Between the camels and the dinosaures: a weekend of field exercises in the Tafilalt oasis

One of the undergraduate courses I am teaching this semester is Field Methods, an advanced methods course for students specializing in Development Studies. Throughout the semester the four students in the class have been conducting practical field exercises in and around Ifrane, some of which were related to data collection for our communal development plan project (see previous post).

This past weekend (22-24 April 2011) I took the group to the Tafilalt Oasis to do the field work for their major end-of-term projects. Each of the students is researching a specific issue, and each conducted a review of the literature and submitted a proposal prior to the field excursion. The group spent a day and a half in the field conducting observations and interviews. I invite you to follow us on this excursion. I have located all the places mentioned in this post in this Google Earth (kmz) file which you can download for an enhanced on-line multimedia experience.

The Tafilalt Oasis, the largest oasis in the Sahara after the Nile Valley, is an important historic region, home to the fabled medieval city of Sijilmassa and original seat of Morocco’s reining ‘Alawi dynasty. In the past decade or so it has also experienced a steep increase in international tourism. The Tafilalt is also now famous for its fossil industry, and as a set for foreign movies requiring desert locations. We encountered each of these themes during the course of our busy weekend.

Tourists enjoying a short camel ride at Merzouga dunes. This is all most tourists will ever see of the Tafilalt Oasis. They are not shown the mounds of garbage dumped further out in the desert. (ph. Hasna Benrhanem)

Our base in the Tafilalt is always the Hôtel Tafilalt in downtown Erfoud, a five-hour drive from Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane. On April 1 Morocco officially went over to daylight savings time, but when we arrived at the hotel we were informed by the manager that the hotel, and nearly everyone else in the Tafilalt, was still on standard GMT. It appears that in the Tafilalt people feel they don’t have to put up with foolishness from Rabat. As a result, I had to change the scheduling of some of the planned activities by one hour.

Hasna Benrhanem is studying the environmental impact of tourism, and of hotels in particular. She met with the managers of a number of large hotels in Erfoud as well as at the Merzouga dunes, epicenter of the region’s tourism business. She distributed a questionnaire about water use and waste disposal. The managers were helpful and eager to answer her questions, but they were evasive about the mounds of garbage and empty plastic water bottles blowing about the desert just beyond the view of the tourist. Not surprisingly, none of them would agree to take her to the dumping grounds.

Full-scale maquette of a Triceratops erected in front of the Tahiri Fossil Museum. Brahim Tahiri runs the top fossil business in the Tafilalt. His new museum has a pedagogical purpose and is perfect for school outings. (ph. Anjuli Pandavar)

Ismail El Kerouani is studying the fossil industry, largely located in and around Erfoud. He first went to interview Brahim Tahiri, who runs the top fossil business from the new Tahiri Fossil Museum near Rissani. The vast majority of high-quality Moroccan fossils sold in Europe and North America are his products. Smaller fossil factories (yes, fossils have to be manufactured from quarried stone) are located in the center of Erfoud, between the central market and the banks of the Ziz River. These operate with far less capital and equipment than Tahiri’s establishment. Yet other businesses specialize in producing polished stone slabs for architectural decoration and (heavy) items of furniture such as tables, counter tops and lamps.

Salma Lamqaddam is studying how women use market space, traditionally a male domain, in this very conservative region. She is comparing the markets of Erfoud and Rissani. She interviewed a number of women, sellers and buyers alike, in both markets and mapped the spaces they use.

View of the main gate to the municipal market in Erfoud from the inside (ph. Salma Lamqaddam)

View of an alley in the municipal market in Rissani (ph. Salma Lamqaddam)

Tachfine Baida is researching how the archaeological site of Sijilmassa in Rissani is managed (or not) by the local authorities and what relevance the site has to the local population. He interviewed the interim director of the Centre for ‘Alawi Studies, as well as members of local educational and cultural associations, many of whom are high school teachers. He also toured the Sijilmassa site noting the condition of its remaining walls, etc.

View of 17th century walls in Sijilmassa (ph. Tachfine Baida)

Another view of the 17th century ruins in Sijilmassa (ph. Tachfine Baida)

The ruins observable above ground are those of the 17th century qasr (fortress) built by the ‘Alawis. Vestiges of medieval Sijilmassa lie beneath them.

Undergraduate student Tachfine Baida conducting observations at the Sijilmassa site (ph. Anjuli Pandavar)

Prof. Anjuli Pandavar, who teaches writing at AUI, and graduate student Seny Mbaye Ndiaye accompanied us to the Tafilalt in order to visit the Sijilmassa site. Anjuli Pandavar is currently writing a novel, part of which takes place in the medieval metropolis. We visited the site twice, on Saturday morning and then again on Sunday morning.

Satellite image of the centre of the Sijilmassa site. The pisé (rammed earth) walls which are still standing are those of the 17th century ‘Alawi qasr. This complex included a mosque and a madrasa, at the center of the image. (image source: Google Earth)

Other archaeological sites we visited include one of the numerous khettara, sub-surface channels which used to bring water from into the oasis, the Rasif dam on the Ziz River, the foundations of which date to the Almoravid era, and Qasr Oulad ‘Abd al-Halim, an early 19th century royal palace badly in need of restoration.

View of a khettara along the main road from Erfoud to Rissani. The pits at 50 meter intervals lead to the underground irrigation channel. (ph. Anjuli Pandavar)

Satellite image of a khettara (made visible by the alignement of pits) passing beneath the national road. (image source: Google Earth)

View of Rasif Dam, one of several across the Ziz which used to control the flow of the river until a modern dam was built above Errachidia in the late 1960s (ph. Anjuli Pandavar)

Satellite image of Rasif Dam. The masonry structure zigzags across the dry valley of the Ziz River. The dam’s reservoir (light grey area north of the masonry) is completely silted up. Occasionally, after heavy rains, water will still rush down the Ziz and flow over the dam. (image source: Google Earth)

Satellite image of Qasr Oulad ‘Abd al-Halim. The qasr consists of three walled perimeters, one inside the other, plus an external walled annex to the southeast. In the early 19th century the central compound was the residence of the governor of the province, always a member of the royal family. The private apartments have a very pretty enclosed garden, visibly green on this image. The qasr is in need of restoration. (image source: Google Earth)

View of the first mashwâr (court yard) of the Oulad ‘Abd al-Halim qasr Standing next to me is graduate student Seny Ndiaye (ph. Anjuli Pandavar)

View of an alley in Qasr Oulad ‘Abd al-Halim (ph. Anjuli Pandavar)

Our data collection was interupted on Saturday afternoon by rain. Though it did not rain hard (downpours in the desert are notoriously devastating, causing destructive flash floods) it was sufficient to flood the main road into Rissani.

SUVs, jeeps and trucks could ford the flooded road into Rissani but all other traffic was stopped (ph. Tachfine Baida)

On Saturday evening, after a long day in the field, our group went to the zâwiya of Sidi Al-Ghâzî, at the southern extremity of the oasis, for an evening of Sufi recitation, khadra, and a delicious dinner.

Satellite image of the Zâwiya Sidi al-Ghâzî complex. The actual shrine (mosque, mausolea, cemetery) in the north part of complex was destroyed by a flood in the late 1960s and is now completely ruined. Members of the Sufi order meet in the Guest House, next to the Shaykh’s house, in the complex’s eastern village. Half of this village too is ruined. The village at the west of the complex contains the shrine of Sidi al-‘Arbi al-Ghâzî. (image source: Google Earth)

View of the ruined shrine complex at Zâwiya Sidi al-Ghâzî taken in 2002. The adobe minaret has since collapsed. (ph. John Shoup)

The Sidi Al-Ghâzî Zâwiya has always been very hospitable to us and our students and we often take visitors there to taste the mystical side of life. Joining us that evening were three other AUI students, Irshad Benqadi, Ian Cameron and El Mehdi Aït Larbi, as well as Mehdi’s mother. These undergraduate students have been conducting research of their own in the Tafilalt for extra credit. Their study relates to Morocco’s recent history and is based on in-depth life-story interviews.

A khadra session at Zâwiya Sidi al-Ghâzî. Sidi Mustafa al-Ghâzî, muqaddam of the zâwiya, is playing the double drum. This photo was taken on a previous visit. (ph. John Shoup)

On Sunday morning we returned to the Sijilmassa site where we met up with a TV film crew from Glasgow, IWC Media. They were filming the second season of Ancient Kingdoms of Africa, to be aired on BBC4, and, though I am by no means an expert on the history and archaeology of Sijilmassa, I had the pleasure of being interviewed on-site by Gus Casely-Hayford. Be sure to catch the episode on Berber empires (the Almoravids and the Almohads) later this season.

Gus Casely-Hayford interviewing me about the history of Sijilmassa. The show, part of BB4’s Lost Kingdoms of Africa, will be aired later this year (ph. Anjuli Pandavar)

Update: The episode on “Berber Kingdom of Morocco” has been aired and can be viewed on YouTube (below). Sijimassa is described from 4:30 to 7:50.

Our data collection over, all that was left was the long drive back to Ifrane.

Eric driving home (ph. Anjuli Pandavar)

About ericrossacademic

Professor of Geography at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco
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