Discovering the Berber (Amazigh) heritage and culture of Morocco
Explore a wild environment and discover the Berber heritage, as rich as it is fascinating. From their legendary stories to a journey to the heart of the Sahara, follow the path traced by our editor.
They have inhabited North Africa since the dawn of time: they are the "Imazighen", the Free Men. You may know them as Berbers: this is how they were named by the Roman Empire, to which they belonged for several centuries. Because invasions, wars, and other colonizations punctuated the existence of the Berbers! Yet this gigantic community and its mosaic of tribes have managed to preserve their traditions, folklore, and cultures to celebrate them even today.
Let's immerse ourselves together in the history of the Berbers and their anchorage with the Sahara thanks to a road trip in the southeast of Morocco. From the departure of Marrakech to the dunes of Chegaga, I will take you through the High Atlas, the ancestral land of the Moroccan Berbers, in order to lift the veil on the Amazigh heritage as rich as it is unknown.
On the trail of the Imazighen...
First occupants of North Africa
The waves of Arab and Western colonization, including French, often make us forget that North Africa is historically the land of the Berber peoples. Indeed, they would be the first occupants of the Maghreb, those whose concrete traces will be found in primitive art and writing in the first half of the first millennium BCE.
In addition, archaeologists will find cave paintings identified as Berber on the walls of the Tassili n'Ajjer mountain range, between Libya and Algeria, where Tuareg tribes still live. These paintings highlight the beliefs of the Berbers, focused on nature, the relationship to the sun and the moon, and the sacred power of rocks.
As for the Berber language "Tamazight", bringing together several dialects, it dates from 2,000 BC. It was spoken in many parts of the Maghreb, as far as the Nile Valley.
Great Berber civilizations and dynasties
The Berber peoples of North Africa live to the rhythm of great empires and civilizations. It begins with the Capsian civilization between -9000 and -7000 BC, followed by the Carthaginian civilization.
Thus, the Berbers rub shoulders with the Phoenicians or the Spanish Iberians. It was in antiquity, in the third century BCE, that the largest Berber kingdom emerged: Numidia, currently Algeria, with Cirta as its capital (today Constantine). She was then an ally of the Romans against Carthage, even extending her power to present-day Tunisia. Berber culture will also have a real influence on the art and way of life of the Romans! Subsequently, an addition of conflicts divides Numidia, and the Berbers, therefore, adapt to the new governances.
However, it was the Muslim conquest of the Maghreb around 647 that represented a major change for the Berber populations of North Africa. The latter, Catholics, Jews, or pagans, then converted to the Muslim religion, while others tried to maintain their own cults.
It will take several centuries for several great Berber dynasties to succeed each other in power, among them the Zirids in Algeria, the Almoravids, the Merinids, and the Almohads in Morocco. The latter is at the origin of the Hassan Tower in Rabat!
Thus, the Berber peoples retain a certain power that also extends to Spain (Al-Andalus) and Sicily. But Arabization, Islamization, struggles between dynasties, intestinal uprisings, and conflicts with the Turks crushed the influence of the Berbers. In the end, some peoples continue to live in prosperity in the mountains of Algeria (Kabylia) for example, in the Moroccan Atlas, or in the Sahara.
From now on, the former Berber country's heirs of great dynasties are all Arab: Morocco, Algeria, or Libya... Nevertheless, the Berber peoples and their heritage have survived in specific places. They are found in parts of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Niger, Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, and Egypt, but also in the Canary Islands. As for the Berber diaspora outside North Africa and the Mediterranean region, it would represent more than 30 million people!
Many Berbers are currently fighting for better recognition of their culture. In Morocco, learning the Amazigh language is slowly integrated into school curricula. And in Algeria, the Berber New Year, celebrated in January, is officially a public holiday! Also, some traditions also remain very anchored, such as the Fantasia, or Game of Powder, an impressive show of Berber cavalry that simulates military assaults.
Road trip in Morocco, to discover the Amazigh culture
I had the opportunity to explore the Cherifian Kingdom for about ten months between 2018 and 2019, while working in the capital, Rabat. But as soon as I arrive in Morocco, I notice that the name of the airport is written in Arabic, French, and... in an alphabet that is completely unknown to me. I then ask the taxi driver, who tells me about the existence of the "alphabet of the Berbers", the Tifinagh. The writing originated in the Tuareg tribes, before being standardized in the twentieth century.
Since the new Moroccan Constitution of 2011, Tifinagh is now entering the institutions of the Kingdom, on the front of schools, and on some road signs. Because with 60% of the Berbers in the country including 40% Berber speakers, it was necessary to value the language! And if some Berbers have joined the big cities of Casablanca or Rabat, traditions predominate more in very specific Moroccan regions: in the Rif in northern Morocco ("the Rifains"), in the High Atlas ("the Tamazights"), and in the Souss in southern Morocco ("the Chleuhs").
First contacts in Marrakech
It is in the ocher city that will begin this journey that will eventually take us to the middle of the dunes of the Sahara. Entering through one of the gates ("Bab") of the old town of Marrakech, I then enter the Medina: a historic heart dating from the eleventh century and classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Medina of Marrakech is also the most populated in the Maghreb!
It is in this labyrinth that there are souks, riads, cafes, an old Jewish quarter (the "Mellah"), and especially pieces of Berber crafts. The merchants display before my eyes their treasures: many carpets, a multitude of pottery, and suitcases of jewelry. Almost all of them have signs and symbols that are still unfamiliar to me. In my hesitant Arabic, I ask for some explanations from one of the merchants, originally from Taroudant, a fortified city in the southwest.
The latter explains to me that carpets, for example, are made of sheep's wool. The symbols of the carpets are close to the cave paintings and refer to a precise meaning. For example, the "X" symbolizes the woman's body, the rhombus refers to the belly and uterus, and the spirals illustrate harmony. Generally, the motifs of Berber craftsmanship all refer to male-female relationships, fertility, nature, and, of course, death. As for the colors of Berber artifacts, red and yellow predominate!
I continue my express visit to Marrakech through the El Badiî and Bahia Palaces, the palm grove, the Agdal gardens, and the famous Majorelle Garden by Yves Saint-Laurent. At nightfall, the old Medina of Marrakech calms down, and it is now the echoes of the Jamaâ-el-Fna square and its gigantic market that resonate. I find a shop to taste Tanjia, a marrakchi dish of lamb meat with spices that cook in a pot of earth for about 8 hours in the embers of a wood-fired oven, "like those of hammams" says the chef. Enjoy your meal!
From the High Atlas to the ksar of Aït-ben-Haddou
The next morning, a mint tea and a Moroccan pancake ("msemen") swallowed, I take the road to the High Atlas, named the roof of Morocco, always with the objective of reaching the desert a few days later. In this mountainous region is a part of the semi-nomadic Berber populations who still evolve in a very rural and traditional environment.
My first stop, the Tizi n'Tichka pass ("pasture pass" in Tamazight), is 2 hours from Marrakech. The road that leads there is wonderful, sometimes very arid, sometimes more fertile. The ochre and raw landscapes parade before my eyes despite the 800 and some turns that must be mastered until the pass. Arriving on site, the view is breathtaking – and in both senses of the word, because we are still more than 2,300 meters above sea level!
Back on the mountain road, I stop in some traditional Berber villages of the Ounila valley to stock up and take pictures of the incredible views. One specific village catches my attention: Telouet.
I stop there for a late lunch, to try the local dish, the Berber omelet: an omelet cooked in a tagine dish with vegetables, olive oil, and spices (chili, ginger, cumin ...). It is, as expected, a delight! Repue, I go to explore the kasbah of Telouet, ranked among one of the most beautiful in Morocco. In Berber culture, kasbahs are fortified citadels found in most of the countries of the Maghreb, like the medinas.
That of Telouet, founded in the eighteenth century by the Glaoua tribe, is now abandoned but open to the visit for a dozen dirhams. It was also the palace of Thami El Glaoui, a wealthy pasha who decorated it with great care (understand, with zelliges and beautiful ceramics).
I take the road again to go to my last stop of the day: Aït-ben-Haddou. Arriving in the village, I reach my room covered with Berber tapestries, located in a small riad, "Chez Rachid". The view from my window gives directly to the highlight of the show: a huge kasbah, which is actually a ksar as corrected to me by my host, Rachid, therefore.
A ksar is a fortress built on a rock face, in which dwellings were dug directly into the rocks. Small cells were also set up to store food. This fortress served the semi-sedentary Berbers to protect themselves against attacks from other nomadic tribes. In addition, the ksar of Aït-ben-Haddou, on the hillside is so sumptuous that it has been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
On the road to Dades, through the Valley of the Roses
At dawn, I leave in the direction of Ouarzazate, which is only half an hour's drive away. It is also the last major city before the desert, hence its nickname of "Gates of the Sahara". I stop for a beldi (traditional) breakfast, based on a lot of olive oil and the favorite cheese of Moroccans: the Laughing Cow. I then venture into this Moroccan Hollywood, because Ouarzazate is known for its Atlas Corporations studios where several great films have been shot, and whose visit is worth a look!
After this film-tourism session, I reconnect with my desire to learn even more about Berber culture. Because it was they who historically inhabited Ouarzazate! The Kasbah of Taourit, dating from the eighteenth century, rises there, just as majestic as its neighbors of the High Atlas.
A few steps away is an old medina. It is by meeting a local guide that I learn the historical role of Ouarzazate: that of being a commercial meeting point between the Berber tribes, but also between the different African peoples. And specifically after the Arabization of the Maghreb territories, the city of Ouarzazate was constantly crossed by caravans that allowed the economic prosperity of the entire region.
After a few hours of discovering Ouarzazate, I decided to move away from my initial itinerary to head toward the Valley of roses and the Gorges of Dades. This side step will only cost me a few hours, and the detour is worth it.
Located 1h30 from Ouarzazate, the famous Valley of roses takes its name from the hatching of roses between April and June. Rose hedges were mostly imported in the tenth century by nomads and pilgrims from Mecca. Its cultivation is also used to produce rose water, which you can buy in several shops in the area. I also stop in the village of Kelaat-M'Gouna, at the foot of the valley: it is there that the rose festival is organized every year, in May.
While doing my trip in February, I miss the chance to celebrate the flowers, but I discover with great interest this village and its two souks. As I prepare to hit the road again to discover Dades, catchy music attracts my atte.
On a small square, there is a show of ahidous: a traditional Berber dance against a background of tambourines, clapping hands, and songs. Men and women are dressed in white, with a colorful turban on their heads. The movements and their synchronization are fascinating! Also, it gives me the impression of discovering a little more Amazigh folklore: Ahidou dances are considered an expression of victory after a conflict or war.
It is by humming the heady rhythm that I land in the gorges of Dades, located in the valley with the same name, 45 minutes from Kelaat-M'Gouna. The famous "winding road" is winding but arrived at the top of the gorges, the view is splendid!
It is also in these gorges that the "Monkey Fingers" is located: these rocks in the shape of chubby little fingers. It is also possible to spend the whole day hiking through the gorges of Dades if you have time.
Unfortunately, I have to miss the stage of Tinghir, a city where a Jewish Berber community would have lived, inspiring the film Tinghir-Jerusalem by Kamal Hachkar. Indeed, I have to turn back for my night in the village of Skoura, neighboring Ouarzazate, famous for its palm grove.
There, I find a traditional inn where I stay one night, wrapped in my sheep's wool blankets: because it's February, and if the days are mild, the nights are particularly cool.
I have the chance to discover Skoura at dawn, strolling through its douars (small neighborhoods, or literally "villages"), its markets, and its kasbahs. A mint tea later, it's time to discover our next and last stop before the desert!.
Passing through the Draouis
I go deep into the Drâa Valley, formerly part of Berber Numidia, and whose beautiful landscapes continue to surprise me. Indeed, small oases litter the road, cutting with the aridity of the desert now very close. I discover, by the way, the small town of Zagora, where it is better to make a last tank of gas before entering a particularly isolated part of the country.
I sympathize with some "Draouis": the Berber populations who live around the Drâa River. They explain to me the meaning of a strange sign at the entrance of the city: "Timbuktu -> 52 days". Thus, it would take only 52 days for camels to reach the Malian city on the other side of the desert. "A legend" adds one of them, in French.
I continue my journey towards M'hamid El Ghizlane, on the edge of the Sahara, where I have an appointment with my guide, Salah. On the phone, the latter tells me that you have to cross "two mountains in the shape of tagine dishes" to get to the village. I find him on the side of the road: he stands out in his turban and his bluish clothes that make me think of the Tuareg outfits, the Berber people of Algeria, nicknamed "the blue men".
Together we go to his house to drop off the car because our next means of transport will be the dromedary. Salah's house is part of a douar, where his whole family lives, with the Sahara as a garden. I then notice that Salah's aunt has tattoos on her face: I saw the same inscriptions on other women during my trip. I ask Salah, who explains to me that tattoos connect the human to the spiritual, and that they are particularly important in Berber folklore.
Women will tattoo their chins, for example, like a goatee, in tribute to a deceased husband. Also, as they represent the earth, women have more tattoos and inscriptions on the body than men. Some are, for example, intended to improve fertility! Tattoos also play a role of recognition and allowed, thousands of years ago, the different tribes to recognize each other.
In addition to tattoos and henna, Berber women use pigment-based makeup. The French will popularize in France some of these beauty products during colonization.
Bivouac in the Sahara
After the courtesy tea, Salah and his companion, Brahim, load the camels with our backpacks, cans of water, and enough to survive for two nights in the Sahara. I then climb on the beast of the nomad par excellence, and we all venture together into the desert for several hours of driving, with, to the west, the Algerian border that is emerging.
I ask Salah how he manages to find his way in the middle of the desert: "We have the Berber GPS integrated into the brain!" he replies. It is certain that Salah knows the desert like the back of his hand: he comes from the semi-nomadic tribe Aït Atta, established in the desert massif of southeastern Morocco since the sixteenth century.
A few hours later, the notion of relatively lost time, we arrive at a plan that does not really resemble the landscapes of the Sahara and its orange and iridescent dunes that I imagined. Indeed, the place makes me think more of a kind of savannah. Here, grass grows, including salad, Salah tells me. He makes me taste a plant that has, indeed, the exact taste of arugula.
In this desert plain, I meet Salah's parents, semi-nomads: they spend about 6 months of the year in different parts of the desert to raise goats. The rest of the year, they live in M'hamid. They do not speak a word of darija, the Moroccan Arabic dialect of which I master some basics after several months spent in Morocco.
They express themselves in a Berber dialect, which requires a lot of imagination to understand each other. We all have dinner together a couscous prepared in the large tent set up by the couple. Of course, we taste the dish by hand (right! otherwise you will offend your hosts). In addition, Salah explains to me that it is also customary for the nomads of the Sahara to cook directly in the sand, which serves as an oven. The container will be an (empty) goat stomach.
We continue the evening outside, in the very fresh air of the desert, whose silence is sometimes broken by a few bleating goats. While it is a dark night, Brahim gets on his camel to return to the village of M'hamid, explaining to me that he will spend the night on the beast and that the latter knows perfectly the way to the house.
The next day we take the 4×4 to arrive in a bivouac less traditional, but also more luxurious. The latter is located in Erg Chegaga: a dune massif of about 40 km. There, it is possible to relax in one of the hammocks, sand-surf, or a traditional sand hammam: a hole is dug in the side of a dune, in which you lie down. The warm sand covers the body and, for about ten minutes, a relaxing feeling and well-being spreads.
After the experience, it is possible to receive a massage with camel fat to moisturize the skin, and it is also necessary to drink plenty of water!
The wonderful sunset behind the dunes then gives way to a starry sky: surely the most beautiful that I have ever seen. And despite some recalcitrant beetles climbing on me, I lie on the fresh sand.
The famous poet and thinker Ibn Khaldoun said that "the Berbers tell so many stories, that if we bothered to put them in writing, we would fill volumes!" And he's not entirely wrong. Salah recites to me some local counts with fallen pashas and rich princesses. He also tells me the story of the great queen Kahina: this Berber "prophetess", a great warrior and symbol of the resistance of the seventh century who fought against the Arab invasion.
It is therefore with my head full of stories that I fall asleep, delighted to have made so many memories during this journey in Berber lands and to have lived, in my turn, a hectic nomadic adventure.