02 February 2013

The High Atlas, Morocco

Driving south of Marrakech takes one into the High Atlas, the highest of Morocco's four major ranges and also the highest in North Africa.  To find higher, you have to travel to Ethiopia and further south through the Great Rift Valley.  The Atlas Mountains are a major region of Morocco, and they also serve as a major climate boundary: northwest of the Atlas, the climate is Mediterranean, but southeast lies the Sahara Desert.  The mountains themselves are their own climate zone too, with the High Atlas accumulating snow during the winter, enough to sustain several winter sports parks.

So, we rented a car and started driving.  Our route took us up the Tizi n' Tichka pass.  When we first left Marrakech and entered the mountains, they were green, as seen here.  The drive was beautiful, with the incredibly engineered road switching back and offering one spectacular view after another.  There were tracks of forest and plenty of vegetation in the sweeping vistas.  As we climbed higher though, that slowly changed...

Eventually, the only major vegetation other than high altitude desert scrub were irrigated farmers fields along the rivers and creeks.  The vistas were still stunning though... especially considering how the terrain contrasted with that beautiful blue sky.

On the Marrakech side of the pass, we went by plenty of places like this, advertising that they sold argan oil.  Produced from the kernels of the argan tree, which is native to Morocco, argan oil has nutritive, cosmetic, and medicinal properties.  It is a wonder product of sorts, since farming argan trees also is environmentally friendly.  The trees provide soil stability, shade for other plants, and food for local animals, and they help fight desertification, the encroachment of the desert on non-desert lands.  Since it is a cash crop, it is also immensely helpful to the local economy... 4 oz of the oil sells for more than US$100 as a cosmetic product.   

The other omnipresent roadside store through the Atlas: the mineral shop.  These shops offer up a variety of tourist souvenirs, but their principle product are the shiny rocks and colored crystals that can be found in the mountains.  Many, many times the product is only fools gold or quartz that has been (poorly) spray painted blue, green, or pink.  Beware of some of these guys as they can be pretty aggressive salesmen... we even saw one guy with a handful of rocks jumping out in front of cars on the highway to try and get passersby to stop and buy something!

I mentioned the incredibly engineered road and epic switchbacks, right?  Unfortunately, due to steep walls on either side, we were unable to stop at what I felt was the best view of the road below us... going down into a valley on the Marrakech side where the road just appeared again and again, further and further away and down the valley on each of the prominences jutting out into the valley.  It is a spectacular drive, and the road is really (notably) in very good condition pretty much the whole way through the mountains!

Nearing the top of the pass, most vegetation was gone.  Tizi n'Tichka pass tops out at 2260 m (7415 ft), but the mountains around it climb much higher (up to over 4000 m for the highest).

At the pass summit, there is a small service center, manned by some of the most aggressive shop keeps we found in Morocco.  As soon as the car pulled up, they were swarming around it, trying to figure out what language we spoke by asking us in Arabic, French, English, German, Dutch, and Spanish.  I learned again and again throughout my trip how naturally skilled Moroccans are with languages... they seem to have no problems juggling 4 or more languages around inside their heads.  Many people don't truly master their third, fourth, or fifth language, but they have more than enough to be fluently conversational.  Many times, you'll hear Moroccans switching seamlessly between 2 or more languages in conversation and even mid-sentence, choosing the language with the best words to describe the topic; this can be immensely confusing for outsiders.  The aggressive salesmen at the top of the pass were quite amazed when my two friends from the Peace Corps. started speaking the local, Berber language of Tamazight with them; the looks on their faces when my friends said the equivalent of good morning, how are you today?" was just priceless!  The men were very excited (and somewhat disarmed with the pushy sales too) and immediately jumped into a long conversation, injecting Arabic, French, and English words throughout of course.

The view from the pass... looking toward the Sahara.  The Atlas mountains are full of trails too... they are a hikers and backpackers playground.  There are also many 4x4 trails, making them ideal for off-road motorists and mountain bikers.  This is something that seems to be known to small communities of enthusiasts, mostly French... who come to get lost in these beautiful mountains.  Yet the locals haven't seemed to really comprehend the potential here... a lot more people would love to get out and hike, camp, bike, climb, and 4x4 in these mountains, and they would gladly pay for guided access or additional infrastructure (like equipment rentals and specialized supply and gear stores) too.

One of the shops at the top.  They definitely want to make sure it catches your eye as you drive up.  

The road is very, very windy, so the average going is kind of slow, especially when you get stuck behind big trucks...

...like this one.  We expected those bales to tip over around every curve... they were listing so much!  I can't believe how high they stacked that truck full... it must have been riding on its axles under the weight of it all.

It was amazing to see how the slightest bit of water, the availability of most of which is quite seasonal, can be used to make such a harsh landscape green.  Little communities like this in the bottom of deep valleys were pretty common.  They were very characteristic too, with the fields, adobe houses, and mosque minarets standing tall somewhere in the middle.

A highly suggested detour from the main highway is the casbah ruins at Telouet.  Being pretty well in the middle of nowhere, and about an hour or more drive on a pretty rough, narrow mountain road off the main highway, Telouet is not one of the major tourist stops, with a never-ending parade of wealthy tourists herded off and on their buses and through the site by they guides.  This made Telouet highly attractive to us, so we made sure to get out to see it.  We weren't at all disappointed.

The casbah at Telouet was the capital of the Glaoui family's sphere of influence, which was quite significant considering that they controlled the major trade routes through the High Atlas during the mid-to-late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Ruling over such an empire, the Glaoui's were immensely wealth and powerful, and of course, involved in the greater politics of Morocco.  By the time the French arrived in force just before World War I, the Glaoui's had so much power in their feudal system that they were able to manipulate the French to allow them to basically administer the entire south of Morocco.  In doing so, they received French weapons and support and were able to brutally suppress (and often slaughter) their traditional enemy tribes throughout the region.  The Glaoui's maintained their alliances with the French and fell from power when the current monarchy rose to power.  As punishment in 1956, all Glaoui lands and estates were seized by the monarchy for the Moroccan state.  This old enmity is one of the possible reasons why the Glaoui casbah at Telouet has been allowed to fall into such a horrible state of disrepair... with any thoughts for restoration (and demand for such amongst the locals, who rightfully understand how much tourist dollars would help them) being pretty much ignored by the state.  In it's current state, it is very characteristic though... and the locals are very friendly and inviting.  It stands in stark contrast to the fully restored (supposedly too much so for the cameras and movies as for authenticity) casbah at Ait Benhaddou, which is on EVERY major tour bus route (and many postcards too) south of the High Atlas.

The merlons, battlements along the tops of the walls and towers, are another architectural feature seen throughout Moroccan casbahs.  They served both as decoration and for defensive purposes.

Storks had set up shop here too.  The amazing thing with the casbah at Telouet is how amongst the decrepit, crumbling features all around, there are these small reminders of its former beauty, like the delicate work in the window arch seen here.

The casbah is huge, and the majority of the complex looks like this, with towers broken or outright fallen and missing roofs on the rooms that are now slowly but surely filling with sand.  As with ruins everywhere, the natural terrain is swallowing and reclaiming what man built on it... showcasing how insignificant we can be in the grand scheme of things.

Once again, for the observant viewer, there are still signs of this palace's former glory.  Check out the details on the door's arch.  Such features seem to conflict so much with the ruinous state of the majority of the complex.  When you catch such detail amidst the ruin surrounding it, it demands attention and sparks thoughts of intrigue, befuddlement, and awe.

I'm pretty sure these glass skylights and modern cement were recent additions.  To gain access inside, you need to pay for a local guide (which you should definitely do!), and our guide told us that since they don't have support for renovations and preservation from the government, the locals themselves are putting what money they can into protecting their archaeological gem, which they know is key to bringing in much needed tourist dollars.

More details amidst the ruin.  Seeing beneath the facade, some of the construction methods used less than two centuries ago are quite basic, like the uneven log and wood cross supports seen here!  I guess you have to use what is available, and they obviously didn't have a good supply of large, straight trees anywhere nearby to make beams from.

Inside it is eerily quiet and empty...

But the heart of the complex reveals its truly stunning beauty.  Walking into these rooms after touring the outside and sand-filled, bare outer areas just hits you like a knock to the head.  It staggers you to see such immaculate design in such a seemingly desolate and deserted and pitted place.  This casbah has not been pitted though... its exterior may be slowly rotting, but its seed in the middle is wonderfully preserved.

The paint on this cedar wood ceiling is still so bright... deep within the desert fortress, it's been protected from damaging sunlight and humid air.

There was also plenty of zellij as well.  The colorful mosaics were in remarkable shape, with barely a tile missing and the colors still bright and popping in the dark interior.

Viewing these decorations up close reveals all the tiny imperfections... letting you know that these are indeed the product of fellow mortals.

I really think the features here, deep within the ruin at Telouet, were the most beautiful that I saw in Morocco, and having them in the middle of this epic ruin made them even more spectacular.  They were so complete and yet also so completely disjointed from the bare ruins all around... literally in just the next room over.

I can't stress enough how beautiful this place was.  I was just wondering slowly in a state of pure awe.  We had the place to ourselves too, which fueled these powerful sensations even more.  These pictures do no justice whatsoever for being surrounded by such a place... as I just said, these rooms were complete... you felt transported to another place and time in these rooms.  It was outright enchanting.

The features like this, where the bottom of a pedestal or arch was carved out reminded me a lot of a bee hive.  The repeating patterns of hollow and prominent were very organic.

I hope these pictures can speak for themselves...

Looking back through the portal into the bare ruin from which we'd come.  It's sad really... this casbah should be seen by more people... it is one of the most spectacular sites I saw in Morocco, and the locals would benefit so much from the tourism income.  However, restoration of the casbah would take so much away from its character... it is that incredible contrast between the crumbling exterior and outer complex and this near perfectly preserved group of rooms at the core that make this place so special.  I think it should most definitely be preserved... allowing this place to be retaken so soon by the Earth would be a terrible mistake.  However, I don't think a full restoration is key... and opening it up to so much more tourism will also take so much away from it.  You can't feel as if you've walked through some bizarre tear in the space/time continuum, as you do when you walk through this doorway from the drab, bare exterior into this bright, intricate interior, if you are pushing your way through 500 other visitors, most of whom didn't care to do any research on the place and know nothing of its history or even and details about the features they all gawk at.  It seems a classic case of the gem destination, which is just waiting for its chance to reap the benefits of full-scale tourism, the very force that will also serve to ruin its original, attractively characterful soul.

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