Bolt-Holes of the Berbers

By Grover, Amar | Geographical, September 1998 | Go to article overview

Bolt-Holes of the Berbers

Grover, Amar, Geographical

Built by the Berbers to store and protect food reserves, Morocco's fortress granaries came to symbolise the independence of these proud nomadic people. Words and photographs by Amar Grover

The sublime scenery of sub Saharan Morocco conceals a wealth of history. Weaving high above flat-roofed houses in the heart of the stunning Anti-Atlas Mountains stands Amtoudi agadir -- one of the country's finest fortified granaries. Its turrets and crenellations appear to be grafted on to a steep ethereal promontory while its stone walls curve elegantly round the crown of the hill. Below lies an oasis of olive groves and almond trees together with lush plots of potato and barley. There is no obvious lock or keyhole in the course wooden door to Amtoudi. The only way of gaming access is via Amtoudi's appointed guardian. Like his father and grandfather before him, he must assume responsibility for the agadir's upkeep and guard the elaborate key which resembles an elongated toothbrush with pins instead of bristles.

The agadir (plural igoudar), or fortress granary, is found across the Maghreb, but many of the most sophisticated ones are located in Morocco. They were built by the Berbers, Morocco's indigenous mountain inhabitants, to store and protect their food reserves, livestock, oil and other valuables. Granaries ensured a supply of staple produce when crops failed or supplies ran low, and afforded security against theft. In times of peace, they also served as market places; in times of unrest, when tribal and clan conflicts might pitch one valley against another, they became bolt holes to which entire communities could take refuge. It was an age summed up by The Times' correspondent Walter Harris in 1921: "The whole life...was one of warfare and gloom. Every tribe had its enemies, every family had its blood-feuds, and every man his would-be murderer."

The agadir is a 1,000-year-old tradition, which began when the southern tribes were nomadic. From simple hiding places amid rocks developed chambers hollowed out of cliffs and caves. In turn came these great granaries with their villages huddled below. However, although these fortifications were, in many cases, a central feature of Berber life, today most are deserted.

For centuries, there was a distinct yet capricious division between Bled es Makhzen, or land of government, and Bled es Siba, land of "insolence" or "anarchy". This division was mirrored in the Arabised people of the plains and the Berber tribes of the mountains. Many granaries came to symbolise the Berbers' proud independence -- their catchments were like little republics -- so it was generally expedient for the government to suppress them whenever possible.

Following the treaty of Fes in 1912, Morocco became a French Protectorate, remaining one until 1956. Although in true tradition the Berbers strongly opposed colonial rule, by the 1930s their communities were living more harmoniously than ever before. Some traditions weakened as the economy developed, and as the need for the agadir diminished, so began their deterioration. Those few which remain, often in remote and spectacular locations, are compelling reminders of tougher times.

Inside Amtoudi agadir, you are led through a dark, inclined passageway. Emerging onto the open promontory, warrens of dilapidated chambers and cells thread past boulders and overhangs. Steps grooved out of single palm trunks provide access to about 70 cubicles. A walk along the compact summit reveals the remains of cisterns and water channels. Although Amtoudi ceased to be a working agadir approximately 50 years ago, its facade has survived largely intact. Its guardian estimates it is 1,000 years old, but its more likely age is a few hundred years.

Tucked further up the Boulgous Canyon about two kilometres away, lies Agalouil agadir. Approached through the palmerie, a meandering ribbon of palms and greenery twitching with tiny birds, it looms through a gap in the trees. …

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