“Morocco, though it is visited by thousands of tourists every year, remains an unknown country – the greater part of it as uncharted to the European or American visitor as was Tibet a hundred years ago.” Gavin Maxwell, Lords of the Atlas, 2000.
Maxwell may have been writing almost two decades ago, early in the rise of google maps, satellite technology and the age of snap-happy travellers capturing selfies across the globe, but the quotation above still rings true. With so much of Morocco’s tourism being directed towards the Imperial cities and luxury riads of Fez and Marrakesh, many of the Maghreb’s treasures remain undiscovered by most or simply forgotten by all.
Some of the most remarkable marvels of southern Moroccan architecture which appear to have been left out of the main tourist trails and guidebook highlights are the ancient granary structures of the Anti Atlas mountains. Scattered across the Souss and the lesser Atlas range lie hundreds of Igoudar (the plural form of ‘granary’ in the Amazigh Tamazert language), with the majority located off pistes along the roads which link Taliouine, Taroudant, Ighrem and Tafraoute, some of Morocco’s most stunning scenic drives.
Much of Morocco’s beauty is found down the pistes and pathways connecting the mountain ranges that make up the bulk of North Africa’s most visited country. Remaining largely unknown to travellers who are unable to dedicate the time it takes to explore; years of travel in Morocco would still only make a scratch on discovering this lesser known side of the country. 4×4’s can be rendered useless amid some terrains and weather conditions in the mountains, leaving trekking or mule as the only means of transport.
For anyone seeking a more off the beaten path experience, a trek to a remote ‘agadir’ or ‘igoudar’ in the Anti Atlas (the singular and plural forms respectively of ‘granary’ in the Amazigh Tamazert language) gives a feeling of re-discovering lost history and embarking on an unknown adventure.
Notoriously impossible to siege, an agadir is usually placed on top of a mountain or carved into the rocks of dramatic escarpments, strategically located on higher ground beyond settlements, with good vantage points. Although each granary is unique in design, their bee hive like labyrinth interiors of interconnecting tunnels and passageways holding padlocked chambers collectively resemble a style of architecture that Tolkien might have imagined.
Most of the igoudar that remain are thought to date to the 16th and 17th century, although the tradition of building and using collective granaries is estimated to be as old as a millennia; evolving from a time when many southern Amazigh tribes were still nomadic. Constructed out of necessity, these structures embody an essence of the regions in which they stand. One year of low rainfall can make life very difficult for the mainly self sufficient populous of the Anti Atlas range, who would have been ever more dependent upon the fruits of their harvest during the time of structures development.
The crops which are agriculturally viable amid the dramatic climate conditions of the Anti Atlas, such as saffron, almonds, and argan are high in value, with saffron only offering a short annual harvesting window and the stigmas needing optimum storage conditions to preserve life span. Everything from important documents, money and jewellery to the seasons harvest could be stored inside the locked chambers. These well ventilated, shaded rooms built from thick stone walls remain at cool temperatures during high heats. It is possible for grains to be stored in some agadir chambers for up to 25 years, and natural butter for 10 (which is also believed to have medicinal qualities after being preserved for such a long period of time).
The structures weren’t only built for storing harvests, medicines and possessions; the Amazigh ancestors also constructed them to function as an ancient form of a high security bank vault. The Anti Atlas and the Souss ranges are no strangers to war and conflict. The mountain terrains have been home to many an Amazigh uprising against the central governments during Arab rule and early French Occupation.
Traditionally, one security guard known as an ‘amin,’ stood at the only entrance to each structure and would defend the building from any potential thieves and bandits. Many local tribes had dreams of ruling the lands of the south and were not afraid to use any means necessary to acquire the wealth and power needed to do so. The strategic planning of each granaries location meant only one security guard was needed to ‘man at the fort’ at any one time.
The amin was also responsible for holding the keys to the main door and all the chambered storage rooms inside, a tradition which is still kept alive today. This responsibility has always been a well respected role within the local communities surrounding the granaries and each appointed guard serves for a fixed number of years, rotating the privilege among members of the local communities. Abdullah (seen in the video above ), president and key keeper of the Tizgui & Tallilent co-operative and granary located beyond Assais, told of the an agadir being the social hub of the community during the height of their use. Besides the storage chambers, each structure often held rooms dedicated to a community role, such as a pharmacy storing the local natural medicines of the time, a court-room to settle local disputes and sometimes even a hospital room for doctors to cure the sick.
This community essence to the granaries also adorned a spiritual and mystic element to the buildings. No crime or foul play of any sort was allowed once through the doors, certain crops symbolic of giving life and providing such as grains were placed inside the chambers with a belief they would add strength and life to the granary and the buildings were also open as a place of refuge for people who were in desperate need of shelter. Although many of the structures incorporated a mosque, the Amazigh origins of Morocco pre-date the arrival of Islam and it is believed that some of the spiritual associations toward the buildings were born out of practices older than Islam’s spread over the mountains and cities of the Maghreb.
It’s thought the mosques were later incorporated into the structures to further emphasize the spiritual significance of the buildings, once Islam had arrived in Morocco. Many igoudar, such as the Ifri agadir just outside of Taliouine, are still very much the hub of the local community to this day. Arrival at any granary will stir up interest from locals, who will often follow you and the key keeper around the building telling tales and stories, while children run about playing hide and seek in the chambers excited that the doors to their local playground are open while you visit.
Perhaps the most spectacular and best preserved Agadir — lies over 200km south of Tafraoute in the Guelmim region. A small percentage of Morocco’s annual tourism makes it as far south as this, but those who do are rewarded with stunning unspoiled oasis valleys and treks to prehistoric rock carvings as well as another clustered collection of remarkable Igoudar structures sprawling the landscapes.
Amtoudi is one of the more fortunate granaries which has been restored thanks to the hard work and efforts of the Global Heritage Fund and Salima Naji, an architect and anthropologist who fell in love with the spiritual and community based aspect of the buildings. Her work has been invaluable to the restoration of many Igoudar across southern Morocco and she continually works to preserve remaining knowledge and promote these remarkable examples of Amazigh culture as touristic destinations.
While Amtoudi is easily accessed via main roads (as well as many across southern Morocco), others such as the Tizgui Agadir (Tizgui meaning “suspended” in the Amazigh Tamazert language) require off roading on pistes with a 4×4, via remote and traditional Berber villages and past mountain gorges with stunning prehistoric rock formations, making for a real sense of adventure and discovery.
The journey to find each agadir is really the fun part. Whether it’s stopping to meet interesting characters as you ask for directions in remote villages, finding yourself being invited to drink tea at a home during rains, or laughing as you weigh up the tales told by key keepers concerning the secrets of the agadirs, these incredible structures make for an amazing thread to any trekking route through the Anti Atlas.
For those who wish to search further afield on foot or by mule, how far you wish to pursue your search for remaining igoudar as an adventure is really up to you. Over 70 lie in ruins or states of complete disuse, sadly left to crumble among the remote mountainsides as forgotten history, while other igoudar which still stand are only accessible via trekking. Knowledge of the structures is surprisingly limited across Morocco, even many locals to the regions in which they are located might not know where certain igoudar lie. Expert local guides will be able to lead you to even the most remote ruins and should always be with you when trekking in remote regions of Morocco.
If the idea of discovering ancient granaries and other off-the beaten path attractions appeals to you then contact our team today. We can help you see these lesser known sites of Morocco!
See the other parts of this series
Taliouine, Morocco: Saffron Fills the Senses (Part I)