Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Ait Ben Haddou, a Desert-Born Model for Urban Design

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Ait Ben Haddou, a Desert-Born Model for Urban Design

Article excerpt

THE High Atlas mountain chain once divided Morocco into two distinct parts. The area of ample rainfall, bountiful agriculture and placid village life to the north was called bled al-makhzan, the land of imperial governance. To the south, a rocky, sandy and sun-baked expanse stretched into the Sahara. This was bled al-siba, the land of disorder.

This geographical dichotomy did not always hold, however, as the great fourteenth-century Arab thinker Ibn Khaldun noted. Often called the father of modern sociology, Ibn Khaldun saw fundamental differences in the organizing principles and cultural bases of city life and desert life, but he also found ample evidence of parallels, and indeed of a symbiotic relationship of such intensity that the unfolding of history itself depended on it. As he saw it, the seeds of urban culture's highest artistic and political achievements, reached only through co-operative enterprise, were buried somewhere deep in the soul of the lone desert horseman. Whenever nomads rode together in bands of even five or ten men, they incorporated a collective spirit and a joint purpose pushing inexorably towards a larger design.

The Moroccan desert is rich in examples writ small of what were to be the seeds of dynastic urban grandeur. The southern oases along the lush green river valleys are cultivated with the same intensity and ingenuity as the north's fertile plains. Clan loyalties once radiated from the southern strongholds of the local saint in much the same way that dynastic loyalties later spread from the imperial cities of Meknes, Fez and Rabat.

Perhaps nowhere are these parallels between desert and urban Moroccan culture more striking than in a comparison of Ait Ben Haddou, a hauntingly quiet fortified farming village south of the High Atlas, with the teeming, labyrinthine, cacophonous kasbah of old Fez. Both are on UNESCO's World Heritage List, and one can visit neither without recalling the lessons taught by Ibn Khaldun.


While Fez has a recorded history, a host of founding dynasts known by name, and precise construction dates for its earliest architecture, we know little of Ait Ben Haddou's Berber past. Its age as a human settlement, we can safely assume, is less than the geological age of the rock upon which it is built, but its proximity to known prehistoric sites in the Sahara indicates quite plausibly that it is centuries, if not millennia, older than Fez.

But we do know that it, like Fez, represents the acme of its own particular school of high-density, multi-use, environmentally-adapted architecture and town planning. Ait Ben Haddou's desert-born model for urban design, applied with such stunning success to the Fez kasbah, dramatically illustrates Ibn Khaldun's unified theory of civilization.

For in Ait Ben Haddou city and desert living habits meet in unusual concord. Densely-packed, multi-storey dwellings create an utterly urban atmosphere, yet their inhabitants still live something of a nomadic existence. In response to changing temperatures, they "migrate" from room to room, from rooftops where they sleep at night to ground-level chambers where they escape the midday heat, just as pastoralists move about in response to climate-induced changes in grazing and watering conditions.

Ait Ben Haddou is by no means southern Morocco's only fortified village constructed of stone, rammed earth, adobe brick and mud plaster. The valleys of the Dra, Dades, Gheria and Ziz rivers and their tributaries are studded with such settlements in all shapes and sizes. One stretch of the Dades is in fact known in the tourist guides as the "Route of the Kasbahs". But the term "kasbah" leads to a certain amount of confusion when applied to the High Atlas and to pre-Saharan oases. The word can lead the unwary to imagine mistakenly the maze-like alleyways and dead-ends of the imperial cities' enclosed palace precincts, now converted to mixed commercial and domestic use. …

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