Glorious Erg Chebbi, ancient kasbahs and Marrakech souks complete our amazing Moroccan adventure.
An erg is an ever shifting, windswept sand dune and Erg Chebbi, the large sand dunes in southern Morocco, was one of our favorite destinations.
Shortly after settling into our tent camp, we wrapped our heads in the colorful chèches we had purchased in the scarf shop back in Fes and were soon astride a patiently kneeling camel. We were told to have a firm grip on the metal bar when the camel stands up. As it gets its longer back legs and feet under it, you are tilted far forward, nearly tumbling right over the camel’s head, then quickly rocked backwards when the camel’s front legs are set in place. As soon as we adjusted to our new high (7-8′) perch and squirmed around to find the most comfortable spot to sit, off we headed into the Sahara Desert. Once we had traveled a good distance and were surrounded by and could see nothing but the dunes, we stopped to watch the rays of the setting sun bath Erg Chebbi in varying shades of gold, salmon and orange. In places, the dunes rise up nearly 500 feet (150 m) above the desert floor. With the modern world left far behind, our imaginations kicked in; the peacefulness of the desert was intoxicating.
The next morning we awoke, dressed in the dark and were once again rocked back and forth up onto the backs of the camels. This time we trekked out to catch the sunrise. As you are riding along, at first glance the desert looks quite barren, but look carefully and you will soon begin to see all sorts of signs of life. This next photo was taken out our tent window and the edge of the dune was less than 10 feet away. Scroll in and you can tracks in the sand.
There are two main types of camels in the world: the two-humped Bactrian camel and the one-humped dromedary. The dromedary makes up 94% of the world’s camel population and that is the type we rode. That single hump is definitely not the most comfortable thing to sit on. A camel saddle, a “mahawi” in Arabic, is an apparatus that is placed slightly behind the hump. It is a wood and iron mini-sawhorse-like structure with handles. Wool bundles and canvas pads are tucked in and around the sides of the mahawi to help level the shape of the camel’s hump. Rough wool blankets cover the wooden seat in an effort to provide comfort for the rider.
We may have had stiff thigh muscles at the end of our trek through the dunes, but seated on top of our camels, enveloped in 360-degree views of the golden ergs was a matchless experience that will linger for a long time. Zwina! (Beautiful!)
Manar Marble, Erfoud
Following the sunrise dromedary ride, we tucked into a hearty breakfast and said farewell to the Sahara. Our first stop of the day was unexpected.
About 380 million years ago, the Sahara Desert, at least the portion in Morocco, was a large prehistoric ocean. The oasis town of Erfoud is located on the northern edge of the Sahara desert and is now a rich field of fossils.
We toured Manar Marble, a factory/shop in Erfoud and were amazed at the thousands of fossils that have been found and continue to be found in the Sahara Desert. Apparently mines and quarries abound in Erfoud where fossils are embedded in huge boulders. It seems ammonites and orthoceras are most common and we saw huge slabs of marble with em edded fossils used for table tops and counters all the way down to beautiful small decor items for the home. Artisans carve out around the fossils to create the 3-D one-of-a-kind pieces.
Oasis of Tinghir
As we headed toward our next destination of Tinghir, we traveled through the Dades Valley. It was a spectacular drive winding through stunning desert landscapes, villages and palm groves between the Atlas Mountains and the Anti-Atlas mountain range. It may be odd to think of snow in Morocco, but during the winter, the Atlas mountains are typically covered in snow and ice.
Tinghir, population 40,000 is a small but picturesque city that sits at the center of an attractive palm-tree filled oasis in the Wadi Todgha or Todra Canyon. The deep gorge was created over the centuries by the waters of the Todra river steadily carving its way through the limestone mountains.
The city of Tinghir is the gateway to the Todgha Gorge (anglicized as Todra Gorge). The gorge is full of dramatic scenery and the impressive 820 feet (250 m) tall rock walls of the gorge are breathtaking. At the base of the walls is the freshest of water that comes bubbling up out of the rocky ground via small springs. The intense reddish-gold color of the towering limestone cliffs are reminiscent of the colors of the Sahara sand.
Our final destination of the day was the Berber village of Boutaghrar / Bou Tharar in the M’Goun Valley where we checked into our first gîte, the traditional Berber styled “Gîte d’etape Tamaloute”. The charming rooms had wooden ceilings, Berber carpets and handcrafted furniture and our view of the fields and mountains beyond was sensational.
The gîte, the owners and staff were amazing. We were treated like guests in someone’s home and had some of the best tagines and couscous of our entire trip. A large rooftop terrace with panoramic views of the surrounding valley allowed us the opportunity to enjoy all our meals outside. On our final night musicians joined us on the terrace and soon everyone was up dancing. We were also invited to one last traditional tea at a local family’s home in the village. Fortunate were we, to be immersed in the customs and lifestyle of these Berber’s warm hospitality.
A local guide took us on an easy 10k or 6.2 mile hike through both the village and the surrounding valley. The village was quiet even when we passed school children during recess. The children waved and smiled but did not approach us. Elementary schools everywhere in Morocco seem to have brightly painted walls and fences and we were soon able to identify a school because of its colors, because the buildings have no other identifying marks that we could see. The surrounding mountains and the famous Rose Valley – where Morocco’s rose oil is sourced from – made a wonderful setting and interesting 4-hour hike.
Leaving the M’goun Valley we set off on the ‘Road of 1000 Kasbahs’. There are apparently more than a thousand kasbahs but less than a handful are open to the public. Our first stop was at the Skoura Oasis where we visited Kasbah Amridil, a historic kasbah (fortress or citadel) that was built in the 17th century. The structure is said to represent some of the typical design elements of oasis architecture in the Berber regions of southern Morocco. It is made from rammed earth or mudbrick and the square corner towers are covered in geometric decoration. This striking building was used in the filming of the 1962 movie, Lawrence of Arabia as well as the 1944 version of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves. Kasbah Amridil was also once used on the Moroccan 50-dirham note.
Today much of the kasbah is a museum where we saw local artifacts, traditional dresses, gold coins, manuscripts, tools, an olive press, a bread oven and an old well. This sectioned basket caught our attention. It was a carrying case for a glass tea set. Whenever the camels stopped during a long trek across the desert, tea was made and served in pretty tea glasses that would have been stored in cases similar to this.
Ksar Aït Benhaddou
A UNESCO site in 1987, Aït Benhaddou (written in the Berber language like this: ⴰⵢⵜ ⴱⴻⵏⵃⴰⴷⴷⵓ), is a historic clay built ksar, or fortified Berber village. Perched on a hilltop the iconic site of the ksar dates to the 11th century although the current buildings are believed to have been rebuilt in the 17th century. Aït Benhaddou once controlled the trade caravans that passed through from sub-Saharan Africa. This place looked somewhat recognizable because it has been used as a filming location for dozens of movies – Lawrence of Arabia, Sodom and Gomorrah, Oedipus Rex, Game of Thrones, Marco Polo, Gladiator, Babel, The Mummy, American Sniper and Mission Impossible – to name a few.
Another amazing day of driving with plenty of interesting breaks. We stopped near the top of the Tizi n’Tichka pass, 7,400 feet high (2,200 m), to take in the views of the Atlas mountain range. We visited Ouarzazate (sounded like wheres-zit-at), a city south of Morocco’s High Atlas mountains and Aït Benhaddou, where Cinema Studio Atlas and the beautiful Óscar Hotel are located. This site definitely felt very Hollywood-esque. We stopped at a women’s carpet weaving co-op where we watched Berber women weaving beautiful rugs and carpets as they have been doing for centuries. The salesroom was remarkable, offering many tempting rugs to purchase.
Next door was a silver jewelry shop where we found a beautiful Amazigh or Berber cultural symbol, traditionally used as a brooch or pin.
The design of the symbol can differ between tribes, but essentially, it consists of a triangle beneath a ring or semicircle. It was originally a decorative pin once used to hold garments together. We found this very attractive symbol made into all types of jewelry in the silver shop.
Final destination – the “Red City” of Marrakech or Marrakesh, so-called because of the 1000-year old orange-red clay and chalk city walls and buildings. The 4th largest city in Morocco, the population of Marrakesh has recently exceeded the 1 million mark.
Marrakesh has the largest traditional souk in Morocco and the medina quarter is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The souks historically are divided into retail areas by craft or trade, a carpet souk, spice souk, metal works souk, leather souk, for example. As we walked through we spotted souks selling cedar wood magic boxes and crafts, carpets and rugs, djellabas, baboush and other traditional Muslim attire, leather bags, intricate locks, lanterns, tea services and silver and brass pieces.
Evidence has been found that Berber farmers inhabited the region around Marrakesh for millennia, but the city itself, is only 1000 years old. During medieval times up through the late 19th century, the entire country of Morocco was known as the “Kingdom of Marrakesh”. In some countries the name for Morocco is still Marrakesh. However, it was in 1956 when the country regained its independence from France, that the country took the official name of the Kingdom of Morocco, dropping all references to Marrakesh.
Once used for public executions, the square of Jemaa el-Fnaa, (translates as Assembly of the Dead) today can be wildly chaotic in a much different way. In the early evening, called the busiest square in all of Africa, Jemaa el-Fnaa becomes carnival-like with musicians, snake charmers, monkey handlers, magicians, henna artists, buskers and numerous other types of entertainment. Adding to the cacophony the square is lined with brightly lit shops, food stalls and cafes.
Completely opposite to the liveliness found in Jemaa el-Fnaa square, the harmonious trickle of the fountains we found in the 19th century Bahia Palace were much more calming. This well-known historic attraction is open to the public but is also occasionally used by the King to host foreign guests. Our early morning visit was well timed as we had the peaceful palace to ourselves.
The palace covers nearly 5 acres (2 hectares) and has a number of inner courtyards and riad gardens. Surrounding the courtyards are richly decorated galleries and ornate chambers. One of the more amazing parts of the palace is a colorful wooden gallery with a stunning marble and zellige tiled floor. Another was a very long hall with a high ceiling that had some of the best painted decorations we have seen in Morocco. It is a glorious Arabian palace.
Morocco is a majestic and exotic country filled with ancient history and delightful experiences. Residents are known for their friendly nature and warm hospitality and that was our experience as well. Enjoying a country’s sites, adventures and culture is fantastic but it is the people you meet that make a visit truly memorable. Morocco is a wonderfully vibrant country and worth a second visit.
Allah ma’kon (farewell) Morocco.
Bssaha from these Moroccans,
Ted + Julia
View our Erg Chebbi photo album here
View our Tinghir, Morocco photo album here
View our Bou Tharar, Morocco photo album here
View our Manar Marble, Erfoud photo album here
View our Kasbah Amridil photo album here
View our Ksar Ait Ben Haddou photo album here
View our Marrakesh photo album here
2 thoughts on “The Magic of Morocco”
Very enjoyable; good descriptions of the places you visited.
So interesting- your travels! Thanks for sharing! Miss you! Take care, sounds like you are, 💕 Susan