Morocco & Andalusia: On the Sahara's Edge
Hope’s “Road to Morocco” gave us a image of a land covered by sand, yet only the southernmost edges of this mountainous country abut the great Sahara, and — like in most deserts of the world — only a small portion of that is sand dunes. Yet it is Morocco’s most magnificent, contrast-rich scenery. Craggy, deeply stratified hills in hues of yellows, ochers and maroons give way to lush vales of vibrant greens, guarded by ancient adobe castles, while in the distance in winter months snow glimmers on the Atlas mountains. It is also a region rich in history, from the petroglyphs of the first settlers to the citadels of dynasties.
What to do
Sand: Nearly every visitor to Morocco expects to see great dunes and the largest field is the Erg Chebbhi outside Arfoud in the southeast, with dunes rising up to 600 ft above the desert’s floor. Near it lies an immense fossil quarry, a chunk of ocean floor over 300 million years old pushed up to the desert‘s surface, that provides chambered mollusk fossils to museums and nature shops around the world. Another vast dune field, with smaller dunes but no tourist hordes, is the Erg Cheggaga a couple of hours South of Zagora. Short rides or treks of several days by camel may be arranged at either Erg, though being there for the sunset is reason enough to go.
History... and pre-: The Aït Ouazzik area outside Tazzarine is one of Morocco’s two most important sites of rock art, with dozens of pictographs of spirit animals with odd features, carved by early Berber settlers millennia ago in a “pointillist” style (accessible by all-terrain vehicles). Next to Rissani lie the meager ruins of Sijilmassa, Africa’s greatest city until the late 14th C. CE, whose riches indirectly led to the founding of the first Moroccan empire under the 11th-C. Almoravides . Early Arab chronicles referred to it as the “City of Gold,” a reference that European explorers mistakenly thought belonged to Timbuktu. Rissani itself is the 17th-C. cradle of the current Alaouite dynasty of Morocco, the longest ruling dynasty in the world today. Numerous of their former citadels dot the immense Tafilalet oasis South of Rissani, most worthwhile of which is the Ksar Oulad abd el Halim. Massive adobe citadels are scattered in hundreds throughout the southern realms, centers of power and protection from desert marauders in ages past. The best-known is the 16th-C. Aït ben Haddou casbah outside Ouarzazate, whose superb Berber architecture has earned it a spot on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, though even older and just as majestic casbahs may still be seen , such as the still-inhabited Tinzoulline crowning a hilltop in the Draa valley, which first appears in historical annals in the 11th C. The southern valleys once had over a hundred Jewish Berber communities, with the Tinghir casbah and the Amazrou in the Draa valley among the largest. At the southern end of the Draa, the town of Tamegroute was a major Sufic learning center in the 17th C. and one can visit the vast library of ancient illuminated manuscripts amassed then by master scholar Sidi Ben Nasser, as well as the town‘s primitive pottery works, renowned for their green glaze. Tamegroute was known as the “Gateway to the Desert,” as it was once a staging post for caravans and armies crossing the Sahara.
The valleys: The South’s most picturesque features are the valleys that drain snow melt off the Atlas into the desert, with clear streams year round. Foremost is the Dades, with its varied fruit orchards guarded by castle-like granaries and framed in multi-hued rock formations. To its East, the Todgha’s dense date palm groves lead to a spectacular narrow canyon, with sheer cliffs over 1800-ft high. The deep South’s Draa is a 60-mile ribbon of date palms, with citadels girdled by high walls and the backdrop of the moonscape of the Kissane range.
The movies: With all the wealth of magnificent scenery in the area, the town of Ouarzazate has become an international film shooting center ever since a part of “Lawrence of Arabia” was shot there, followed by dozens of productions over the years. One can see some of the sets by touring the Salam Studios and the backdrops by touring local casbahs, such as Tiffeltoute (Bond’s “Living Daylights,” Ben Kingsley’s “Harem”) and Aït ben Haddou (“Neverending Story,” “The Mummy Returns,” “Gladiator,” “Kundun,” “Kingdom of Heaven,” etc.)
Seasons: February through early April for blooming orchards in the Dades and Mgoun valleys. May into June for roses in the Mgoun. October is the date harvesting month.