Nomads

Berber horsemen, Sefrou. Morocco.

In his blog, Bravo, the Other Side of the Mountains, recently reviewed three books on nomads, which he found interesting and of wider interest. Nomadism seems to be a dying way of life, and through romantic eyes, one to be much regretted. I suspect that nomads today have, like hunters and gatherers, been pushed yet farther into extreme environments, and nomadic lifestyles have changed, and not necessary for the better. In the Sahara, they have also become involved in resistance movements such as the Polisario as well as fundamentalist insurgencies.

My experience with nomadism consists of my rambles in the Middle Atlas, excursions in other regions of Morocco, and a trip by truck across the Sahara (eventually to be a post of its own). I have met nomadic people, drunk tea with them in their tents and along desert roads in Algeria, and talked with them in the cedar forests of Morocco. I do not claim any special knowledge, and my observations are casual. But nomadism played a critical role in Morocco’s history.

Before modern times, Morocco was divided into two parts, bled el-makhzen and bled es-siba, which translate into the land of the government, controlled by the sultan, and the land of insolence, land beyond the sultan’s control. The lines of demarcation varied according to the relative strength of the government or the tribes. When the sultan was strong, the tribes avoided trouble with the government. When the tribes were strong, the government was confined to the traditional capitals, usually Fes, Marrakesh, and Meknes in modern times, and even these cities were not safe. The walls around Moroccan cities were functional until the French authority secured the country in the twentieth century. Cannons were scarce and difficult to transport on dirt tracks, and walled cities could close their gates and hold out until help arrived.

Summer pastures at Daya Ifreh, Middle Atlas.

Herds drinking in springtime, Daya Afrougah, Middle Atlas, just above Sefrou.

The Moroccan sultans moved their courts from capital to capital, threatening or punishing tribesmen who had not paid their taxes. In this sense, they were much like the French kings of the Renaissance who constantly traveled through their territories. Francis I stayed in Chambord, a Loire Valley palace with 490 rooms which he built amid an immense hunting estate  on which he set foot only three times during his life. Before standing armies, one had to show the flag everywhere and often.

france chambord 1
Wing of the château of Chambord, built by Francis I.

Not all the tribesmen who challenged the sultan’s authority were nomads. As late as the first decades of the twentieth century, Fes was threatened by tribes of the Jbala and the Rif, and Marrakesh was virtually controlled by the Glaoui until Moroccan Independence in 1956.

But the nomadic tribes posed a more serious threat. Mobile, they could strike quickly and in force. For the sultan, they proved to be a difficult moving target for a small standing army.

In the Middle Atlas, large tribes such as the Beni Mguild and the Beni Mtir practiced a transhumance analogous to that of pastoralists of the mountainous regions of Europe and the Middle East.

morocco middle atlas volcanoes
Livestock pens inside volcanic cones on the Middle Atlas plateaus.
morocco middle atlas herd
Sheep grazing in the cedar forests near Ifrane.

They wintered in the snow-free lowlands, where seasonal rains produced fresh grass for their herds. In the summer, they took their flocks to the cedar forests of the high plateaus where the air was cool, where there were lakes for watering the flocks, and where the green vegetation persisted into the late summer. In some cases, they also descended into the Upper Moulouya basin, between the High and Middle Atlas mountain ranges.

morocco high atlas jaffartents
Tents on the south slopes of Jbel Ayachi. Upper Moulouya valley and Middle Atlas in distance.

In the lowlands at the foot of the mountains, the nomadic tribes controlled towns and villages where they spent time in the winter and could resupply themselves with staples. This pattern is a familiar one.

Upper Moulouya River basin, herdsman.

On the southern border of the desert, Tourag nomads traditionally enslaved villages, and Saharan oases were often the virtual property of large nomadic tribes.

Market, Agadez, Niger. Touareg noblemen with their camels.

The power of the tribes asserted itself when the sultan was weak. Morocco illustrates the mechanics of Ibn Khaldun’s theory of the rise and fall of Arab dynasties. In Morocco, tribal-based insurrections resulted in the creation of Almoravid, Almohad, Merinid, and the current Alouite, dynasties. As the central power faltered in the face of challenges, the tribes grew strong enough to overthrow it, and create a new dynasty. In Morocco’s case the dynasties were mostly Berber, but after several generations of urban life, the Berber rulers were assimilated and Arabized, a process not dissimilar to what happened to the Mongol rulers of China. The dynasties gradually lost legitimacy, their power eroded, and they fell prey to new nomadic groups which then formed their own dynasties. Ibn Khaldun in his Muqqadama, describes the dynastic cycle and used it to explain and give meaning to history.

We associate nomadism with the desert, but most of traditional Morocco was not desert. Only after leaving the high plateaus bordering the southern slopes of the High Atlas was camel nomadism found on a large scale. The Middle Atlas nomads were horsemen, and all the more formidable as such.

Sefrou, local tribesman during the Cherry Festival, 1968.

Today the lowland plains are given over to agriculture, often on an industrial scale. The mountain forests are still grazed intensively, and flocks still move up and down, but power lies with the central government. Villages are controlled by civil authorities, and the forests by government forestry officers.

In southern Algeria and northern Niger, fundamentalist groups wage war, and the chief cargo of trans-Saharan trucking is human, migrants trying to escape warfare and poverty. How very different from 50 years ago.

africa sahara touareg man
Touareg man, Tamanrasset.
algeria sahara tamanrasset nomads
Touareg with camels. Tamanrasset. Hogan massif in distance.
Touareg nobleman in the market in Agadez, Niger. 1971. Algeria outlawed duels, but in Niger, the nobles still carried swords and presumably used them.

Author: Dave

Retired. Formerly school librarian, social studies teacher, and urban planner.

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