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“Maghreb al-Aksa”: The land of the setting sun

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“Maghreb al-Aksa”: The land of the setting sun

Covering an area of some 711 000km2 (including the Western Sahara), Morocco is two thirds larger than the United Kingdom and just a little bigger than the state of Texas, USA. The Mediterranean washes its northern shores and the Atlantic Ocean its western coastline. As a result, part of the country faces Europe, while the rest stretches far over the vast Saharan plains of dunes and rocky plateaux. In the heart of this wild, varied landscape stands the Atlas mountain range dominated by Jebel Toubkal which, at 4 167m, is the highest peak in Northern Africa. Morocco has an extensive coastline (2 600km long) while its Saharan “coast” (sahel) stretches over a thousand kilometres, from Tan-Tan to Figuig. The main mountain ranges are oriented south-west and north-east. The majority of the country enjoys a hot, dry climate and many of its short rivers only flow irregularly. It is above all a vast territory: 2 200km separate Tangier from the Mauritanian border and it is 900km from Agadir to Oujda as the crow flies.

A palette of landscapes

Morocco never ceases to amaze and charm all those who experience its beautiful and stunningly varied landscapes. The country’s relief and climate have produced highly distinctive regions ranging from the green hilly Rif to the dunes of Merzouga, the marshy plains of the Rharb to the snow-capped summits of the High Atlas, the cedar forests of the Middle Atlas to the palm groves of the Drâa Valley or the red and ochre hues of the rocks and earth of the Dadès Valley. To all this must be added a variety of flora and fauna, most of which is totally unknown in Europe.

A trip from the Mediterranean to the Sahara will take the traveller through the following regions.

The green mountains of the Rif

To the north, Mediterranean Morocco is bordered by the Rif range. Formed by rocks dating from the Tertiary era, the range forms a large arc which faces Malaga on the Spanish coast and runs from Jebel Moussa (opposite Gibraltar) to the peak of the Three Forks ( north of Melilla). Although the highest peak in the region, Jebel Tidirhine , is only 2 448m high, the deep, narrow valleys and steep coastline nonetheless continue to hamper travellers; only three narrow, winding roads provide a route from north to south through this 300km-long chain of mountains.

The Rif is the wettest region of Morocco with over 800mm of rainfall per year: here, the landscape is generally lush and green (except near the coast) and the mountain peaks, where over 1 500mm of rain can fall annually, tend to be covered in dense forest. Unfortunately, however, deforestation has caused impoverished scrubland areas (matorral) to develop, with dwarf palm trees (doum) as the main vegetation.

The people live in densely-populated villages of thatched or tiled-roof cottages (although more and more have corrugated iron roofs) and grow food crops in tiny fields dotted over the region’s hilly slopes. The region of Kétama is renowned for its production of kif (marijuana).

From the Rharb plain to the eastern steppes

To the south-west of the Rif, in the heart of a triangle formed by Larache-Sidi Kacem-Kenitra, the Rharb (“West”) is a fertile alluvial plain through which the Oued (river) Sebou runs. At one time this area was impoverished marshland (merja) and was often subject to catastrophic floods, the most devastating of which took place in 1963. However, vast drainage and irrigation works begun under the French Protectorate have now made it one of Morocco’s most fertile agricultural regions: citrus fruit, sugar beet and cane, rice and flax are all produced here. To the south, the former cork oak forest of Mamora has been partially replanted with eucalyptus. Up through the fertile valley of the Sebou, leading to the high plain of Saïs , stand the towns of Meknès and Fès where cereal crops are grown. Vines can be found to the south of Meknès, while a little further north, superb olive groves flourish in the foothills.

Further east, at the foot of Jebel Tazzeka (1 980m), the Taza Gap provides an easy route through to the Moulouya basin. The Moulouya, at 520km long, is one of Morocco’s main rivers and empties into the Mediterranean close to the border with Algeria.

South of the Moulouya, a vast area of high plateaux at altitudes of over 1 000m stretches east as far as the Figuig oasis and west to the last foothills of the High Atlas. The region is particularly arid (only 200 to 300mm of rainfall per year), because the Middle Atlas provides a natural defence against the rain-filled winds of the Atlantic Ocean. Esparto grass and jujube trees thrive in the vast open spaces of the region, which is also home to semi-nomadic cattle breeders.

The Middle Atlas: rocky plains and forests of cedar trees

In the centre of Morocco is a vast mountain range formed from Jurassic limestone. The Middle Atlas consists of two very different regions. To the west, karstic plains range from 1 100 to 2 000m in height, creating a vast arid limestone plateau , part of which is covered in the remains of volcanic eruptions. To the east, a much higher range of folded mountains provides an alpine landscape: some of the peaks are over 3 000m high, such as Jbel Bou Naceur which reaches an altitude of 3 340m.

Heavy rain and snowfall occur in the western and northern parts of the Middle Atlas. Above 1 600m, the forests of cork oaks and deciduous trees gradually give way to magnificent cedars , some of which are said to be over 1 000 years old. However, the forest continues to serve as pasture for the inhabitants’ animals and in the foothills (dir) , abundant springs provide water for the thriving orchards.

The Atlantic Coast

Vast sandy beaches and limestone or sandstone cliffs alternate along the 1 300km-long coastline, running from Cape Spartel to Cape Juby , or from Tangier to the edge of the western Sahara, all of which are buffeted by regular ocean winds. Coastal dunes often form natural borders, leading to the creation of lagoons (as at Oualidia), narrow humid plains (oulja) and areas of marshland. The cold water currents present in the Atlantic Ocean provide an abundance of fish, but also make bathing and sailing dangerous, particularly around Casablanca. The climate is humid and fog is frequent. Behind the coast lies a coastal plain formed from Quaternary deposits often made up of old sand dunes. As many as a hundred coastal rivers are in evidence throughout the region, although most tend to dry up in the hotter months. The Oum er-Rbia , which is 555km in length and Morocco’s longest river, is the only one to flow more or less regularly.

Some 50km inland begins the Moroccan Meseta . This area is made up of a central plateau, dominated by grazing pastures and forests of cork, evergreen oaks and thujas, and an arid plateau whose subsoil contains high levels of phosphates, one of Morocco’s main sources of wealth. The latter is separated from the Middle Atlas and the High Atlas by two interior arid plains swept by the chergui , an easterly summer wind which leaves the land parched. The soil can only be cultivated if irrigated by irrigation canals (seguia) in the Tadla and underground canals (rhettara) in the Haouz .

The High Atlas, the highest mountain range in Northern Africa

Most of southern Morocco is flanked by a high mountain range which lies on a south-west / north-east axis and runs for 700km from the Atlantic to the eastern plateau. There are only four roads through the High Atlas and one of those takes travellers through passes over 2 000m in altitude.

To the west, a limestone plateau, home to the argan (Morocco ironwood tree) and the thuja, leads the way into the compact crystalline mass of the western High Atlas with 4 000m-high peaks, including Jebel Toubkal at 4 167m. The snow-bound northern slopes have encouraged the growth of evergreen oaks, pine trees and juniper forests. Most human activity is limited to the deep valleys, shaded by walnut trees, where the Shluh peasants tend their tiny plots of land set out in terraces on the steep slopes, which are irrigated by ouggoug , primitive dams, built out of stones and branches.

East of the Tizi n-Tichka pass and stretching as far as the Lake Plateau (Imilchil), lies the central High Atlas, whose highest peak, Ighil M’Goun , reaches 4 071m. The mountains here are limestone through which the M’Goun, Dadès and Todra have cut incredible gorges. The climate is drier, even pre-Saharan on the southern slopes.

Finally to the east, the dizzy heights of the High Atlas gradually subside, but the impressive Jebel Ayachi nonetheless reaches 3 737m. In addition to the wonderful natural amphitheatre at Jaffar, the most stunning landscape is without doubt that of the Ziz gorges, where palm groves thrive between rocky walls and slopes.

The Anti-Atlas ranges

At the foot of the High Atlas, a long, narrow corridor, the southern Atlas trench separates the former from the Anti-Atlas. From the High Atlas to the hamada (plateau) of the river Guir, only the volcanic peak of Jebel Siroua (3 304m) intrudes. To the far west is the alluvial Sous plain, where the climate is extremely dry; only sparse vegetation manages to survive in this stony soil known as the argan savannah . However, irrigation, combined with the region’s hot climate, is working miracles: the Agadir region specialises in fruit and vegetable crops, such as the strawberries to be found in the markets of Europe in early February! The Anti-Atlas range begins to the south of the Sous plain and runs parallel to the High Atlas but at a much lower altitude. The chain is of Palaeozoic origins from which massifs of eruptive or metamorphic rocks jut out ( Jebel Lkest 2 376m above Tafraoute, Adrar-n-Aklim 2 531m, east of Igherm, and Jebel Amalou 2 712m, in the Sarhro). The landscape is extremely varied and gives the region a wild look: there are eroded granite blocks in the Tafraoute basin, sandstone pinnacles on Jebel Lkest, schistose ridges and gorges cut deep into limestone. The climate is hot and the valleys of almond trees in blossom in the spring are quite beautiful.

A desert of sand and stone, the stunning geological variety of the South

Those unfamiliar with pre-Saharan Southern Morocco often imagine it to be an arid, scorching, monotonous land. True, the temperatures are very high (over 45°C in August, and often up to 36°C at midnight!) and the peaks scarcely rise over 1 500m. However, the relief is varied and often very abrupt. The region offers a stunning profusion of geological forms, like the long sandstone ridge of Jebel Bani , whose stark, gaunt shape is not softened by vegetation. Landscape features include foum (deep gorges or canyons), reg (piles of fallen stones found at the foot of a mountain), hamada (vast plateaux covered in stones deposited by long-since disappeared rivers and eroded by sandstorms), kreb (the steep slope found at the edge of a hamada ), erg (constantly shifting sand dunes) and sebkha (vast salty expanses whose perfectly flat surface reflects the sun’s rays). Occasionally, in the midst of this mineral wilderness the traveller may chance on the almost unreal lush greenery of an oasis or the austere beauty of naturally-sculpted mineral deposits.

From cedar forests to palm groves

Although large parts of the country are arid, Morocco is nonetheless endowed with a wide variety of plant life and this is never more evident than in the spring when the fields are covered in wild flowers. The opulence of Morocco’s parks and gardens, both public (Shella, Oudaïa, Bouknadel, Majorelle) and private, is a feast for the eyes. Palm trees and cedars are widespread throughout the country. The outline of the date palm remains one of the most typical sights of Morocco, despite the fall from favour of the date in local trade and cuisine, while cedar forests cover vast expanses of land in the Middle Atlas, the Rif and the High Atlas.

Other less well-known trees can nonetheless be found in large numbers: mimosa around Tangier, juniper in the mountainous regions, thuja of Barbary or arar used by cabinetmakers at Essaouira, argan which is endemic to south-west Morocco, the gum acacia tree which grows in the semi-arid regions, jujube , dwarf palm tree (doum) , sycamore found in the Tafilalt, or the strange branfer from Ouarzazate with its delicate yellow flowers and bright orange centre. Prickly pears can be found over almost all the country, but euphorbia is found only in the Ifni where the word means two radically different plants: a cushion shaped (but thorny) cactus and a leafy bush, the branches of which form a surprisingly symmetrical pattern.

Camels, storks and donkeys, Morocco’s emblematic animals

As well as goats and sheep, three other animals are associated with the Moroccan landscape: camels, storks and donkeys. The donkey , said to be “gentle, sensual and stubborn”, is the peasant’s best friend. The camel or dromedary , introduced into the Maghreb 2 000 years ago, was for centuries the “ship of the desert”. Today however, its gangling, lanky allure and mocking expression are little more than a tourist attraction, when it is not killed for its meat (in the Great South). As for the stork , which takes up abode from December to August, it has adopted the minarets and disused towers of the kasbahs as its second home.

The lions and elephants which featured prominently in the hunting tales of yore have long since disappeared, but Morocco is still home to a wide variety of wild fauna, due to the isolated nature of many of its regions. However, in recent decades, the survival of many species has been increasingly threatened by hunting (gazelles, antelopes, bustards), illegal trading (tortoises, chameleons, fennec – a type of small fox) and the growth of the economy.

The Atlantic coast and its numerous estuaries, lagoons and vast marshy areas (merja) , are a haven for countless species of migratory and aquatic birds such as avocets, herons, cormorants, pink flamingos and pelicans. Several nature parks have been set up to protect them, in particular Merja Zerga (south of Larache), Mogador Island (Essaouira) and Sous Massa (south of Agadir), where two particularly rare species, Eleanora’s falcon and the bald ibis are to be found.

In northern Morocco, the egret is a common sight in the countryside while large bustards gather together in the winter near Asilah.

The most characteristic animal of the Middle Atlas is the Barbary ape or magot , the only monkey indigenous to North Africa (the famous Gibraltar apes belong to the same species). Armed with good binoculars and a degree of patience, it is possible to spot groups of these shy creatures in clearings in the cedar forests around Azrou.

In the High Atlas, a few mouflon (mountain sheep) can still be found on the slopes of Mt Toubkal, together with even fewer leopards . Sightings of large birds of prey, such as the royal eagle or bearded vulture (lammergeier), are much more common. The chameleons on sale in Marrakech’s or other souks generally come from this region.

Argan squirrels , adorable little grey furry animals, often found in the Anti-Atlas and the Sous are far more curious than they are shy, and it is easy to approach them.

Panthers are occasionally seen in the Guelmim region. After the sun goes down, the mournful howls of jackals frequently fill the night air. The Great South is crammed with a host of wild animals which are generally better left well alone: scorpions , up to 15cm long, puff adders and royal cobras . More commonly, there is the spiny tailed (or whip-tailed ) lizard which is very amusing to watch run about, but its tail will rip to ribbons any hands that attempt to pick it up!

In the desert, jerboas and fennec still abound, but many of the various species of gazelles , formerly very numerous, are now threatened with extinction, victims of the shooting talents of rich hunters from the Persian Gulf who hunt them down in 4WD vehicles and sometimes even in helicopters!

Main dates

Prehistoric Era

3000-800 BC Bronze Age. Oukaïmeden


8C BC The Phoenicians explore the Moroccan coast. Lixus

Towards 460 BC Hanno reconnoitres the West African coasts and founds several trading posts in Morocco.

25 BC-23 AD Reign of Juba II. Volubilis

40 AD Ptolemy is assassinated. Mauritania becomes Sala Colonia a Roman province. Banasa

285 The Roman administration and army withdraw from the major part of Mauritania Tingitana.

Muslim Era

681 Oqba ben Nafi reaches the Atlantic.

710 The Moroccan Berbers are subdued.

711-13 Tarik conquers Spain.

740-60 Kharijite revolt. Sijilmassa

788-92 Idris I founds the first Muslim dynasty. Fès

803-28 Reign of Idris II. Fès

1053-70 Rise of the Almoravids. Marrakech

1086 Spanish defeated at Zallaqah.

1123 Start of the Almohad movement. Tinmel

1133-47 Rise of the Almohads.

1159 The Almohads rule over the Maghreb.

1195 Spanish defeated at Alarcos. Rabat

1212 Muslim defeat at Las Navas de Tolosa.

1248-69 Rise of the Marinids.

1270-1358 Golden Age of the Marinids. Fès, Salé, Shella

1470-1515 Portuguese conquests. El-Jadida, Safi

1521-54 Rise of the Saadians. Agadir

1541 Fall of Agadir: Portuguese expansion is halted.

1578 Battle of the “Three Kings”.

1578-1603 Reign of Ahmed el-Mansur. Marrakech

1633-69 Rise of the Alawites.

1672-1727 Reign of Moulay Ismail. Meknès

1757-90 Reign of Mohammed ibn Abdallah. Essaouira

1769 The Portuguese quit Mazagan. El-Jadida

Colonisation and Contemporary Era

1844 Battle of Isly (Algeria) against the French.

1859-60 Hispano-Moroccan war: taking of Tetouan.

1880 Conference of Madrid: Morocco comes under foreign control.

1907 French troops disembark at Casablanca.

1912 Treaty of Fès setting up a French Protectorate.

1912-13 Revolt of El-Hiba in the Sous. Tiznit

1912-25 Lyautey is Resident General.

1921-26 The Rif war.

1932-34 Final subjugation of Morocco Ouarzazate by the French army.

1953 Deposition and exile of Mohammed V.

1956 Triumphal return of Mohammed V. Independence of Morocco.

1961 Death of Mohammed V. Coronation of Hassan II.

1975 Green March and beginning of the war against the Polisario.

1999 Death of Hassan II. Coronation of Mohammed VI.

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