The Rough Guide that we used for Morocco is over ten years old and whilst at times this has rendered it a somewhat unreliable source of information, it nevertheless provided us with an interesting perspective on some of the ways Morcocco has changed since the book was written. The roads, although not always great, are much improved and the increase in tourism are two obvious ways in which the Morocco of today differs from that of over a decade ago. Reading about the villages of the Anelm valley, close enough to Tafraoute for a day visit, we were told that the buildings of one were ‘bizarre constructions’ built almost on top of one another, but when we visited Oumesnat ourselves we found that there was little evidence of the original village as experienced by the author.*
Once upon a time, Morocco’s buildings were formed from the earth itself. The ksars and ksours rose up from the ground in the same shades as the land that surrounded them. The people of those settlements had their own methods of construction and each area had its own style. The pise buildings use a combination of stone, palm and rammed earth, with decorative details variously provided by adobe, tadelakt (a smooth, water-resistant plaster) , tiling and, in the case of the ruins we saw at Ousmenat, broken slate. Where they can still be seen, they are works of careful craft and beauty that respond to and are borne of local needs, economic means and available materials. These earth homes provide cool relief from a relentless sun and are able to breath with their inhabitants. Sadly, as Morocco develops, they are getting harder and harder to find.
Oumesnat, like other villages of the area sits on the sides of one of the many mountains in the Tafraoute region above lush irrigated palmeries . Thanks to Rob’s efforts we made our initial approach on our newly repaired bikes, then parked up in a patch of undergowth where women sleepily gathered armfuls of green and tender fodder for their animals. The shadows beneath the palms were long and the air sweet and cool. Spring flowers glowed where they caught the late afternoon sun and the coarse shouts of mating frogs hammered at our ear drums as we wandered along tracks and trails that took us up towards the village. There is no definite beginning or edge to any of the habitations, they meld and merge into each other and the surrounding area. We passed stony remnants of houses and pathways littering the palmery floor until eventually we came across some steps and reaching the top meandered down an alleyway to discover the rubbled remains of a former village.
It’s true that the traditional mud buildings of Morocco need a certain amount of upkeep; new earth must be applied fairly regularly to keep houses sound. From what I’ve read, they depend on the knowledge of a ‘maalem’, a craftsman who serves as architect, project manager and builder. There are no colleges for the training of such artisans, the skill and specialist knowledge is passed down and learned, presumably, by long years of apprenticeship. Increasingly, it seems, modern Morocco has less and less time or interest for maintaining such traditions and instead has adopted the concrete box approach to architecture.
For us, each turn of the path revealed more crumbling walls and half-collapsed alleyways. It was impossible not to feel saddened by the loss, not only of homes that had been used by several generations of the same families, but of a whole way of life. Poignantly, many looked as if they’d only recently been abandoned; intact and tidy from the outside but on closer inspection revealing collapsed interiors. Proud family homes trying desperately to keep up appearances while their insides slowly slide to earth and turn to dust.
Amidst this decay, however, one or two buildings are still fastidiously maintained in the historic style of the area. La Maison Traditionelle is a perfectly preserved example of a Berber home and the family that own it keep it complete with original domestic equipment and furnishings. Vibrant rugs decorated the floor and walls, cooking equipment was hung about the central kitchen, various grindstones and well pulleys were put out for display and a helpful youth provided to answer questions. There is a simplicity and logic to the whole affair that seems so lacking from modern arrangements. The animals were housed in the basement, keeping them sheltered from winter winds and summer sun, the family benefited from their warmth in cold months and fed them their scraps by means of a chute that came directly from the kitchen. The family lived mainly in the kitchen and slept in the corridor that surrounds it in the winter months but moved to the rooftop in the summer. The fascinating construction of the whole place can be seen up close, from the packed earth walls to the palm and cane ceiling supports.
After the melancholic air of the rest of our visit, it was cheering to see the care with which this family have looked after their family’s heritage and in so doing, have perhaps inadvertently protected a slice of history for an entire people.
*I looked up the Rough Guides current information on the Anelm Valley and was disappointed to discover that it is exactly the same on their website as it was in the copy we used for our visit.