Copyright AIMT 2023
“I have a feeling in Morocco, particularly in the traditional south, of an omnipresent “nowness”, with no estranged or compartmentalised past or future; where, with the same acceptance for the shifting shapes of the sand dunes, human artefacts are let go of thoughtlessly and human memories float off easily; to disappear like little summer clouds, into the ether of eternity”. Cara
As we explain in an earlier blog post here, the term ksar is of Maghrebi Arabic origin and means “castle” or “palace”. (In fact, when you look at it, the word is not so dissimilar to “Caesar” is it? Even “Tsar” and “Kaiser”.) The term has also come to mean a fortified village, such as the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ksar Ait Ben Haddou, which has been fortified since the 11th century.
In this blog post we discuss the concept of a Ksar as an enclosed community, but later refer specifically to two mini-palaces: Ksar Oulad Abdelhalim and Ksar el Fida, to which we also take clients who are interested to explore them, when they are visiting Rissani.
Ksar Ait Ben Haddou and village Ksars in general
You just have to walk through the Ksar of Ait Ben Haddou on your journey between Marrakech and the desert dunes, to visualise what the bustling Moroccan village network once was. At first sight ksars such as this one rise from the desert floor like the massive walled fortresses they once were, built from local clay and mud to protect the people, the harvest, and the culture of these self-contained communities. At the top of the hill on which Ait Ben Haddou rests, you see an old granary or Agadir in Berber, that also once served as a watch tower for the passing caravans and approaching marauders too. In days when trading posts along the ancient Sahara trade routes needed protection from marauders, the ksars were conceived as a defensive strategy to protect their residents, their fields and their irrigation network.
As we wrote here, Matisse was fascinated to see how light changed the ochre hues and shadows of the earthen architecture of the ksars and kasbahs of southern Morocco as the day’s sun passed over the patterns pressed into the walls. Western abstract painters have likewise been fascinated by these symbols, that are reminiscent of animal tracks in the desert sand, too. Your fingers will itch for the camera button.
Standing at the entrance of a village ksar, where social activities and the important decisions by village leaders were made, it is possible to visualise the complexity of village life in the ksars from Morocco’s colourful past.
You could almost consider that a village ksar was a sort of “brain” or “consciousness” around which the neural network of agrarian village life centred itself. Even today we can see how the culture and economy of village communities around Morocco still depend at least to some extent, on a cooperative mindset.
Perhaps not so much at Ait Ben Haddou these days, with much of that ksar’s area now converted to shops for tourists, but certainly at other fortified villages in the south, you can still “see” in your mind’s eye how this world once operated. From a highpoint above the main activity of the ksar, you’ll observe spread out below you, a particular organisation of land-based human activity. Imagine the land as a series of “onion rings” where the walled gardens by the main gate and around the parapets of the village were used to grow vegetables and fruit trees. In the second ring beyond that were the olive trees. The next ring was dedicated to cultivating cereals, date palms and fruit trees. The fourth ring was for the communal fields, and the last ring was outside the palm grove and used for the grazing of their animals. It was all so efficient.
Descend the hill and inside the fortified village you might discover that ancient mosaics and tilework still survive here and there, albeit in dilapidated form, over doorways and across some ceilings. You walk through wooden archways, past carved stucco, geometric patterns and mosaics created long ago by skilled craftsmen. Carved wooden shutters frame windows and cover doorways. Carefully cultivated trees provide shade in the open spaces between structures. Only the crowds of villagers are missing – just a few families may actually still live inside these enclosed communities. Many others have moved into small town life, living in rows of houses facing dusty and sunny thoroughfares and vehicular traffic that takes you pretty much directly to the next town. In other words, in the opposite direction to the western superrich who move into gated communities or enclaves!
The Village and Palatial Ksars of Rissani and my Experiences There
Further south than Ait Ben Haddou and about forty kilometres from the Erg Chebbi Dunes is the town of Rissani.
Rissani was once an important meeting point of caravans from the south carrying salt and slaves and caravans from the north carrying leather goods from Fez, and other items including those from faraway lands that came via the seaports, and from the pirates who operated in the waters nearby.
I visited my guide’s grandmother, one of the few still living in an old village Ksar structure at Rissani. No cars there; only on foot was possible. Her home was cool and dimly lit, with a dirt floor. A few of the rooms downstairs were pitch black, even though it was early afternoon. The internal walls were grey. There was a battered bicycle resting against one of them. There was no painting hanging on the walls or any other interior design embellishment, at least not on the ground floor. I didn’t visit the sleeping quarters: they were up the earthen steps. It was so simple, dark and cool. The ambiance felt spiritual and somehow moving. Obviously, I don’t want to indulge in over-romanticisation of a difficult life, but I still think about my visit there that day. I sat for a time not far from the old lady’s front door, underneath a cool archway (that curiously reminded me of the calle at Venice, something of a watery contrast to this desert place, but in a space similarly inaccessible by car), with six men, some bearing those asian-like features that one sometimes sees in the desert – and aged. Or maybe the desert had just made them appear old. My guide told me that they were waiting for the next call to prayer, before entering the mosque nearby. They were friendly in demeanour and agreed to have their photo taken with me, but I now see from the photos that three of them turned away shyly, obscuring their faces, while my guide took them.
Even now I feel a sort of astral pull or echo calling to me, to return to the portal to that old lady’s home with the Amazigh sign of Man on the door’s facade. It was blue too, echoing the Berber/Amazigh mantra: “Water is life”.
I wonder as you read this, whether you feel the pull too?
Standing inside the clay and mud walls of a village ksar is indeed a memorable experience. This self-contained village still contains private quarters and a mosque as I have outlined in relation to my experience, above. There also remains the old slave quarters and a caravanserai where travellers used to stop for refreshments and where they exchanged goods, ideas and culture.
Oral history has preserved some stories about life in those earlier times. As you walk through the narrow streets of the ksar you’ll eventually come across the old threshing floors, which were the lifeblood of the fortified village and its economy. In ancient times the threshing grounds had a guard, paid to protect the produce from April to December. He would pitch his tent there and fix the opening and closing times, the days for picking, and he’d check the contents of every basket. He was even involved in the process of imposing the penalty on rule-breakers.
It’s amazing that these clay and mud structures have withstood the weathering of desert winds and scorching sun for more than three hundred years. Echoes of the past are carried on the air as you tread the narrow paths through the living quarters of the privileged, and the less spacious confines of the slave quarters. The architecture of the traditional village ksar mirrors the cultural differences in this stratified society with the Berbers and the holy Arabs at the top and the traditionally landless Haratine, descendants of victims of the Moroccan slave trade from further south in Africa, at the bottom. Or so it once was.
The day I visited two dilapidated “Alhambra” ksars was fascinating too. The facades were surprisingly well maintained. However at Ksar Oulad Abdelhalim, the internal garden surrounding where a water fountain had once been, the balcony from which the Caid (judge or Chief) and his family overlooked it (there was a faded photograph of an old King on the wall), the intricately painted wooden ceilings and doors, the mosaic embellished pathways; they were all decaying away. It was a melancholic feeling to see the beauty fading, without apparently receiving care and attention. Descendants of the Caid’s family were still living at Ksar Oulad Abdelhalim and my guide suggested I gift them a small sum of 20 dirhams or about 2 euros, which I was happy to do.
I was also pleased to hear recently that Ksar Oulad Abdelhalim was closed to the public so that internal works could be done. Maybe there is some hope after all that this fading grandeur will be rescued from oblivion before it is too late. Because I have a feeling in Morocco, particularly in the traditional south, of an omnipresent “nowness”, with no estranged or compartmentalised past or future; where, with the same acceptance for the shifting shapes of the sand dunes, human artefacts are let go of thoughtlessly and human memories float off easily; to disappear like little summer clouds, into the ether of eternity.
I also visited Ksar el Fida that day and have included a photograph of that visit here.
Tourists? What tourists?
One thing I must note as I spent some days wandering through these palaces, and also the village ksar where my guide’s grandmother lived, is that I did not see a single other tourist in any of these locales. It was very late October, so not low-season. My guide said that tourists didn’t as a rule visit them. They prefer to stick to the markets and maybe the mosaic-embellished mausoleum of an ancestor of the current Royal dynasty of Morocco. I was amazed. Especially as I have also seen online where it is stated that the ksars of Rissani are popular tourist attractions. Going from my own experience I did not see any first-hand evidence to confirm this.
Kasbah* des Caids
In this blog post I haven’t even begun to talk about Kasbah des Caids at Agdz where some of our clients have stayed overnight, but it is a rather amazing experience too.
Eight generations ago it was built for a local Caid (judge), and the same family continues to take care of it. A morning tour after breakfast will allow you to see the desertique garden, the Jewish synagogue close by, three different types of bread ovens in a kitchen that has remained essentially unchanged for circa five hundred years. There is also the courtroom where the current Caid’s ancestor passed judgement and levied taxes on passing caravans. It still displays the red and white strips so reminiscent of the interior of the Mesquita at Cordoba. Indeed a ninety minute drive away from this Kasbah there is a Museum of koranic manuscripts that includes a Koran from Cordoba, written in medieval times. As an ex-lawyer I, together with my law graduate nephews, found the courtroom particularly interesting. It was also cool and very dark, which I guess reminds me of some of the older woodpanelled courtrooms in which I have appeared, but not like the bright lights of the Supreme Court of NSW at the top of King Street!
So to Conclude and to Begin and maybe even to Continue
I have probably overused the word “interesting” in this article but sometimes interesting or fascinating are the only two words that come close in English to describing how I respond to these experiences. I hope it will be likewise for you.
If you would like to indulge in an exploration of Ksar Ait Ben Haddou (a popular tourist destination admittedly so certainly not unique to Aussies In Morocco Tours), Kasbah des Caids at Agdz, a village ksar like the ksar at Rissani in which my guide’s grandmother lives, and/ or the Alhambra-esque ksars at Rissani, such as Ksar El Fida (images of which also appear in this blog post) and Ksar Oulad Abdelhalim; then contact us at email@example.com
This blog draws information from the UNESCO website as well as articles by Ilahaine and Gil-Piqueras & Rodriguez-Mavarro. We acknowledge and give thanks for their scholarly insights into the workings of the ancient ksars and their communities.
Published May 2023
* Postscript: There appears to be some inconsistency in the research as to the definitions ascribed to Kasbahs and Ksars, that I am currently unable to finesse. While both Ksars and Kasbahs served as defensive structures, Kasbahs were generally larger and more elaborate. This fits with my own observations in general, although I would say that Ksar Ait Ben Haddou is elaborate. At least one source suggests that Kasbahs were more associated with political power and Ksars were and remain community structures. This fits with my guide’s grandmother’s living arrangements, but I don’t see how that fits with the concept of Ksars as Palaces, where descendants of the Caid continue to live. So who knows. Maybe the terms are used a bit interchangeably without strict regard for accuracy.