Ifrane, Imperial Garden City of the Middle Atlas
The town of Ifrane is a quirky place. First-time visitors are often astonished by the quaint Alpine architecture of its older chalets and by the exotic Nordic names given to its hotels, cafés and restaurants. “Are we really in Morocco?” they ask. The answer is, of course, yes. Quirky it may be but Ifrane, like any other place, is the product of the society and historical processes which created it. Ifrane is a colonial-hill station, a garden-city, an imperial city, a tourist resort, a provincial administrative center, and a US-style college-town. How did such an urban mix come about?
Prolog: Ifrane in geological time
There was a time, during the Permian period (over 250 million years ago), when Africa and the Americas formed a single landmass. There was no Atlantic Ocean then; Morocco rubbed up against Newfoundland. During the Triassic (250-205 million years ago) this supercontinent began to unzip. As Europe and North America pulled their separate ways a marine gulf opened between them, the proto-Atlantic. The tectonic tension also tore at the interior parts of Morocco. Two SW-NE oriented rifts opened up where the High and Middle Atlas mountain ranges now rise. At first, these rift valleys were continental, like the great rift valleys of present-day East Africa. They had active volcanoes spewing lava and ash. Also, detritus of all kinds from the plateaus above was swept down into these troughs, the lowest parts of which were filled with briny salt lakes with no outlet to the sea. The sandy reddish conglomerate stone one sees around Khenifra preserves this mix of continental deposits.
During the Jurassic period this part of the African continent subsided. The sea flooded the two rift valleys creating shallow gulfs. The earth’s seas were as warm as bathwater back then. The two gulfs of the Tethys Sea (precursor to the Mediterranean) supported a great variety of marine life and their marshy mangrove shores abounded in dinosaurs. In a manner of speaking, Ifrane may have been home to sauropods, pterosaurses and the terrifying fifteen-meter long carcharodontosaurus with its shark-like teeth. Today, fossils from that time can be bought at roadside stalls and tourist boutiques right across the Middle Atlas.
During the early Jurassic epoch (205-172 million years ago) mud and clay settled at the bottom of the Middle Atlas gulf, creating the shale stone one finds around Azrou. If outcrops of this stone seem to glimmer in the sunlight it is because, like similar shales elsewhere, they probably contain minute amounts of kerogen oil.
Sediments in the later Jurassic epoch (172-145 million years ago) consisted of thick beds of calcium carbonates, remnants of the shellfish, corals and fish which teemed in this shallow hot-tub of a sea. These calcareous sediments have produced the truly spectacular strata of white limestone which characterize much of the Middle Atlas plateau today.
Great change came to the Middle Atlas in the mid-Eocene epoch (around 40 million years ago). Following the previous era’s tranquil subsidence and marine transgressions, Morocco found itself at the vanguard of Africa’s push towards Europe (the two continents have been rubbing shoulders ever since). The pressure cause by this tectonic movement reactivated the very same faults in the crust that had created the Middle Atlas rift two hundred million years earlier, except this time in reverse. Like popping a pimple, the hundreds of meters-thick accumulation of sediment on the sea bottom, now turned to stone, were thrust up by the tectonic squeeze. The Middle Atlas Mountains were born.
The icing atop the Middle Atlas layer cake spread relatively recently. During the(beginning about two million years ago) volcanoes erupted across the length and breadth of the Middle Atlas plateau, creating lava flows which are clearly visible in and around Ifrane today. Jebel Koudiat (above the AUI Off-Campus residences on the Meknes road coming into town) is one such volcanic cone. The dark basalt boulders around Ifrane’s souk once flowed from its mouth. Other volcanic cones and craters dominate the landscape around Jebel Michlifene, and one crosses lave fields around Timahdite
The Middle Atlas Mountains consist mostly of a series of limestone plateaus. In a Mediterranean climate a limestone plateau will produce a karst landscape (causses in French). The area around Ifrane offers a text-book example of this. When exposed to the acidity in water (all rain water and ground water is slightly acidic) the calcium carbonate in limestone (remember the skeletons of all those Jurassic sea creatures which accumulated on the sea bottom?) will dissolve. Among the resultant landforms, one finds sink holes, subterranean streams, shallow circular-shaped ponds termed poljé (dayet in Tamazight), deeper lakes seemingly without outlet (as with Aguelmam Sidi Ali), swallow holes where streams disappear into the bedrock, the spectacular Tisgdelt plateau and waterfalls in Zawiyat Ifrane, and many types of caves.
The Middle Atlas Mountains lie in the center of Morocco and constitute its natural water tower. They receive a considerable amount of precipitation—now averaging about 800 mm/year in Ifrane—and are naturally wooded, with scrub oak forests alternating with cedar. Most of the country’s important river systems: the Moulouya, the Sebou, the Bou Regreg, and the Oum ‘Rbia originate in the Middle Atlas. For information about hiking through the spectacular landscape around Ifrane see this post.
Ifrane in history
Whereas parts of Morocco have been inhabited by humans for a very long time (there is a continuous record of stone tools from early Paleolithic pebble hand axes to a great array of Neolithic arrowheads) the Atlas Mountains have not. During the glacial phases of the Pleistocene, when glaciers covered Jebel Bou Iblane and other mountains, the climate on the Middle Atlas plateau would have been far harsher than it is today. Early men and women found more clement places to live.
Historically, despite its centrality, the Middle Atlas have been an “empty quarter.” The harsh climate and relatively poor soils long impeded permanent human settlement. Today the Middle Atlas is still one of the least densely populated parts of Morocco, even when compared to other mountainous regions such as the High Atlas and the Rif. None-the-less, even without a fixed permanent population the Middle Atlas Mountains served as summer pasture for transhumant herders and were regularly crossed by long-distance traders. Historically, the most important trade route linked Fez to the city of Sijilmassa in the Tafilalt Oasis (and thus to the trans-Saharan routes). This route, called the Tariq al-Sultân (the “Sultan’s Road”) passed through Sefrou and Boulmane (alt. of pass 1900 m.). Starting in Sultan Moulay Ismail’s time (late 17th century), when Morocco’s capital moved to Meknes, the more westerly route through El Hajeb, Timahdite and Tizi Zad (alt. 2178 m.) came into use.
The first permanent settlement in the Ifrane area dates to the 16th century (some sources say the 14th) when a sharîf by the name of Sîdî ‘Abd al-Salâm al-Ya’qûbî al-Wallalî established his community in the Tizguit Valley, seven km downstream from the present town. Today, the inhabitants of this village are his descendants. Though as sharîfs they are of ethnic Arab origin, their mother tongue is Tamazight, the regional Berber language.
In Tamazight, yfran means “caves.” The toponym refers to what were originally cave settlements and it recurs across the country. There is an Ifrane in the Anti Atlas that was a renowned center of rabbinic scholarship; it earned the sobriquet “Little Jerusalem.”
In the Middle Atlas, the town of Ifrane shares its name with a village, Zawiyat Ifrane, which sits at the base of a cave-riddled limestone plateau. It is not just caves the two have in common. Zawiyat Ifrane too has a sharifan saint as a founder, Moulay Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahab.
Sîdî ‘Abd al-Salâm’s village is still called Zawiyat Sidi Abdeslam (or simply “Zâwiyah” locally). At first, it consisted of cave dwellings hollowed out of the limestone valley wall. Only in the last sixty years or so have its inhabitants build houses above ground. The caves which now lie under these houses are mostly used as mangers for animals and for storage. Some have collapsed. Others, however, are still lived in and may be visited. One local artist has transformed his cave-house into a sculpture gallery; painted reliefs recount the origin of the village and legends related to its saintly founder. For more on these cave houses see this post.
By the mid-17th century Sîdî ‘Abd al-Salâm’s zâwiyah was well enough established to receive an extensive iqtâ‘, or land grant, from the Alaoui sultan Moulay Rashid b. Muhammad. The iqtâ‘ extended from upstream of the present town of Ifrane down the Tizguit valley all the way to the Saïss Plain. The livelihood of the zâwiyah was based largely on irrigated agriculture on the valley floor, supplemented by livestock and forest resources. The agricultural plots were held as private property (mulk) but the grazing land above it was under collective tribal jurisdiction (jama’a). Today, the irrigated agricultural plots on the floor of the Tizguit Valley are still owned and farmed by the people of Zawiyat Sidi Abdeslam. More than a few women in the village work at AUI as cleaners, and the university runs a women’s center there (combining adult literacy and civic education).
Late in the 19th century two Amazigh agro-pastoral groups: the Beni M’guild and the Beni M’tir, migrated from the Upper Moulouya Plain across the Middle Atlas Mountains northward down to the Saïss Plain. They regularly grazed their herds of sheep and goats on the plateaux above the Tizguit Valley. After initially resisting French conquest, these tribes submitted to colonial rule in1917. Resistance continued higher in the mountains to the south (Timahdite, Jebel Fazzaz) until 1922. In order to secure the Fez-Khenifra road across the mountains, the French military erected a small fortified outpost above the present town of Ifrane. This fort still stands (upstream from the palace) but is off-limits to visitors.
The colonial origin of the town of Ifrane
The modern town of Ifrane was established by the French colonial administration in 1928. At 1650 m. altitude, the gently rolling landscape, with pristine forests, fresh springs and wild flowers, was judged to have potential as a summer resort for “colons” families from the Saïss Plain, Meknes and Fez. Fifty hectares of agricultural land belonging to the people of Zawiyat Sidi Abdeslam, in a location originally designated as Tourthit (“garden” or “orchard” in Tamazight), were expropriated for the project.
Ifrane was designed as a “hill station.” A hill station is a colonial type of settlement. It is a resort town set high in the mountains where Europeans could find relief from the summer heat of tropical colonies. The British were the first to develop this type of resort in India, the best known of which is Simla, which served as their “summer capital.” The French in Indochina (Dalat), the Dutch in Indonesia (Berastagi) and the Americans in the Philippines (Baguio City) also built hill stations. Ifrane was not the only hill station to be built in Morocco. The French built one in neighboring Immouzer (25 km from Ifrane along the Fez road), as well as at Oukaimeden in the High Atlas south of Marrakech.
Hill stations around the world share some common characteristics. As they are intended for expatriate European families, they are often designed in such a way as to remind their foreign inhabitants of their distant temperate homelands. The architectural style adopted is imported from the mother country in order that the place look like “back home,” “little England” or “douce France.” In Ifrane, chalets were built in various mountain styles: the “maison basque” the “Jura” and “Savoy” styles, etc. Trees and flowering plants: lilac trees, plane trees (platanes), chestnut trees (châtaigniers) and linden trees (tilleuls), were also imported from France. This too was intended to heighten the appearance and feeling of home.
Ifrane was planned according to the “garden city” model of urban design fashionable in Western Europe between the two world wars. The concept of the garden city was originally developed in Britain as a model of social reform to solve the problems of 19th century industrial cities. The urban planning concept aimed to marry the best parts of city and country life, and to allow healthy family life and home-ownership for the working class. By the 1920s however it had lost its social purpose to become an urban design model. Garden cities required low density housing consisting of fully detached or semi-detached single family homes surrounded by gardens. Furthermore, in order to break with industrial-era grid plans, garden cities were always laid out with curving tree-lined streets and village-like architecture. In fact, most garden cities were affluent suburbs, not true cities in their own right. They catered to the tastes of the upper middle class who could afford to own a private automobile and property in the suburbs. Their curvy tree-lined streets gave the illusion of a “safe” county life to people who in reality worked in big cities. In Ifrane, as in all other colonial hill stations built in the early 20th century, the garden city gave the illusion of being safely at home.
Ifrane’s initial garden city plan was designed in 1929 in Rabat by the Services Techniques of the Bureau de Contrôle des Municipalités, a division of the Direction des Affairs Politiques. The 1929 plan (today’s central tourist neighborhoods) had typical garden city features: curvy streets named for flora (Rue des lilas, Rue des tilleuls, etc.), and chalet-style houses. Houses, often built of local field-stone, could occupy only 40% of plots; the rest had to be planted as a garden. Moreover, large parts of the center of the town consisted of public gardens. Some of the original architecture can still be seen, in the neighborhood around the town hall and the Perce Neige Hotel especially. The summer homes built by the colons were designed by many of the same architects who built the European parts of Casablanca and Rabat. Whereas their work in these big cities was innovative and intentionally modern, Ifrane’s houses were built in traditional European styles and resembled those in the suburbs of French cities of that era.
Ifrane’s first public buildings were a post office (built in 1932) and a Catholic church. The Notre-Dame-des-Cèdres Church (begun in 1939, opened in 1951, also of local field-stone) was designed by Paul Tournon (1881-1964), a recipient of the prestigious Prix de Rome who had also designed the Sacré-Coeur Church in Casablanca.
A Royal Palace was also built, for Sultan Muhammad b. Yûsuf (future King Muhammad V). Ifrane is thus an “imperial city” in that it houses a palace and receives royal patronage.
The resort function of the new town was consolidated with the building of a number of hotels. Ifrane’s first flagship hotel was called the Balima. It was demolished in the 1980s. The other main hotel was the Grand Hôtel, which has recently been refurbished.
The garden city hill station high in Morocco’s Middle Atlas was always going to be an illusion of suburban middle class France. The colonial reality of the place was manifest in two ways. First of all, the inhabitants of Zawiyat Sidi Abdeslam, the original owners of the land on which the town was built, were never fully compensated for their lost property. Secondly, the initial town plan was incomplete. Provisions were made for the housing and infrastructure of colon home-owners, but not for the Moroccan maids, gardeners and guards who worked for them, nor for the construction workers building their chalets. Finding no housing in the official allotment, these workers had to build their own houses some distance away, across a ravine north of the town. As elsewhere in Morocco at the time, a shantytown thus grew up next to the colonial town. This is the origin of Timdiqin (officially called Hay Atlas today), now a working class neighborhood where many of AUI’s Grounds & Maintenance staff live.
Ifrane since Independence
Ifrane changed considerably following independence. The foreign-owned properties in the center of town were slowly bought up by Moroccan nationals, though their status as seasonal summer homes did not change. The colonial-era garden city neighborhood (officially called Hay Riad) is still the preserve of summer homes and tourist complexes. Its houses are empty most of the year, except for the guardian-gardener and his family who might live in the garage, or else in a shack at the back of the garden.
Secondly, the state began investing in infrastructure to serve the entire population. Bir Anzerane neighborhood was built for this purpose. It was endowed with a Friday Mosque (opened in 1964), a municipal market and a central bus and taxi depot. In the 1970s a public housing estate, called PAM, was created west of it. This was the first neighborhood expressly built for working class Moroccans. Today, its inhabitants are mostly junior civil servants. Some of AUI’s Grounds & Maintenance personnel also reside there. Also in the 1970s, government programs aiming at the “résorption de bidonvilles” (reduction of shantytowns) targeted the older shanty neighborhood of Timdiqin. Timdiqin was rebuilt with proper civic amenities: drinking water, a small mosque with attached hammam. Simultaneously, the residents of the neighborhood were given the opportunity to rebuild their homes using cement bricks and roof tiles supplied by the government. Today, the great majority of Ifranis live either in PAM or in Timdiqin.
Two major developments have affected Ifrane in recent decades: its promotion to the rank of civil administrative center, and the opening of Al Akhawayn University, which appended the toponym (Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, hence AUI).
Ifrane became the seat of the administrative province of the same name in 1979 and several government services were established in the town. Besides the ‘Amalah (seat of provincial administration) itself, there is the Perception des Impôts, the Cadastre et Conservation Foncière, and regional delegations of such ministries as National Education and Public Works. Many other services however, such as the Eaux et Forêts and the Immatriculation de Véhicules, are located in Azrou, a much larger town of about 50 000 people located 17 km south-west of (and 500 m below) Ifrane. Azrou is a bigger town than Ifrane and it has a greater array of urban activities, including industrial zones and commercial thoroughfares harboring a wide variety of businesses and services (insurance offices, medical practices, etc.). In fact, Azrou-Ifrane can be considered as a single urban agglomeration, one with two centers; Ifrane is the tourism and administrative center whereas Azrou is the commercial and service center.
In 1995 Al Akhawayn, a prestigious English-language, American-curriculum university opened in Ifrane. Ifrane thus qualifies as a “college town.” College towns are small towns with large universities. Famous examples include Oxford and Cambridge in the UK, Heidelberg in Germany, Louvain in Belgium, Princeton in New Jersey and New Haven in Connecticut. In a college town, the university tends to be the biggest employer and a major contributor to the municipal tax base. Moreover, college towns tend to have a far more dynamic cultural and artistic life than other towns of similar size. Successful college towns are known for their specialty bookstores, theaters and performing arts venues, repertory cinemas, art galleries and publishing houses. This is especially true of towns that house successful Liberal Arts colleges. Such cultural markers have yet to emerge in Ifrane. One reason for the lack of this type of development is that AUI is a closed campus, functioning very much like a gated community. It stands in splendid isolation on its hilltop outside of town. Apart from those who work on campus, Ifrane residents are cut off from most university activities. This contrasts with the situation in the college towns cited above, where the university campus is in the center of town and its streets and buildings merge with the rest of the urban fabric. The social and cultural life of Ifrane has yet to benefit from substantial spill-over from the university (beyond what economists call the “multiplier effect”). While AUI has begun to expand its activities in the center of Ifrane, notably with its “downtown” residence, Ifrane has yet to fulfill its college-town potential.
What AUI’s presence has done is re-launch Ifrane as a desirable destination for domestic tourism. Prior to Al Akhawayn’s opening, Ifrane suffered from a passé image. It had been a very popular resort in the 1970s, when King Hassan II enjoyed hunting and fishing and often vacationed there. In the 1980s and 90s trendier vacation resorts elsewhere proved more attractive to investors than Ifrane. With AUI, Ifrane’s image has been given new luster and the investments have poured in. Gated housing estates have mushroomed on the western outskirts of town while trendy new cafés and restaurant complexes have opened in the center.
More problematic has been the destruction of the original fabric of the garden city. A change in the zoning laws has permitted the densification of the old center. Many of the original chalets have been knocked down and replaced with three or four-story condominium complexes. These typically take up 90% or more of the plot—the remainder being paved over—leaving no room for gardens. Much of this new construction is speculative, meaning that the housing units are meant to produce rent for proprietors and are expected to rapidly increase in value. Consequently, construction is shoddy and the rental units are tiny and poorly maintained. Furthermore, the narrow tree-lined streets of the original garden city have become dark canyons and are especially icy in winter as they no longer receive direct sunlight.
The speculative, extraverted nature of development in Ifrane was manifest in 2007-2008 when the tourism-oriented center of town was given an expensive make-over. Old parks and streets were torn up and replaced with newer versions; and much of the center of town was turned into a pedestrian mall. Throughout, vast expanses of streets, sidewalks and walkways were resurfaced in expensive paving stones and, ironically for a resort city promoting natural beauty, some grassy areas and trees were eliminated from public areas. There was no public consultation and no attempt on the part of the authorities to ascertain the needs of Ifrane’s citizens. Most distressingly, PAM and Timdiqin neighborhoods, where most Ifranis live, were entirely left out of the initial urban beautification scheme.
Since 2010 though, a process of consultation has been initiated. Like all the other communes in the province, Ifrane has adopted a Plan Communal de Développement (PCD). The preparation of this strategic development plan required the holding of focus groups across the town and solicited input from local associations. While the outcomes of this plan, which has just been adopted, are some way off, new playgrounds and sports fields have been built to address the needs of the town’s residents, and especially those of its youth.
Current tourism services
Most of Ifrane’s tourism establishments are located in the colonial-era center of town (Hay Riad, commonly referred to as the centre-ville). These include hotel complexes (Perce Neige, the Chamonix, les Tilleuls, le Grand Hôtel), cafés and restaurants (Croustillant, la Paix, Forest, etc.), a few gift shops, pharmacies and convenience stores, and the local tourist information office. The town’s banks and ATMs are also located in this neighborhood. The very swank Michlifen Hotel shares AUI’s hilltop and stands between it and the downtown core.
Bir Anzerane neighborhood harbors the municipal market. It has popular cafés, lower-end restaurants and snack bars, and a diversity of vendors (fruits and vegetables, butchers, tailors, barber shops, office supplies, hardware stores, etc.). The new taxi stand and bus depot is located on the western edge of this neighborhood.
The weekly souk (open-air produce market and flee market) is located on the outskirt of Timdiqin neighborhood. Though called the Sunday Souk (Souk al-Had) it operates on Saturdays as well. During summer months, when Moroccans living in Europe return on holiday, it doubles in size and one can find bicycles, second-hand electronics, car parts, the latest kitchen gadgets, etc. Whatever the season, on any given weekend the souk is the liveliest place in town.
Travelers will have a hard time finding a mechanic in Ifrane and are advised to head for Azrou for emergency repairs and replacement parts. There is only one gas station (Shell) in Ifrane, on the road to Azrou. Azrou is also the nearest place one can find an emergency dentist or optometrist.
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- Peyron, Michael & Eric Ross (2014). Hiking and Walking Guide to Ifrane and the Middle Atlas. Ifrane: Al Akhawayn University Press.