Magazine article UNESCO Courier

A Slow Rescue for Morocco's Earthen Citadels

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

A Slow Rescue for Morocco's Earthen Citadels

Article excerpt

Reviving southern Morocco's ancient fortified villages is no easy task

Will tourism save the ksars and kasbahs of the valleys and oases of southern Morocco? Perched on rocky crags, these fortified buildings made of compacted earth mixed with water and chopped straw are a draw for foreign tourists in search of unusual architectural sites. One jumping-off point to see them is Ouarzazate in the Atlas Mountains, 200 kilometres south of Marrakesh. This remote and ancient little town has become a busy tourist centre. With a total 5,502 beds in its officially-approved hotels, it attracts more than 450,000 overnight visits every year.

The Ouarzazate region contains 300 of the thousand or so kasbahs that have been identified in Morocco. These structures, which come in all sizes, are notable for the beauty of their architecture and their imaginative use of space. But they are also fragile and many of them are extremely dilapidated.

Single-family dwellings in fortified villages or ksars, into which there is a single entrance, kasbahs are remarkable for their defensive architecture, usually featuring towers atop each of their four corners. The upper parts of some of these two- or three-storey buildings, which have roof-terraces resting on beams made from the trunks of palm-trees, are lavishly decorated.

Fragile and dilapidated

The earthen building material of these fragile constructions does not stand up well to the ravages of time and the weather. A ksar only remains intact for about two centuries. In the past, its occupants would then leave and build another ksar nearby. But social and economic changes in Morocco and the region at large in recent decades has dealt a heavy blow to the constant renewal of the ksars.

The end of the trans-Saharan caravan trade, the disappearance of insecurity, the emergence of a centralized nation-state and the spread of television (reception dishes seem to sprout from all the dwellings) have all helped to overturn the traditional way of life in oasis societies. Nowadays, communities whose members have not emigrated to more prosperous regions use cinder blocks to build small houses outside the old walls and mosques made of stronger material. These buildings are too hot in summer and too cold in winter, but some of them have basic amenities such as water and electricity.

However, recent events in the village of Ait Ben Haddou, a village about 35 kilometres from Ouarzazate, show there is still hope for the ksars. Thought to have been founded in the 11th century, Ait Ben Haddou has six kasbahs and some 50 houses, all in ruins. Its inhabitants have moved out and over to the other side of the wadi (river), nearer to the main road. Today 84 families live in this modern settlement.

A masterpiece of architecture and landscape, the old village of Ait Ben Haddou was included on UNESCO's World Heritage List in 1987. It was the first ksar to be preserved under a state-sponsored scheme to save the kasbahs of southern Morocco. The programme, launched a decade ago by the ministry of culture and backed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), UNESCO and the World Tourism Organization (WTO), aims to foster tourism in the region as well as saving endangered items of cultural heritage.

Mixed results

The job has turned out to be an arduous one. Standard restoration methods are little use because the original building materials are not very strong. They can only prolong the life of an earthen building for a few years at most. …

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