Visiting the cave houses of Zawiyat Sidi Abdesslam

This semester, exceptionally, I am teaching two graduate courses. One is a course on Moroccan cultural heritage. It is designed to be a hands-on exploration of how this country’s cultural heritage, material and tangible, fits with various types of development. It involves taking students into the field and getting them to meet with a variety of stake-holders.

Heritage is encountered everywhere in Morocco; you really don’t have to go far to experience it. The class’s first excursion, on drizzly Saturday 31 January, was only seven kilometers beyond the university gate, to the village of Zawiyat Sidi Abdesslam. Photojournalist Jake Warga‘s photography class joined my Cultural Heritage escapade. Naïma, who heads the village’s women’s literacy center, led our group. We spent the morning visiting cave houses and finished with a déjeuner chez l’habitant. My hat goes off to all the AUI students who participated for not once complaining about the cold rain.

Children play near the mausoleum of Sîdî ‘Abd al-Salâm, founder of the village that bears his name.

Children play near the mausoleum of Sîdî ‘Abd al-Salâm, founder of the village that bears his name. (ph. Eric Ross)

Zawiyat Sidi Abdesslam was the original Ifrane. It predates the present town, built by the French (see Ifrane tab above). Ifrane means “caves” in Tamazight. All the old houses in the village were first “built” as caves, excavated into the limestone hillside above the valley floor. These houses have since been enlarged. Stone and concrete buildings have been built in front of the caves, creating the village we see today. The purpose of the field trip was to experience this village’s architectural heritage. As most caves are still used by the descendants of the house’s founder, architectural heritage in Zawiyat Sidi Abdesslam is deeply personal.

Modern houses in the village of Sidi Abdesslam. Many have caves that extend into the hillside behind them. (ph. Eric Ross)

Modern houses in the village of Sidi Abdesslam. Many have caves that extend into the hillside behind them. (ph. Eric Ross)

Some of Zawiyat Sidi Abdesslam’s caves have collapsed. Terrific as it is to carve and fashion architecturally, limestone is rather frail. With time, weathering has eaten away at cave roofs and these have collapsed. In many other cases, the weight of the modern masonry above them has caused this. As weather was inclement, I did not take students to see the collapsed caves.

Cave being used as a store room. (ph. Eric Ross)

Cave being used as a store room and tool shed. (ph. Eric Ross)

The remaining cave houses of Zawiyat Sidi Abdesslam were inventoried and analyzed by the Ministry of Housing in the late 1990s. I saw its report once, back then, and now regret not having asked for a copy. Most caves have been subdivided by different branches of the family as it has grown. They have become so small and encumbered by retaining walls and concrete pillars supporting structures above that they are no longer habitable. Some surviving caves are now used as utility spaces: store rooms, wood stocks, even mangers if they have a convenient entry for sheep.

Half a cave used as a kitchen. The other half, behind the masonry wall to the left, belongs to another part of the family. (ph. Eric Ross)

Half of a subdivided cave is used as a kitchen. The other half, behind the masonry wall to the left, belongs to another part of the family and is now in a separate house. (ph. Eric Ross)

A few of the caves are still family rooms: kitchens and sitting rooms. As we were visiting these homely caves just before lunch, we were warmed by the aroma of simmering stews and baking bread.

A plaster stork atop a nest announces "Le Git Ifri," a cutural tourism complex that includes a cave museum and a B & B. (ph. Eric Ross)

A plaster stork atop a nest announces “Le Gîte Ifri,” a cutural tourism complex that includes a cave museum and a B & B. (ph. Eric Ross)

The most developed of the caves in the village belongs to the family of artist and local curator Jamal Bekri. Jamal started by turning his cave into a sculpture museum.

"Life starts out hard but gets easier," an Amazigh proverb in Tifinagh. Gite Ifri museum. (ph. Eric Ross)

“Life starts out hard but gets easier,” reads an Amazigh proverb inscribed by Jamal Bekri in Tifinagh. Gîte Ifri cave museum. (ph. Eric Ross)

The museum has sculpted reliefs and paintings of local lore about the village and its saintly founder, sharîf ‘Abd al-Salâm al-Ya’qûbî al-Wallalî, along with proverbs inscribed in Tifinagh. Also on exhibit are artifacts such as stone-age lithics, shards of ceramic kitchen-ware and a model of a traditional bread oven.

Sîdî 'Abd al-Salâm, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, is sculpted in bust and is painted arriving at the site of his village. (ph. Eric Ross)

Jamal Bekri has sculpted a bust of Sîdî ‘Abd al-Salâm, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad and founder of the village, and painted him arriving at the site. Gîte Ifri museum. (ph. Eric Ross)

A lion and snakes, tamed by Sîdî "Abd al-Salâm, help him build the village. (ph. Eric Ross)

The lion and snakes, tamed by Sîdî “Abd al-Salâm, who helped him build the village. Painting by Jamal Bekri, Gîte Ifri museum. (ph. Eric Ross)

Every cave deserves a cave man, painted by Jamal Bekri, Jite Ifri museum. (ph. Eric Ross)

Every cave deserves a man. This cave man in the Gîte Ifri museum was painted by Jamal Bekri. (ph. Eric Ross)

After creating the cave museum, Jamal opened a B & B in part of the family home directly above it. It is called Gîte Ifri (“Cave Inn” in Franco-Tamazight, no pun intended in translation).

Over 15 years ago, after the Ministry of Housing had conducted its study of the cave-houses of Zawiyat Sidi Abdesslam, there was a proposal to restore and develop them. The Ministry was to provide funds and expertise to home owners to do necessary repairs and restoration where possible. It was also to promote mixed use of these spaces, encouraging families to host tourists for home-stays, accommodate hikers for lunch, open crafts shops and so on. Nothing came of this proposal, as so often is the case, and, for the most part, the village’s architectural heritage continues to quietly crumble away.

The Middle Atlas lion would like to roar, but local cultural heritage is yet properly harassed to development strategies. development

The Middle Atlas lion would like to roar, but local cultural heritage has yet to be properly harnessed to development strategies. Painted relief by Jamal Bekri, Gîte Ifri museum. (ph. Eric Ross)

Jamal Bekri didn’t wait for the government project, or a development NGO. Luckily for all, he had enough will, creativity and capital to develop his little part of this local heritage on his own. Most of the village’s other inhabitants lack one or more of these assets, usually the latter one. Most households struggle with pressing needs: feeding the family, which in this village as in so many others depends largely on the weather any given year, clothing the children and sending them to school, putting a roof over everyone’s head and heating at least one room in winter. Restoration of caves could be part of the solution to some of these needs. Yet much still needs to be done if Zawiyat Sidi Abdesslam’s architectural heritage is to really contribute to social, economic and human development there. I’m eager to read what my students have to say about the place.

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About ericrossacademic

Professor of Geography at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco
This entry was posted in architecture, field trips, teaching and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Visiting the cave houses of Zawiyat Sidi Abdesslam

  1. Pingback: Presenting Volubilis, ancient capital of Berber Morocco | Eric Ross, academic

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  3. Pingback: The annual Interfaith Alliance excursion down Oued Tizguit | Eric Ross, academic

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