomplishment of his eleventh task was Antaeus, who also existed among the ranks of mythical giants living in northwest Africa and became especially associated with Tangier (Greek 1997-2020). Some sources add that Antaeus was Atlas’s son-in-law, married to his daughter Tinjis.

Painting: Hercules fighting with Anteus by “Spanish Caravaggio”, Francisco de Zurbarán (the seventeenth century). Public domain. Photo source: “Antaeus” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

But the most important relative of the giant was actually his divine mother, Gaia (earth), from whom he drew his enormous strength, namely, nobody could defeat him while he was touching the ground (Greek 1997-2020). Antaeus is said to have dwelled in Libya, where he challenged humans who were passing by his lands to wrestling competitions, which he naturally always won (Ibid.). Having killed his unfortunate opponents, Antaeus used their skulls for a construction of a temple dedicated to his father, Poseidon (Ibid.). The giant equally challenged Hercules, who was on his way to the Garden of Hesperides for the golden apples (Ibid.). After understanding the mystery of Antaeus’ strength, the hero grabbed the giant in a bearhug, lifted him above the ground and consequently strangled in his fatal embrace (Ibid.).

Was Hercules a giant?

The scene of the fight between Antaeus and Hercules often appears in modern art, where the height of Hercules usually matches the height of the giant. Is it just an artistic interpretation or was Hercules a giant as well? Or maybe by these means, artists would like to metaphorically equalize Hercules’ strength with that possessed by giants or suggest that giants actually were of the size of humans, even such supernatural as Hercules? According to the myth, Hercules was the son of a mortal woman, Alcmene, and the god Zeus (Poseidon’s brother) (Grieco 2019).

Therefore, he was a hyperbion – a demigod superior to other men in his supernatural physical strength and courage, as much as other half-gods were, like Perseus, Theseus, or Achilles, who although was born of a mortal father, had a divine mother who was a sea nymph, Thetis (Grieco 2019). Yet, none of them is described as a giant, that is to say, belonging to any recorded race of giants, contrary to some offspring being a result of an intercourse between gods and divine females or goddesses (Ibid.). The Titans’ (Atlas, Antaeus and Geryon’s) fathers were gods and their mothers were not mortal women but goddesses, giantesses or nymphs (naiads), namely, Clymene (or Asia), Gaia and Callirrhoe.

Ex pede Herculem

On the other side, if the term ‘giant’ is considered in the context of a physical size, precisely, the height, it can be concluded that Hercules, along with other demigods, can be regarded as a giant, as he is described much taller than average humans. Unfortunately, no ancient writers give a precise height of mythological heroes, though some took an attempt to estimate it by means of various calculations. One of such experiments is attributed to Pythagoras and concerns Hercules’ height (“Ex pede Herculem” 2019). It is known under a maxim of proportionality: ex pede Herculem, which means ‘from his foot, [we can measure] Hercules’ (Ibid.) Accordingly,

The Artist Moved to Despair by the Grandeur of Antique Fragments, chalk and sepia drawing by Henry Fuseli, 1778-79. Public domain. Colours intensified. Photo and caption source: “Ex pede Herculem” (2019). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

“[the] philosopher Pythagoras reasoned sagaciously and acutely in determining and measuring the hero’s superiority in size and stature. For since it was generally agreed that Hercules paced off the racecourse of the stadium at Pisae, near the temple of Olympian Zeus, and made it six hundred feet long, and since other courses in the land of Greece, constructed later by other men, were indeed six hundred feet in length, but yet were somewhat shorter than that at Olympia, he readily concluded by a process of comparison that the measured length of Hercules’ foot was greater than that of other men in the same proportion as the course at Olympia was longer than the other stadia. Then, having ascertained the size of Hercules’ foot, he made a calculation of the bodily height suited to that measure, based upon the natural proportion of all parts of the body, and thus arrived at the logical conclusion that Hercules was as much taller than other men as the race course at Olympia exceeded the others that had been constructed with the same number of feet.”

Aulus Gellius’ Noctes Atticae (the second century A.D.), translated by John C. Rolfe of the University of Pennsylvania for the Loeb Classical Library, 1927. In: “Ex pede Herculem” (2019).

Pythagoras does not provide a calculated Hercules’ height. He just concludes the hero was much taller than other men. Still it is possible to estimate it basing the mathematician’s calculations on the fact that “the Olympic stadium was about 600 of the demigods shoe lengths, [that is to say, around] 192 meters long [in comparison to the 186 m of the classical stadium]. That gave him approximately a 32 cm foot” (Georgiades 2020). By making further necessary calculations, it can be assumed that Hercules must have been almost 3 metres tall (Ibid.). The same calculations can be successfully applied to other demigods, such as Perseus or Theseus.

Correct or incorrect scale

The size of Hercules can be also judged by his scale in relation to the Nemean Lion that he killed as the first of his twelve labours. The moment of the fight between the hero and the beast is frequently represented by antiques, where Hercules is equal to his opponent, while the animal is standing at its hind legs (Magus 2014). Providing that the lion was twice as the size of a regular lion or a tiger, which is around two metres, Hercules possibly measured up to four metres in height, that is to say, as much as the standing African lion (Ibid.). Similar relation can be observed in the sculpted representation of Gilgamesh holding a lion; by scaling off the lion, which is assumed to be of a normal size, it can be calculated that Gilgamesh was up to five metres tall (see: Gibbor in the Museum of Louvre). Unless he grasps an African lion, like Hercules does.

Heracles and Antaeus, red-figured krater by Euphronios, 515–510 BC, Louvre (G 103). Hercules (on the left) is visibly smaller in scale than the giant, the difference does not seem significant, though. In scale it is possibly 4 metres to 8, providing that Hercules was around 4 metres .At the same, Plutarch records that Antaeus was 27 metres, so the difference the giant must have been nearly seven times taller than Hercules. Uploaded in 2007. Public domain. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Antaeus” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

These are, however, pure speculations as artistic interpretations may not be consistent with the reality. The same concerns the scene of the wresting between Hercules and the giant, Antaeus. Contrary to modern paintings or sculpture, ancient Greek artists represented Antaeus exceeding Hercules in height, yet by hardly a few cubits (cf. Plutarch, Langhorne 1826:13). That, in turn, does not match the height of Antaeus, given by an ancient historian, Plutarch (the turn of the second century AD.), according to whom, the giant was sixty cubits tall (over twenty-seven metres) (Plutarch, Langhorne 1826:13). However, a Roman general, Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo (135 – 87 BC.) reveals that the historian simply copied the information concerning Antaeus’ stature from the tale of another Roman general, Aulus Gabinius (101-47 BC.), which, in turn, does not add any credibility to the story (Ibid.:13).

Coming back to the question: “who were the Nephilim?

If Greek gods had truly been fallen angels of the Judeo-Christian tradition, as many alternative scholars suggest, the above conclusions would rather suggest that Genesis Chapter 6:1-4 actually means that “when the sons of God (Greek gods) went to the daughters of humans”, the giants had already dwelled on the earth, before and after the fallen angels appeared down there (Gentry 2019). As a professor of Old Testament interpretation, Dr Peter Gentry (2019) underlines, the mighty ones (the biblical giants) may have had nothing to do with the fallen angels’ sexual relations with mortal women (“daughters of men”), who gave birth to demigods of supernatural powers, such as Hercules or Perseus, but their offspring may not have been giants but humans of supernatural powers (see: Gibbor in the Museum of Louvre).

What is more, the verse Genesis 6:4 demythologizes the Nephilim by reading “[these] were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown” (Gentry 2019). Simultaneously, the text does not explain who they exactly were and where they came from (Ibid.). Why? After Dr Gentry (2019) the Nephilim were well known to the first readers of the text and there was no need for further explanations. It is a pity, however, the same knowledge was not passed down and preserved to our days. Simultaneously, Dr Gentry (2019) also points out to the fact that one should be very humble while interpreting the verses of Genesis 6:1-4, as they are extremely difficult to be explained straightforward.

Roman conquest of the town of Tingis

In addition to myths, the evidence for the existence of giants in Northwest Africa is also brought up by the mentioned above second-hand account, given by the Greek historian Plutarch. Although it may be not reliable, it relates the actual conquest of the town of Tingi (Tingis) in north-western Africa by the Roman general Quintus Sertorius during the Punic Wars, in the first century BC. (Quayle, Alberino 2017). The town was also referred to as Tenga, Tinga or Titga in Greek and Roman records but today is known as Tangier in Morocco (“Tangier” 2021).

Are these fingerprints of the divine heroes, left behind on the walls of Asilah? Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As one story goes, at that time, the town was a pilgrimage site of the tomb of the giant Antaeus, the same who had been killed by Hercules (Quayle, Alberino 2017; “Tangier” 2021). It was also a tourist attraction for ancient visitors as much as or even more attracting than the Caves of Hercules are today (Quayle, Alberino 2017; “Tangier” 2021). As Plutarch writes, Quintus broke open the tomb of the venerated giant and found there its gigantic skeleton (Quayle, Alberino 2017). The historian also describes the general’s reaction at the sight of the peculiar remains inside the tomb; at that time, the bloodlines of the giants had gradually diminished over the centuries and giants were not simply met in the street (Ibid.).

But how great was his surprise when, […] he beheld a body sixty cubits long [over twenty-seven metres]. He immediately offered sacrifices, and closed up the tomb; thus adding considerably to the respect and reputation which it had previously possessed.

Plutarch, Langhorne (1826), pp. 12-13.

City in honour of the widow of the giant

The Greeks knew ancient Tangier as Tingis, “which may have originated from the mythological name of Tinjis, [a] daughter of Atlas and widow of Antaeus, the giant” (“Tangier” 2021).

Exploring the famous Asilah murals. Colourful paintings naturally add to the city a more chilled out ambiance. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

It is also believed that after killing Antaeus, Hercules made the widow his consort (Plutarch, Langhorne 1826:13). As a result, Tinjis gave birth to Hercules’ son, called Syphax, who reigned over the region Plutarch, (Langhorne 1826:13; “Tangier” 2021). After Tinjis’ death, her son also established the port and named it Tinjis in her honour (Langhorne 1826:13; “Tangier” 2021). Actually, the city of Tangier was founded by Phoenicians at the beginning of the first millennium BC., as one of their African colonies, and as such it preserved for long its Phoenician traditions, and the gigantic skeleton was also called Phoenician (“Tangier” 2021; Quayle, Alberino 2017).

Who were the Phoenicians?

The first Phoenician city-states had emerged in the late Bronze Age, that is to say, at the end of the thirteenth century BC., in what is now southern Syria, Lebanon and northern Israel (Niesiołowski-Spanó, Burdajewicz 2007:8-9). But one of the main features of the Phoenician civilization is the phenomenon of colonization (Ibid.:23); they were unrivalled seafarers of the ancient ages, who mastered the navigation through the seas and oceans, even beyond the contemporary world (Quayle, Alberino 2017). Already around 1110 BC., the Phoenicians founded the city of Cadiz (Gades or Gadir) on the Iberian Peninsula (Ibid.:10,23), the site Plato mentions as the border between Greek and Atlantean influences (see: Sunk Island in the Sahara Desert).

Warship with two rows of oars, in a relief from Nineveh (c. 700 BC). It could represent one of Phoenician vessels. Photo created in 2005. CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: Photo source: “Phoenicia” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The most colonized areas by the Phoenicians were the islands of Cyprus (around tenth century BC.), Sardinia (around ninth century BC.) and Malta (around 800 BC.) (Niesiołowski-Spanó, Burdajewicz 2007:11-13,23). Also the whole Northwest Africa became an important area colonized by the Phoenicians (Ibid.:23). The founding of the city of Utica (modern-day Tunisia) probably took place in 1101BC, of Lixus in 1110 BC. (Morocco) but the most important city founded in this area by the Phoenicians was actually Carthage (around 814/813 BC) (Niesiołowski-Spanó, Burdajewicz 2007:10,12,23; Stannard, Keohane et al. 2009:148).

The city of Tangier in Morocco was also established in the period, between the tenth and the eighth centuries BC. (“Tangier” 2021). Such a port town, located on the western point of the strait of Gibraltar, must have provided the Phoenicians an undisputed access to the wider Atlantic (Quayle, Alberino 2017).

Major Phoenician trade networks and colonies (c. 1200–800 BC.). Drawing by User: Rodrigo (es), User: Reedside (en) (2010). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Phoenicia” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

After Phoenicians, the Carthaginians continued to develop the Tingis, making it an important port of their empire by the fifth century BC. (“Tangier” 2021; Stannard, Keohane et al. 2009:149). Nevertheless, they were not such excellent seafarers as their ancestors, the Phoenicians.

From the Land of Canaan westwards

The history of Phoenicia itself is unknown (Niesiołowski-Spanó, Burdajewicz 2007:8-11). One of the most widely accepted views is that the origins of the Phoenicians should be looked for in the dramatic events in the Mediterranean Basin (turn of the thirteenth and twelfth centuries BC.) (Ibid.:10-11). The cultural changes and migration of people were intense, peaceful or armed and rapacious (Ibid.:11). This process is known as the invasions of the Sea Peoples (see: Following the Phaistos Spiral of Mystery) (Ibid.:11). The geographic area where the Phoenician culture originally developed constituted an integral part of the land known as Canaan (Ibid.:9). According to the Book of Numbers, the thirteenth century was also the time when, after the death of Moses, one of his spies, Joshua, led the Israelite tribes in the conquest of Canaan (Quayle, Alberino 2017).

The First African Map (Prima Affrice Tabula), depicting Mauretania Tingitana (northern Morocco) and Mauretania Caesariensis (western and central Algeria), from the Ulm Ptolemy. Ptolemy, translated into Latin by Jacobus Angelus – Rare Maps. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Tangier” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

According to Numbers 13:32-33, races of giants dwelled in that region. Yet with the help of the God, Israelites defeated them (Ibid.). Alternative researchers, Steve Quayle and Timothy Alberino (2017), claim that giants also existed among the Phoenicians, who were partially forced by Israelites to flee from the land of Canaan; they likely regrouped on the island of Sardinia and from there migrated further across the contemporary world. The Jesuit scholar, Antonio Graziani (1620-1684) widely studied the origins of the Nuraghe culture in Sardinia and concluded that its connections to the Canaanites, who settled down there by the ninth century BC., are prominent (Quayle, Alberino 2017). The Greeks referred to these Canaanites as Phoenicians (Ibid.).

Problematic columns

Scholars interpret Phoenicians’ migrations westwards by the fact, they were in need of numerous ports scattered around the contemporary world to develop their oversea trade network. On the other hand, there are early medieval records supporting the thesis that the Phoenicians were pushed to exile from Canaan by the the migrating eastwards peoples of the God, the Israelites (Quayle, Alberino 2017).

Beautiful view of a street in Asilah, with typical Arabic architecture. Different colours of the doors, like green and blue, seem very typical of the city. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In the sixth century AD., when Numidia was under the Christian emperor Justinian, a Greek historian, Procopius of Caesarea, claimed that the Canaanites who had built a fortress at Tigisis in Numidia, had also erected there two columns emblazoned with the Punic (the Canaanite, also Phoenician language) inscription (Graves 2014; Quayle, Alberino 2017), saying:

We are they who fled from before the face of Joshua, the robber, the son of Nun.

Procopius of Caesarea, History of the Wars of Justinian 4.10.21-22. In: Graves (2014).

Apart from Procopius, the mysterious inscription cut in the columns is also mentioned by Moses of Khoren, an earlier Armenian historian (the fifth century AD), and by an anonymous Greek historian (ca. 630 AD.) in the Chronicon Paschale (Graves 2014):

The inhabitants of these [islands in the Mediterranean] were Canaanites fleeing from the face of Joshua the son of Nun.

Anonymous Greek historian, Chronicon Paschale. In: Graves (2014).

If the columns or pillars had ever existed, they had already vanished together with their mysterious inscriptions. After Procopius of Caesarea, the columns were standing in Tigisis, in Numidia. Scholars claim that the name of the place can either refer to the ancient town of Tigisis in Numidia (near what is now Aïn el-Bordj, Algeria or to Tingis (Tangier in Morocco) (Graves 2014; Quayle, Alberino 2017; “Tigisis in Numidia” 2020). The former was the seat of a bishopric during the Roman, Vandal, and Byzantine eras, which is when Procopius lived under the rule of Justinian, who made the town fortified (“Tigisis in Numidia” 2020). There was also another Tigisis in Northwest Africa (today between present-day Dellys and Taourga in Algeria) and it was within the boundaries of Mauretania Caesariensis (“Tigisis in Mauretania” 2018). All of the three potential locations of the columns are anyway located in the region, where Phoenicians were present. What is more, the earliest known source of the inscription comes from the Armenian historian, Moses of Khoren, and it is possible he borrowed it from more ancient records.

Nevertheless, most academics agree the passage of the columns are almost certainly hokum, which may have been invented by late antique writes or relied on a local guide’s information, or be a simple compilation of some earlier Jewish tradition (“Tigisis in Numidia” 2020). Bryant G. Wood (2005:98) points out that “It is highly unlikely that the Phoenicians of North Africa would have invented such a demeaning tradition to explain how they came to be in North Africa” (Graves 2014).

Marzipan cone-shaped chocolates

We were drowning in soft poufs in one of the charming cafes of Asilah, hidden in the narrow corridors of the city. Marzipan cone-shaped chocolates, iced coffee, and mint tea had been just served on our round and tiled table. I was so ready to plunge in their sweet and refreshing smell and taste. Yet, in my thoughts a host of sinister giants still marched, claiming their place in history. But there is no history, only the myth remained.

Wandering with a camera in the streets of the Medina in Asilah. I constantly kept taking photos of charming spots in the city I encountered with each taken step. The same atmosphere was also very tangible in Tangier and Chefchaouen. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Featured image: As the story goes Africa has been represented in the Grottes d’Hercule either by nature or ancient people (the Phoenicians). Copyright©Archaeotravel.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.


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Within the Walls of Imperial Cities

We were slowly moving in the direction of the magical Red City, Marrakesh. It was going to be my second visit in this amazing place and though it was a few years ago I still remembered delightful activities it offered: a walk through the charming and mysterious Medina, a visit to the Ben Youssef Madrasa, one of the largest and best Koranic schools in the Maghreb countries, then to the famous Miracle Square – Jemaa el-Fnaa, where the largest in the world, undirected street spectacles begin at sunset. There, one could admire snake charmers, dancers, acrobats, musicians and local healers, all amidst exotic sounds, rhythms and fragrances.  

Miracle Square – Jemaa el-Fnaa, Marakesh. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Behind us there was left the magical world of a ‘Thousand Kasbahs’ (see Road of a Thousand Kasbahs). Ahead of us there were Rabat, Meknes, Fez and Marrakesh – imperial cities.

Luxurious SPA in an unfriendly landscape

It was early in the morning when our coach was climbing through the High Atlas mountains. It finally stopped at the picturesque Tizi-n-Tichka Pass, at an altitude of over 2260 metres above sea level. A strong wind was pulling my hair and blew into the folds of my clothes as I tried to embrace the charm of the country’s magnificent views that stretched across the mountain landscape.

The Almoravid army managed to transferred through this hostile environment four hundred horsemen, eight hundred camel-riders and two thousand foot soldiers (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Whereas the army was composed of desert warriors, the mountains were a completely different environment to them (Ibid.). Yet they had a clear goal: reaching the northwest of the mountains, where lived the tribes of Berbers considered by them as heretics (Ibid.).


In 1058, first people to feel the force of the Almoravid army were the rulers of Aghmat, a small city nestling in a lush valley on the northern site of the mountains (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Eventually, the town became a new headquarters from where the army took further their jihad against the Berber tribes dwelling nearby (Ibid.). For long Aghmat was thought to be a lost city (Ibid.). After being localized, the site has been excavated but a carried study has revealed only its small portion so far (Ibid.).

Aghmat, a former Almoravid capital city. It was thought to be a lost city. After being localized, the site has been excavated but a carried study has revealed only its small portion so far. Source : Babas (2019).

One of the most substantial finds of the town is an almost intact hammam or a bathhouse, which is also one of the oldest in Morocco and one of the biggest in Maghreb (500 square metres) (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). In this context, it is regarded as an architectural masterpiece; the bathouse required an expert knowledge for heating and water supply for such an enormous space (Ibid.). The bathhouse was not made of mud, like kasbahs, but of stones and mortar, which made it a more solid construction (Ibid.). Its remains also illustrate the scale of the settlement in the medieval town and how expertly its inhabitants understood how to use water, which is a very important recourse in the area even today (Ibid.). As it turned out, water was not only used in public places as the hammam, mosque or the palace, but it was also utilised for irrigation (Ibid.). Accordingly, water had two distinct uses :in a first place it was used for public buildings and private houses, and after three days, the same water was used for irrigation of the fields (Ibid.).

Beginnings of Marrakech

With time, the Almoravids started to appreciate a city life but for desert nomads the city was in a wrong place (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Surrounded by mountains and hills from three sides, Aghmat was not in a good defensive position as an army was used to fight in the open space (Ibid.). After a decade, the Almoravids stared looking for a new base from where they could expand and take on more territory (Ibid.). Eventually, they chose a flat dry open piece of land over thirty kilometres from the foothills of the Atlas Mountains; it was the city of Marrakesh (Ibid.).

Marrakesh, the so-called Red City due to its ochre colours of the walls. Photo by Iwona Wilczek. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The founding of the city in 1070 represents a point in history, when the Almoravids became an imperial force (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). What began as a collection of tents rapidly became an established city and the Berbers who settled there were offered security in return of their taxes, which were used for the further expansion of the Almoravids’ territory (Ibid.). The city only lacked water (Franus 2012:159). This problem was handled by a smart engineer from Baghdad who designed a system of channels to bring water from the Atlas (Ibid.:159). Since then, Marrakesh has been drowning in flowers; now every wealthier family has got a garden, where figs, palms, roses and jasmines are grown (Ibid.:159).

Red City

When Abdullah Ibn Yasin died, Youssef Ibn Tachfine took charge of the jihad and made a great contribution to the dynasty than any other man; he turned a fledgling kingdom into an empire (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Firstly, he developed the urban area of Marrakesh (Ibid.); “a circuit of walls around the city was built to defend it (Jacobs 2019). “Made with red earth from the surrounding plain, the walls [have been in the colour of] ochre” (Ibid.), and hence “[some call it the Pink city while for [others] Marrakech represents the feisty shade of [red]” (Toa 2017) and is called the Red City (Jacobs 2019). “Today, even outside the walls, in the modern Ville Nouvelle, buildings are still faced in that same hue. It looks particularly beautiful on the ramparts along the west side of the Medina when lit up by the setting sun” (Jacobs 2019).

As we were approaching the city, I looked for a characteristic picture: palm trees rising from behind the red wall, in the background of which mighty mountains loomed (Franus 2012:158). The city of Marrakech is today a fairy-tale metropolis known for its beautiful gardens, excellent cuisine, reliable weather and an atmosphere of eternal fun (Ibid.:158-159). “[Its] souks […] are a feast for [human] senses. [One’s] eyes are treated to a blast of colours, while [their] olfactory organs are welcomed by the enticing fragrance of honey-cakes and spices. As one strides through the crowded souks, one gets a glimpse of the lifestyle of common man. A further walk into the interiors of the city [takes] to the traditional courtyard homes of the city known as ‘riadas’. […] Adjacent to a mosque in medina, lies a huge plaza known as the [Jemaa el-Fnaa] that was historically the centre of Marrakech. Water sellers, snake charmers, musicians, dancers and food throng the square, which was once the spot for public executions” (Toa 2017).


After the creation of the Almoravids’ capital the Berbers set out establishing an empire (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Their army took the jihad north, taking city after city, Fez – Tangier – Algiers, expanding their influence eastwards, well beyond what it is now called Morocco (Ibid.). And having conquered the north-western Africa, the Almoravids extended their jihad beyond it, to Europe (Ibid.).

Ben Youssef Madrasa in Marrakesh; one of the windows in the gallery of the courtyard. carved stucco decoration, including an Arabic inscription in kufic script. Below part is carved of cedar in square patterns. Photo by Gosia Nowa. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

A parallel Islamic world had existed in Spain and Portugal since the eighth century and was known as Al-Andalus (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). The south of Spain had flourished under the rule of the Caliphate of Cordoba into a rich civilization of lavish palaces and elegant gardens (Ibid.; see Architectural Oasis of Al-Andalus). Yet in the eleventh century, the caliphate broke up into weak city-states being attacked by Christian armies from the north of Spain (Ibid.). Therefore, Muslim rulers of Spain appealed to the Almoravids for help (Ibid.). Youssef Ibn Tachfine repelled the Christians but he was disgusted by the European Muslims’ lack of dedication to Islam (Ibid.). Consequently, in 1019 he returned to Andalusia in force and deposed its Muslim rulers (Ibid.). Afterall, the Almoravids ruled over a vast kingdom that stretched out from the Sahara to Spain, and from the Atlantic coast to Algeria (Ibid.). It was the first time, the vast Muslim territory had been united politically and spiritually under one management and the people who achieved it – the Berbers, those who had been previously referred to as the barbarians of the desert (Ibid.).

Medieval charms of Fez

I was looking down the hill at the medina of Fez; the city consists of almost a thousand tangled streets, tens of thousands of low houses, madrasahs, palaces and mosques (Franus 2012:153).

A bird’s eye view of Fez. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Two hundred thousand people live and work there (Franus 2012:153). The largest medieval place in the world is impressive when viewed from above, but it seemed more orderly than up close (Ibid.:153). After crossing the gate, we immediately fell into the city’s labyrinth and my already poor orientation completely disappeared in this maze (Ibid.:153). Fortunately, I was not on my own and one of my friends, who is an architect, features extraordinary orientation skills. Nevertheless, finding the right path turned out to be more than difficult. We had headed for the famous Fez tannery. When we finally reached our destination, someone gave us mint leaves and suggested that we put them to our nose (Ibid.:158). Then we went up the narrow stairs to the terrace; the smell coming from the tannery was getting there really intense and not very pleasant (Ibid.:158). Mint was supposed to neutralize it. Below, the coloured eyes of the vats filled with urine and dyes sparkled in the sun (Ibid.:158). Hence the awful smell. People were bustling around them and occasionally dipping a batch of fresh hides into the paint (Ibid.). The technology of work at the tannery has not changed here since the Middle Ages (Ibid.:158).

Fez tannery; the technology of work at the tannery has not changed here since the Middle Ages. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Back in the streets of Medina. The heat was pouring down from the sky and the white walls were making us blind by reflecting a strong sunlight (Franus 2012:153,158). In summer, the temperature in the old streets of Fez reaches almost 50 degrees Celsius, so wherever possible, there are nets or mats that cut off the flow of sunlight (Ibid.:153). Besides, the streets are so narrow that it is not possible to see anything but the sky (Ibid.:153). Once entered the maze, one just needs to give up their senses and get lost, and then find themselves again by means of a courtesy of an inhabitant of the medina (Ibid.:153). Fes el Bali quarter, the oldest walled part of Fez has not changed for hundreds of years (Ibid.:153; see (“Fez, Morocco” 2020). It was founded by the Almoravid Sultan Yusuf ibn Tashfin who had united two previously competing and autonomous settlements and rebuilt the city until the eleventh century (“Fez, Morocco” 2020).

Fes el Bali quarter, the oldest walled part of
Fez with narrow streets and alleys.

With the stubbornness of a maniac, we walked through the old town; the streets were getting narrower and narrower, so that sometimes we had to squeeze sideways (Franus 2012:153,158). Another time we had to give way to loaded donkeys, the only means of transport in the local alleys (Ibid.:158). On the way, we passed by hundreds of small shops with items so beautiful that I could not take my eyes off them (Ibid.:158). Moroccans love beautiful products and prefer handicrafts to mass production (Ibid.:158). The greatest Moroccan artists are actually in Fez (Ibid.:158). Their ancestors have settled there since the time Fez was founded under the Idrisid rule between the eight and the nineth centuries as the two separate settlements, and Fez’s craftsmen have constantly improved their skills (Franus 2012:158; (“Fez, Morocco” 2020). However, only “[under] the Almoravid rule, [did] the city [gain] a reputation for the religious scholarship and the mercantile activity” (“Fez, Morocco” 2020). In the twelfth century, also scientists, clergy and mystics came to Fez, making it the medieval center of Morocco’s science (Franus 2012:158).

Nevertheless, the reign of the Almoravids dynasty was relatively short-lived (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012).

Enemy came from the mountains

High in the mountains behind Imperial Cities of Morocco, a new force had been born; rival Berbers holed up in the High Atlas Mountains (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). While, the Almoravids had never felt comfortable in the hills, a new group of Islamic revolutionaries laid there the groundwork for their domination over the mountainous region (Ibid.). They were called the Almohads, which stand for the people who believed in the unity of God (Ibid.). The Almohad movement was founded in the twelfth century by Muhammad Ibn Tumart among the Berber Masmuda tribes in the south of modern Morocco (Ibid.). The leader was not a desert warrior like the Almoravids (Ibid.). He lived in the mountains, where he spent decades studying Islam (Ibid.). He claimed to have been divinely chosen to restore the true faith as he understood it (Ibid.).

The Tin Mal Mosque is a mosque located in the High Atlas mountains of North Africa. In this area the Almohads’ revolution started. Source: Atlas Mountain Guides Compony (2020). If you are interested in their tours, please check on the website given below (Bibliography).

Tinmel is the village, where the revolution started (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). From there, Ibn Tumart preached against the arrogance and corruption of the Almoravids (Ibid.). In fact at that time, Moroccan society was purely Muslim (Ibid.). Therefore, Ibn Tumart’s role was not to convert the society to Islam a second time; he only used religion to legitimize his political project and, eventually, create a large Islamic empire in the western Mediterranean (Ibid.). Tinmel was his starting point towards Marrakech (Ibid.). In 1130 a long  military campaign started between two groups: the Almohads and the Almoravids (Ibid.). Eventually, in 1147 the dynasty of the the Almoravids was fought back (Ibid.).

Building a new empire

Once the Almohads were within the walls of Marrakech, they wanted to stamp their authority on the city (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). They started by replacing the most significant of the Almoravids buildings with their own (Ibid.). Legend has it that the architectural predecessors of the mosques built by Almohads in Marrakech were all pulled down as they had not been correctly aligned with Mecca (Ibid.). This was a big bold message to the people of Marrakech; the Almohads made it clear that their interpretation of Islam was the correct one (Ibid.). Today, the Almohads’ Kutubiyya Mosque is the largest mosque in Marrakesh (Franus 2012:159). Its squared minaret tower is seventy meters high and is a great landmark for newcomers (Ibid.:159).

Kutubiyya Mosque is the largest mosque in Marrakesh. Photo by Iwona Wilczek. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

One of the greatest mosque, however, was going to be built in Rabat at the end of the twelve century (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). It had four hundred columns and pillars and it was big enough to hold the entire army (Ibid.). It would have been the largest mosque in Maghreb, if not in the entire Muslim world (Ibid.).

The unfinished architectural project of the
mosque in Rabat, stopped after four years
since it was started in 1995. Photo by
Monika Ryglewicz. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The architectural project of the mosque was as ambitious as the great architecture of the North Africa or the buildings of Mecca (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Yet it has become just an unfulfilled dream (Ibid.). The reason why there is no top of the minaret or a lack of the roof over the prayer hall is that the third Almohad Muslim Calip, Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur, died in 1199, just four years after the project started, and the mosque remained in an unfinished state (Ibid.). Its grand vision had been never completed (Ibid.). To this day, only the forty-meter-high Hassan tower has survived (Franus 2012:149). It was designed in the manner of Moroccan minarets (Ibid.:149).

Behind the gate, enchanted gardens of Rabat surrounded us; the air smelled wonderfully of roses, oleanders and belladonna, called deadly nightshade, a plant with magical properties (Franus 2012:149). Although it is poisonous, Roman women used it to dilate their pupils, which made them look more seductive (Ibid.:149). White ibises walked among the trees and storks nested there as well (Ibid.). We were accompanied by a pleasant breeze from the Atlantic (Ibid.:149).

Like a watered garden

Gardens in Rabat. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

All that the Almohads used to create were composed of all the traditional elements of Berber culture, also applied by their predecessors (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Nevertheless, the scale of their intellectual achievements seems much higher (Ibid.). Some medieval poet compares their empire to the watered garden in a perfect balance of the monarch’s power and people’s prosperity (Ibid.). In such a favourable environment, there was a place for an artistic development (Ibid.).

Marrakech’s most impressive gate constructed in 1185 by the Almohads is Bab Agnaou (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012; Jacobs 2019).

Bab Agnaou in the 1920s. Source:“Bab Agnaou” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

It leads to the later built Kasbah within the already walled Medina (Jacobs 2019). The gate was originally just the main southern entrance into the city (Ibid.). Unlike the walls and the other gates, Bab Agnaou is not red, but green, made from a locally quarried stone (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012; Jacobs 2019).

It is richly ornate which makes it different from rather simple and modest gates of Marrakech, designed at the time of the Almoravids (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012; Jacobs 2019). It is carved with embellished scallops and floral designs, which makes it very sumptuous with layers upon layers of decorations (Ibid.). They are, in turn, “surrounded by Koranic quotations written in an Arabic […] script called kufic” (Jacobs 2019). The gate’s “name means ‘Black people’s gate’, possibly because it was used by black slaves of African descent, or perhaps because it leads south, across the Sahara to West Africa” (Ibid.).

The glory days have gone

Almost all that the Almohads has built seems now more impressive than constructions left by their predecessors, and that also applies to their Berber kingdom (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). As for the Almoravids, the Almohads used Marrakech as their imperial base for a further expansion, which was even more successful and ambitious than previously (Ibid.). The Almohads not only took over the territory, which was run by their opponents but also seized the neighbouring lands of Africa, which stretched into what is now Libya, whereas in Andalucía, they made their second capital in Sevilla (Ibid.). Consequently, after the Almohads, the empire became even stronger force in the Mediterranean (Ibid.).

The Tin Mel Mosque. Tinmel was the cradle of the Berber Almohad empire. Source: Viator (2020) “Image of Timnel Mosque”. In: “Day Trip to Tinmel Mosque & Berber villages”. In: © Viator, Inc. (1997–2020). If you are interested in their tours, please check on the website given below (Bibliography).

Intellectually and economically, the Almohads were in charge of an empire that ranked alongside the greatest of that time in the world (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). This was the high point of the Berber kingdom but controlling such a massive realm brought its own problems (Ibid.). The death of the last great leader, Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur, meant the beginning of the end of the Almohad dynasty (Ibid.). Squabbles over his succession allowed rival Berber tribes to divide the power over the empire (Ibid.). The Almohads were also humiliated by the Christians in a decisive battle in Spain, from which their army had never really recovered (Ibid.). Simultaneously, the authority of the Almohad rulers in Africa was lost as Arab tribes rebelled against (Ibid.). None of the Berber dynasties that succeeded the Almohad dynasty was powerful enough to control the North Africa (Ibid.). Any attempts to return to the glory days of the Almohads failed (Ibid.).

Last night in Marrakech

I made my way through the perpetually jammed street to reach the most famous square in Marrakesh and in all of Morocco, Jemaa el-Fnaa (Franus 2012:159).

A view from one of the gallery windows facing
the courtyard of Ben Youssef Madrasa in
Marrakesh. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

My companion, Iwona, decided to buy a few mint seedlings to plant them in her garden upon arrival. The seller offered a thousand and one of their varieties, which were highly valued in Morocco and used to brew the famous Moroccan mint tea. We drank litres of it here (Franus 2012:159). Only for the sake of the tea serving ceremony, was it worth ordering this famous drink, which not only invigorates but also quenches thirst. I also decided to treat myself with a Moroccan souvenir – henna (Ibid.:159). After a while, my hand looked like a work of art woven into orange lace (Ibid.:159).

It was terribly hot (Franus 2012:159). After a while we ran away to the hotel and returned to the square around 7 in the evening (Ibid.:159). At that time, nothing was left there from the sleepy afternoon atmosphere (Ibid.). The crowd in the square thickened and it reached its peak one hour later (Ibid.:159). I felt like being at a festival of street performances, but here all the actors performed simultaneously (Ibid.:159).

The clamour, the smells of spiced dishes and music vibrated in the air and deafened (Franus 2012:159). In one of the streets leading from the square, I bought and dressed jellabiya (a traditional dress) to blend in more with Moroccan folklore (Ibid.:145,159). After a while we were sitting in a restaurant resembling a Moroccan palace: the stuccoes, mosaics and carpets were filled with the sounds of enchanted music and dancing of an orientally dressed dancer (Ibid.:158).

The heirs of Maghreb

In the sixteenth century, the Kingdom of Morocco was revived but it was built by a different dynasty claiming the right to rule as true interpreters of Islam (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Although this dynasty has got the Arabic origins not Berber, they have declared themselves the heirs of the kingdom the Berbers had earlier created (Ibid.). One of the cities the Arabic monarchs developed is Meknes, known as the Versailles of the South (Franus 2012:149). It is surrounded by a twenty-five-kilometre-long wall that winds like a serpent through fertile fields, vineyards and fruit orchards (Ibid.:149). Today the city is a provincial centre, but in the seventeenth century it was the capital of Morocco (Ibid.:149).

It flourished during the reign of Moulay Ismail Ben Sharif, the second ruler of the Alaouite dynasty, established by the Arabs (Franus 2012:149). Moulay Ismail Ben Sharif himself was one of the country’s greatest and bloodiest sultans (Ibid.:149). Therefore, it seems strange the fact that his tomb has become a destination for pilgrims from all over the world (Ibid.:152). Even at the beginning of his reign, the monarch cut down seven hundred slaves as a warning to his enemies, and decorated the walls of Fez with their heads (Ibid.:149,152). He had no mercy on anyone, not even his own children (Ibid.:152). He himself did not feel safe as he made Meknes an impregnable fortress, able to resist possible enemies for years, but at the same time it was supposed to be full of gardens, palaces and fountains (Ibid.:152). The city itself impresses with the colours of the Greek islands, where blue and white dominate. It reminded me a little my favourite city in the north of the country, Chefchaouene, which is called the Blue City due to deep blue colours of its walls (Ibid.:151).

Royal horses and the largest gate of Africa

In royal granaries, consisting of a series of rooms connected by corridors, grain and legumes were collected (Franus 2012:152). The supplies were to feed the population during the long siege. Only walls covered with wild vines and bushes remained of the equally impressive Royal Order Stables (Ibid.:152). There is not enough money for a restoration or thorough excavations. Some sources mention twelve thousand horses that were supposed to be kept there (Ibid.:152). However, the calculations show that there were no more than 1,200 of them, although it is still impressive (Ibid.:152).

Bab Mansur al-‘Alj or Bab Mansour is a monumental gate in the city of Meknes. Photo by Jerzy Strzelecki (2011) CC BY 3.0. Photo source: “Mansour Gate” (2019). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The horses had royal conditions there (Franus 2012:152). They were even supplied with water via an underground system (Ibid.:152). The most famous decoration of the city, however, is the main gate of the Old Town of Meknes, Bab Mansour, known as Africa’s largest gate (Ibid.:152). It stands opposite a huge souk, where you can buy olives arranged in giant pyramids and supposedly the best sweets in Morocco (Ibid.:152). “The gate structure was completed in 1732 by Mulay Abdullah who was the son of Sultan Mulay Ismail. This gate marks the main entrance of the imperial palace built for Isla Mulay and the ancient city of Meknes. The door was designed by a Christian converted to Islam whose name was ‘Mansur’, hence [the gate’s] name. Adjacent to the gate within the walls are the Royal Order Stables, the Royal Prison and the Meknes City Museum” (“Mansour Gate” 2019). Bab Mansour itself looks like a gate to another world (Franus 2012:152). It is ten meters high (Ibid.:152) and “is decorated with green ceramics with paintings with Islamic motifs. [Its] white pillars are columns that [once] used to stand in the Roman city, Volubilis, which is about [thirty kilometres] north of the city” (“Mansour Gate” 2019).

The Alaouite dynasty is still in power today (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Nevertheless, the Berber story and their large achievements deserve their place among great histories of Africa (Ibid.).

Waterfall and the ocean

Just before heading off to Agadir, we stopped yet at Ouzoud Falls. The heat of the sun hid for a moment in the crowns of dense trees and in the splash of falling water. Macaques were popping out of the bushes, in hope for a delicious bite from the tourist’s hands. The heavenly smells of tagines, which were served in the open air, were hanging around, inviting for a Moroccan feast.

In the late afternoon, I was already standing on the wide beach near Essaouira, a charming port city and resort on Morocco’s Atlantic coast. I watched the ocean waves washing away the sun-heated sand (Franus 2012:137).

Everything seems extraordinary in this country. From the multi-colours of the mountains, the fairy-tale kasbahs, the green of palm groves rising up among the sands, the architecture of imperial cities, people who look like they have just been transferred from the past, to craftsmanship that captivates with its unique fantasy (Franus 2012:135).

By the Atlantic Ocean. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Featured image: The Ben Youssef Madrasa in Marrakesh, reflecting in the water. Photo by Iwona Wilczek. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

By Joanna
Faculty of History of Art and Archaeology
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland
University College Dublin, Ireland


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Legends of the Road of a Thousand Kasbahs

“It is difficult to give an idea of the impression made on the voyager […] by the sight of a ravishing oasis, forming a dazzling band of green, above which rise the crenellated towers, massive bastions, richly crowned with ornamental architecture and fortress walls. If one has a chance to penetrate such a charming place at sunset, it is a veritable fairyland reminiscent of [an oriental] décor. It is a different world opening before us, a curious and strange, made of truly original traditions that make us forget the colourlessness of modern life”.

Wagner Minca 2016:174
The Ksar Ait Bin Haddou and the Route of a Thousand Kasbahs. Photo taken by Iwona Wilczek. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

On the way southwards

Our journey to the world of refreshing pools and paradise gardens started in Agadir, a famous holiday resort on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, usually fulfilled with the hordes of tourists taking advantage of the sun and endless sandy beaches. We did not stay there long. The following day, we were already on the way to the southern Morocco, driven through the plain of Sous, luxuriantly overgrown with citrus trees and filled with their delicate orange fragrance. The landscape was awash with charming argan trees bending under the weight of mountain goats climbing into their branches. Such a view gracefully builds the picturesque Moroccan landscape. Inspired by traditional Berber methods of production, the argan oil is itself regarded as the gold of Morocco and an essential elixir of youth and beauty.

The landscape was awash with charming argan trees bending under the weight of mountain goats climbing into their branches. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In the afternoon we reached the fortified city of Tarudant, which had belonged to one of the richest and most powerful cities in all of southern Morocco till the seventeenth century. Apart from majestic, long defensive walls with impressive bastions and gates, my attention was caught by simple but elegant traditional Berber flat roofs made of wood and typically applied in the earthen Moroccan architecture. After leaving Tarudant behind, we followed a scenic route along the Drâa River with its green oases, charming villages and lush palm groves. With each kilometre southwards, red silhouettes of kasbahs were appearing more often on the hills, inviting us to enter their fairyland. Following them like signposts, we continued further along the edge of the Sahara desert and in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains.

Travellers to Kasbah

Throughout Morocco, from the track of kasbahs to the country’s imperial cities, one’s senses seem heightened. They “are teased awake and gently assaulted by the tinkle of water from a fountain, by the heady pungent air of the attarine (spice street) in the souk (bazaar), by the spiced tartness of cracked olives, by the vivid hues of saffron, lapis, amethyst and jade, and by the smooth velvet feel of a long-simmered tagine sauce as it first caresses the tongue” (Crocker 2005:vii)

Souk in Tarudant. Photo taken by Iwona Wilczek. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“Even today, travellers to Kasbah […], who chance upon a sheltered courtyard and pause in the cool shade of a fragrant jasmine or bay tree […] might catch a fleeting glimpse of the sensual delights borne by the Moors [centuries ago]” (Crocker 2005:vii).

Moroccan gardens are luxuriantly overgrown with citrus trees and filled with their delicate orange fragrance. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Moors stood initially for the Berbers from Maghreb – the North African countries of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria (Crocker 2005:vii). Maghreb means the land where the sun sets, as “for the seventh century Arab conquerors, this part of the Mediterranean lay far to the west of their own Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo” (Ibid.:vii).

Moroccan cuisine looks and tastes delicious. Photo taken by Iwona Wilczek. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Berbers

Nowadays, Morocco is a modern Islamic state which is ruled by Arab kings but they rule over the country with a culture and history as diverse as its landscape (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Morocco has got its coasts facing the Atlantic and the Mediterranean Sea (Ibid.). Snow-covered peaks of mountains of Atlas range are towering from one side of the country, whereas the bone-dry fringes of the Sahara Desert spreads out from the other (Ibid.). Dominant languages spoken in the country are Arabic, French and Spanish in the north but nearly half the population still speak Berber, the language of the indigenous inhabitants of these lands (Ibid.).

The Berbers’ origins are shrouded in mystery (2006:ix). It is deepened by the fact that members of some tribes have got green or blue eyes and red or blond hair (Medina, Juilleret 2016; New World Encyclopedia 2020). Generally, it is said they are mostly “the remnants of the original inhabitants of North Africa, presently living in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya” (Woronof 2006:ix). Still they also live in Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, with smaller minorities in Niger (Ibid.:ix). The word Berber has originated from the Greek barbaroi (Ilahiane 2006:xxx) which described people “who spoke neither Latin nor Greek or to refer to non-Phoenicians within the Carthaginian state. Ancient Greek writers also used ‘Libyan’ as another name to refer to the inhabitants of North Africa while also speaking of other Berbers as the Numidians [– the ‘Nomands’], a name that reflected that most of them practised pastoral nomadism” (Ibid.:xxx). But although the Berbers are usually thought as nomads, the majority are farmers (New World Encyclopedia 2020).

The Berbers describe themselves in their own language as Imazighen (singular Amazigh) (Ilahiane 2006:xxx), which means ‘free men’ (“Berbers” 2020). This is, in turn, perfectly reflected by their flag, where the Yaz (ⵣ) symbol, looking like a man with raised hands, stands for the Berbers motto : ‘Free Man, Free Woman. Free People’ (Ibid.). The symbol is red, which signifies life (Ibid.). Moreover, each colour of the flag “corresponds to an aspect of the territory inhabited by Berbers in North Africa: blue represents the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean” (Ibid.), green stands for nature and yellow for the sands of the Sahara Desert (Ibid.)

Oum (2013) “Taragalte” (Soul Of Morocco) Official Video.

Turning point in history

Whereas, a thousand of years ago, the present lands of Morocco belonged to the Berbers, today, these are the inner parts of the Atlas Mountains and the southern fringes of the desert that remain as predominantly Berber homelands (Chijioke Njoku 2006; Casely-Hayford 2010-2012).

Arid peaks of Atlas Mountains look like mushroom heads or multi-layered hats. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Since ancient times, the Berbers were not unified by a nation-state (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Instead, on either side of the Atlas Mountains, there existed small independent Berber clans of farmers, traders and nomads (Ibid.). Although these people had been converted into Islam, they maintained their traditional Berber customs and they did not always follow the new religion to the letter of the law (Ibid.)

On the way through the southern Morocco. Photo taken by Gosia Nowa. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In 1050, the situation had drastically changed (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). This happened because of one Berber man who studied the Quran and became a charismatic, fiery preacher (Ibid.). Idealistic and uncompromising, he had a clear mission to change his fellow Berbers into proper Muslims, schooled in the strict fundamentals of their religion (Ibid.). His travels to Islamic centres of learning had left him a student of a strict legalistic interpretation of the Quran (Ibid.). As such, he has gone down into history (Ibid.). His name was Abdullah Ibn Yasin, the North African religious chief of the Moslem Almoravid movement (Your Dictionary 2010). He ran his converting mission in the Western Sahara, where he pulled together an alliance of tribes and he appointed himself a spiritual leader (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012).

Gate to the Sahara Desert. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Consequently, from the Sahara Desert, a small group of Nomads came to transform the northwest corner of Africa into a vast empire that stretched from the Sahara to Spain (Ibid.). What started with one man’s mission grew into a kingdom which lasted for centuries (Ibid.). Its rulers generated tremendous wealth, created great architecture and promoted sophisticated ideas in an ordered society (Ibid.).

From Sijilmasa to Awdaghust

In 1054, Abdullah Ibn Yasin became a leader of an army of thousands of nomads who headed for Sijilmasa, one of the most important medieval cities in Africa and a major trading post at the northern edge of the Sahara Desert (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Since then, the war described as jihad had started (Ibid.). For Ibn Yasin it was a holy war to uphold a true understanding of Islam but it was also aimed at his fellow Muslim Berbers (Ibid.).

Sijilmasa ruins. Source: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia (2020).

All that is left now of the city of Sijilmasa are but spectacular mud ruins (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). The city was once built in the middle of one of the largest oasis in Africa and was inhabited by over fifty thousands of people (Ibid.). Date palms and irrigated fields at the site hide clues to a much bigger and more significant past than it is visible today (Ibid.). The taking of the city would be the first major foundation stone of the Moslem Almoravid Kingdom (Ibid.). Dr Eric Ross, an expert in Islamic studies, has been involved in the recent archaeological studies of the site (Ibid.). He says that in the eleventh century, Morocco was not looking towards Europe or the Atlantic but across the Sahara, which was wide open to trade, stretching all the way from West Africa to South Asia (Ibid.). So the city of Sijilmasa itself became a prosperous trading hub of cloth, manuscripts, horses but especially gold coming there from present areas of Mali and Senegal (Ibid.).

Argan trees and goats – typical landmark of Morocco. Photo taken by Gosia Nowa. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Once Ibn Yasin had the city under his control, the Almoravids secured the source of the city’s gold trade (Ibid.). Therefore, they went south to the opposite side of the Sahara and seized the trading town of Awdaghust (today Mauritania) by controlling the supply of gold across the desert (Ibid.). By doing so, they had a virtual monopoly on one of the most lucrative of trades and they could carry on their jihad beyond the Sahara Desert (Ibid.).

In the grove of date palms. Moroccan dates are delicious! Photo taken by Gosia Nowa. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

We were just approaching the ancient Sijilmasa. Passing by the towns of Tazzarine and Al-Nif, known for fossils mined by the local population, we were lowly moving along one of the most picturesque routes of southern Morocco, in the direction of Erfoud and through Ar-Rajsani, with the most famous souk in the region. In this town, routes begin leading through the Sahara. Along the way, the green swath of palm groves snaked up among fortified villages and Berber granaries, integrated into the landscape of green oases and mountains.

Gate to Sahara Desert

Can you remember the last time you saw a spectacular sunset over the desert?

Dark silhouettes of our caravan cast against the dunes. Photo taken by Iwona Wilczek. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

It was in the small Saharan oasis Merzouga, where Erg Chebbi begins. It is the most popular part of the Sahara Desert in Morocco, with its impressive dunes of pristine sand rising to the height of two hundred and fifty metres and stretching for thirty kilometres around. We rode camels for hours through the gentle golden-orange waves of the desert, climbed up and slid the dunes, enjoying like children golden snowfalls of sand.

Can you remember the last time you saw a spectacular sunset over the desert? Copyright©Archaeotravel.

With the afternoon coming, dark silhouettes of our caravan, cast against the dunes, were stretching like a ribbon along the way. As we progressed, the colours of the desert kept changing with time from glistening golden-yellow to extremely intense brick-orange with some reddish contours hovering on the horizon. Finally, the camels sat down and we could climbed down our mounts. The sun had slowly started to set sleepily sliding its last lights over the sand. It seemed as if the waning ball  was stripping all the desert off colours, leaving us behind among faded and cold hills of sand, in utter silence of the night.

Life-giving katara system

Apart from gold, essential for the successful mission of the Almoravids was also water (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012) and the Berbers “had the knowhow to find and move the scarce resource of water under the arid Sahara desert through katara – a part of the ancient irrigation system made up of a complex network of underground tunnels for funnelling water” (Toa Correspondent 2017). By its means, water could be provided where it was needed across the arid and dry landscape. The whole system is now visible by mounds stretching out across the landscape and it shows the Berbers’ ability to understand their land and work with it (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012).

The system looks on the surface like rows of mole hills but underground it reveals the Berbers engineering knowledge. When we stepped down to the man-made tube-like tunnels, we found ourselves in a parallel world of subterranean caverns and narrow passages, simply lit by the light from the “mole” chimneys opening to the sky. Such was an ancient experience and mastery of the Berbers that they use their katara underground complexes even today.

Riding camels across the Sahara Desert. Photo taken by Iwona Wilczek. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Across the Atlas Mountains

Finally, with a powerful army, Ibn Yasin had a potential to create an Islamic Berber nation (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Yet, before the Almoravids set the foundations for their imperial cities, such as Marrakech, they had to first cross the Atlas Mountains (Ibid.). It was because the Atlas range, rising to over four thousand metres above sea level, has formed a natural border between the desert in the south and more fertile and populous lands in the north, which the army was planning to conquer (Ibid.).  

Tinghir looks like a mosaic of blue, pink and grey tesserae, scattered between the green swath of palm trees and arid flattened peaks. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Having traversed the Sahara Desert, we also headed off to the mountains. We took our journey through the Tinghir oasis enclosed by a palm grove, and stopped at the Todra Gorge. Nestled in a surrounding of brick-coloured waves of mountains, the village of Tinghir looks like a mosaic of blue, pink and grey tesserae, scattered between the green swath of palm trees and arid peaks.

The Todra Gorge attracts many amateurs of climbing. Photo taken by Iwona Wilczek. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“Here, both the Todra and Dadès Rivers have carved out cliff-sided canyons [of several hundred meters long, stretching] through the mountains” (Jackson 2020). The Todra Gorge itself is quite narrow, with its walls rising to around three hundred metres. The river has shrunk so far, allowing “only the imagination to picture the powerful natural forces that once carved this region” (Ibid.). Enchanted by its irresistible magnitude, we spent a while to examine the gorge, and then returned in the area of Tinerhir to enjoy our next Moroccan meal full of colours and spices while “[relishing] this oasis town situated in the heart of an overwhelming fantastic region, [densely covered in] olive, pomegranate, [and] date palms” (Salloum 2020).

Tinerhir oasis in the heart of a beautiful region of olive trees, pomegranate, and date palms. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Leaving behind one of the most charming landscapes of the southern Morocco, we drove along the Dadès River Valley to the town of El Kelaa de Mgouna. This region is famous for growing the extremely aromatic Rosa Damascena, also known as the Rose of Castile (Brooke 2020). Its exceptional scent hovers in the air of local valleys and is responsible for a “fragrant resurgence of [roses] in perfumes” (Ibid.). Millenia ago, the pre-Saharan valley of the Dadès carried one of the main trade routes through the mountains, which made it attractive also to thieves. Today it overlaps with the so-called Road of a Thousand Kasbahs, “fairy-tale forts, built by magical hands” (Salloum 2020).

Road of a Thousand Kasbahs

By Tinerhir and El Kelaa de Mgouna, we had entered the kingdom of kasbahs and their famous route. The outlines of adobe towers were “to be spotted at every corner […], while speeding 4x4s [moved] between different locations and the next thé à la menthe and couscous aux légumes” (Minca, Wagner 2016:165). Along our way, the fortified castles kept “peeking out of palm groves and edging the roads that cut through the valley” (Rough Guides 2020). They literally dot the landscape of the region (Minca, Wagner 2016:165).

Terracotta-like colour of the kasbah walls are blending with the colours of the surrounding arid hills. Photo taken by Iwona Wilczek. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The so-called “kasbah effect” (Ibid.:165) most notably dominates the areas of the great river valleys, namely the already visited Drâa and the Dadès, which encompasses the Route of a Thousand Kasbahs, we were just driving along (Rough Guides 2020). The land of kasbahs consequently covers a vast southern region of Morocco, from the city of Tarudant in the west till “possibly Erfoud at the most extreme eastern tip of this [route]” (Minca, Wagner 2016:165), and includes such cities as Skoura, El Kelaa de Mgouna, Tinerhir, and Boulmane du Dades (Ibid.:165). The itinerary following their monumental castles “hypothetically starts in Ouarzazate, but that is anticipated by the [Ksour] Ait ben Haddou to continue for more than [three hundred kilometres] along the edge of the desert, [till] Merzouga” (Ibid.:165).

Tales of kasbahs

Kasbahs are first of all the significant Heritage of Earthen Architecture in Morocco (Marcus, Smith 2016). There are thousands of fortified earthen complexes and villages, known as kasbahs and ksour, found in southern Morocco (Ibid.). Nowadays, “the Berbers have, with some modifications, retained the fortress-like forms of architecture, [which was in the past] typically constructed to withstand enemy assault” (Chijioke Njoku 2006:66). Like in the painting from an oriental fairy-tale, “the Kasbah is an image of a mud castle in a desert-like landscape, the image exotic and typical of an orientalist idea of the people living at the edge of the Sahara. […] In this sense, the Kasbah is often represented as the ultimate castle in the desert, a fortress perfectly complementing the soft colours tainting the arid landscape” (Minca, Wagner 2016:165).

One of a few preserved kasbahs, situated on top of the hill. Photo taken by Iwona Wilczek. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Kasbahs were “built, in the absence of other available materials, out of [straw] and the mud-clay pisé of the riverbanks. […] 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” (Rough Guides 2020; see Barriault 2013:35).

Native Berber architecture

The definition of kasbah has got a very wide meaning, “from a fortress isolated in the country to a city neighbourhood, where the members of the administration and the army lived” (Mimó 2020).

Kasbah remains at foot of the mountains. Photo taken by Iwona Wilczek. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

However, in southern Morocco, the word kasbah is usually applied to an earthen square structure featuring four towers at the corners (Ibid.) and usually owned by powerful families of viziers (provincial or local governors) or qaids (local judges) (Chijioke Njoku 2006:66). So originally, in the Berber country, the kasbah was a fortified medieval castle, sometimes with the interconnected parts enclosing a village (Chijioke Njoku 2006:66) and “harbouring [its inhabitants] within its bewildering passageways” (Barriault 2013:35). Such functions of the Berbers medieval castles were used especially “[in the era of the Islamic invasions of North Africa and Spain, [when] a fortified section of the kasbah […] was where royal residents sought protection in time of danger” (Chijioke Njoku 2006:66).

Kasbah towers are still well visible among the ruins. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Kasbah as an architectural construction is originally “Berber and in this language it is called Tighremt. The word kasbah is recent and linked to the arrival of Arab citizens to areas where there were such monuments” (Mimó 2020). There is yet another definition to describe the Berber architecture, linked to the notion of kasbahs. This is ksar or Ighrem in Berber (Rough Guides 2020). In the Sahara and pre-Sahara valleys of the Atlas Mountains, the Berber population lived within the ksar “which generally refers to fortified and walled villages” (Chijioke Njoku 2006:66; see Mimó 2020). In such a sense, the ksar could include one or a few kasbahs within its walls (Mimó 2020). On the other side, according to other sources, ksar may also stand for “a fortified section of the [kasbah]” Chijioke Njoku 2006:66). However, a ksar (plural, ksour) is usually translated as a walled town with monumental, decorated gates and protected by watchtowers (Mimó 2020). It includes private houses, the mosque and a communal square (Ibid.). Ksour are said to be even more ancient than kasbahs (Ibid.). The oldest kasbahs preserved to our times are dated back to the seventeenth century, however, they may have appeared even millennia ago (Ibid.). There are also some ksour and kasbahs built in the nineteenth century by formerly nomadic tribes (Ibid.).

The range of High Atlas Mountains in the distance. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

At the time of the Almoravid expansion, medieval kasbahs were fortified houses, owned and used by Berber wealthy families and merchants (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). They served “as both residential [but fortified] houses and storerooms” (Chijioke Njoku 2006:66), used to house goods of trade, such as gold and silks, which came across the desert (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). They had to be fortified because it was a dangerous territory (Ibid.). As such, kasbahs “were built [upon] hills with meandering paths and secret passageways for defence. Enemies were sure to lose their way, defeated by the residents, whose peace the invaders wanted to disturb” (Barriault 2013:35). On the whole, they are magnificent buildings but their fortifications give a sense of what it was like in those days (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012).  

Doors to the glorious past

“French academic engagements with kasbahs re-emerged in the decades following the World War I, as waves of rebellion across the Protectorate rescinded and the southern regions became more passable by civilians (Minca, Wagner 2016:171).

Intense reddish colours of mud-bricked architecture.
Photo taken by Iwona Wilczek.

Moreover, “the magnificent castles described by nineteenth century travellers [could be already reached by cars]” (Ibid.:171). It also brought “a new wave of researchers on the region – whose focus was the specificity of Berber social organisation and architecture in the timelessness of these untouched and authentic territories. All this investigation was framed as documenting ‘Berber’ life” (Ibid.:172), as opposed to the Arabic culture of the contemporary Imperial Morocco (Ibid.:172). Accordingly, anthropologists describe such architectural structures as kasbahs as non-Arabic  (Ibid.:172) and find their roots “delving into ancient global histories like Roman, Greek and the nomadic Sahara. Though they edge towards anthropology, these interpretations are less reflections of use by the inhabitants of kasbahs, and more archaeologies of living monuments, rendering kasbahs into authentic artifacts, even while they are serving as actual living spaces for their residents” (Ibid.:172).

Adobe ramparts of a kasbah among date palms. Photo taken by Iwona Wilczek. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Today, “the adobe ramparts, pathways and doorways [still] retain that majestic mirage [of the Berbers’ glorious past], though very independent homeowners and squatters now inhabit the endless apartments locked within fortified walls” (Barriault 2013:35). For centuries, visitors to Morocco have been “driven by the appeal of these mythical building style. [This is why] they have become an important form of tourist accommodation” (Minca, Wagner 2016:165), sometimes the result of the imaginative conversion of former abandoned or semi-abandoned original structures, which once were real houses (Ibid.:165).

Most prominent of all

Finally, we reached the altitude of 1160 metres above sea level, and the city of Quarzazate or Ouarzazate. It is the capital of southern Morocco, and because of its location, it gives an amazing view of the Atlas range on the horizon. Historically it was the intersection of trans-Saharan trade routes, where the multitude of fortified architecture had escorted us since we left the Sahara Desert and started approaching the mountains.

The most famous of all kasbahs preserved in Morocco is the Kasbah of Taourirt. Photo taken by Iwona Wilczek. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The most famous of all kasbahs preserved in Morocco is the Kasbah of Taourirt (Marcus, Smith 2016: Salloum 2020). It is located in the city of Ouarzazate and is “considered to be the mother of all kasbahs” (Salloum 2020). The earliest parts of the mud castle date back to the seventeenth century but most of the complex was constructed in the late nineteenth century by Si Hammadi el Glaoui, the ruler of Taourirt and of the powerful Glaoui family, who controlled the southern part of the country (Marcus, Smith 2016; Salloum 2020; see Barriault 2013:35). Si Hammadi expanded the Kasbah from a small group of buildings into a large defensive palace (Marcus, Smith 2016). It included stables, servants’ quarters, workshops, a market, wells and baths, and residences for his wives and children (Ibid.).

The Kasbah of Taourirt with lavishly ornamented walls
with geometric motifs: hazarbaf. Photo taken by
Iwona Wilczek. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Accordingly, the structure encompasses a series of crenelated towers, rising out of a mass of closely packed houses and lavishly ornamented walls with geometric motifs (Salloum 2020). The latter are made with the decorative brickwork technique of hazarbaf, literally meaning ‘thousand weavings’ (Dictionary University 2020). In architecture it is a surface decoration where the exterior wall of the building is geometrically patterned in relief with bricks that create a play of light and shadow (Ibid.). Among the relieved ‘thousand waves’, there are wrought iron bay windows and other intricate traditional architectonic ornamentation, like alfiz, which all adorn the exterior (Marcus, Smith 2016).

The family’s private apartments are particularly richly decorated (Marcus, Smith 2016). Inside the Kasbah, the whitewashed are painted halfway up, whereas the lower parts of the rooms are usually covered in colourful zellige tiles, with the predominance of blue (Barriault 2013:36). Above the windows positioned at the ground level, there are either belts of tiles or stucco friezes running around the room with similar medallions between them. They all are filled with rhythmic linear patterns of arabesque, koranic verses or girth lines decorating the tiles. Ceilings of the private apartments are abundantly carved in cedar wood, subsequently pained in vibrant colours, whereas lesser rooms or passageways are covered with the traditional Berber wooden roofs with visible beams and geometric decorations filling the space between them. We had already observed the very same technique in the wooden roofs of Tarudant and other Berber cities on the way.

All the architectural elements and decorations applied in the Kasbah of Taourirt repeat themselves more or less in other earthly Berber structures, depending on the level of their usage and preservation. It is also worth to note that kasbah elements subsequently influenced and enriched the architecture of the Berber imperial cities, such as Marrakech. It is even believed that an outstanding square-shaped tower of Moroccan minaret (in other Islamic countries, it is usually round), took its origins from the Berber architecture of the kasbah tower. On the other side, the ingenious “Moroccan architecture has been [also] heavily impacted by the Islamic traditions and later European influences. [Modes] of religious worship and rituals, regional histories, and local material, [all that] have combined to give Moroccan architecture a diverse but unique expression” (Chijioke Njoku 2006:65).

Rehabilitation of kasbahs

Inside the Kasbah of Taourirt. Photo taken by Gosia Nowa. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Unfortunately, kasbahs important and fragile architecture is threatened by abandonment and is being lost (Marcus, Smith 2016). Although the Kasbah of Taourirt was designated a Moroccan national landmark in 1954, it has suffered a gradual deterioration over the years and was mostly abandoned until the 1990s (Ibid.). Currently, it is under the protection of CERKAS, a public institution under the authority of the Ministry of Culture, which aim is to preserve the architectural heritage found in the Atlas Regions and the pre-Saharan Valleys of Morocco (Ibid.). In 2011, the Getty Conservation Institute and CERKAS partnered to develop a methodology for preserving the Kasbah and other sites featuring the earthen architecture in southern Morocco (Ibid.).

Typical elements of the earthen Berber
architecture (clay and straw) are very present in modern day hotels and private houses. Photo taken by Iwona Wilczek.

Structures in the Kasbah are now being stabilized and restored using traditional earthen construction and conservation techniques (Ibid.). Local materials from Ouarzazate region are being used and skilled craftsmen are training labours in traditional building crafts and techniques (Ibid.). Wall painting conservators are also working inside the richly decorated Caid Residence to preserve and protect important wall paintings (Ibid.). Generally,  the rehabilitation of Kasbah Taourirt can serve as a model for conservation of similar earthen sites in the region (Ibid.).

Mud-red fortress

Towering from the edge of the river valley, the Ksar Ait Bin Haddou contains some kasbahs and the most beautiful in all Morocco fortified ochre-coloured Berber village.

One of the most famous landmarks of southern Morocco: thr Ksar Ait Bin Haddou. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The whole complex looks like a massive red bulk of the flat mountain, encrusted with squared houses and sticking towers. Sitting atop a gorge, the fortress is accessible only by donkeys or on foot (Barriault 2013:36). To reach its entrance, we crossed the modern bridge suspended over the nearly dry bed of the Imarene River, which separates the ksar from the neighbourhood town buildings (Ibid.:36). For a moment “we stood in awe, just before beginning the trek upward. There, on low ground, we beheld a huge arched entrance, the same [terracotta-colour] of the imposing kasbah that rose behind it” (Ibid.:36).

The whole complex looks like a massive red bulk of
the flat mountain, encrusted with squared houses
and sticking towers. Photo taken by Gosia Nowa.

Many ksour, like this one, must have existed in Maghreb in the Middle Ages (Ibid.:36). They were cities “unto themselves – slave and villager quarters at the base, the ruling family ensconced in the fort at the top” (Ibid.:36-37). Like in the case of the Kasbah of Taourirt, the family owning the Ksar Ait Bin Haddou was the same “notorious Glaoui clan – a ruling French partisan family during the early twentieth century who completed the fortress” (Ibid.:37). We kept climbing the steep and narrow switchbacks of the ksar, leading past red adobe dwellings to its highest pyramidal-like stepped, mut-rutted terraces (Barriault 2013:37). As we were traversing our footpath, we encountered either goats or donkeys ramming the passageway or the natives selling their goods to passing tourists: colourful paintings, fabrics, herbs and spices (Ibid.:37). Some also offered the tastes of the Moroccan cuisine – a hot smoking tagine, hidden under a conical terracotta cooking pot and surrounded by sweet-smelling with rusted meat and spices (Ibid.:37).

“The higher we climbed, the fewer the inhabitants, the wider the view of the mountainous terrain that crested above the surrounding valley. The brown, barren earth unfolded before us like a forsaken moonscape. Certainly, approaching visitors, hostile or friendly, would be spotted from this height long before they actually arrived. The views of the sweeping mountains that rimmed the bleak plains more than compensated for our efforts to reach the pinnacle that afforded such sights” (Ibid.:37). We were standing there, “elevated above the impoverished lives below us” (Ibid.:37), and listening to the blows of wind sliding down the ridges of mountains. It was high time to go down. Still nobody moved as if enchanted by thousand tales of kasbahs.

In front of the Ksar Ait Bin Haddou. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Time to cross the mountains

Mysterious Maghreb culture can be compared to its indigenous shelter – the Berber kasbah (Barriault 2013:35). It is at once exotic, inaccessible, misleading but irresistible (Ibid.:35). It appealingly intoxicates our senses with a mystical and elusive essence of the damascene rose petals, drizzled on top of exotic dishes with spicy and herbal flavours; it wraps our skin with the melting velvet of argan oil and dresses it with delicate laces of henna tattoos. At once, it stimulates, clears the mind and brings relaxation.

With each rhythmic strike of a tambourine and magical sounds of Moroccan strings, we stepped back further in fabulous times. The Moroccan journey had led us far to the corners of this semi-abandoned but vibrant spectacle of the past.

Barrage El Mansour Eddahbi. Lake in Ouarzazate. Photo taken by Iwona Wilczek. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“Marrakesh, [and other imperial cities], teeming with seductive life and sunshine, [were always] ahead” (Barriault 2013:37) but we were still lingering between the desert and the mountains, embraced by the arms of red mud-bricked walls.

Featured Image: The Ksar Ait Bin Haddou and the Route of a Thousand Kasbahs. Copyright©Archaeotravel.


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