What goes up…

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Montpelier le Vieux, on the causes north of the city of Montpelier, France. Erosional remnants create a “city” of  towers, arches, and other stranger shapes. To repeat an old cowboy line from Bryce Canyon, “It’s a tough place to find a cow.”

Some people have a fear of heights, some of water, others of confinement, and so on. Luckily, I do not seem to have any of them. What I do have is a love of the outdoors and also of novelty. Therefore, as I discovered the mountain scenery of Morocco, I also looked to some of its underground sights. Caves are common where there is limestone, since they are generally formed when acidic ground water slowly dissolves the rock. Morocco has plenty of limestone, as well as the water to dissolve it.

Some parts of the Middle Atlas look much like the causes of southern France, just north of Montpelier, where scrub vegetation, la garrigue, covers the limestone uplands. A variety of erosional features are found there, including collapsed surfaces and caverns.

In Morocco, the karst topography of the area between Azrou and Sefrou is plainly evident in the several small lakes, without inlets or outlets, fed by underground streams.

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Daya Iffer, karst lake and Berber tents, south of Sefrou
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Just south of Sefrou, Daya Afrouga, another karst lake, sheep drinking in the spring.

Springs are common, and sometimes they can be spectacular. The Ain Sebou, a large artesian spring which surfaces beside the Oued Sebou, is a good example. Diving into the cold, upswelling waters is an interesting experience.

Aïn Sebou. Notice how the clear water of the spring enters the muddy waters of the Oued Sebou,
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The gorge of the Sebou, just upstream from the El Menzel road. The Ain Sebou, is farther up the river, before it becomes a deep gorge.

The clear spring water tumbles over a small ledge into the waters of the Oued Sebou, which are usually colored by sediment from runoff, and the contrast, before they mix, is striking.

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The Oued Sebou, where it flows out of the hills down toward Fes and beyond. The Rif Mountains form the horizon.

For anyone not familiar with Morocco, the word oued is dialectical Arabic for a stream. In the Middle East, the word is wadi, and is used for dry valleys as well as rivers. In Spain, you might note that some of the large rivers bear toponymes beginning with Guad-, a prefix that was derived from Arabic, such as Guadalquivir (oued el-kebir) or “big river”. Even spoken in different languages, the name sounds virtually the same.

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The Roman bridge across the Guadalquivir at Córdoba. The great mosque, la Mezquita, has a cathedral rising out of its center. It is said that after having given permission to build the cathedral, the Emperor Carlos V visited the site and was so taken by the beauty of the mosque that he commented  “…they have taken something unique in all the world and destroyed it to build something you can find in any city.”

In other places such as parts of the Rif Mountains, erosional remains such as natural bridges or even true caves give further evidence of water working on the limestone.

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The natural bridge at Oued Lao seen from directly below. It was big enough to walk across in those days, maybe big enough for a mule or small car.
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The natural bridge seen from the stream, Oued Lao, far below. The water, emerging from springs, is crystal clear.

Morocco has not make much of the tourist potential of its natural caves, and most guide books only mention them in passing, if at all. Some of this scenery is just a bit too far off the tourist track or simply not grandiose enough. Nevertheless, living in northern Morocco, it provided plenty of interest to me and did not demand long or difficult travel.

The city of Taza sits in a place where the Rif and Middle Atlas Mountains come together, about 70 miles from Fes to the West. To the east are the plains of the Lower Moulouya River, and farther the Oujda and the Algerian border.

Just south of Taza, is Tazekka National Park. Originally created in 1950 to protect the isolated cedar forest on Jbel Tazekka, the park was later expanded significantly. Within it are two sets of caverns, Friouato and Chikker. The latter are considered to be spectacular, but require specialized equipment and spelunking experience. The former cave, first expored by the famous French caver, Norbert Casteret, was developed by the French for tourism, but by 1969 had pretty much fallen into disrepair. It extends several kilometers.

The terrain between Sefrou and the highlands south of Taza, is relatively low. One June evening as I sat on my roof in Sefrou the flashes of lightning from a big storm over Taza repeatedly lit up the mountain skyline. It was far too far to hear the thunder, and there was no rain in Sefrou, but the light show was spectacular.

One Saturday I set off with a couple of PCV architects from Fes to visit the Friouato Caverns. I don’t recall that the drive from a Taza was very long, and you exit it on a high plateau surrounded by hills.

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These wide stairs lead up to a small entrance. They remind me a little of the entrance to the morlocks domain in The Time Machine. A portal to another world. The stalwart Willys Jeep is parked on the right.

Once at the entrance of the Friouato Caves, we found some rather plain and worn concrete steps leading down to a balcony looking into the first chamber which was about 400 feet deep.

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This was the entrance in 1969 or 1970. Steps take you to a kind of window into the first chamber, lit by an aven.
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The aven, created by collapse of the roof. 100 feet across, it illuminates the first chamber.

The room was illuminated by a huge aven (circular opening) about 100 feet wide. The view was impressive, but we had to ask ourselves, should we go further?

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Friouato. The stone steps lead to iron steps fastened to the wall of the chamber. The bright spot is sunlight from the aven illuminating the wall below.

Descent into this deep pit was by iron steps that the French had secured to the wall. We tested them, and took a chance, slowly descending. The only life we saw was an owl that we flushed from a crevice in the mossy wall. Finally at the bottom, the aven was now just a small light, far above us.

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The aven illuminating the first chamber from below, but not yet at the bottom. I have another picture from the bottom where it is smaller. The chamber was 400 feet deep.

We searched for a passage, and found one. With our headlights now on, we descended through a hole, down dilapidated wooden ladders, through rooms with seemingly bottomless pools. There was no noise, except for dripping water. There were few stalactites and stalagmites, but the rooms were mysterious and interesting. We only stopped when it was clear that our headlamps were dimming. We had no exact idea of how far we had gone, but as we had no extra batteries, we hurried out. We had no map with us, and didn’t have any clue as to how huge the cave system was.

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At the surface, in the afternoon. Dave and myself have just emerged.

The other cave I visited was Kef el-Ghar, which was in hilly land north of Taza, on the edge of the Rif mountains. From the distance, Kef el-Ghar is a dark elongated indentation in a mountain side. Entering it, we followed a rising, sandy path. At some point, we could feel bats flapping about, and, shortly after, I was disturbed to see a footprint of an animal, probably a dog or jackal. What was it doing, hundreds of feet into this cave, without any light to guide it? Despite the paw print, we saw no animals. The cave floor climbed and eventually we could feel the flow of air. After a narrow, winding passage, we emerged on the opposite side of the mountain. The cave pierced it!

On a dumber note, on the trip to Friouato described above, a dash board light indicated an electrical problem. I ignored it. So driving in the dark, mostly empty road between Taza and Fes, the old Willis Jeep abruptly stopped, and could not be started. The battery was dead. The problem was the alternator, and, without a charged battery, there was nothing to do. One of us had to hitch to Fes, about 45 miles away, find a tow truck, and have us towed back to Fes. It must have been 5 am when we got to Fes. That jeep was incredibly rugged and dependable, but when it needed an alternator, I didn’t listen, and paid the price. In 1968, it cost about $ 20 dollars to get towed all the way to Fes!

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Taza, in the twilight, looking North. The Rif mountains are in the distance. Taza is the choke point between the eastern plains and Algeria, and the rest of Morocco. If you invade Morocco by land, you must control Taza.

Look back at Angour

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Table d’oriention à Oukaimeden

About 50 miles from Marrakech, about 8,500 feet up in a small, shallow High Atlas valley, sits the ski resort of Oukaimeden.

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The ski center of Oukaimeden, 1976, from Angour

Developed by the French when France exercised political and economic control of Morocco, Oukaimeden appears to have languished despite a dramatic setting and special assets.

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Main ski trails, main lift goes to top at 10,500 feet

Part of the problem may be that it is a little too far from the major population centers, and its trails too challenging.

Only an hour from Fes and Meknes, and only about four hours from Rabat, the Middle Atlas resort of Michliffen and Jbel Henri offer convenience as well as easy trails in a stately, old growth cedar forest populated year-round by monkeys.

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Michliffen

The Middle Atlas is the popular choice for Moroccan skiers. Only in Casablanca, about midway between the two resorts, might the question arise which way should one go.

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Slope at Michliffen
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Atlas Cedar after snow and thaw
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Café at Michliffen
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Late Dick Holbrooke and family at Michliffen in 1970

Bouiblane, also in the Middle Atlas, offers more downhill possibilities and snow, but hasn’t really been developed.

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Bouiblane after a winter snowfall, from Ahermoumou

Access to Bouiblane, whether through Sefrou or Taza, remains difficult, however.

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Crossing a stream, PigPen peers out. An easier part of access to Bouiblane from Sefrou

In fact, much of the foreign interest in skiing centers on touring in the high mountains, a sport for those who are very fit and know what they are doing.

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Chair lift at Oukaimeden

I don’t know the exact state of Oukaimeden today. An internet site reported that a Gulf company had proposed a major renovation, with better accommodations, better trails and snow making equipment, and more lifts. That would certainly improve it, but the question remains: from where would the skiers come?

When I visited Oukaimeden for the first time in 1973, it was early spring. I was travelling with a Binghamton University professor, Dick Moench, who was a skier, and he did not hesitate to take the chair lift to the 10,500 foot high summit. He made his way down on old, rented equipment, which was a tribute to his athletic ability. It was late in the season, and the trails were rocky.

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Dick Moench on top, ready to try out his rental skis, March 1973
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Dick Moench paused for a photo. Note the bare patches

At that time, the main lodging there was the 160 room Club Alpin Français facility, which had been built by the Casablanca section of CAF during the Protectorate. Oukaimeden offers challenging skiing. The 10,500 foot high chair lift was and still is, I believe, the highest in Africa.

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Angour, from Oukaimeden. The long west ridge is an easy descent

A few years later I came back a few times to hike. Directly facing the resort rises Jbel Angour. Angour is an walk up, and the easy descent via the west ridge offers great views. The standard route, when there is not too much snow, uses a diagonally ascending ledge as opposed to one of the gullies.

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This diagonal ledge is an easy way to the summit of Angour, providing that there is not too much snow on it
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Aksoual views from Angour
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Dan Butler, on descent of west ridge
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Sunset from west ridge of Angour

More about the Merinids

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An old man, resting in one of the Qarawiyyin Mosque doors. The Merinids did not build Fes, but they made it their capital.

The Merinids created one of the dynasties that contemporary, Ibn Khaldun, was surely writing about in his Muquddimah. As the Almohads lost the confidence of their supporters and allies, the Merinids waited in the wings with fresh energy. By the end of the Almohad dynasty, Al Andalous was reduced to the Nasirid kingdom of Granada. The Merinids took in the refugees from Spain, but confined their interests mostly to Africa. They made Fes their capital, but left their mark across North Africa.

The Almohads (and the dynasty before them, the Almoravids) were Berbers who came out of the Atlas, full of religious fervor and zeal, to establish themselves in as rulers of Morocco and cross the straits to intervene in Spain. The birthplace of the Almohads, whose name derives from the oneness of God, is near Tinmel on the road to Tizi n Test in the High Atlas. Today Tinmel is nothing but a village, but it boasts the ruins of a beautiful mosque from Almohad times.

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The mosque at Tinmel
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On the road to Tizi n Test and the Souss
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Camel thorn blocks this entry door. The mihrab is visible
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The mihrab at Tinmel
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Decoration on an arch at Tinmel

The Almohads left an indelible architectural imprint on Morocco. They built the Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakech, famous for its minaret, as well as two other massive minarets, modeled after it: the unfinished Tour Hassan in Rabat, and the Giralda Tower in Sevilla, Spain.

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The Koutoubia minaret. Approaching Marrakech from any direction, the Koutoubia can be seen for miles and dominates the old city
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Decoration on one side of the Tour Hassan minaret
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The Giralda Tower in Sevilla. Note the fine decoration. The minaret now serves as a bell tower for the cathedral

All are noted for their proportions and fine decoration as well as their size: each is large enough inside for a ramp that would allow a horse to be ridden to the top. The Giralda, in my opinion, was not improved by the Renaissance bell tower, added to grace the cathedral that replaced the grand mosque.

The Tour Hassan was never finished, nor was the mosque it was supposed to serve, and the latter was further damaged in the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Nearly 50 meters high, the Tour Hassan was for many years one of the highest structures in Rabat.

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Little remains of the huge mosque beside the Tour Hassan, which, like the minaret, was never completed

When I first visited it in 1968, there were no barriers on the top, and one could sit, if one dared, with feet dangling over the edge.

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No fence, just a 50 meter drop. But what a view! Sale is across the river in the background. The minaret far in the distance is from the Almohads predecessors, the Almoravids.
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There is no finer view of the Ouidayas. Walk through the cemetery out to the end of the jetty, and experience the Atlantic surf. The Ouidayas constituted the chief settlement on this side of the Bou Regreg in Almohad times, and the name Rabat is derived from its fortifications

Unfortunately a rash of accidents and suicides led to erection of an ugly chain link fence on the top of the minaret. What remains of the mosque is simply marble slabs and ruined pillars. On the south end of the site is a newly constructed tomb for Mohammed V, a beloved ruler of the current dynasty, who led Morocco to independence. I wonder if he might have preferred a simpler tomb.

The Tour Hassan has stunning views of the Casbah of the Ouidayas, the Bou Regreg River, and the city of Sale. A fortified enclosure, built by the Almohads, the Casbah of the Ouidayas dominates the river as it enters the Atlantic.

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The Almohad gateway to the Ouidayas.
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The view from the Ouidayas gate across Rabat

Its massive entryway is another classic example of Almohad architecture. In March of 1973, I became severely ill in Sefrou, and ended up recuperating in the house of friends who lived in the Ouidayas and spent several weeks there. The Ouidayas has a small medina, and it had great south facing views that attracted foreign residents. There is also a museum and walled gardens below the residential area.

On the Atlantic side of the Ouidayas is a large cemetery by the ocean.

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The cemetery behind the Oudayas

Paths run down to the jetties that protect the Bou Regreg. People fish from them, and if you walk out to the end of one, you will be rewarded with terrific views of the Atlantic Ocean swells.

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A calm day at the end of the jetty. Beyond the lighthouse is a section of the city known as l’Océan

South of the Ouidayas, the Almohads created a necropolis with royal tombs, known today as the Chellah, on the slopes of the Bou Regreg’s valley.

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The Chellah, a Merinid necropolis

The site they chose was a Phoenician trading post, and later Roman site, Sala Colonia.

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Roman and pre-Roman ruins

It had already been mostly abandoned when its Byzantine governor, Count Julian of Ceuta, surrendered to the Arab general, Oqba Ben Nafi in 683. The latter is supposed to have ridden his horse into the Atlantic, calling for God to witness that he had brought Islam to the end of the world. True or not, it is a romantic image as well as one speaking to the pride of Moroccan Muslims.

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The Merinid gate to the Chellah

Today the Chellah is surrounded by the modern city of Rabat. A wall, built by the Merinids, encloses the ruins of the various civilizations that occupied the site, and the Merinids further endowed the Chellah with a mosque and tombs, now also in ruins.

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The minaret of the ruined Merinid Mosque within the Chellah. Storks winter in Morocco, and often choose minarets for nesting sites

The Chellah is an interesting place to explore. When I was there, there was a pool with eels. Women would come to it and feed them, possibly hoping for success in getting pregnant. Cats often surrounded the pool, begging for food.

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These kids are looking at the eels…
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…and the cats hope to get what the eels don’t.

Rabat was also the home of Barbary Pirates, who are often associated with Sale, Rabat’s sister city across the mouth of the Bou Regreg. Sale was founded by the Almoravids. I lived there for a while in 1973 with a Peace Corps volunteer and a Moroccan friend, Ali, who was attending the University in Rabat. Most people cross the bridge between the cities, but there is an ancient ferry service that perseveres and can save time depending where you live in Sale.

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The Sale-Rabat ferry service, on the Sale side. The Ouidayas are across the river. The ride used to cost pennies

The Architecture of Fes

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Just off the street, in the medrasa Bou Inania, a Fassi rests his feet

After viewing the Islamic Architecture post in Bravo, the other side of the mountains, I thought I would put up a few pictures of my own. I have pictures of mosques and medrasas from many places in Spain, the Maghreb, Turkey, Iran, and even some sub-Saharan places.

I thought at first of a single post, but I have too many pictures, so I have chosen to start with some monuments in Fes. I worked in Fes, and lived close by in Sefrou, so I had amble opportunity to visit the medina. My first visit to Fes was in the winter of 1968, nearly 50 years ago. Please forgive all the underexposed Kodachrome. This was long before digital photography, and the film had an ISO of 50 so the darker places of the medina were difficult to photograph.

Fes is a bit overwhelming at first. The medina seems to be a maze or labyrinth, but if you stay on a main street and follow it down, you will eventually reach the center, no matter where you start. Getting back out can be more of a problem. On the side of the city, outside the walls, are the Merinid Tombs.

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From the Merinid Tombs one has a vast panorama that stretches far to the south.
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In the foreground is a cemetery and parts of the old city wall. In the distance in the right corner, mountains hide Sefrou

Tourists often start at the Bab Boujloud.

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Bab Boujloud is one of the major gates in the wall of the medina.

The medrasas of Fes are small gems of local architecture. As with most Islamic Architecture, it is geometric and highly stylized decoration.

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Typical mosaic

As Atlas cedar is the only strong wood widely available in Morocco, and its use, because of its structural properties, requires heavy beams. The medrasas feature it, both in framing and in details such as windows and screens.

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Kids meeting to talk
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Roofs of religious buildings are usually sloped, and covered with green tile.

Courtyards were marble. Walls were made of carved plaster and tiles.

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Abulutions before prayer in the Bou Inania medrasa
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Carved plaster medallion
  1. The medrasas both date from the age of the Merinids, a dynasty that gave its name to the famous Spanish sheep. They made Fes their capital and the 14th century was a golden age for Fes. But the dynasty did not last long.

Ibn Khaldun was a contemporary of Abu Inan, and lived at intervals in Fes. His work, the Muqaddimah is often considered the first true historical or sociological treatise. In it, he asks why dynasties rise and fall in an age when contemporary historians contented themselves with lists of rulers and events.

Should you like to know more about the city of Fes, read Fes in the Age of the Marinids, by Roger Le Tourneau. Sjoberg used it as an archetypical medieval city in his book, The PreIndustrial City. While Fes’s medrasas date from the 14th century, Fes’s two great mosques date from earlier times, but are not nearly as interesting, though the Qarawiyyin boasts one of the oldest universities in the world.

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One entrance of the Qarayyin
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The Andalusian Mosque

The Bou Inania is the larger of the medrasas, and was one of only a very few religious buildings in use that nonbelievers were allowed to enter, though that general rule does not always apply to sanctuaries of saints.

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Bejgha outside the prayer hall.
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Prayer in the courtyard
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Prayer in the attached mosque

Saints in Morocco were a class of people, usually men, who during their lives were know for piety, and who accumulated baraka, a holiness that could be transmitted and carry beneficial effects. The king, whose dynasty claims descent from the family of the prophet Muhammed, also is thought by many to have baraka. Saint worship is everywhere. I plan a post about it as I attended many moussems in northern Morocco.

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Qarawiyyin Mosque

More sophisticated and conservative religious scholars do not think saint worship has a place in true Islam. In Saudi Arabia, among the people I met, there were two views of Moroccans. One was that they practiced black magic, and two, they were so French that they could not speak Arabic correctly. Of course, the Moroccans have their own sometimes pejorative views of the Saudis, and many deplore the folk religion of their own country. On the other hand, superstitions die hard and it is always better to be careful than to be sorry. I am not a Muslim, but I learned not to pour hot water into a drain, lest the jinn who lived there be offended, and still am careful about this at home in America!

The Bou Inania was a religious school, and the rooms around the courtyard on the first floor were sleeping quarters for students. They are no longer used for this, but the medrasa has a mosque that is in use. You may think of a mosque as simply a place of prayer, but the mosque also serves a quiet refuge from the noise and bustle of the city, a place to rest one’s feet, talk with friends, or even catch a nap in the sun on cold winter days. I tried to capture this in my photography.

Both medrasas were in need of repair and rehabilitation and hopefully they are in better shape today.

The Attarine medrasa is named, I think, because of its location near the perfume suq. It is the smaller of Fes’s medrasas, but shares the same architectural features as the Bou Inania.

Attarine Medrasa. Fes.

There is no prayer hall, as the medrasa is located close to the Qarawiyin Mosque so perhaps one was not needed.

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Artisan carving plaster at el Attarin medrasa

If you would like to know more about Fes in the medieval period, you may also want to read the historical novel, Leo Africanus. Written in French by the Lebanese novelist, Amin Maalouf, there is a good English language translation. Our local book club read it a few years back.

Leo Africanus was a Muslim captured by Spanish pirates and enslaved. He was presented as a gift to the Pope, converted to Christianity, and while in Rome wrote an important work of geography, Description of Africa. The fictional rendition of his life takes him from his native Granada to Fes, and describes his everyday life there as well as his adventures elsewhere. It takes place late in Merinid times.

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Qarayyin Mosque, summer

Toubkal

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Table d’orientation at Oukaimeden

As I write, the wind is howling. The weather forecast for the night is three to six inches of snow and a wind chill of -15 to -30F° (roughly -20 to -30° C). There is shore ice on Lake Ontario and Lake Erie is rapidly freezing over. Temperature is -20° C.

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kToronto is across the lake

Sitting indoors, the weather outside invites us to reflect on sunnier climes, both here and abroad. I have been thinking about Jbel Toubkal.

As it is the highest mountain in North Africa, and, one of the most easily accessible high mountains on the entire continent, hikers and climbers flock to Jbel Toubkal. A short bus or taxi ride takes one to Imlil, a large village in the valley below the mountain.

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Imlil is below, in the valley. View is toward Tachdirt

Since I first visited Toubkal about 50 years ago, a serious tourism industry has grown up in this area. In my time, other than a stone dormitory building that the Club Alpin Français (CAF) left, there was just a village there, with villagers willing to sell you food, and muleteers offering their services to take you to the CAF huts of Neltner, De Lépiney, and Tachdirt. Today I see that a second hut exists next to the renamed Neltner, that businesses have grown up around Sidi Chamharouch, and that Imlil itself has holiday lets and lodging for tourists.

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Sidi Chamharoush in 1969

Bemoaning commercialization would be mean and selfish. There is no begrudging the living that the locals can make off of tourism. Life in the mountains is always difficult, and tourism is a great addition to the local economy.

There is no pretending that Toubkal is remote. In the seventies, a motorcycle group surprised us at Neltner, getting all the way up to the hut with their large bikes. On the other hand, the hut was never crowded in those days, and, once out of the hut, one hardly saw other hikers or climbers in the mountains.

My first visit to Neltner was in the summer of 1969, with other Peace Corps friends. Mules took our baggage up, while we walked, a good way to acclimatize.

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Aroumd, looking up toward Toubkal
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Corn field in Aroumd, the highest settlement in the valley
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Trail climbing toward Neltner Hut
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Group with mules
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Rest stop
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Trail to Neltner Hut, clouds over Marrakech
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Neltner Hut in sight
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Mule eats thistles outside Neltner hut
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View up valley from Neltner

We climbed the mountain by the gulley opposite the hut, an easy walk via a steep scree slope.

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Beginning of trail to Toubkal
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Long scree slope up gulley opposite Neltner hut leads to shoulder and summit of Toubkal

John Paulas and I had fun taking giant, gliding steps in the scree, and made it down from the summit in no time.

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John Paulas looking down the scree slope. Neltner is below, Tadat is on the ridge across valley
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Shoulder and summit of Toubkal. The west ridge route joins the main route on the right

This is the standard walk up route, and not much of a problem for a reasonably fit person in dry weather. There are good views from the summit.

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Summit view of Jbel Siroua, a 10,000 foot extinct volcano, in Saharan Atlas. Want an interesting hike? Do Siroua!
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Lounging on the summit of Toubkal, in background, from right to left, Ouanoukrim, Timesguida, and Akioud Bou Imrhaz

The real dangers on Toubkal are snow, ice, and bad weather. In 1970 an ill-prepared group of embassy people had a bad accident, with a member of the Turkish embassy slipping and sliding a long way down the standard route, and suffering serious injuries. Skiers can face avalanches in the winter, too.

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View of Toubkal from Akioud
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Tizi n Ouanoums, and profile of west ridge route, from Timesguida or Ras n Ouanoukrim. Jbel Siroua in far distance. The three towers on the ridge are clearly visible.

The classic climbing route is up the west ridge, which starts at Tizi Ouanoums. I found it easy, and did it once alone, and, another time, with an Englishman whom I met at Neltner.

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Climbing the second tower on the west ridge of Toubkal.
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Setting belay on last tower, west ridge
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Rappelling down last tower on west ridge

I do remember meeting a couple of young French climbers in Imlil on one of my visits, who complained in disappointment that the rock was rotten and that the route was not very challenging. I can understand that. The climbing is straightforward, not very exposed, and the rock could be better. With my limited skills, however, I found it enjoyable, and it is more scenic than the gulley route.

Neltner, at 3,200 meters, also served as a base for other trips: Tadat, Akioud, and hikes to the Lac d’Ifni. Tadat is a rock spur or isolated tower on Tizi n Tadat. Akioud is a ridge between Ouanoukrim and Afella that offers an easy traverse. The Lac d’Ifni is a tarn lake in the Massif of Toubkal, and is said to contain native trout. One simply follows the main valley above the hut over Tizi n Ouanoums, and down to the lake. Of course, if you don’t know where you are going you may have problems. I once stood on Tizi Ouanoums shouting at the top of my lungs to my friends Maya and Dan, who wanted to go to the Lac d’Ifni, but were heading toward Tizi n Ouagane! At least a thousand feet above them, they simply could not hear me, and there were no others on the route to set them straight. They only discovered their mistake when they found no lake at the bottom of the valley! Still they had a great time.

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Trail from Neltner hut up to Tizi n Tadat
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Tadat, as sun sets, from shoulder of Toubkal

I ended up summiting most of the highest peaks around Neltner, all of which are easy walk ups. If you are thinking about doing it, go when there is snow on the mountains. They are parched and bleak in the summer.

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Tadat. Cover of a special edition of the CAF Casablanca review, La Montagne Morocaine. I probably found this in the suq in Rabat. What a great piece of history.

I always wanted to climb Tadat, but never managed to do it, though my friend Jean-Michel Vrinat, and some other French friends with whom I climbed did it. Jean-Michel was a coopérant, who arrived in Morocco with a carload of sporting equipment (fencing foils, shotgun, etc.) which included climbing gear. I did lead this group, with friends Gilles and Sylvie Narbonne on a traverse of Akioud, which I had done by myself before, and I think that they really enjoyed it.

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Akioud bou Imrhaz, from west ridge of Toubkal
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Traverse of Akioud. Sylvie climbing as Gilles and Jean-Michel watch
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Jean-Michel Vrinat in chimney on Akioud. Sylvie and Gilles watch
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On top of Akioud, Jean-Michel and Gilles Narbonne nearing summit
Gilles and Sylvie Narbonne, au sommet d’Akioud. 1977. Toubkal in distance.

Akioud is an easy walk from the Neltner Hut, and, done from south to north, requires no rappelling. A rope for belaying and security is useful, but not needed for good climbers.

Finally, a trail leads to the third CAF Hut, Tachdirt, near the village and below the pass of the same name. I visited Tachdirt twice. In the spring, there was too much snow, and I think that we spent a couple of cold days in the hut before going back down.

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From trail to Tachdirt in March
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Tachdirt after snowfall. Villagers clear snow from roofs.

A second time, we thought we could walk the ridges between Tizi n Tachdirt and connect to the trail to Neltner. We totally underestimated our physical condition and the difficulty involved. Having climbed from the pass to the ridge of Jbel Anrhemer, we camped out just below the ridge. I awoke sick the next morning. Climbing along the ridge, I became increasingly dehydrated, and needed water, which necessitated descending to the nearest snow patch (of which there were precious few—this was summer.) We ended up returning to Imlil, then walking the trail to Neltner, arriving in the middle of the night, in my case with the assistance of a mule for the last kilometer. What a day!

La montagne n’a pas voulu!

Holidays in Morocco (‎عيد ميلاد)

This article is about Christmas, of course, not the Prophet’s birthday, the Mouloud, which Moroccans, and most Muslims celebrate. This year the Mouloud fell in December, within a month of Christmas, which my wife and I just spent in Charlotte, North Carolina, with her brother and his wife. While there I reflected on the holidays that I spent abroad, though there have not been very many. Of them, the Christmases and Thanksgivings come to mind first, most likely because they involve iconic symbols, and childhood memories. Christmases also fall within a week of New Year’s Day, and often make up part of a larger period involving school semester breaks and intermissions, important in the lives of young people and probably producing more intense and lasting memories.

In Morocco, volunteers would often travel at Christmastime. The Moroccan calendar had all kinds of holidays, and accommodated as well it could both Christians and Jews. Many foreigners still worked in the GOM in the sixties. If PCVs had vacation time, it enabled them to visit remoter parts of Morocco, or to go to Spain. When my cousin, who was studying in Angers, France, visited me 1968 or 1969, I travelled with her and Gaylord Barr to Meknes, Rabat, Marrakech, and over the Atlas and across the pre-Sahara to Ourzazate and Boulemane and Erfoud. Another time, I went to Gibraltar with administrator and volunteer friends.

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On the Gibraltar runway, which had a grade level crossing for cars! Marty, Gaylord, Eileen, and Don. Franco blockaded Gibraltar in a dispute over sovereignty, and one could only get there by ferry from Tangiers or by air (we took a rickety old DC-3 from Tangiers)

Ceuta was still another possibility for those of us in northern and eastern Morocco.

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Ceuta in December

Just as often, volunteers would get together in larger centers and big cities, where there were often numerous, and have parties. Those traveling would look up friends for places to stay and for good cheer. By the time I got to Morocco, there were fewer and fewer churches, and I do not recollect any volunteers going to them to pray.

Actually the celebration of Christmas and Thanksgiving usually had little religious significance to the volunteers whom I knew. Christmas had attained an almost secular status in the United States, and was, and is today, dominated by commercial rather than religious sentiments. Recently some right wing Republican politicians have argued that there has been a “war against Christmas” by more secular politicians in the center. They point out attempts at what they see as “political correctness” as well as a more consistent effort to keep religion and the state separated, as the Constitution requires, though they do not see it exactly that way.

There is a real argument here over all kinds of issues, and if you are very religious you may be offended. My own opinion is that though most Americans are nominally Christians, government institutions should be secular. Am I making war on Christmas? I say Merry Christmas where appropriate, attend religious services, give gifts, and assiduously attend to the customs associated with Christmas. Do I care if there is a crèche in front of City Hall? Not much. And it certainly should not be there if it offends my compatriots.

Christmas is not the central focus of Christianity. Indeed, many early American religious denominations, such as the Puritans, did not hold Christmas sacred, did not celebrate it, because they considered it a pagan holiday. After all, it aligns with the winter solstice, which was widely celebrated in pagan religions of the ancient world, and it isn’t clear exactly when Jesus was born anyway. The real essence of Christianity, all true Christians would agree, is in the death of Jesus and his resurrection as the Christ, and the redemption of the sins of mankind by his death on the cross. Indeed, these very beliefs set off Christianity from Judaism and Islam. Though most Jews believe Jesus existed, and all Muslims revere him as a prophet the message of Judaism and Islam is elsewhere.

Christmas retains its religious significance for many, but in the United States today, as in the United States 50 years ago, Christmas is largely a children’s holiday involving family get togethers, food, and, above all, gifts. I came from an Italian family, and my Aunt Mary and Uncle Bill would follow a Sicilian custom, though their ancestors did not come from Sicily, and serve guests a Christmas Eve dinner where seven different kinds of fish were offered. Those who were observan often fasted until after they attended Midnight Mass. Then one could eat and open presents, while relatives and friends talked and drank and often played cards.

The social aspects of religious holidays are so important, not just to Christians, but to Muslims and Jews as well as adherents of other faiths. I remember with fondness the kindness of Muslim friends and neighbors, who invited me to their homes for all the major feasts. Indeed, I think I looked forward to Muslim holidays as much as my Moroccan friends!

As a volunteer in the sixties, celebration of Thanksgiving and Christmas was dependent on mood and who was around or would be visiting. The first Christmas, having moved into the house in Seti Messaouda, Gaylord and I actually dragged a 12-foot+ cedar up the winding stairway and into the courtyard (where it touched the ceiling), and decorated it with homemade ornaments and garlands. The popcorn strung together in garlands eventually got stale and the hanging tangerines mildewed, and our Moroccan friends probably thought we were nuts or idolators. Only the cat really enjoyed the tree, climbing in the branches, and, there were no more trees after that.There were no religious celebrations, and I don’t remember exchanging gifts, either.

There was also a Thanksgiving or two when we cooked a turkey. One took place in 1970, when a couple of female volunteers, Ruth and Jan, were then teaching English in Sefrou. They lived next door in the house of the Hadja, a widow, so there was, with Jan’s boyfriend, a critical mass of Americans. Seti Messaouda for a while had a small American quarter within it, just within the gate. We invited friends, Moroccan and volunteers, and tried our best to put together a traditional Thanksgiving meal. Two ingredients were difficult or impossible to come by: cranberries were nonexistent and the turkey posed a problem. With more foresight we could have probably got the cranberries, through someone we knew with PX privileges at the base in Kenitra.

Turkeys were a different matter. Turkeys were not common in Morocco. They are not part of traditional cuisine. They are harder to raise than chickens and less hardy. Where I lived, they were known as bibi, though in the the former Spanish zone they were often called by the Spanish name, el pavo (from the tail, perhaps, as a peacock is el pavo real.) Turkeys have various names in the languages of the world. A late import from America, part of the Colombian exchange, the English named the birds after the country of Turkey. They were exotic beasts that merited an exotic name. In France, India was apparently more exotic as the birds were said to came from India. D’Inde became dinde eventually.

Whatever turkeys were called, they were not common. In Sefrou we were able to get one relatively easily, maybe from Fes, but, later, living in Chauen, I had to scour the countryside, driving to Ouazzane to find one.

Roasting the turkey also proved difficult. We had no oven, and, even if we had had one, it probably couldn’t have contained a large turkey. We decide to cook our turkey in the neighborhood ferran, the communal oven, where Khadija baked our bread daily. We always has a Muslim man kill animals for us so the meat was halal. The recipe called for basting it every twenty minutes with butter. After a couple of hours, the baker, the mul el ferran, said safi, enough is enough. The ferran was busy and it wasn’t helping his business to keep opening the oven and taking the turkey out. Luckily, with the hot temperature of the bread oven, the turkey was properly done, crispy and cooked through.

And so we ate turkey with stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, and other dishes, and celebrated our American holiday with Moroccan friends. And what was left over, and there was a lot of it, went to the poor outside the main mosque, where excess food often went if Khadija didn’t take it all home.

The High Atlas‎

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The High Atlas. Jbel Tazaghart

Living in the eastern Middle Atlas, the High Atlas beckoned from afar. Marrakech required a long bus ride through Kenitra and Beni Mellal or a trip to Rabat and then south to Marrakech. I never got to the Toubkal Massif as much as I wanted, and envied volunteers who lived closer. I did climb many of the peaks there, accompanied by friends, and even family. Perhaps as I digitize more of my old Kodachrome slides, I will get into specifics, but this post is a compendium of a number of trips and a tribute to a spot of the world that was important to me, the mountain named Tazaghart.

Today the High Atlas mountains are served well by climbing and hiking guides, but the main sources in my day were the Club Alpin Français’s long out of print guide to the Toubkal Massif, the curious guide book, Villes et Montagnes (a guide to cities and mountains, but nothing else), and topo maps. Today there are any number of tourist organizations that will take you on long walks and climbs. And there are good English language guides to the High Atlas by Hamish Brown and Des Clark. In my day, the heritage of the French Protectorate was a number of huts and a larger dormitory at Oukaïmeden, primarily for skiers. That may not have changed much, but I suspect all are used more intensively today. The route up to Toubkal is much more developed.

I have also noticed more young Moroccans climbing Toubkal, and it is nice to see they take that much interest in the natural beauty of their own country. Nature is alway under pressure in the Mediterranean world. Morocco has more than twice as many people today as it had when I lived there 50 years ago.

One of the great charms of the place was that the mountains were empty. One seldom saw another human in the high mountains, and, except at Neltner, below Toubkal, the huts were generally empty. I was there at a time when few Moroccans climbed mountains and the French were still leaving Morocco.

Rather than try to assemble all my memories into a single post, I am limiting this one to Tazaghart, in the Toubkal Massif. Future posts will cover Toubkal, Angour, and some day excursions around Toubkal. As I find more of my old slides, I may add to this collection. I realize that they are of uneven quality, but in my day film was expensive and Kodachrome was beautiful, but slow. Exposure was often a problem. I do envy modern photographers who can shoot without running out of film.

Tazaghart

When I re-upped, I went home to the States by way of Paris, where I spent a few days. I went to Chartres to visit its Cathedral, I discovered that I could speak Arabic to Parisian waiters, mostly Algerians, who were delighted to hear their dialect from an American, and I missed an opportunity to hear Georges Brassens perform, for which I will ever experience a sense of loss.

But, in the cold and drizzle, I discovered Au Vieux Campeur, an outlet for camping, climbing, and other outdoors pursuits, on the Left Bank, not far from the Sorbonne. I invested in an ice axe, ropes, down clothes, and other paraphernalia which I thought I would need to climb more mountains. The memories of crossing the Pyrenees were fresh in my mind, and I wasn’t going anywhere unprepared again. The items that I bought got their first use on Tazaghart, my favorite place in the Toubkal Massif, and, later, more extensively in the French and Swiss Alps.

Louden Kiracofe and I had climbed Toubkal by the standard walk up route in the summer of 1969, as part of a large group of volunteers. Now we would go to Tazaghart, and climb it via the Couloir de Neige, a steep gully filled with snow. We knew it had a bit of real climbing, and some steep snow, but we were up to it. Or so we thought.

Tazaghart caught my attention the first time I read its classic description: “Le plateau est un désert de pierres, plat, nu, vide, si haut perché qu’on aperçoit rien sous le ciel.”

A loose translation might be: “The summit is a rocky desert, flat, bare, empty, perched so high there is nothing but sky.” The name tazaghart is Berber and means “little plain or plateau.” What is remarkable is how high it is: over 13,000 feet. Most of the mountains in the area are lower than this. No others have a summit big enough for a football game!

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Un désert de pierres: the summit plateau of Tazaghart. Louden.

One has a good view of the Tazaghart from Oukaïmeden and Jbel Angour. At Oukaïmeden, the French put up a table d’orientation, which identifies most of the mountains in the massif. I have a better picture of it that shows Tazaghart, but I haven’t found it yet.

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The table d’orientation at Oukaïmeden
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Table d’orientation: from Oukaïmeden to Tazaghart

You find these tables, usually installed by the Touring Club of France, now defunct, all over France and in many parts of its former empire. There is one in Fes, for example, that points to Sefrou and Bouiblane, among other places. Though you can see Tazaghart from Oukaïmeden, the most spectacular views of the mountain are from the valley below it and from Jbel Ouanoukrim.

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Toubkal Massif from Oukaïmeden
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Tazaghart, upper part of the Couloir de Neige

We travelled with Louden’s wife, Ginny, and a old school chum of hers, and stayed at Le Sanglier Qui Fume, a restaurant-hostellerie run by an elderly Frenchman, at the beginning of the road up Tizi n Test.

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Toubkal Massif from Tizi n Test. Tazaghart is the large, flat area on the left

Louden and Ginny had stayed there before, after an exhausting winter drive over Tizi N Test, and had been charmed by the warm welcome, decent food, and the fire burning in their room. The owner was Paul Thenevin. Today the hotel is still there, but managed by his son. There was a boar’s head in the dining room, with a pipe in its mouth that puffed smoke.

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At Le sanglier qui fume, 1973

It was June, I think, when I first went there. The weather was fine, and we drove to Imlil in Louden’s VW station wagon, and found some porters to take us to the de Lépiney refuge owned by the Casablanca section of the Club Alpin Français. As it happened, they only took us to an aluminum shelter much lower in the valley. I think the spot was Azib Mzik. The place was basic, hot, and stuffy.

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1969. Ginny at Azib Mzik

The women must have stayed there, as Louden and I hiked up to the de Lépiney Refuge, which sits in a beautiful spot that offers views down the valley, and across it to the face of Tazaghart. We wanted to see Tazaghart. The walk up the valley was beautiful.

I think that we came back again to do the Couloir de Neige, I can’t say. It’s hard to imagine leaving the women by themselves below. So it was probably yet another trip. De Lépiney was an early French climber, and instrumental in making climbing a sport for all. He spent much of his life in Morocco, and, sadly, died there in a stupid accident at Oued Yquem, a spot where climbers from Rabat still rock climb.

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Rock climbing at Oued Yquem, just outside of Rabat. That was me in 1976

From the azib, the foot of Tazaghart is reached by proceeding directly up valley on a good mule trail. It follows a small stream through some ancient junipers, past a small falls, and eventually emerges above the tree line, in sight of the de Lépiney hut.

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Ancient thuya
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Approaching de Lépiney. Louden on mule. Top of waterfall visible

The de Lépiney Hut was comfortable. It was not heated, which was no problem in the summer. We left the windows open.

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Louden at the de Lepiney Hut. 1969

Situated at about 10,000 feet, it was cold during the other seasons, but certainly preferable to camping in the snow.

In any case, late that day, we climbed out of the valley, up behind the refuge, for a good view of the Tazaghart face and the Clochetons de Ouanoukrim.

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Face of Tazaghart at end of day, from above the de Lépiney Hut

Most of the Couloir de Neige can be seen. The only serious obstacle is a chimney, which, when the snow is melting, can become a shower.

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Les clochetons de Ouanoukrim from above de Lepiney

It was late, and Louden had stumbled and cut himself on a sharp rock so we descended.

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Couloir de Neige. Louden

Early the next day we entered the Couloir de Neige.

Louden in the couloir. The snow was icy and we needed to make steps.

Once we entered it, we found that the snow turned to ice, and our crampons hardly gripped it. Louden had an ice screw, but neither of us had experience cutting steps, so we gave up. I really think it might have been too soon. I think we could have negotiated the chimney, and, once above it where the snow would have been softened by the sun, we could have continued. We had ropes so setting up belays was not a problem. I wish now that we had tried that, but I always remember St. Loup’s La montagne n’a pas voulu. Better to be safe and sound. You cannot count on being lucky. We left the couloir, and continued up the main valley to Tizi Melloul.

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Tizi Melloul. The summit plateau of Tazaghart is a short walk up to the right
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The face of Tazaghart, from near Tizi Melloul

Five years later, I was back in Sefrou studying, and Gaylord Barr, my former Peace Corps housemate, showed up for a visit. He brought me a new pair of Reichle boots which I had ordered from R.E.I., and we went down to Marrakech to climb Tazaghart.

It was July or August. Marrakech was hot. In the US, John Dean had just given testimony to the Senate Watergate committee, and President Nixon’s days were numbered.

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Marrakech, Summer 1973
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Summer, 1973. Procession, Marrakech

We stayed overnight, picking up some supplies, and took a bus to Asni, I think, from which we got a taxi to Imlil.

Gaylord had been to Marrakech several times, and crossed Tizi n Tichka on the way south, but he had never hiked in the Toubkal Area. We hired a mule for the baggage, and left Imlil in the middle of a moonlit night, passing through sleeping villages on the way to Tizi Mzik. The only noise was the clipclop of hooves and an occasional watch dog bark. The full moon provided great views of the valleys and peaks. We reached Tizi Mzik by dawn.

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View east to Imlil, Tachdert, Angour, Oukaïmeden from Tizi Mzik

We had good weather. In the summer, bad weather is rare. Just don’t count on finding water along the mountain crests. We stayed a couple of days. The view from the De Lépiney Hut is grand, with a waterfall, an expansive view of the face, as well as pretty views down the valley. I think one can also see the lights of Marrakech far off on the plains below.

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Waterfall at the de Lépiney refuge, Gaylord Barr
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Valley below de Lépiney hut
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Looking down the valley from de Lépiney at sunset

Everyone wants to climb Toubkal, but Tazaghart is much more scenic. If one has the time, it isn’t difficult to visit both areas in the same trip, and be rewarded with great scenery.

The easiest route up Tazaghart is up one of the several gullies that furrow the face. We chose one on the right, either Tsoukine or the one to its left. Or maybe the Diagonal. It’s a bit hazy now.

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Face of Tazaghart, Louden, Couloir de Neige on left, Couloir en diagonale in center. We took the one to the right, I think

It was easy enough for a local dog, which we had been feeding, to follow us up to the summit, though the dog had to be resourceful to get around a few steep bits. Maybe we did do the Diagonal.

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1973 Couloir. Gaylord Barr. Dog showed real ingenuity

At the summit there were clouds rolling in, and thunder in the distance, so after a brief rest, we descended by way of Tizi Melloul fearing rain and lightning. We got a bit of rain, but no lightning.

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1973. Summit view looking toward Oukaïmeden
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Gaylord Barr and Berber dog, on summit

The next time, and last time, I visited Tazaghart was in the late spring or early fall  of 1977.

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The De Lépiney refuge, Tazaghart

The weather was cold and wet, and I don’t remember climbing anything, but I did witness a spectacular landslide that involved some house sized boulders rolling down one of the couloirs, a good reminder that even easy routes may have unsuspected dangers.

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The block visible in the lower left of the photo was far bigger than a house! That is rock and dust in the Couloir and trailing the immense block, and not a cloud!
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My daughter, Liz, riding in swari (Morocco baskets)

On that trip we captured a dormouse and took it back to Chauen. When I left Morocco in 1978, a Peace Corps couple in Tetuan took the creature and continued keeping it as a pet. It was cute, but dormice are most active at night. We rarely saw it, but we always heard it scurrying in its enclosure after sunset. It was part of menagerie of cats and tortoises.

Next installment: Toubkal