Africa

In The Oasis of Skoura Along an Ancient North African Trade Route, Morocco

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After spending two nights in the Sahara desert, including a night camping in the sand dunes, we traveled west, towards the Atlas Mountains, into the Todra Valley and spent the night next to the Togra Gorge.

From Todra Valley, we headed back through the Dades valley, along the ‘Valley of 1000 Kasbahs’, towards the remote Oasis of Skoura, located at the interface of the lofty snow capped Atlas Mountains on one side and the expansive Moroccan Sahara on the other.

We spent a night at this ancient Oasis, at the exquisite Ksar El Kabbaba, built in the Kasbah style, surrounded by a beautiful garden of olive, date palm, apricot and pomegranate trees, roses and other flowering shrubs.

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Skoura is located along one of Africa’s most historic and legendary trading routes, lined by old fortified mansions (or Kasbahs) made of compacted clay.This ancient trans-Saharan and trans-Atlas caravan route connected the Malian empire (Timbuktu) on one end and Europe (primarily through the Mediterranean) via Fez in the north and also through through Ouarzazate and Marrakesh (towards the West) and then, across through the Atlantic.

Caravans laden with gold, ivory, spices, rare unguents, precious woods, ostrich feathers and even slaves were brought to Skoura from Mali by the blue robed Tuareg desert nomads and traders, after a grueling two month journey through the Sahara desert. In Skoura, the mountain Berber tribesmen used mules to transport the goods through the Atlas Mountains to Marrakesh and Fez, and from there to Europe. And valuable commodities like sugar, salt (including the precious pink salt), dates, barley, leather and textiles moved in the reverse direction along the route.

In addition to its strategic location, Skoura’s wealth and eminence are attributed to two seasonal rivers that irrigate the lush and diverse vegetation of the oasis.

The expansive date palm grove of Skoura, a labyrinth of over twenty square kilometers of irrigated land bounded by rocky slopes on either side, was originally a part of the land of the ancient Berbars (Amazigh/Imaziɣen ethnic group to be more correct). It is said to have been founded in the 12th century CE, under the aegis of Almohad dynasty.

In addition to dates palm trees, the fertile oasis abounds in olive, almond, fig, pomegranate and apricot trees. Along the fringes of the vast, harsh and unforgiving Sahara desert, the oasis also grows barley, wide range of vegetables, fodder (cattle are not allowed to graze freely in this fragile ecosystem), in addition to commercial cultivation of roses that are used in the cosmetics industry.

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Date palm trees are the precious offspring of this unique and amazing ecosystem. While being well adopted to the semi arid ecosystem, these trees are nevertheless vulnerable to extended spells of droughts, siltation, changing climate and disease.

It is said that in its heydays, the number of date palm trees in this oasis region used to be in millions, making it the third largest producer of dates in the world. Today, there are around 300,000 trees in the oasis, and even in its reduced state, Skoura oasis, with its tiny hamlets of farming families, is an ecological wonder.

The area is very rich in history and the palm groves are dotted with Kasbahs (fortified medieval feudal mansions), in their picturesque ruins, dating from the 17th century CE. The Kasbahs are built of pisé, or compacted / rammed earth. This age old building technique which is very common in arid areas, uses local materials ingeniously and provides very good insulation from the intense heat and protection from glare of sunlight.

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The technique of Kasbah construction involves using a wet mixture of clay, with the right proportions of sand, gravel and finely cut straw, to which stabilizers like lime or blood of animals are added. This wet mixture is rammed into a wooden mold or a frame that is supported externally with the help of poles. After the clay is rammed and compressed into the molds, the wooden frames are dismantled and the blocks of wet clay mixture are left to dry, harden and cure under the sun.

Thick blocks of compacted earth/clay, built upwards, one above the other in successive horizontal rows make up massive, solid and formidable walls. The longer the blocks are left under the direct sun to cure, the stronger it becomes. Ceilings and roofs are made of a horizontal grid like framework of poles, matted with reeds, straw and clay mixture.

Depending on its size and complexity, a Kasbah may take up to two years to be completed. The Kasbahs are exquisitely decorated, predominately in symmetrical and geometric patterns, often with smaller sun dried clay bricks (Adobe).

So while the structures look like terracotta (oven baked clay), in reality, these are essentially sun dried clay and that much more fragile, compared to terracotta.

The basic unit of a typical Kasbah comprises four tapering towers at the corners of a square, with rooms spread over three or more floors along the four sides. The entrance is through a huge and heavy wooden door. There is a central atrium which lets in light from the top.

The most spectacular and well maintained of the Kasbahs in Skoura is the 17th century CE Amridil Kasbah. This Kasbah is also unique in that it has five (as against the standard four) tapering towers. The fifth tower, which houses the toilet, is in the middle of one of the sides of the square.

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This exquisite and well preserved Kasbah once belonged to the most powerful and dreaded family called the Glaouis, known for their exceptionally brutal ways. The Glaoui family had control on a large part of this ancient trading route and made its wealth from collecting taxes, till they were expelled from the country, following Morocco’s independence.

Because of its architectural and aesthetic merit, the Kasbah features in the 50 Moroccan Dirham note.

Inside the Kasbah is a museum which gives us a hint of the lifestyle of its inhabitants in bygone days. The interiors of the Kasbah are as basic and functional as the exteriors are grand. Taking a guided tour of the Kasbah, we saw the hand operated olive press, wooden locking system, a range of kitchenware, pots and urns, and clay ovens.

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While the ground floor had sheds for cattle and for storing fodder and wood, the upper floors had living areas, bedrooms, kitchens and food storage. The top floor had a family Madrasa (Koranic school) and a mosque. It was in this Kasbah that parts of famous Hollywood movies ‘Ali Baba and Forty Thieves’ (1944), ‘Laurence of Arabia’ (1962) and ‘Hanna’ (2011) were shot.

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The Amridil Kasbah is surrounded by the lush green date palm groves and is situated by the side of the Amridil River, which for most of the year is but a driver river bed of rocks and boulders. From the top of the Kasbah, we could see the barren and unforgiving desert on one and the lofty Atlas Mountains on the other.

After our tour of the Kasbah, we went with our guide into the palm groves, crisscrossed by a maze of tracks going past old Kasbahs and Ksar (villages). As it appears today, most of the Kasbah’s are in a state of ruin, with the towers gone. Some of them have been attached with smaller pisé houses, making long and extended structures of smaller houses, joined up side by side. These make up the ‘Ksars’ or villages.

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We were amazed by how the vast patchwork of carefully tended agro-horticultural plots were watered by the indigenous, centuries old system of water distribution – through an irrigation network of channels called kettaras, water locks and levers. The oasis also abounds in birds – more than 100 bird species are reported to flourish here. Donkeys are the main mode of transport within the oasis and we were amused to see that a cylindrical basket made of raffia was invariably tied to the donkeys’ mouth, so that it did not graze freely and ruin the fragile ecosystem.

The ancient oasis of Skoura may well be in its reduced state, a mere shadow of its former self. Most of its grand Kasbahs may well be in ruins today – merely skeletons of their glorious past. Yet Skoura remains an extraordinary site, a wonder – it makes you gape in amazement.

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