Tour Operator Watch n° 10 Atlas Mountains

Posté par Michael Peyron le 1 octobre 2010

Tour Operator Watch n° 10 Atlas mountains
Morocco : October 2010 

by Michael PEYRON


   Toubkal massif seen from Saturday ssuq at Asni (photo: M. Peyron)  

  The world economic downturn has certainly had an adverse effect on some outside Tour Operators who target Morocco. “Hommes et Montagnes”, for one, the successful Bernezat-founded agency from Voiron (France), formerly active in the Hoggar and Atlas Mountains, went under in the spring of 2010 – not that were shedding any tears. If anything, in terms of mass consumer impact, this is good news; any current indication of a lessening of tourist attention becomes a positive factor.  In fact, even TOs have observed that the remotest Atlas valleys are beginning to feel the wear and tear from regular package tourist visits. This is evident from their sales talk containing ominous references to “les dernières terres sauvages de l’Atlas”, or “une region encore préservée”, as if fully aware that the pressure is on and, as it were, encouraging consumers to sample these areas’ pristine charms before it is too late. We had already detected this hypocritical attitude among TOs some thirty years ago (cf. Working Papers IIa). 


    Megdaz village, Tassaout valley, February 1983, (photo: M. Peyron)

  Current trends  TOs are increasingly aware that, to break even, flexibility is the watchword. More than ever, they’re sub-contracting out to other agencies, pooling customer lists when a particular trip is under-written, or customizing their product to suit clients’ taste and initiative. Nothing new here; in fact, we’d commented on this trend a year or two back.  One new development, however, has been noted: hybridisation. Instead of sticking to one speciality, say, rafting, walking, mountain-biking, two or more of these activities are jointly offered. This becomes a hybrid tour. Actually, Club Med in the Atlas has been a pioneer in this field for some years, combining 4×4 tours with mild walking, Imilchil and points beyond being typical destinations. Recently luxury holiday camps near Marrakech have been going in for this: multiple activities on offer include parapente, accroc-branche, trekking and quads. Another discernible trend is that more and more Moroccan agencies are taking over, which is a good thing in the case of regional firms more likely to plough back funds into the local economy, than selfishly motivated big-city operators. 

The GTAM – now you see it, now you don’t! 

For reasons unknown the powers that be appear to have reneged on the idea of a grand traverse of the Moroccan Atlas (GTAM). End-to-ending has gone out of fashion. Even the Ministry of Tourism booklet containing practical information for visitors no longer mentions the GTAM, not even the palm-tree mountain logo, present focus being on “Mountain and Desert”. On their websites, however, the TOs continue to refer to the GTAM, the GTA, or even (ludicrously) to the “Great Crossing of the Atlas”!


Route of GTAM n° 3, June 2010 (,731986.html)

A certain Pierre Martin would appear to belong to a slightly different category. This freelance trekker, loosely connected with the Grenoble-based magazine, Trek, has been diligently mapping out a “traditional” or “official” GTAM, basically Mgoun to Toubkal in 20 odd days. There have been two variants: one being GTAM n°2 (Imilchil-Hadida in 18 days); the most recently reconnoitred route is GTAM n°3 (Midelt-Bou Taghar). Fully illustrated descriptions of these have been appearing on the web.


Author’s daughter Caroline Mackenzie at foot of ‘Ayyachi during 6-day Midelt-Asif Melloul backpacking traverse, Sep 1998 (photo: M. Peyron)

Although the last-named itinerary is presented as totally innovative, virgin and un-trodden, as if no previous backpackers had ever ventured along these well-worn trails (perish the thought!), at least it provides free info for all and sundry. And, significantly, shows that somebody out there is trying to keep the GTAM alive. For which he must receive all due credit!


 Jbel Ma’asker at dusk seen from Ayt Ouchen (photo: M. Peyron)

Such disinterested openness with information, far from any mercantile considerations, also encourages individual trekkers to do their own thing, thereby taking away some of the TO’s business. Which is all for the good.


Oul-Ghazi village, Asif Melloul, June 1998 (photo: M. Peyron)

However, given the immediacy of life in the global vbillage, when they don’t give the impression they’re operating within a time warp or personal bubble, GTAM newcomers may be totally oblivious to developments past or present on the Atlas Mountain scene. Furthermore, contrary to Morocco-based walkers, outsiders like Pierre Martin arriving through Marrakech airport appear to lack the time and/or the inclination to include the Middle Atlas or Western High Atlas in their versions of the GTAM.

 120tousefseddidec1987.jpgTousefseddi, Asif Melloul, during 6-day Tounfit-Tillougit hike, Dec 1987 (photo: M. Peyron)

On the other hand, some Atlas exponents may wax boastful. This is very much the case with a well-known British North Country TO, who, in setting up a reasonably orthodox Mgoun-Toubkal mountain bike traverse, claims that it is “going where others don’t dare”! Almost as a rejoinder, a rival Brit outfit announces that it is staging the « definitive » Atlas biking traverse, whatever that means! One-upmanship such as this is now unfortunately commonplace in the game.

One individual, however, who seems to be concentrating on doing his own thing and extending a helping hand to Atlas trekkers, deserves a mention right here. Matthew Low, a British mountain instructor and tour leader settled in Imlil a few years ago and seems genuinely fond of the local mountains and their inhabitants. Visit him on

To conclude, while 2010 apparently failed to witness the arrival of 10,000,000 tourists in Morocco, some 80,000-100,000 of whom would probably have made for the hills, only a minimal decline in mountain tourism activity has been observed. However, it remains to be seen whether the downward trend will be maintained in the foreseeable future.

  Lone Backpacker

October 2010

Text copyright by Michael Peyron; material from same may be quoted in compliance with current academic practice.

Publié dans Tour Operator Watch | Pas de Commentaire »

Rubrique littéraire – livres récents sur l’Atlas marocain

Posté par Michael Peyron le 24 septembre 2010

Rubrique littéraire – livres récents sur l’Atlas marocain 

Frédéric Jullien, La traversée du Haut-Atlas en solitaire, Éditions du Fournel, L’Argentière la Bessée (2005). 


Nous sommes dans l’habituel récit du montagnard qui parcourt en solo une chaîne peu connue et nous livre ses impressions (consignées dans son carnet de route) au fur et à mesure de ses étapes ; ensemble agrémenté d’un portefeuille de photographies en couleurs assez jolies. Un brin rêveur et poète, l’auteur a la plume suffisamment alerte pour nous faire part de sa philosophie du voyage fraternelle au contact de la merveilleuse hospitalité berbère. Démarche empreinte de modestie, il ne cherche nullement à étaler un exploit, simplement décrire à sa façon un suivi automnal atypique et (admettons-le) incomplet de l’ancienne GTAM de Taliwine à Imilchil en 31 jours. Le tout se lit plutôt agréablement. 

Cependant le lecteur reste sur sa faim. Le narrateur se dit guide de montagne se réclamant de la Provence, avec à son actif une traversée des Pyrénées. Toutefois, hormis une allusion à un voyage antérieur au Toubkal, on ne sait peu ou rien des motivations de notre homme, de ses antécédents marocains. Certes, il fait preuve d’un respect de bon aloi envers les Berbères et leur culture. N’empêche que tout cela flaire la démarche de débutant. On se serait attendu, il est vrai, à une préparation moins légère en vue d’une expédition éprouvante à la fois sur le plan physique et mental. À une initiation plus sérieuse à la langue amazighe.

Or, exception faite pour certains items lexicaux de base qu’il maîtrise sans peine, il est clair qu’il mélange tout. En remontant l’Oued Afra il pense sérieusement quitter l’aire de la tamajirt (sic) pour pénétrer dans le pays où se parle tachelhait (p. 58), alors que ce serait plutôt l’inverse ! Basculant entre féminin incomplet et masculin, il appelle l’ânesse qu’il a loué tantôt Tamazir, tantôt Amazir (animal de bât et de compagnie que l’ingrat sans cœur revendra sans sourciller le 17ème jour).

Il confond en outre les noms des villages : Timichi avec Tacheddirt (p. 36), Mazwad avec Magdaz, Imlil avec Imilchil. Sans compter les coquilles : plateau du Yagourt (p. 47) pour Yagour; Imilchi (Imilchil), lac de Téli (Tislit) ; Djebel Saharo (Saghro) ; Tournfite pour Tounfit, Mgoum pour Mgoun, etc.  Approche somme toute approximative, et c’est ce qui lui vaudra, sans doute, de sur-estimer sa résistance à la soif en milieu montagnard aride, de se fourvoyer dans les gorges de la Haute Tassaout et, surtout, entre Taghia et l’Izoughar, lac asséché en fin de saison sur lequel il comptait cependant pour réapprovisionner sa gourde. 

De plus sa brève épopée atlasienne se déroule dans une bulle intemporelle – il n’y a pas d’avant, encore moins d’après – bien que l’on puisse situer cela sans doute en octobre 2004. Principal reproche : le récit se termine abruptement, de façon peu satisfaisante. Tout devient vague et inachevé; pays et protagonistes s’estompent dans un flou peu artistique, laissant bon nombre de questions en suspens. Mariam l’institutrice d’Imilchil s’en va en weekend. Bien. Et notre chemineau de l’Atlas, où ira-t-il ensuite ? Vers Tounfit et le Sud ? Et après ? Envisage-t-il seulement un retour ? Une traversée revisitée, plus complète et peut-être mieux préparée, afin d’aller retrouver sa « fiancée » promise en haute Tassaout ? C’est le mieux que l’on puisse lui souhaiter. 

Vincent Geus, Maroc treks randonnées balades culture nature, Éd. De
la Boussole, Grenoble (2007). 


Il s’agit là d’un travail plus sérieux, fruit de deux années (2005-2006) de travail sur le terrain, produit tout à fait représentatif de son époque, présentant de nombreux descriptifs d’itinéraire assortis de croquis, de fiches techniques et d’excellentes photographies en couleurs. Vincent Geus aura été servi par son travail d’accompagnateur pour l’agence Allibert, détail qui a son importance. En effet, bien que ce topoguide soit suffisamment complet pour permettre au randonneur individuel de s’en sortir sur place, il reflète tout de même la démarche des Tour Operators (TO), largement mentionnés aux pages 44-45 (discret appel du pied envers le lecteur !), faisant ainsi le jeu des assistés amateurs de sorties en troupeau, comme ceux que l’on voit au Mgoun (cf. p. 102). 

Soit dit en passant que nous ne sommes pas entièrement d’accord avec sa façon d’enfoncer les « faux guides », ayant constaté que ceux-ci sont souvent des prestataires sérieux, issus du milieu montagnard, contrairement à bon nombre de guides citadins ayant négocié leur diplôme au CFAMM ! 

Cependant, il ne s’agit pas là d’un guide vraiment complet des chaînes marocaines. Rif et Moyen-Atlas sont sommairement expédiés ; le massif de l’Ayyachi ne fait l’objet d’aucune mention ; quant au haut Atlas, enfin, tout s’arrête au Toubkal. Le haut Atlas occidental, lui, reste très largement laissé pour compte. En revanche, répondant en cela à de nouvelles modes lancées par les TO, la côte atlantique et le Grand Sud (‘homme bleus’ et Merzouga obligent) sont présents à l’appel. 

Par ailleurs, cet ouvrage vient confirmer la disparition officielle de la GTAM en tant qu’entité tangible sur le terrain. Aucune mention dans le texte, pas même le logo GTAM avec sa montagne coiffée d’un palmier, ainsi que je l’avais déjà constaté sous une autre rubrique du présent site. Geus se contente de citer les grandes lignes de ce qu’il nomme la « Grande Traversée du Haut Atlas central » (p. 76).  Nous n’allons pas énumérer certaines inexactitudes historiques et/ou géographiques que nous avons en son temps signalées à l’auteur, ni les imperfections du lexique arabo-berbère (pp. 50-53), témoignant de connaissances encore fragiles en langue amazighe.

Mais ceci n’a pas une très grande importance ; tel qu’il existe le lexique permettra au visiteur de se débrouiller en situation, voire de s’améliorer par la suite.  En définitive, et en dépit des quelques réserves ci-dessus signalées, nous pensons pouvoir accorder à cet ouvrage un satisfécit nuancé. 

Hamish Brown, The mountains look on Marrakech, Whittles Publishing, Dunbeath (2007). 


Pour ceux d’entre vous qui lisent l’anglais voici un ouvrage véritablement accompli. Entreprise soigneusement préparée, l’épopée du légendaire Hamish Brown, qui a relié Taza à Tamri en 96 jours (du 4 mai au 10 juillet 1995), constitue un aboutissement. Cela faisait trente ans que notre Ecossais fréquentait les monts de l’Atlas qui ont toujours éveillé chez lui de touchantes ressemblances avec les Hautes-Terres de sa jeunesse; c’est dire qu’il avait eu amplement le temps de mûrir son projet.  Sans rechercher l’exploit – au contraire il s’imposera un train de sénateur de bout en bout – il prend le départ avec un compagnon britannique et deux marocains, chargés de s’occuper des deux mules achetées pour la durée de la traversée. En cours de route d’autres compagnons se joindront à eux afin de les accompagner sur des tronçons spécifiques. Pour des raisons administratives ils doivent interrompre leur périple quelques jours à la hauteur de Marrakech. Leur arrivée à Tamri sur l’Atlantique sera l’aboutissement d’un travail d’équipe ; d’une démarche inspirée par un attachement profond envers l’Atlas marocain et ses habitants. Tout au long du voyage, Brown s’appuiera sur l’habitant, souvent sur des amis de longue date, constituant un véritable réseau. Le récit circonstancié qui en résulte contient de nombreuses anecdotes historiques, comiques et autres, sans compter des notes ornithologiques. Très complet, il incorpore des faits survenus antérieurement dans les différents lieux traversés. Procédant ainsi par amoncellement il permet en quelque sorte à l’auteur d’assembler sur le papier un gigantesque puzzle géographique fait de réminiscences multiples. Il permet, aussi, de saisir l’infinie variété des paysages de l’Atlas, depuis les collines relativement humides du Moyen-Atlas, aux vallées sèches du haut Atlas de Marrakech. Pour le plaisir du lecteur de nombreuses photos en couleurs viennent égayer le texte. Le tout représente un ensemble éminemment intéressant, attrayant et satisfaisant dont nous recommandons vivement la lecture ; il deviendra assurément un classique de la littérature atlasienne. En refermant le livre on sent que l’auteur est allé jusqu’au bout de sa démarche. Qu’il peut en tirer à juste titre un sentiment de devoir bien rempli. Que de souvenirs, aussi, pour les années de vieillesse et de moins grande activité, celles qui nous guettent tous ! 

Jean Robichez et Bouazza Benachir, Paroles berbères de la résistance Maroc central, 1935-1940, L’Harmattan (2010). 


Connu principalement pour son magnifique Maroc central (1946), livre d’images sur les Imazighen du haut Atlas oriental, Jean Robichez avait, grâce à sa formation de berbérisant, également recueilli un corpus de poèmes d’époque en bi-lingue tamazight-français, essentiellement chez les Ayt Sokhman après l’épopée du Tazizawt, dont un bref extrait était paru dans la revue Les Temps modernes (1949). Restait à publier le reliquat, à rendre justice aux travaux d’un chercheur méconnu,  laissé de côté par l’establishment berbérisant de l’époque. Tâche qui incombera, en fin de compte, à Bouazza Benachir, anthropologue et philosophe marocain apparemment aussi peu instruit en poésie amazighe qu’en histoire moderne, qui assure ici le rôle de simple copiste. 

Résultat : un ensemble globalement satisfaisant. Quoique… Le copiste brille, certes, dans une introduction (pp. 9-29) rédigée selon les canons du jargon universitaire français aux contours parfois flous, et farci de termes ésotériques (exemple: rhizome, p. 24; awalien, p. 25).

Chemin faisant Benachir semble surtout s’émerveiller de l’humanisme avant-gardiste de Robichez, seul, à ses yeux, a avoir trouvé les termes adéquats pour décrire le phénomène de l’ahidus – mieux, en tout cas, que Chottin (p. 19) dont, à l’époque, les travaux faisait autorité.  Le copiste se contente, ensuite, de publier le corpus de Robichez, fort respectable au demeurant et hautement intéressant, en respectant la notation (satisfaisante dans l’ensemble) employée par ce dernier.

Cependant, de son propre aveu, il considère « vain » (p. 31) d’ajouter à ce travail la moindre bibliographie (pourtant souhaitable dans un ouvrage de ce type), et se borne à publier les notes du chercheur, apparemment sans y apporter de changement. Or, ainsi que nous allons le démontrer, il y aurait eu de quoi faire… 

On peut sans conteste mettre à l’actif du copiste bon nombre d’inexactitudes, de coquilles et de lacunes. Toutefois parmi de celles-ci certaines sont imputables au chercheur. Essayons d’y voir plus clair. 


Benachir fait terminer la « soumission forcée » de l’Atlas en 1943, alors que celle-ci s’est achevée dix ans plus tôt (p. 14 & p. 22).  On dit Sidi Ali Amhawch, mais Imhiwach (pl.) lorsqu’on désigne la famille dans sa globalité (p. 83). Confusion masculin/féminin au niveau de la traduction : a ult-hediddu = ‘ô femme Ayt Hadiddou’ ; ‘a u-hediddu = ‘ô homme Ayt Hadiddou’ ; cf. izlan n° 111 & 112 (p. 90). 

Tabouarbit n’est pas tant une montagne qu’un ksar sur le Haut Ziz (p. 105 ; tamdyazt n° 145 ; ligne 12). 


On manque de signaler des cas d’allongement syllabique dictés par la métrique : tamadyazt (p. 26), tahayut (p. 112). De plus, le terme amdyaz n’a pas de féminin (cf. M. Taifi, 1991, p. 405); la corporation demeure masculine ! 

L’unique carte peu fournie (p. 34) est nettement insuffisante, alors que les toponymes abondent dans le corpus. 

Traduction incomplète de l’izli n° 14 (p. 49), auquel il manque un hémistiche. 

On omet de signaler que l’izli n° 45 faisait partie du corpus de Tawgrat Oult-Sokhman, poètesse emblématique de la région, dont jusqu’à ce jour les vers restent ancrés dans les esprits, que l’on occulte complètement (cf. Reyniers, 1930). 

Les Ayt Sidi Yahya ou Youssef (p. 68) ; on passe sous silence cette fraction maraboutique autrefois influente dans la région de Tounfit.   

Note incomplète concernant la colline de tawrirt n-tiyni (p. 75, n. 4), site d’un affrontement célèbre entre tribus à l’époque héroïque, « parce qu’ils l’avaient voulu » (is-t-ran) ; cf. De la Chapelle, Le Sultan Moulay Ismaïl et les Berbères Sanhaja du Maroc central (1931).  Bula (izli 105, p. 88) ; c’est le nom « berbérisé » du Capitaine Paulin, longtemps en poste à Tinghir. Note insuffisante sur Ahmaroq (sic) >Amahroq ; on omet de signaler, fait important, qu’il est un des fils de Moha ou-Hammou Azayyi (p. 100 ; n.1).

Même indigence sur le plan de l’information concernant les Ayt Sidi Ali, Sidi El Mekki, etc. 

On aurait pu signaler que : l’izli n° 53, les izlan 118 & 119, ainsi que la  tamawayt, n° 166 p.116 sont des classiques parus dans d’autres publications récentes – ce qui méritait de figurer dans la bibliographie non-existante. 


uswari pour ušwari,  izli n° 42 (p.56)    timawayn pour timawayin (p.43) iddjium pour iddjiun (p. 64)    iluġam pour iluġman (p. 74) 

tzyzawin pour tzyzawt  &   imyldulin pour imidulin (p. 84, tamdyazt n° 100) ; confusion sing/ plur. ; midul était l’ancêtre éponymique des Ayt Hadiddou de l’ouest  ; du reste, l’appellation tamidulit sert parfois pour désigner le sous-parler tamaziġt de cette partie du Maroc central. 

En définitive, et malgré les quelques réserves ci-dessus émises, nous estimons qu’il s’agit là d’un corpus inédit, fort riche qui, en venant compléter des travaux similaires, enrichit nos connaissances sur un épisode jusqu’alors peu documenté de l’histoire marocaine. Et c’est là le mérite principal de l’ouvrage. 

Michael Peyron, Birds at Al Akhawayn, Al Akhawayn University Press,  Ifrane (2010). 


Destiné aux amateurs d’Ifrane et de sa région qui lisent l’anglais cet ouvrage de référence recense environ 80 espèces d’oiseaux fréquentant le campus d’Al Akhawayn et ses abords immédiats. Le lecteur y trouvera un recensement aussi complet que possible de la faune aviaire du site, ainsi que quelques détails essentiels permettant de différencier les différents types d’oiseaux. 

Cette université comporte un atout unique : le fait d’être toute entière bâtie dans un biotope arbustif permet une cohabitation autant pacifique que permanente entre humains et oiseaux. De plus, la forêt environnante, représentant plusieurs hectares clôturés est devenue une gigantesque réserve naturelle où la nature s’épanouit librement, et surtout à l’abri de diverses nuisances extérieures. 

Les rebords de fenêtres des résidences peuvent devenir autant de perchoirs, de mangeoires même, pour autant que les locataires y disposent quelques miettes de pain, un récipient d’eau. Des relations intimes, privilégiées se développent ainsi avec la faune ailée. En hiver, lors des conditions extrêmes de climat, chacun peut ainsi contribuer utilement à la suivie de ces espèces : trois types de mésange, le pinson, le merle, le rouge-gorge, le pic épeiche et d’autres encore. 

En somme, ce petit livre doit permettre aux ornithologues amateurs de tirer un plus grand plaisir de leur séjour « ifranien ». 

Grenoble septembre 2010 

Text copyright by Michael Peyron; material from same may be quoted in compliance with current academic practice.

Publié dans General | Pas de Commentaire »

Les almu-s et agdal-s de l’Atlas oriental: état des lieux (2007)

Posté par Michael Peyron le 16 septembre 2010

Les almu-s et agdal-s de l’Atlas

oriental ; état des lieux

Colloque international: “Les agdal-s de l’Atlas marocain: savoirs locaux, droits d’accès, gestion de la biodiversité” (Marrakech, les 10,11, 12 mai 2007)


Les massifs montagneux dont il est question comprennent le Moyen Atlas et le Haut Atlas oriental marocain. Cette communication procède à un état des lieux de certains almu-s de ce vaste ensemble, dont bon nombre d’anciens agdal-s en butte à la déréglementation, assortie d’atteintes diverses. Nous nous efforcerons, à travers les savoirs locaux, de démontrer ce qui perdure de ces règles d’accès aux parcours d’altitude ; d’examiner le fonctionnement actuel des agdal-s sur le plan de l’interaction socioculturelle; d’établir le bilan d’une bien précaire biodiversité (assortie de notes ornithologiques) ; d’attirer l’attention sur la situation préoccupante des agdal–s de l’Atlas marocain et de propose quelques solutions.

Les savoirs locaux

Le terme almu est employé pour désigner un herbage d’altitude. Chez les pastoraux de langue amazighe il revêt une connotation positive ; d’un homme heureux on dira, iy-as ul almu (‘il a le cœur en fête’). La poésie locale, par ailleurs, reflète un imaginaire sous-jacent riche en allusions :-

Quiconque détient destrier, tapis, fusil, la belle calée
Sur selle, fera halte sur gazon fleuri, entendra théière
Chanter ; pourra alors l’adversité défier ! (Roux & Peyron 2002)

Considérons également ce distique, tiré du répertoire d’un barde nomade :-

Petit gazon, demeure tel que tu es ; deviens, au besoin, desséché ;
Peu m’importe, dès lors qu’à tes fleurs j’ai goûté ! (Peyron 1993)

Ajoutons-y proverbe qui résume le regard que porte sur la vie un Amazigh du Moyen Atlas :-

Trois choses comptent ici-bas : les belles femmes,
La danse de l’ahidus, et l’herbe des verts pâturages ! (Peyron 1992)

Modalités d’accès

Tout almu n’est pas obligatoirement un agdal. Il ne le devient que suite à un accord entre les usagers des lieux, pastoraux obéissant aux lois de la transhumance. À l’époque ancienne où s’appliquait l’izerf (‘droit coutumier’), si un almu était jugé indispensable à la survie des troupeaux du groupe, l’assemblé (jemmaâ) prenait la décision d’en réglementer l’accès et désignait, pour l’année, un amghar n-igudlan (‘cheikh des pâturages’). Celui-ci était chargé de veiller à la mise en défens de l’agdal, donnant à ce terme sa pleine signification (√ GDL = ‘protéger’, en Tamazight). L’amghar n-igudlan avait le droit, s’il surprenait sur les lieux un troupeau contrevenant, d’imposer une amende (izmaz), voire d’y prélever un bélier à titre de sanction.


almu de xérophytes sous le Ma’asker, région de Tounfit, mai 2007 (photo: M. Peyron)

Habituellement, l’agdal de montagne était ouvert depuis fin-mai (ou fin-juin) jusqu’à la fin-septembre selon les massifs, moyennant quelques aménagements hors saison pour de petits troupeaux locaux. C’est à ce calendrier schématique qu’obéissaient les mouvements de transhumance observés pendant les années 1960/1970, notamment en ce qui concerne le massif du Bou Iblan – montée des gens de Tanchraramt vers Tisserouine (1) – ou de la fréquentation des almu-s d’Aïn Taghighat (Raynal 1960) et de Tafraout n-Serdoun dans l’Ayyachi (2).

Des modifications pouvaient être apportées à ce calendrier, à la discrétion de l’amghar n-igudlan, concernant la date de descente depuis l’estive, notamment en cas de précipitations nivales précoces. À prolonger le séjour en altitude, les troupeaux couraient de graves risques ; de plus, la neige risquait, en les aplatissant, de rendre hors d’usage les tentes des transhumants (3).

De nombreux indices laissent à penser qu’aux temps anciens, de manière à renforcer les lois qui en régissaient l’accès, il y avait sacralisation de l’agdal. En outre, les sources faisaient l’objet d’une vénération quasi-religieuse, dont subsistent des vestiges. C’est le cas de la source d’Almou n-Ouensa (4), ainsi que celle de Taghbalout n-Zagmouzen, rive gauche de l’Asif Melloul, à la limite des Ayt Hadiddou et des Ayt Sokhman.


Berger Ou-’Ammar près d’Anefgou (photo: M. Peyron)

Parfois, le culte d’un saint local, ou agurram, est associé à l’almu voisin. Il en est ainsi du sanctuaire de Sidi Amandar, juché sur un avant-mont escarpé de 2 950m, à 5 kilomètres au sud-ouest d’Imilchil, et dont la baraka s’étend sur les pâturages de Tanoutfit, d’Almou n-Oumandar, ainsi que sur le sommet principal d’Amandar (3 037m). Effectivement, le sanctuaire comprend deux cabanes contenant un nécessaire de bivouac : bougies, nattes, vivres, combustible, etc. D’après la présence de cornes et d’ossements de béliers il y a tout lieu d’en déduire que des sacrifices propitiatoires y sont régulièrement célébrés (5). De même a-t-on relevé, dans un canton voisin du pays Ayt Yahya, des traces similaires d’immolations au sommet du Tizraouline (3 118m) – ceci à mettre en rapport avec la fréquentation de l’Almou n-Igri voisin (‘pâturage des grenouilles’) (6).

Par ailleurs, en faisant appel aux forces surnaturelles, la tradition orale peut renforcer la magie des lieux, de façon à éviter toute infraction aux lois de la transhumance. Les Ayt Warayn (notamment la fraction des Ahl Tanchraramt) qui fréquentent en été les parcours de Tisserouine dans le Bou Iblane, désignent un amoncellement rocheux en expliquant qu’il s’agit là « d’une vieille, sa tente, son berger, et son troupeau ». C’est la légende de « La Vieille » (tafqirt) (7). Janvier étant achevé, la vieille femme, fière d’avoir tenue en montagne grâce au beau temps du plein hiver, nargue le mois finissant. Ce dernier appelle à la rescousse son collègue Février, lequel envoie une tempête qui ensevelit et pétrifie humains, tente et bêtes – d’où les roches actuelles.

Si les ethnologues font ainsi moisson en matière de tradition orale, les scientifiques, perçoivent essentiellement les agdal-s comme contribuant à entretenir la biodiversité.

De possibles sanctuaires de biodiversité

Le tandem pâturage/zone humide, réunissant cheptel, flore, avifaune, batraciens et lépidoptères, constitue le plus fécond des biotopes. Nous en présentons brièvement quelques cas concrets.

1) Agelmam Afennourir (< ikhf n-awrir = ‘tête de la montagne’).

Situé parmi des pâturages à 1 796m d’altitude au sud-est d’Aïn Leuh, cet étang marécageux, aux abords asylvatiques, incarne la notion de biodiversité au Moyen Atlas. Site privilégié pour oiseaux aquatiques résidents et/ou migrateurs, on y recense une quarantaine d’espèces, dont certaines relativement rares. Érigé en site Ramsar, il fait l’objet d’un certain suivi scientifique, sans être entièrement à l’abri du braconnage (Peyron 2005), car une route, non goudronnée en fin de parcours, en facilite l’accès. Avec l’effondrement de la réglementation traditionnelle sur les pâturages qui caractérise le Moyen Atlas depuis quinze ans, les anciens transhumants, devenus sédentaires, maintiennent sur les pelouses riveraines une pression permanente (Chillasse & al. 2001). En effet, un nombre considérable de ces nouveaux bergers, dont des éléments allogènes (8), remplacent la classique tente berbère des transhumants par des abris permanents en pierre, bois, plastique, et « squattent » les lieux. Pour l’heure, il règne un équilibre précaire à Afennourir entre avifaune et transhumants, la proximité d’une pelouse de joncs (Juncus bufonius), ainsi que des îlots de végétation aquatique (Scirpus holosehoeunus) permettant la nidification de certaines espèces, dont des grèbes et des canards (9).


Pâturages en bordure d’Agelmam Afennourir, mars 2009 (photo: M. Peyron)

2) Pâturages de Tassamakt.

Situés au sud-ouest de Timhadit entre 1 850 et 1 950m d’altitude, sur les parcours de la fraction des Imrabden des Ayt Myill (Beni Mguild), ceux-ci s’étendent sur sept kilomètres entre le Ras Admar Izem au nord et les anticlinaux d’El-Koubbat (2 255m) et du Jbel Hayane (2 409m) au sud, constituant un des plus vastes ensembles de pacages du Moyen Atlas occidental. Site exceptionnel, combinant pelouses sèches, semi humides, voire humides (présence de nombreux étangs saisonniers), il a été contaminé en un premier temps par l’installation d’une exploitation de schistes bitumineux, opérationnel au début des années 1980 (site dit « de Beqrit » fermé depuis, Peyron 2000), avec construction d’un axe goudronnée, le CT 3389, et édification d’une école. En un deuxième temps, dans le courant des années 1990, l’accès étant ainsi facilité aux pastoraux, ceux-ci se sont installés en force (Johnson & Bencherifa 1993). Ainsi peut-on actuellement y dénombrer au moins dix bergeries permanentes, chacune abritant un cheptel dépassant une centaine de têtes (10). Tendance généralisée à travers le Moyen Atlas, cela provoque l’effondrement du principe même de l’agdal, d’où des répercussions néfastes à terme sur les herbages : disparition de la notion de mise en défens ; pression exagérée sur les points d’eau ; impossibilité pour l’herbe de dépasser le stade de pelouse rase et apparition généralisée de gazons écorchés sur les bordures.


Pâturages de Tassamakt, belle pelouse & gazon écorché, Moyen-Atlas, mai 2006  (photo: M. Peyron)

Il convient de faire remarquer, toutefois, qu’au moins deux zones de parcours du Moyen Atlas échappent partiellement à cette règle : celles de Zaouia Oued Ifran et d’Agelmam Sidi Ali. La première, grâce à une impulsion dynamique donnée par le maire de l’agglomération, Mohamed Fadili, a réussi à rétablir pour les troupeaux la classique alternance entre azaghar en hiver et jbel en été (11). La deuxième, comprend les nombreux pacages qui bordent la RP 21 entre le lac de Sidi Ali et le Col du Zad. Si, malgré la sècheresse, certains troupeaux des Ayt Raho ou Ali y accèdent en mars depuis Boulâajoul en Haute Moulouya, la fermeture est respectée en avril/mai. C’est à la fin-mai que devient effective la montée en estive (12).

3) Le Jbel ‘Ayyachi (Âari n-ou Ayyach).


Champ de maïs & ‘Ayyachi vu des Imtchimen, Haut Atlas oriental, nov 1983 (photo: M. Peyron)

Troisième massif marocain par l’altitude et l’étendue, il constitue un véritable carrefour de mouvements pastoraux, dont les pâturages sont convoités, à des degrés divers, par plusieurs groupements faisant partie de la « super-tribu » des Ayt Yafelman: les Ayt Yahya, Ayt Ayyach, Ayt Merghad et Ayt Hadiddou. Dès le 17e siècle ce sont les igurramn de la Zaouia Sidi Hamza, qui, profitant de leur situation stratégique, arbitreront les conflits pastoraux dans l’Ayyachi (Peyron 1984). Démêlées inter- et intra-tribaux ayant abouti à une répartition relativement équitable des pâturages de l’Ayyachi. C’est la conclusion qui s’imposait au terme de tournées sur le terrain effectuées entre 1975 et 1991.


Nomades Ayt Merghad, cirque de Ja’afar, mai 1969 (photo: M. Peyron) 

En effet, la fréquentation des igudlan d’Aïn Taghgighat et de Tafraout n-Ouallil, étagés entre 2 600 et 3 000m, représentait au début des années 1990 un cas assez exemplaire de compromis basé sur la coutume locale. Des transhumants Ayt Merghad et Ayt Hadiddou en partageaient l’accès avec un minimum de frictions ; les premiers montaient depuis Tattiouine au Nord par la vallée d’Ikkis et passaient le Tizi n-Tserdount (3 046m) ; les seconds, venus de Tannghrift sur le versant assamer (‘adret’), avaient franchis le Tizi n-Mawtfoud (2 788m) et le Tizi n-Bou Âadil (3 078m). L’unique source d’Aïn Taghighat (2 750m), avec sa pelouse humide, desservait une communauté nomade comptant une trentaine de tentes en juillet/août. Après l’arrivée en estive à la fin mai, les dromadaires porteurs divaguaient sur les crêtes, se nourrissant de chardons et de xérophytes. La vie collective pastorale régnait ainsi jusqu’en septembre, ponctuée par la sortie/rentrée du cheptel, le salage des pierres plates à destination des ovins, des séances de réparation de tentes, de préparation du petit lait (aghu) et des soirées d’ahidus (13).

D’autres fractions Ayt Hadiddou, celles d’Ayt Yakoub et d’Afraskou, ayant également empruntées le Tizi n-Mawtfoud, une fois leurs tentes installées, se contentaient des parcours de l’Aqqa n-Tâarâart, de l’Aqqa n-Bou Oustour et de Tafraout n-Serdoun. À chaque fraction ses emplacements de tentes, reconnaissables à des cercles de pierres, et reconduits d’une année sur l’autre.


Haute vallée de Ta’ara’art, massif de l’Ayyachi, nov 1974 (photo: M. Peyron)

Les Ayt Ayyach des ksour de Tâarâart et de Mendaïour, quant à eux, n’utilisaient que les bas versants sud de l’Ayyachi, rive droite de l’Aqqa n-Tâarâart, à partir des bergeries d’Iblilou (2 470m) et de Tadaout n-Woudi, ainsi que certains parcours au nord-est du Tizi n-Mawtfoud (Bou Imterga).

Quatre fractions Ayt Yahya se partageaient la partie ouest de l’Ayyachi. Les Ayt Sliman de la basse vallée de Tâarâart, répartis en trois douars (Tighermine, Louggagh et Massou), accédaient aux almu-s des versants leur faisant face au sud, entre le Tizi n-Itgel (‘col du cèdre’) et le Tizi n-Mawtfoud, notamment sur l’Igourdan. Les Ayt Bou Arbi, qui occupent les cluses de l’Anzegmir entre l’Ayyachi et le Mâasker, avaient accès à l’Aqqa n-Bou Isly et l’Aqqa n-Bou Irifi (‘ravin de la soif’). Les xérophyteraies du versant nord revenaient aux Imitchimen, notamment dans l’Aqqa n-Bou Ghaba, l’Agouni n-Arfa, l’Agouni n-Tidouggwa et l’Imi n-Tkhamt. Plus à l’est sur le même versant, la dépaissance des Ayt Tawlghaout les amenaient sur les parcours de Mitqane, au pied du Tizouliyne (3 407m).

Signalons, pour compléter le recensement des pâturages de l’Ayyachi, que ce sont des éléments Ayt Merghad qui nomadisent, dès la fin-mai aux environs de Jâafar, Tafrant n-Ijimi, Agouni n-Bou Âarar, Taarbat et Tizi n-Toufli n-Wadou. À la fin-septembre ils prennent leurs quartiers d’hiver dans le vallon d’Ikkis, ou sur les glacis de piedmont au-delà de Tagouilelt (Peyron 1975 & 1977)(14).

4) Le plateau des Lacs et sa bordure nord.


Transhumants montant de Tirghist vers le plateau des Lacs, mai 1998 (photo: M. Peyron)

Il s’agit d’un vaste synclinal perché riche en biodiversité, centré sur une zone de pâturages – Izlan et Igran n-Igenna (‘champs du ciel’) – entourant le célèbre Plateau des Lacs, qui se partage entre pozzines, pelouses sèches et steppe à armoise (Sghir & Fennane 2003) ; en altitude, apparaît la steppe semi-aride de montagne à xérophytes, de type méditerranéen froid.


almu pour équidés, Tizi n-Inouzan, oct 1997 (photo: M. Peyron)

En bordure, s’élève une guirlande de montagnes arides, jouxtant d’autres pacages (Amalou n-Inouzan et Tizi n-Taoughrist) ainsi que la cédraie des Ayt Yahya. C’est à près de 3 000m d’altitude dans les escarpements du Fazaz et du Hayim voisins, qu’apparaît le mouflon à manchettes (Ammotragus lervia), au sein d’une zone érigée en SIBE (Site d’Intérêt Biologique et Écologique), laquelle constitue le noyau du futur PNHAO, ou Parc National du Haut Atlas Oriental (Billand 1996). Démarche environnementale, depuis longtemps annoncée, qui souligne le caractère privilégié de cette zone sur le plan faunistique, ainsi que l’absolue nécessité d’une prise de conscience collective de la part des riverains – des ksouriens de Tirghist notamment – quant à l’utilité que revêt pour eux un parc bien géré, générateur de devises, et dans le suivi duquel ils seraient nécessairement impliqués (Bourbouze 1997 ; Peyron 2004). Le mouflon, autrefois menacé, était présent à hauteur de 156 têtes en octobre 1997, d’après un comptage effectué par des Volontaires de la Paix américains (15). Pour le moment, les habitants de Tirghist se plaignent de ce que les mouflons broutent leurs cultures (tshan-akh luhush ! disent-ils), d’autant plus que ces mammifères, bénéficiant de mesures de protection, s’étendent à l’est dans l’Aberdouz et le Wilghissen, ainsi qu’à l’ouest vers le Msedrid, l’Isswal, l’Iger n-Igenna et le Tawjjâaout, broutant les graminées et herbacés de ces massifs, et entrant en compétition avec les ovins et caprins domestiques.

Deux groupements de populations montagnardes ont majoritairement accès au Plateau des Lacs :-


Transhumance d’Anefgou en direction du Tizi n-Inouzan, mai 2009 (photo: M. Peyron)

1) les Ayt Ameur d’Anefgou : cette ancienne fraction Ayt Hadiddou relève actuellement de l’Annexe de Tounfit, étant inféodée aux Ayt Yahya depuis 1933. Le Capitaine Parlange (burlanj) des Affaires Indigènes avait alors fait remarquer aux Ayt Ameur, occupant un canton remarquable par la qualité de ses cédraies, qu’ils avaient désormais intérêt à faire partie du commandement de Tounfit, dont l’autorité les protégerait contre les incursions nocturnes de leurs frères Ayt Hadiddou d’Imilchil, voleurs de bois réputés (16);


almu de Taghighacht, Haut Atlas d’Imilchil, mars 1977 (photo: M. Peyron)

2) les Ayt Yâzza, fraction importante des Ayt Hadiddou de l’Asif n-Tilmi (notamment ceux de Taghighacht) et de l’Asif Melloul (région d’Imilchil). Ils se doivent, cependant, d’y accueillir sans rechigner d’autres éléments Ayt Hadiddou venus des Isellaten (Ou-Terbat), ainsi que des Ayt Brahim du Haut Asif Melloul. Ces dispositions, cependant, ne s’étendent pas à leurs cousins situés sur le versant sud, ceux de l’Imdghas (Haut Dadès), d’où la tribu est originaire. Ce modus vivendi est l’aboutissement d’une longue série de confrontations entre fractions, ayant marqué la période précoloniale, et dont l’enjeu était l’accès aux agdal-s du Plateau des Lacs. Quoi qu’il en soit, cette situation, perçue par certains groupements comme légitimant leurs droits d’estive, remise en cause par d’autres, aura été l’objet de litiges incessants, même si le fait d’accéder aux pâturages d’Izlan demeure un très fort symbole d’unité parmi les Ayt Hadiddou (Kraus 1998).


almu au bord de l’Asif Melloul, en amont d’Imilchil, oct 1997 (photo: M. Peyron)

Les igudlan du Plateau des Lacs ont subi une dégradation inexorable pendant les années 1975-1989, période marquée par un début de stress hydrique significatif. Le schéma de fréquentation, déjà signalé (Couvreur 1968 ), était le suivant en 1979: les ksouriens de Taghighecht disposaient de bergeries permanentes entre Izli et le Tizi n’Irig, ainsi que d’une demi-douzaine dans l’Aqqa n-Ouanine (17). À la fin mars, leurs troupeaux d’un effectif inférieur à une cinquantaine de têtes, avaient encore droit d’accès aux igudlan. Suivait la mise en défens totale (avril-juin) ; à la fin juin c’était la montée en estive d’autres fractions, qui campaient sous la tente. L’accès à d’autres pâturages pouvait être différencié : ceux de Tanoutfit et d’Amandar, par exemple. Ils étaient occupés dès la fin mai 1978 par des transhumants Ayt Hadiddou d’Ou-Terbat.


Pâturage d’automne en bordure du Plateau des Lacs, Ayt Hadiddou, oct. 2002 (photo: M. Peyron)

Lors d’un passage en septembre 1982, nous avions constaté une accélération du phénomène de surpâturage, notamment entre Izli et l’Aqqa n-Moutzeli, marquant les effets secondaires d’une série d’années de sécheresse ; impression confirmée en juillet 1989, époque à laquelle les pâturages d’Igran n-Igenna, massivement transformés en gazons écorchés, présentaient un aspect de dust bowl (Peyron 1992). Simultanément, une autre tendance pouvait être constatée : l’extension sauvage de l’habitat dispersé en bordure des igudlan, accompagnée de mises en culture sur les piedmonts nord du Msedrid et de l’Âari n-Tghighecht (18). Il m’a été confirmé alors que les dispositions habituelles d’accès aux igudlan n’étaient plus respectées en raison de périodes de stress hydrique prolongé. Si on a pu assister (juillet 1991) à une timide tentative de restauration de l’ancienne réglementation, avec désignation d’un amghar n-igudlan stationné à Tasgount, cette initiative semblerait être restée sans lendemain. Effectivement, en mai 2007, à une période où auparavant s’appliquait la mise en défens, on nous annonçait que l’accès aux pâturages était libre pendant toute l’année. Triste constat ! Ainsi, le 20/05/2007, a-t-on pu dénombrer sept troupeaux de plus d’une centaine de têtes sur les pacages entre Izli et l’Aqqa n-Moutzeli. Autre signe d’incurie pastorale : le cadavre d’une brebis flottant au fond du puits situé au bord de la piste qui mène de Tasgount au Tizi n-Irig, sur le rebord nord du plateau. Interrogé à ce propos par nos soins, un berger de Taghighecht a répondu que cela ne le concernait pas ; que cela relevait des gens d’Imilchil.


Pâturage d’Imilchil (Plateau des Lacs) en accès illimité aux troupeaux, mai 2007 (photo: M. Peyron)

Malgré cette fréquentation pastorale accrue, à laquelle il convient d’ajouter la pollution sonore (et autre) des bivouacs de trekkeurs et des adeptes de VTT et de 4×4, phénomène déjà dénoncé (Peyron 2003 & 2004), on constate la difficile survie de la biodiversité à proximité des deux lacs – Izli et Tizlit. Le premier, aux berges érodées et dépourvues de roselières, est plutôt pauvre sur le plan faunistique; le deuxième, malgré par la pression touristique, dont présence d’une auberge (Ramou 2005), présente une faune aviaire relativement riche, dont les trois variétés de grèbes répertoriées au Maroc, favorisée par la présence de cinq importantes roselières, que des baisses de niveaux successives mettent parfois en danger. En mai 2007, toutefois, une pluviométrie généreuse avait contribué à une remontée spectaculaire du niveau des eaux.

On ne peut évoquer le Plateau des Lacs et ses bordures sans mentionner les somptueuses cédraies voisines des Ayt Yahya, dont la présence serait de nature à apporter une valeur ajoutée au futur PNHAO. Or, certains triages, loin des axes routiers et des regards indiscrets, font l’objet de campagnes d’abattage, de coupes illicites à grande échelle, de surpâturage intensif (Tarrier 2007) (19). Loin d’être tenu en échec par les rondes d’agents forestiers (20), ce fléau connaît une montée en puissance, une demande grandissante de bois pour l’ébénisterie et l’artisanat alimentant un trafique fleurissant, où chacun trouve son compte, exception faite pour l’indigent paysan marocain du coin, floué une fois de plus (Bennani 2007) (21)! Pratiques qu’il conviendrait de dénoncer et de combattre avec toute la rigueur nécessaire. De tout ceci il ressort clairement que l’ensemble altimontain que constitue le Plateau des Lacs, avec ses zones humides, pelouses d’altitude et forêts, de par la biodiversité qu’il renferme, mérite un suivi sérieux, si l’on entend le conserver pour les générations futures.


Pâturages écorchés, est du Plateau des Lacs, mai 2009 (photo: M. Peyron)

5) Les almu-s les plus inaccessibles de l’Atlas marocain.

Il s’agit des pâturages d’Almou n-Ouensa, de Timitt, d’Asfalou n-Timitt et d’Almou n-Selloult. Site totalement asylvatique d’une grande austérité, entouré de chaînons dépassant les 3 000m d’altitude, Almou n-Ouensa est un pâturage de montagne (2 500m) situé à une journée de marche au sud-ouest d’Imilchil. Son intérêt pour la biodiversité réside en une steppe xérophytique, ainsi qu’un ensemble de pelouses rases de plusieurs hectares. Une partie de celles-ci sont semi-humides et abritent des batraciens, notamment à proximité des sources, que fréquente un rapace solitaire observé deux années de suite (2004 & 2005), identifié comme étant un  Circaète jean-le-Blanc (Circaetus gallicus), et dont l’interaction avec les dits batraciens est un garant précieux de biodiversité. Bien que les poissons constituent l’essentiel de l’alimentation de son alimentation, le Circaète peut effectivement se contenter de grenouilles. Sa présence en mai est tout à fait compatible avec les couloirs de migration qu’emprunte l’espèce, compte tenu des observations dont elle a fait l’objet (22).


Source & pâturages d’Almou n-Wensa, mai 2004 (photo: E. Hatt)

À la fin mai la présence des Ayt Hadiddou se limite à une dizaine de tentes, occupées principalement par des filles et jeunes femmes. Pendant la journée les coussinets épineux (Alysum spinosum, Erinacea antyllis, etc.) des versants voisins sont mis à contribution par les ovins et caprins, ainsi que par les femmes qui s’en servent comme combustible. Quant aux pelouses principales, elles sont fréquentées par de petits groupes d’ânes, en symbiose avec des vols d’oiseaux, qui capturent les insectes dérangés par les sabots des équidés ; il s’agit de la Bergeronnette printanière (Motacilla flava) et du Pipit spioncelle (Anthus spinoletta). Autres représentants de l’avifaune : le Crave à bec rouge (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax), dont on observe des vols importants, ainsi que l’Alouette pispolette (Calandrella rufescens), présente à la lisière des pelouses rases. Il est à noter que la consommation d’herbe rend particulièrement nerveux les ânes en question, dont on voit certains lancés au galop, apparemment sans raison (23). En mai 2004, année humide, l’almu, d’un vert saturé, était gorgé d’eau et présentait un aspect de saine abondance. L’année suivante à la même époque, le lisières paraissaient desséchées, voir écorchées, alors que le débit de la source principale était visiblement moins important. Ceci souligne, s’il en était besoin, le caractère fragile d’Almou n-Ouensa, raison pour laquelle nous en avions proposé la candidature comme zone SIBE dans un travail antérieur (Peyron 2004).

Timitt et Asfalou n-Timitt se situent à deux/trois heures de marche au sud-ouest d’Almou n-Ouensa. On se trouve là au carrefour de la transhumance Ayt Hadiddou, Ayt Merghad et Ayt Sokhman, tristement célèbre par le passé pour ses nombreux litiges, dégénérant parfois en rixes entre bergers pouvant entraîner l’intervention sur les lieux des autorités, parfois jusqu’au grade de qayd mumtaz. Déjà, du temps du Protectorat, la fréquentation de Timitt donnait lieu à des tensions entres groupements (Couvreur 1968). Du reste, Timitt ne détient pas l’exclusivité en matière d’affrontements entre bergers ; la tradition orale locale signale à maintes reprises le même phénomène entre pâtres Ayt Abdi et Ayt Daoud ou Ali pendant les années 1990, à l’agdal de Tinguerft, rive droite de l’Asif Melloul. Les années de sécheresse n’ont fait qu’aggraver le phénomène ; ici ovins, caprins et camélidés doivent se contenter de xérophytes épineux, les pelouses étant rares, les pozzines faisant défaut – impression générale de pâturages dégradés, de manque de biodiversité (24). Deux années successives (fin mai 2004 & 2005) une quinzaine de tentes a été observée sur le site dans son ensemble. Quant à l’unique point d’eau, Anou n-Timitt, ce puits était plein à ras bord en 2004, alors que le niveau avait baissé de 30cm en 2005.


Almou n-Selloult, mai 2004 (photo: M. Peyron)

À cinq kilomètres au sud-ouest, par un ravin escarpé, siège d’une humidité résiduelle, avec de loin en loin une tente Ayt Hadiddou sous des surplombs, ou une bergerie en pierres sèches, l’on parvient au cirque d’Allen Ighboula (‘les yeux de la source’) : champs d’orge irrigués, les premiers depuis Imilchil. On se situe à la limite entre Ayt Hadiddou et Ayt Sokhman ; les deux groupements, il convient de le souligner, semblent entretenir là de meilleurs rapports de voisinage que par le passé (25).

En remontant un vallon plein sud, parcouru par un asif (‘torrent’) on atteint le premier des almu-s de Selloult, vaste complexe de pelouses et sources, de champs d’orge également (26), appartenant aux Ayt Sokhman (fraction des Ayt Abdi). D’après nos observations (1982, 2004 & 2005), il est permis d’affirmer que les pastoraux de ce secteur n’ont plus recours à la tente, mais à des bergeries permanentes installées à proximité en ordre dispersé. À la fin mai un amghar n-igudlan y passait ses journées à veiller au bon déroulement de l’accès aux pâturages. Sa seule présence constitue un facteur rassurant : le makhzen marque ainsi son intérêt, fût-ce de façon tenue et lointaine, à ce que l’ordre règne sur place. Du reste, une aire d’atterrissage pour hélicoptère, aménagée à côté de la demeure de l’amghar n-igudlan, indique une présence virtuelle de l’autorité.


Partie écorchée d’Almou Akhattar, mai 2005  (photo: M. Peyron)

Une conjoncture alarmante

Les cas concrets ci-dessus exposés ont permis de constater que, bien que les usagers comprennent la nécessité de règlementer l’accès aux pâturages et des écosystèmes avoisinants, on aboutit, dans la majorité des cas, au non-respect de la réglementation sur les agdal-s et les parcours forestiers avec comme résultat une perte de biodiversité dans de nombreux sites, accompagnée par une dégradation des sols. Ceci pour les raisons suivantes :-

a) les sécheresses à répétition depuis 1980, caractérisées par un stress hydrique nuisible à la survie des forêts et herbages, lesquels, de plus en plus sollicités, prennent davantage de valeur, tout en diminuant de superficie, à cause de
b) la spéculation ovine effrénée de la part de propriétaires de troupeaux citadins et absentéistes;
c) la pression touristique et démographique (implantations d’habitat sauvage), avec comme corollaire le goudronnage de nouvelles pistes de pénétration, facilitant
d) le saccage de la cédraie, animé par le trafique du bois d’ébénisterie et de menuiserie (plafonds en cèdre, etc.)

De ce fait, compte tenu de la conjoncture actuelle, les phénomènes c) et d) sont totalement déphasés, tant par rapport aux critères écologiques mondialement reconnus, qu’à la demande très forte du marché de l’éco-tourisme, dit « tourisme vert ». Situation locale particulière où, s’agissant des marchés de la viande et du bois d’œuvre, la loi de l’offre et de la demande semblerait rester souveraine, le tout assorti de « langue de bois », de pieuses déclarations d’intention, et ce au détriment de mesures effectives de préservation de la biodiversité. Conjoncture néfaste qui est en passe de gagner la totalité du Moyen Atlas, au risque de s’étendre à l’ensemble du Haut Atlas marocain. Déjà, parmi les massifs orientaux de l’Atlas qui nous concernent, les signes avant-coureurs de l’inéluctable désastre sont clairement visibles. En effet, à la vue des atteintes que subissent les biotopes, il est possible d’effectuer des projections sur une cinquantaine d’année en aval selon un scénario se déroulant en quatre stades.


Cédraie fossile, Tizi n-Mawtfoud, vallée de Ta’ara’art, nov 1974 (photo: M. Peyron)

1° Apparition de cédraies fossiles, voire « thérophytisées » (Benabid 1995), revêtant l’aspect d’un maquis de chênes-verts comportant quelques cèdres squelettiques témoins ; exemple : versant sud du Tizi n-Ighil, région de Tounfit ;
2° chênaies aux arbres moribonds, réduits à l’état de moignons à peine feuillus ; exemple : versant nord du Jbel Harouch (2 974m), Haut Ziz ;
3° avant-dernier stade : versants à xérophytes résiduels, servant éventuellement de parcours aux caprins, devenus difficilement accessibles (mai 2007), car érodés, ravagés, par le ruissellement des orages estivaux, alors qu’en avril 1970, on y circulait facilement sur sentier ; exemple : crête du Tizi n-Ighil entre sommet-2 690 et Tizi n-Ou Houdim, région de Tounfit ;
4° phase finale : versants totalement décapés, dépourvus de végétation, infréquentables par des troupeaux ; exemple : versant dit Bou Imterga (« le raviné »), vallée de Tâarâart, massif de l’Ayyachi.


Bouimterga (‘le raviné’), vallée de Ta’ara’art, nov 1977 (photo: M. Peyron)

Enchaînement pouvant contribuer, à terme, sur le plan écologique, à un « scénario catastrophe », d’autant plus que le réchauffement planétaire ne semblerait pas épargner le Maroc.


Malgré la complexité, la gravité de la conjoncture actuelle, envers et contre tous, l’institution de l’agdal, régie par la coutume semblerait vouloir perdurer, grâce à sa souplesse, adaptée qu’elle est à une situation souvent fluide, conflictuelle. C’est ainsi que l’on pourrait entrevoir, comme moyen de sortie de crise, un heureux mariage entre des méthodes modernes de gestions de conflits et les sages dispositions sur les igudlan contenues dans l’izerf traditionnel (27). Initiative qui sera, toutefois, vouée à l’échec tant que, au mépris de toute considération environnementale, l’appât du gain (spéculation ovine, trafique du bois de cèdre, etc.) demeurera le seul critère pouvant régir l’approche de la problématique des igudlan et autres parcours forestiers.

Il est souhaitable, en tout cas, que l’actuelle génération de chercheurs marocains –scientifiques et hommes de terrain convaincus de la nécessité d’une démarche conviviale envers l’environnement, à l’instar de ceux que nous avons rencontrés à Marrakech le 12 mai 2007 – puisse mener à bien ses travaux, faire entendre sa voix ! Faire comprendre, en haut lieu, que pacages et cédraies protégés valent mieux que pâturages et cédraies saccagés ; qu’ils y ont tout à gagner. Quelque chose pourra alors être sauvé.

Compte tenu de ces impératifs il y a urgence absolue à mener un certain nombre d’actions en profondeur, et d’en garantir le suivi :-

a) Réactualiser une transhumance respectueuse de la biodiversité, qu’il s’agisse de la conservation des sols, des gazons d’altitude et des différents formes de vie végétale, animale, aviaire et autre qu’ils renferment ; en particulier, sensibiliser les adultes au besoin de respecter la biodiversité afin de redresser certaines tendances néfastes (capture de macaques, de porcs-épics, ou abattage au lance-pierres des passereaux, élimination aveugle – et par ignorance – des reptiles de toutes sortes), etc. ;

b) Veiller sur le terrain à l’application effective des règlements interdisant le braconnage, notamment en ce qui concerne des représentants « nobles » de la faune, tels le mouflon ;

c) Rechercher un équilibre permettant d’assurer une gestion performante des ressources naturelles (eaux, forêts, faune, etc.);

d) Compte tenu de l’importance grandissante de l’écotourisme, doter l’industrie touristique marocaine d’une déontologie de la biodiversité, notamment de façon à mieux gérer les déchets à proximité des gîtes, ainsi que la pollution qui apparaît le long des itinéraires de trekking ;

e) Former des guides du CFAMM à Tabant (Ayt Bouguemmez), notamment ceux provenant du nouveau recrutement citadin, moins avertis des choses de la montagne que leurs collègues du jbel, de façon à ce qu’ils soient conscients des enjeux gouvernant l’environnement et la transhumance, notions auxquelles ils ne sont pas naturellement sensibilisés ;

f) Etablir un cadre de planification décentralisé et participatif (comités de co-ordination nationaux et régionaux incorporant les instances traditionnelles) ;

g) Ériger un code national pastoral (du style « charte des pâturages » ) qui insisterait, en particulier, sur une réduction au moins de moitié de la taille de chaque troupeau, de façon à soulager la pression insoutenable dont les biotopes font l’objet ;

h) Créer un centre de formation pastorale combinant savoirs locaux et connaissances technologiques modernes (28).

Ainsi, l’importance des massifs orientaux de l’Atlas marocain, « point chaud » de la biodiversité méditerranéenne, est-elle désormais largement reconnue. L’institution des agdal-s se situant, on le sait, au cœur d’un système national, voire international, impliquant le traditionnel, le politique, le social, le tourisme, on ne peut qu’espérer une prise de conscience des responsables afin que soit sauvée une fleuron millénaire, vital à l’équilibre écologique du pays.

Appendice A : observations ornithologiques

Agelmam Afennourir

Voici une liste non-exhaustive (observ. pers. le 24/05/2005) :- Cigogne (Ciconia ciconia), Balbuzard-pêcheur (Pandion haliaetus), Faucon hobereau (Falco subbuteo), Grèbe à cou noir (Podiceps nigricolis), Grèbe huppé (Podiceps cristatus) ; Héron cendré (Ardea cinerea), Tadorne casarca (Tadorna ferruginea), Fuligule milouin (Arthya ferina), Échasse blanche (Himantopus himantopus), Chevalier guignette (Tringa hypoleucos), Chevalier gambette (Tringa totanus), Sterne pierregarin (Sterna hirundo), Pie-grièche à tête rousse (Lanius senator), un Traquet (Oenanthe lugens), deux variétés de Foulque (Fulica cristata & Fulica atra) ; auxquels il convient d’ajouter une Avocette (Recurvirosa avosetta), observ. pers. en mai 1999.

Plateau de Tassamakt

Observ. pers. (mai 1984, ainsi que les 21/04/2006 & 05/05/2007). L’avifaune est relativement pauvre, dont deux espèces de Traquet (Oenanthe oenanthe seebohmi & Oenanthe lugens) ainsi que les deux espèces de Foulque répertoriés dans le Moyen Atlas (dans l’agelmam en bordure de route à 1 km à l’est du plateau); Milan noir (Milvus migrans), Aigle botté (Hieraaëtus pennatus), Glaréole à collier (Glareola pratincola), Alouette Hausse-col (Eremophila alpestris).

Plateau des Lacs


Roselières en bordure de Tizlit, mai 2007 (photo: M. Morgenthaler)

Avifaune de Tizlit (liste non exhaustive) : Circaète Jean-le-Blanc (Circaetus gallicus), Grèbe huppé (Podiceps cristatus), Grèbe à cou noir (Podiceps nigricolis) présent également à Izli, Grèbe castagneux (Tachybaptus ruficolis), Tadorne casarca (Tadorna ferruginea), Canard souchet (Anas clypeata), Chevalier guignette (Tringa hypoleucos), Chevalier culblanc (Tringa ochropus), ainsi que l’omniprésent Foulque (Fulica cristata) ; également un visiteur rarissime, le Panure à moustaches (Panurus biarmicus), observ. Le 10/04/2004. Biotope moins riche à Izli :- Courlis (Numenius arquata), Alouette hausse-col (Eremophila alpestris), Goéland leucophée (Larus cacchinans michahellis) qui est une sous-espèce du Goéland argenté (observ. le 24/12/1987).


1  Observation personnelle, désormais « Observ. pers. », (22/05/1981).
2 Observ. pers. à Agheddou (02/07/1978), ainsi qu’à Anefgou (30/06/1988).
3 Observ. pers. d’une tente écrasée par la neige, à Imi n-Tkhamt, Imitchimen, versant N de l’Ayyachi (01/11/1978).
4 Cf. J. Robichez, Maroc central, Arthaud, Paris/Grenoble, 1946 (p. 174), pour une photo ancienne de cette source, point de rencontre de la transhumance des Ayt Hadiddou et des Ayt Merghad.
5 Observ. pers. (22/05/2001).
6 Observ. pers. de Denis Dourron (15/10/1975), co-auteur De l’Ayachi au Koucer (1976) ; cf. également, une coutume similaire chez les Ilemchan des Ayt ‘Atta ( J. Robichez, op. cit., p.45).

7 Également haguza (ar.) chez certains groupements amazighes du Moyen Atlas.
8 Dont certains pâtres arabophones montés de l’azaghar ; observ. pers. (février 2003).
9 Cf. également >
10 Observ. pers. in situ en février et mai 2007.
11 Conversation avec l’intéressé le 17 avril 2007, lors de la tenue à l’Université Al-Akhawayn d’Ifrane, du Colloque « Implication des populations amazighes dans le tourisme de montagne au Maroc ».
12 Observ. pers. sur la période 1998-2007.
13 Résultats d’observ. pers. effectuées in situ. Informations, toutefois, marquées par une absence de données sur la période 1991-2007.
14 Oberv. pers. en septembre 1999, mars 2001, mai 2002 et mai 2007, lors de tournées sur les piedmonts nord-ouest de l’Ayyachi.
15 Observ. pers in situ. Par ailleurs, une fois définitivement en place, le PNHAO pourra intervenir sur les rapaces de la région, dont le nombre a fortement diminué ces dernières années, principalement en raison d’un abus de pesticides.
16 Tradition orale, Anefgou, printemps 1978.
17 En mai 2007 on dénombrait dans l’Aqqa n-Ouanine une demi-douzaine de hameaux composés de « résidences secondaires », ainsi que des champs multiples et des peupliers plantés le long du cours d’eau.
18 La généralisation de cette tendance, parfois avec plantation de vergers (urtan), a été constatée sur le terrain par nos soins entre Taghighecht (Asif n-Tilmi et Sountat (Asdif Melloul), en septembre 1998.
19 Cas affligeant du site sacré du Tazizawt, l’un des plus prestigieux cimetières des héros de la résistance marocaine. Étant l’objet d’un pèlerinage annuel le 24 août, deux sentiers ont été aménagés dans la forêt pour faciliter l’accès des pèlerins ; malheureusement, entre 2005 et 2007 des voleurs de bois de la région d’Aghbala en ont profité pour s’y livrer à des coupages sauvages. Le chemin que suivent les pèlerins vers le cèdre sacré est désormais jonché de troncs en instance d’équarrissage, de copeaux de cèdre…
20 Ceux-ci, à l’instar de deux forestiers du poste de Tirghist, rencontrés dans le Haut Asif n-Ougheddou le 22/05/2007, qui sont obligés de circuler armés, tant est grand le danger que représente une rencontre avec une équipe décidée de voleurs de bois (ikhewwan n-ikshuddn).
21 C’est la douloureuse affaire d’Anefgou (hiver 2006-2007) – signalée par la chaîne de TV arabe Al-Jazeera – avec la mort de 29 jeunes femmes et enfants en bas âge, suite à une maladie non encore identifiée (pneumonie mal soignée ?), dont l’hebdomadaire Tel Quel s’est fait l’écho, et qui a déclenché un véritable scandale national en exposant l’inefficacité des services de santé. Depuis, on a procédé à Anefgou à l’installation d’une borne de téléphonie portable et le goudronnage de la piste avance de mois en mois.
22 Rapace aperçu à contre-jour le 21/05/2005 ; probabilité à 80 % qu’il s’agisse effectivement d’un Circaète, bien que l’on ait pu le confondre intialiement avec un Balbuzzard. À signaler, en revanche, une perte de biodiversité sensible sur l’almu voisin de Tanoutfit, où une colonie d’écureuils de Gétulie (Atlantoxerus getulus) qui peuplait la pelouse avoisinant la source (observ. nov . 1986) avait disparue en mai 2002.
23 Nervosité de la part des équidés également (observ. le 23/05/2005) à Almou Amezzan (pâturage fréquenté par les Ayt Hadiddou de l’Imdghas), où, après avoir copieusement consommé des graminées, deux mulets ont chargé un troupeau de moutons.
24 Avifaune très pauvre : Faucon lannier (Falco biarmicus erlangeri), observ. Le 19/05/2004, Perdrix gambra (Alectortis barbara), exemplaire unique, observ. le 24/05/2005.
25 Une rivalité tenace opposait autrefois ces deux groupements ; cf. D.M. Hart (1984). Nous avions effectivement remarqué des comportements conflictuels, relevant de ce phénomène, en mars 1975 dans l’Asif Melloul, ainsi qu’en novembre 1979 dans l’Imdghas.
26 Champs d’Almou n-Selloult où, fin mai 2004, l’on notait la présence de la Caille des blés (Coturnix coturnix), ou tazerkilla en Tamazight ; également observ. en juillet 1982 : Traquet du désert (Oenanthe deserti) et Gypaète barbu (Gyaëtus barbatus).
27 Cf. projet de recherché “Capstone”, de N. Maouni, 2005. Université Al-Akhawayn Ifrane, 2005.
28 Cf. Projet UNDP (Programme de Développement des Nations Unies), n° MOR/98/G41/A1G/31, “Morocco : Transhumance for Biodiversity Conservation in the Southern High Atlas”.


BENABID, 1995, “Les problèmes de préservation des éco-systems forestiers marocains en rapport avec le développement économique”, L’Afrique du Nord face aux menaces écologiques, (A. Bencherifa & W.D. Swearingen, éds.), Fac. des Lettres, Rabat, pp. 109-124.
BENCHERIFA, A., & JOHNSON, D.L., 1993, “Environment, population pressue and resouce use strategies in the Middle Atlas mountains of Morocco”, Montagnes & Haut-Pays d’Afrique, (A. Bencherifa, éd;), Fac. des Lettres, Rabat, pp. 101-121.
BILLAND, A., 1996, « Développement touristique des parcs de montagne au Maroc : principe de zonage et aménagement », Revue de Géographie Alpine, n°4, pp. 95-108.
BOURBOUZE, A., 1997, « Des agdal et des mouflons », Courrier de l’environnement, n° 30, avril, 14p., disponible sur :-

CHILLASSE & al., 2001, «Valeurs et fonctions écologiques des zones humides du Moyen Atlas (Maroc) », Humedales Mediterráneos, I , pp. 139-146 ; disponible sur
COUVREUR, F., 1968, « La vie pastorale dans le Haut Atlas central », Revue de Géographie Marocaine, n°13, pp. 3-54.
HART, D.M., 1984, “The Ait Sukhman of the Moroccan Central Atlas : an ethnographic survey and case study in socio-cultural anomaly”, Revue de l’Occident Musulman et de la Méditerranée, n°38/2, pp. 137-152.
HEINZEL, H., FITTER, R., & PARSLOW, J., 1975, The Birds of Britain and Europe with North Africa and the Middle East, Collins, Londres.
HUME, R., LESAFFRE, G., & DUQUET, M., 2004, Oiseaux de France et d’Europe, Paris, Larousse.
KRAUS,W., 1998, “Contestable identities: tribal structures, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol. 4, n°1, pp. 1-22.
MAOUNI, N., 2005, The Use of Soft Systems Methods in Solving Tribal System Related Conflicts, projet de recherché “Capstone”, Université Al-Akhawayn, Ifrane.
PEYRON, M., 1975, Tounfit et le pays Ayt Yahya, Institut de Géographie Alpine, Grenoble.
____________, 1976, «Habitat rural et vie montagnarde dans le Haut Atlas de Midelt (Maroc) », in Revue de Géographie Alpine, n°2, pp. 327-363.
____________& DOURRON, D., 1977, De l’Ayachi au Koucer, Club Alpin Français, Rabat.
____________, 1984, « Contribution à l’histoire du Haut Atlas oriental : les Ayt Yafelman », in Revue de l’Occident Musulman et de la Méditerranée, n°38, pp.117-135.
____________, 1992, « Mutations en cours dans le mode de vie des Ayt Yafelman (haut Atlas marocain) », Les Cahiers d’URBAMA, n°7, pp. 79-98.
____________, 2000, « Les inadéquations entre savoir et développement : le cas du Moyen-Atlas marocain », Montagnes Méditerranéennes, n°12, pp. 49-52.
____________, 2003, “Promotion and protection : eco-tourism in the Moroccan Middle Atlas”, Sustainable Mountain Tourism Workshop, Univ. Al-Akhawayn, Irane, disponible sur :-
____________, 2004, « L’éco-tourisme comme levier de développement des ressources territoriales : le cas des massif orientaux de l’Atlas marocain », Montagnes Méditerranéennes, n° 20, pp. 187-194.
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Text copyright by Michael Peyron; material and/or illustrations from same may be quoted in compliance with current academic practice.

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Hannibal crosses the Alps – 1: general survey

Posté par Michael Peyron le 2 septembre 2010

An unsolved riddle as old as the hills: the quest for Hannibal’s pass (218 BC) 

by Michael PEYRON

As a Grenoble-based ski-mountaineer, back-packer and specialist in Berber history and culture (Hannibal’s Numidians were the ancestors of to-day’s Berbers), and with extensive field experience of early XXth-century Atlas mountain battlefields between French and Moroccan Berber fighters, Michael Peyron has long felt attracted by this specific exercise in classic warfare, the more so as it is relevant to Amazigh history. 


Intrigued by the endeavours of countless amateurs, historians, scholars and scientists to locate the strategic alpine pass crossed by Hannibal and his 26,000 or so soldiers during the Second Punic War, this writer volunteers a brief summary of a long disputed topic, following frequent summer visits to the Mont-Cenis and other Alpine border areas over the past forty years. 


Possible site of Hannibal’s crossing, Col du Mont-Cenis, Aug 2008, (photo: M. Peyron)

With regard to the exact location of Hannibal’s crossing there is at present insufficient hard evidence to decide in favour of a northern, intermediate or southern route(s).  It should also be borne in mind, that these events took place over two millennia ago and that the terrain may have undergone more than cosmetic change in the interval. If neglected, a mountain track can be wiped out rapidly by repeated erosion (avalanche, rain, stone-fall or land-slide), to say nothing of changes in glacial- and snow-cover in early times for which there is a paucity of reliable data. 

A problem compounded by the fact that in re-charting each route, historians base their topographical estimations on prominent land-marks that appear to match Polybius’ and/or Livy’s description. This highly subjective approach results in miscellaneous interpretations and distortions. A typical example is identification of a low pass in the foot-hills crossed on Day 1 of Hannibal’s alpine traverse, coinciding with an attack by Celtic tribesmen – probably the Allobroges (Torr 1924) – on the Carthaginian column, for which there are as many possible candidates as route variations (Dent du Chat, Pas de la Coche, Col de Grimone, Col de Cabre, etc.), some of them involving apparently unnecessary detours.  Trying to make sense out of two totally different accounts – that of Polybius and Livy – probably explains why there is so much disagreement between self-appointed experts in their attempts to establish the bona fide route.

Not to mention that, coming after Hannibal, his brother Hasdrubal’s fateful traverse of the Alps (207 BC) would appear to have followed a different path, possibly the Mont-Cenis (Torr 1924), which would explain discrepancies between Livy’s description compared with that of Polybius, neither of which were based on eye-witnesses accounts (though the latter did subsequently go over the route), thus further blurring the issue. 

Finally, there have not been any convincing archaeological finds datable to the Punic period near any of these mountain passes, a long expected break-through that would otherwise have clinched the matter. Though an elephant’s skeleton was discovered below the Petit St Bernard in the XVIIIth century (Torr 1924, quoting Saint-Simon, 1770), such a relic is inconclusive since the Romans used elephants too. There have also been unconfirmed reports of javelins and helmets being found at various times and locations in the Verdon valley, another possible itinerary. This writer has likewise heard rumours of supposedly Carthaginian coins near St Jean-de-Maurienne, but nothing tangible. Declares Hunt (2006): “Until compelling archaeological evidence is found, (…) the question remains unanswered”. 


   Hannibal’s choice of passes (map: Editions Berger-Levrault)

Potential Northern routes 

Mommsen (1865), Aimé Bocquet (2009), and many others are staunch advocates of the Petit St Bernard linking the Tarentaise to the Val d’Aosta. However, despite the relatively smooth going on this route, one is hard put to explain why Hannibal should have made such a long detour to the north. 

The Haute Maurienne route has also tempted many an expert, mainly  via the Mont-Cenis, a choice approved in his day by Napoleon Bonaparte. Over a century later, after different French officiers (Colonel Perrin, Captain Colin, etc.) had concluded that the Clapier must be the vital col, British chamois-hunter Lavis Trafford (1956) looked into oral tradition at Bramans. Buttressed by a local claim that a general named Hannibal had crossed the Clapier in bygone times, he pushes hard for that pass and/or the nearby Savine-Coche saddle.


On approach to Clapier Pass, from below Lake Savine, Dents d’Ambin on R, Aug 2009 (photo: M. Peyron)

It is currently fashionable to name the Clapier as being Hannibal’s pass, a stance supported by Geoffroy de Galbert (2008); not to mention Patrick Hunt, who has recently scoured the region with parties of keen students from Stanford University. As a result the latter has penned a book on mountain archaeology (2007), studies on lichen growth, pollen records and glacial evolution; also speculations about a potentially disease-ridden Carthaginian army as partial explanation for its inordinately high losses during the Alpine traverse (Hunt & Seicean, 2006). Interestingly, sections of this route have been tested with live elephants in recent times, though far from 100% convincingly (Boser 2007). 



The much-favoured Bramans-Clapier-Susa route

Bocquet (2009), on the other hand, defending his stand in favour of the Petit St Bernard, derides the advocates of the Clapier route, labelling them as “well-meaning people who make unsupported statements”. He contends that, apart from the steepness of the descent on the Italian side, even the Savine-Coche variant would have entailed traversing a small glacier, but which in Hannibal’s day, before “the Roman climatic optimum”, was arguably more extensive and would have impeded the passage of elephants and horses. 


Author’s companions photographing plaque at Col de Clapier, Aug 2009, (photo: M. Peyron)


Yet this is debatable, since recent findings (Neumann 1992) suggest that the glacial cover around 218 BC was similar to today, with old snow lasting into mid-summer above 2500m, but fresh falls occurring early-autumn, when swift shifts in weather patterns are not unknown. For example, October 10, 2009, was a crisp, sunny day in Vallon d’Ambin, near Col de Clapier, while next morning the weather had broken, overnight snow covering slopes of Dent Parachée down to 2200m. 

However, present-day (2010) climatic conditions, glacial cover and early-autumn presence of névé snow, used as a yard-stick to speculate on what a specific pass may have looked like in 218 BC (matching classic source material), must allow for the fact that since the summer 2003 heat-wave, glaciers have receded dramatically in the Alpes du Nord. As a result, today’s conditions offer but a poor indication of those prevalent in Hannibal’s time. 


St. Pierre d’Extravache and Dent Parachée, its summit névé threatened with disappearance due to climate change, Haute Maurienne, Aug 2009 (photo: M. Peyron)

In August 2009 the present writer made a three-day tour on foot of the Mont-Cenis area. The over-riding impression was that: 1) even the ascent from Bramans to Le Planay, would have been a strenuous undertaking in far-off times without a road; 2) the steep, narrow and rocky, though favourably exposed forest section up from Le Planay to Petit Mont-Cenis, presenting signs in places of an ancient caravan track, apparently used at the time of Charlemagne, would have been extremely arduous for elephants. The elephants used by Hannibal, however, belonging to the now extinct medium-sized, nimble North African variety might have found their way up.

Even if the Arc valley narrows dramatically upstream from Termignon (Blache 1962), how much easier to have climbed mild slopes to Mont-Cenis from present-day Lanslebourg, then over the Italian side, thus precluding the unnecessary effort of hoisting an entire army to nearly 2500m at Col de Clapier.  On the positive side, however, an approach from the Mont-Cenis and the Petit Mont-Cenis guarantees plain sailing, so to speak, with a minimal slope up to the Clapier.


Potential site of Hannibal’s « regrouping area » near Lake Savine, below Clapier Pass, Aug 2009, (photo: M. Peyron)

And, on the eve of the actual crossing, one can visualize Hannibal’s 26,000 footsore fighting men bivouacking below the pass in freezing discomfort on that large pasture by Lake Savine. Depending on early autumn snow-cover, there would have been water and grass for the animals and flat ground for setting up shelters. With little or no firewood in the vicintiy. Onward progress down the Italian side, however, appears uncompromisingly steep – even precipitous in places – as Bocquet (2009) points out, thus casting serious doubt on the feasibility of this route. 

Possible Southern routes 

Arguments are not lacking in favour of the Southern routes such as Montgenèvre (Connolly 1978). Also a less well-known candidate: Col de Malaure (Queyras), at 2522m a somewhat tricky undertaking, supported by Bonus (1925), and Renaud (1994) who points out that the pass presents a promontory on its steep southern side from which, with Italy in sight, Hannibal could have exhorted his troops for a final effort.  Other contenders are the Col de La Croix near Échalp (Queyras), for long the main route for shepherds and journey-men from Queyras to Piedmont; Col Mary in Upper Ubaye, crossed by this writer in the summer of 1977 and defended by G. de Manteyer (1945). Finally, Col de Larche, for which Pierre Ollier makes out a reasonably strong case on the Web (2008), while dismissing Clapier and Savine-Coche as unnecessarily high compared to more suitable and highly feasible Mont-Cenis, and “offering no advantages, other than to create a diversion on military grounds”. Most of these are based on an approach up the Durance, referred to as Druentia, according to one interpretation of the old texts.

British author Bernard Levin (1987) makes little contribution to the discussion. After grudgingly admitting that the Montgenèvre and the Mont-Cenis are “both strong candidates”, he lamely concludes his TV-sponsored caper at the Col Agnel, a pass with which the present writer was initially unimpressed as a feasible crossing-point for elephants, despite the presence of a plaque commemorating Hannibal’s troops some 7 km from the col. Cecil Torr (1924) dismisses the Petit St. Bernard, even the Mont-Cenis and Clapier, as taking Hannibal unnecessarily far north (especially with winter approaching and Scipio’s army having re-embarked). He examines the evidence in favour of Col de Clapier before presenting a fairly convincing case in favour of a route up the Durance to Col de Larche, or Traversette. 


Approaching Monte-Viso from N with lombarde effect  materialising, Sep 2004, (photo: M. Peyron)

Sir Gavin De Beer (1955), a museum director and mountaineer of some repute, supports the Traversette route, but is also adamant that Hannibal passed the Col de Grimone (Cremonis) in the Diois area on the way, only to have his findings dismissed within a year – as often happens in such circumstances – by colleagues of the Royal Society and Alpine Club.



Various proposed routes, including Sir Gavin de Beer’s (Guillaume, 1967)

Augustin Guillaume (1967), a veteran Atlas Mountain campaigner of the 1920s and native of Guillestre, conducts an exhaustive survey both of the Clapier (Petit Mont-Cenis) and Traversette route. While deciding in favour of neither, he does rehabilitate the possibility of a route through the Queyras region, pointing out that Hannibal need not have followed the treacherous Guil gorge. An ancient, previously overlooked trail (probably used since Roman times) via Eygliers, de Gros, the vale of Furfande and Col Garnier, would have enabled Hannibal to outflank the Guil gorge, thus reaching the upper part of the valley without serious mishap. 


Author’s party at foot of Traversette slope; Monte-Viso on L, Sep 2004 (photo: M. Peyron)  

John Prevas(1998), combining the field experience of an alpinist with the qualities of a Greek scholar, argues in favour of a route via the upper Durance valley and over the Traversette pass, in an authoritative and brilliantly documented work that convinces all but a few sceptics. 

Most recently, geologist William Mahaney (2009), late of York University (Ontario), after a thorough scientific re-appraisal of the evidence, has made out a strong case for Traversette, based on the presence of a two-tier rock-fall at 2600m on the lee side of the pass, and the late presence of névé snow, that seemingly tallies with description by Polybius (Mahaney, 2008b). 


Monte-Viso from Traversette pass showing terrain distinctly unsuitable for elephants, Sep. 2004 (photo: M. Peyron)

Intrigued by this explanation, the present writer believes the Traversette pass, given the sheer steepness of the initial descent towards Italy would have been impossible unless  Hannibal’s elephants had been belayed with ropes over the initial section below the pass on the Italian side. In his book Guillaume publishes photographs that clearly show how steep those slopes were (see above photo), not to mention the presence of snow. On the other hand, Mahaney’s identification of the alpine meadows below the Traversette on the Italian side, where this writer twice picnicked, as the “regrouping area”, makes sense in terms of altitude and resources. It contrasts favourably with the Savine alpage on the French side of rival Clapier pass, a similar “regrouping area”, but exposed and uncomfortable. Hunt, who apparently almost came to grief there, calls the Traversette a “killer” and naturally judges it less plausible as Hannibal’s pass than Col de Clapier (Jia 2007). 

Miscellaneous items 

In the realm of conjecture and hypothesis surrounding Hannibal’s crossing, other items have caught researchers’ imagination. No doubt the most interesting is the matter of the rock-splitting vinegar, or fired rock (Hunt, 2007; Mahaney 2008b), which arose through Hannibal’s alleged use of bundles of vinegar-soaked firewood tied round boulders, then lit up so as to crack said boulders that were blocking downward progress by elephants and horses. Evidence of such activity has been found down the Italian slope from Clapier, though scientific measurements have failed to date it to the Punic period. 

The second point is whether or not Hannibal gave his troops a Caesar-after Dyrrachium-style speech to coax them over the pass (a typical device in classic military accounts), whence the plains of northern Italy and the road to Rome were clearly visible. Most experts contend that a pass presenting such a criterion would be the right one. In fact in the 1960s Guillaume had already commented on the clear view of Italy one could obtain from this pass, especially in early winter. Understandably, this has become a bone of contention among researchers, both Clapier and Traversette apparently fitting this description, though on his website Bocquet (2009) challenges anyone to actually see Torino from Col de Clapier!  A journalist named Boser (2007) seems to have done just that. Having accompanied Hunt up to Clapier, he claims: “Peering through a purple haze, I see Turin some 70 miles away.” Truth is in the eyes of the beholder… The debate is possibly pointless, anyhow, as the veracity of this episode is dismissed by some researchers as a mere figment of Livy’s imagination (Connolly 1978). 


Plaque at Clapier Pass makes cautious reference to Hannibal (photo: M. Peyron)

Meanwhile, even admitting that Hannibal was able to descry the Pô plain in the distance, such a clear view would have required perfect weather. Anyone familiar with the Franco-Italian frontier ridge will have experienced the lombarde factor – billowing clouds that move in from Lombardy, accompanied by foehn effect – regularly contributing to poor visibility (Grard & Mathevet 1967; Morel & Bonnet 2008), specifically in autumn – when Hannibal made the crossing. A point apparently downplayed by some specialists, who may have only visited during fair-weather summer spells. Suffice it to say that this author’s party met with typical lombarde conditions on various occasions in summer and early autumn between 1986 and 2009, both near the Traversette, and at or near Clapier, when Torino remained discreetly veiled. 

Another disputed point is the exact location of the ambush on Hannibal’s baggage train on Day 7. The most plausible sites are the Gorge de Vilette between Moutiers and Aime on the Isère; the gorges slightly upstream from Modane in the Maurienne; or, on the southern route, a point 10 km short of Briançon on the Upper Durance (Connolly 1978); all of which tally with the primary sources pointing to an ambush occurring some three days’ march from the vital pass, whether Petit St. Bernard, Mont-Cenis, or Montgenèvre. Or yet again, there is an interesting theory that the Carthaginian army underwent serious mauling on the Upper Guil, somewhere near present-day Château-Queyras (Mahaney & Tricart 2008c). 


Unlikely Hannibalic candidate; descending boulder-slope from Col d’Ambin towards Lac de Fond d’Ambin, 5 km W of Clapier, Aug 2009 (photo: M. Morgenthaler)

Recent Hannibal-related endeavours 

As if to differ from the prevailing Clapier/Traversette dispute a fresh tendency has emerged in favour of less conventional routes, especially in the south, some pundits arguing that Hannibal followed the Drac valley, the Verdon, the Ouvèze, or the Durance, for a crossing of the Montgenèvre.

The most ambitious of the recent studies is no doubt that undertaken by retiree Raymond Rozet, based on Polybius’ text coupled with painstaking field-work. The Carthaginian leader, he argues, must have followed the old “route des Ligures” between Buis and Mévouillon, eastward from the Baronnies towards Laragne-Monteglin, a rock-painting depicting an elephant discovered in a cave along the Toulourenc gorge beneath Mont Ventoux being presented as cast-iron evidence of Hannibal’s passage. As to the identity of the main pass, however, Rozet keeps his cards close to his chest, though it could be either Larche or Montgenèvre. 

The Wood brothers, an enterprising trio on mountain bikes, did a documentary feature for the BBC in the late autumn of 2009, complete with film crew and local guides, in a fun re-run of Levin’s Hannibal’s footsteps. All in all a pleasant read, and refreshingly devoid of media hype. Levin’s Gorges de Gats thus receives a new visit, though one of the Woods brethren gets to manhandle his bike up Traversette, rather than Agnel, as main col. To cover all possibilities another brother pedals blithely over Montgenèvre and a third checks out Clapier via Lanslebourg and Petit Mont-Cenis, somehow tallying with this writer’s conclusions as to the probable Hannibal trail. Most fittingly, he is greeted at the top by typical lombarde clouds, depriving him of the hoped-for vision of distant Turin! 

Meanwhile, as if to prove that the doughty Carthaginian’s exploit still commands respectful interest, the Sierra Club of California programmed “a hike the Alps” outing on Hannibal’s trail for July 2010, with Traversette as one of the main objectives! 


Thus, in practically each alpine border region, from Savoy to Haute Provence, do we find people prepared to focus intellect and imagination on proving that the great general once visited their “neck of the woods”. The sum total of unreliable historical sources, environmental criteria, time/motion studies of Hannibal’s column, logistics and sheer feasibility of the undertaking, appear to militate in favour of a route aiming at a frequently-used, relatively low-lying col (Montgenèvre, La Croix, Larche, etc.), and following sunnier valleys than the harsh clime of Haute Maurienne or Tarentaise. This notwithstanding Scullard (2002), who declares: “If any trend can be detected, it perhaps leans towards the Col du Clapier”.

Although he has relied on articles, books, field-work and web search to compile this survey, the present author does not feel qualified to volunteer a solution. While Clapier and Traversette remain red-hot favourites, in his opinion their excessive altitude and steepness on the Italian slope make them debatable candidates. More important, so long as archaeology fails to produce substantial finds, in terms of Carthaginian coins, elephant skeletons, weapons or suchlike artefacts – both Hunt and Mahaney are apparently awaiting permission to dig – discussion of this riddle may last indefinitely.                                 


The writer is an Anglophile Frenchman, a member of the London Alpine Club and long-time specialist of Berber History, Language and Culture. In 1975 he defended his doctoral thesis in Human and Rural Geography on a highland Berber region of Morocco at the Institut de Géographie Alpine (I.G.A.) in Grenoble and has since written guide-books in English on the Atlas Mountains. Not to mention similar publications on the Pre-Alps, entire sections of which he has crossed on foot, together with much of the Hannibalic country, presumed or real, in Diois, Dévoluy, Ubaye, Queyras and Haute Maurienne. From 1999 to 2009 he lectured on “History and Culture of the Berbers” at Al-Akhawayn University in Ifrane (AUI), Morocco. 


Beer (de), G., Alps and Elephants, London: 1955. 

Blache, J., « L’ancienne voie du Cenis », Mémorial du Docteur Marc de Lavis-Trafford, Travaux de la Société d’histoire et d’archéologie de Maurienne, t. XIV, 1962. 

Bocquet, A., « Le passage d’Hannibal dans les Alpes du Nord », Montmélian lecture, 25 Oct. 2008, available on 

Bocquet, A., « Hannibal et les Alpes », [retrieved Dec. 2009], available on :- 

Bocquet, A., Hannibal chez les Allobroges : 218 avant Jésus-Christ : La Grande Traversée des Alpes, La Fontaine De Siloé, 2009. 

Bonnet, T., & Morel, A., “Clarée – Queyras – Ubaye – Mercantour, retour d’est de fin décembre 2008”, available 

Bonus, A.R., Where Hannibal passed, London: Methuen, 1925. 

Boser, U., “Hiking with Hannibal”, Archaeology, Vol. 60, n°1, January/February 2007; available on:- 

Connolly, P., Hannibal and the enemies of Rome, London, 1978. 

Courtenay, A., « South of France: In search of Hannibal the Elephant Man », The Telegraph, 25 March 2000; available on…

Galbert (de), G., Hannibal et César dans les Alpes, Grenoble : Ed. Belledonne, 2008. 

Grard, R. & Mathevet, P., « Extension des précipitations de ‘Lombarde’ sur les Alpes françaises », available on 

Guillaume, A., Annibal franchit les Alpes, 218 av. J.-C., La Tronche-Montfleury : Éditions des Cahiers de l’Alpe, 1967. 

Hunt, P., & Seicean, A., “Alpine archeology and paleo-pathology: Was Hannibal’s army also decimated by epidemic while crossing the Alps?” 2006. 

Hunt, P., “Hannibal in the Alps: Stanford Alpine Archaeology Project 1994-2006”. 2006. 

_______, “Alpine archaeology: Hannibal expedition – Stanford Alpine Archaeology Project 2006 Field Report”. 2006. 

________, “Hannibal’s engineers and Livy (XXI.36-7) on burned rock – truth or legend?”, 2007. 

________, “Hannibal or Hasdrubal? Some numismatic and chronometric considerations for Alpine archaeology”. 2007. All above Hunt material available on 

________, Alpine Archaeology, 2007. 

Jia, A., “In the Alps, hunting for Hannibal’s trail”, Stanford University News, May 16, 2007, 


Jourdan-Annequin, C., « L’image de la montagne ou la géographie à l’épreuve du mythe et de l’histoire: l’exemple de la traverse des Alpes par Hannibal », Dialogues d’Histoire Ancienne, 25/1, 1999 : 101-127. 

Lancel, S., Hannibal, Paris: Fayard, 1995. 

Lavis-Trafford (de), M.A., « L’identification topographique du col alpin franchi par Annibal », Travaux de la Société d’Etudes et d’Archives de la Maurienne, vol. XIII, 1956.  Lendering, J., “Hannibal in the Alps”, 1998, based on Polybius 3.50-55 (trans. I. Scott-Kilvert), & Livy 21.32.6-37.6 (trans. Aubrey de Sélincourt), available on 

Levin, B., Hannibal’s Footsteps, Sceptre (Hodder & Stoughton paperbacks), 1987 (1st pub. Jonathan Cape, 1985). 

Mahaney, W.C., Kapran, B., & Tricart, P., “Hannibal and the Alps: un-ravelling the invasion route”, Geology Today, (Blackwell Pub. Ltd.), vol. 24, n°6/2008a: 223-230. 

_____________, & al., “Hannibal’s trek across the Alps: geo-morphological analysis of sites of geo-archaeological interest”, Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry, Vol. 8, n° 2/2008b: 39-54. 

_____________, & Tricart, P., “Hannibal’s debacle in the Combe de Queyras in 218 BC: The unknown Gallic Commander”, Military Geography and Geology: History and Technology, C.P. Nathanail & al, eds.), Nottingham (UK): Land Quality Press, 2008c: 88-97 

_____________, “Historical archaeology of the Hannibalic invasion of Italia: technical applications”, Society for Historical Archaeology, Univ. of Montana, 2007, available on:- 

_____________, Hannibal’s odyssey: Environmental background to the Alpine invasion of Italia, 2009. 

Manteyer, G. de, « Le franchissement des Alpes par Annibal, de Grimone à Mary », Travaux de la Société d’Etudes et d’Archéologie de Maurienne, XIII, 1956.

Mommsen, T., Histoire romaine, tome III, Librairie Franck, Paris, 1865, pp. 123-147. 

Neumann, J., “Climatic changes in the Alps in the years about the year of Hannibal’s crossing (218 BC)”, Climatic Change, vol. 22, n°2/Oct. 1992: 139-150. 

Ollier, P., “Recherche de l’itinéraire suivi par Hannibal lors du franchissement des Alpes en 218 avant-JC”, up-dated 18/01/2008, available on 

Peyron, M., Bernard Levin, Hannibal’s Footsteps, book review, 2006; cf. Working Papers Part III, available on:- 

Prevas, J., Hannibal crosses the Alps: the enigma re-examined, London: Sarpedon, 1998. 

Renaud, J.-P., “Reconnaissance de l’itinéraire d’Hannibal du Rhône au dernier col alpin », Bulletin de la Société d’Études des Hautes-Alpes, 1994. 

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Text copyright by Michael Peyron; material from same may be quoted in compliance with current academic practice.



Critic of the Clapier route and staunch advocate of the Petit St Bernard, A. Bocquet has produced an eminently readable volume (2010)




Publié dans Hannibal crosses the Alps | Pas de Commentaire »

The GTAM lives on regardless: recent romps round Imilchil (2005-2008)

Posté par Michael Peyron le 1 septembre 2010

The GTAM lives on regardless: recent romps  round Imilchil (2005-2008)

by Michael PEYRON 


Since 1999 the GTAM brochure has been renamed as above (photo: Moroccan Ministry of Tourism)

Demise of the official GTAM 

These last few years the GTAM concept has declined further. Although the Moroccan Tourism Ministry’s GTAM palm-tree/mountain logo still appears outside approved guest-houses from the Saghro to Imilchil, it smacks somewhat of irrelevance. The yearly information brochure no longer refers to « la Grande Traverée des Atlas Marocains » (GTAM); instead, it is entitled « Morocco Mountain and Desert Tourism ». All notions of a grand Atlas traverse seem to have gone out of the window. Notwithstanding this perceived end-to-end apathy, the present writer, remaining faithful to a linear logic, has continued whenever possible to organise private excursions with friends along the backbone of the Atlas Mountains, chiefly in the eastern section of the range. 

2005 witnessed a re-run of the by-now classic Imilchil-Zaouit Ahansal “haute route”, and another joint Franco-Moroccan effort. The Lhatoutes came along with their niece Lamiae, while Yves Biville and his daughter Marion joined us from Annecy, France.


At Rich with Y. Biville, A. & K. Lhatoute, L. Moufid, Ouzarouj and M. Biville, May 23, 2005,(photo: A. Lhatoute)

After a rendez-vous at the famous Ouzarouj restaurant in Rich on May 23, our party wedged itself tightly inside the ramshackle van usually provided for the afternoon service to Imilchil. Despite a puncture and the driver’s persistent propensity to look most of the time anywhere but ahead, especially when negotiating tight turns, we finally made it to Moha ou Zayd’s inn by 6 pm. Arrangements were made for a mule next morning and the party retired to bed once dinner was over. 

A certain Hammou Aouan reported punctually for duty with his baggage-mule plus a couple of plastic jerry-cans. It later transpired that one of these had not been rinsed out after having previously been used for petrol! This interesting discovery was made half-way up to Tizi n–Oughroum as certain participants first felt the onset of thirst.


At Iboukhennan, Asif Melloul, with K & A. Lhatoute, M. Biville, May 24, 2005 (photo: M. Peyron)

Almou n-Wensa revisited 

Luckily, we reached Almou n-Wensa to find the spring still running freely, though not quite so generously as last year. Local hospitality again proved unbeatable, a pregnant Oult-Hediddou housewife vacating her whole tent and moving in with the neighbours so we could spend a relatively comfortable night, although sharp stones did their worst to keep us awake!  True, the fact that Lamiae is a doctor and provided timely medical advice, proved decidedly helpful.


Lamiae & Khadija taking leave of hospitable Oult-Hediddou women, Almou n-Wensa, May 25, 2005 (photo: M. Peyron)

Late in the afternoon on May 25, in dry sunny weather, we reached Almou n-Selloult after an event-free stage, Biville handling the catering arrangements en route with consummate skill. The sheikh of the pastures was as hospitable as ever, but when the evening menu was being discussed the author did manage to save a chicken’s life, averting the knife at the last minute, and we had omelette for dinner instead. 

Khadija, who had slept badly the night before on the stones of Almou n-Wensa, took a sleeping-pill while the meal was being cooked. Almost at once she keeled over and had to be put to bed!

May 26 took us without further ado up and over the camel’s hump of Izelfen to Almou Amazzan for another Biville al fresco luncheon. The party were impressed by the greenness of the pastures and the way frisky mules were chasing sheep all over the place.


Skirting Almou Akhattar, Jbel Tafraout in background, May 26, 2005 (photo: M. Peyron)

That night in Tafraout we put up at Saïd’s house – although he was personally absent – and presented his son with an electric torch so that his father could in future work efficiently on his irrigation-channels at dead of night. Khadija’s sleeping-pill from the night before was still active and she had to retire early to bed.

As expected, May 27 brought us to Zaouit Ahansal where the caïd, warned by the provincial governor (an old friend of Assou’s), gave us tea. There hadn’t been as much melt-water from snow as last year, the Ifferd tarn having evaporated and conditions were generally much drier. Beyond Zaouit we made rapid progress in the governor’s chauffeur-driven car, several sections of the old piste now being properly surfaced. That night, we were in Azilal and on May 28 returned to Ifrane via Beni Mellal by the usual combination of taxi and bus. 

Back to old haunts

In 2006, as with friend Houssa Yakobi  we concentrated on our famous Amazigh « sites of memory » (Tazizaout and Baddou) programme and being still Ifrane-based, we tended to give GTAM itineraries a miss.

However, in 2007 this writer made a 3-day traverse from Imilchil to Tounfit with his faithful companion Michel Morgenthaler, taking in Aqqa n-Wanin, Taoujjaâout hill and Tazizaout en route. There was little to report, apart from the fact that the Lakes Plateau igudlan were wide open to all-comers, a distinctly negative development that bode little but evil for pasture conservation and environmental harmony in the area. Not to mention that cedars around Tazizaout had taken a serious bashing at the hands of timber-rustlers since last visited in 2005!


M. Morgenthaler on main High Atlas ridge near Tizi n-Ighil, May 2007 (photo: M. Peyron)

Continuing via Agheddou, Tizi n-Ighil and the Tatrout gorge, we stayed the night at Asaka with an old friend, Sidi Moh Azayyi, from whom we collected a few more epic poems in Tamazight.


Author with Sidi Moh Azayyi, Asaka, May 2007 (photo: M. Morgenthaler)

An amusing episode at Tounfit clinched the outing when the unauthorized van we had found seats on was intercepted by the local Gendarmerie. The upshot of it was that we got far cheaper seats on a taxi – commandeered by the Gendarmes – which conveyed us direct to Auberge Ja’afar near Midelt! 

Asif Melloul 2008 

For end-May 2008 Biville returned with his wife Catherine and friend Thérèse Moreau. Only trouble was that the ladies, presuming we should be going for the mule option, had taken too much luggage. A detail that nearly nipped the trip in the bud by making us 100% mule-dependent. Worse still, when we arrived in Imilchil, it had rained and snowed down to 2500 metres. As a result none of the muleteers approached through Moha ou Zayd were any too keen to venture abroad; others quoted un-heard-of hire-prices. After negotiations had proved unfruitful with three successive muleteers, we finally took on a strapping young porter called Bassou, who helped hump our stuff to Oul-Ghazi where we would get a mule. There remains, however, a lingering suspicion in this writer’s mind that Moha ou Zayd had engineered the whole arrangement in Bassou’s favour!


Backpacking for ever! Blue sky, spring snow and sturdy companions:  author with Thérèse and Yves, Asif Melloul, May 19, 2008 (photo: C. Biville)

Our intention was to descend Asif Melloul by the left-bank path and push on beyond Anargui to Cathedral Mountain. Day 1 took us to Oul-Ghazi where we stopped at Semlali’s house. The next morning, Tuesday, May 20, as Asif Melloul was running high, we had to indulge in some wading and make an extended detour, via Aqqa n Bou Iyessan, before hitting the Timmicha trail up onto the escarpment.


Author showing Y. Biville his patented sock-drier, Timmicha, May 2008 (photo: C. Biville)

That was the place where we pioneered a new way of drying wet socks by simply pulling them down over the handles of our trekking poles!


With Thérèse and Yves, Tizi n-Tiddad between Imilchil and Anargui, May 20, 2008 (photo: C. Biville)

It was a long tiresome day, being badgered by inopportune shepherds near Taiddert and having to cope with a completely ruined, eroded, ankle-twisting path on the last section down to Batli, where we found relatively comfortable river-side accommodation for the night, not far from a TO camp. Day 3 was shortish, as it brought us over Tizi n-Dari to Anargui and Chrifi’s comfortable lodge. We also took the opportunity to look up Semlali’s sister in her typical Berber house.


Muleteer Semlali from Oul-Ghazi and his sister at Anargui, May 21, 2008 (photo: C. Biville)

Thursday, May 22 worked out as a murderous, 13-hour road-bash down Asif Melloul to the Imi n-Warg gîte. En route, it was obvious that « the times they were a-changing » in the Atlas Mountains. First, we passed a dozen French ladies unwisely hiking in various stages of undress; half a dozen motor-bikes with back-up vehicle carrying bottles of all-important pastis; a couple of unsupported French mountain-bikers, while at the Chrifi lodge there had been a group of Spanish mountain-bikers, also with vehicle support including vino.


Muleteer wading Asif n-Ouhansal at foot of  Cathedral Mountain, May 22, 2008 (photo: M. Peyron)

The fake kasbah that serves as gîte at Imi n-Warg proved an unpleasantly crowded, noisy place with lousy food, unwanted booze and song. No wonder! A Tour Operator trekking group, escorted by famous Moroccan guide Hafida, had stopped there, not to mention an assortment of bikers and 4-WD exponents. Thanks to the proximity of steep-sided Cathedral Mountain, the place has also become the local Base-jump capital.


Author leading Semlali’s mule over last bridge before Tillougit, May 2008 (photo: C. Biville)

Day 5 involved a gentle walk to Tillougit; a taxi drive to Wawizaght; another one to Beni Mellal bus station. Here we were victims of a weird little episode: just as we were bundling our stuff into a Petit Taxi the muezzin’s call to prayer resounded and our bearded Islamist driver prompty went on strike to say his prayers. The deal was off! Luckily, another taxi-driver (a Tamazigh-speaker) had witnessed the scene and gamely took us to the Hôtel de Paris for a long overdue shower and welcome beer.

Spring 2008 had proved a watershed as far as this writer is concerned. The Asif Melloul outing, plus an expedition up Toubkal two weeks later with the Lhatoutes, really removed any residual doubts he might have had about the negative impact of TO activities on the Atlas Mountains. He decided henceforth to devote the unflagging energy of his declining years to creating awareness by hook or by crook as to the catastrophic effects of mass tourism on the Moroccan Berber highlands. It is high time TOs acted in a more responsible manner if environmental fall-out from commercial caravans is to be meaningfully monitored in the future.

  Lone Backpacker

September 2010

Unless otherwise specified all texts and illustrations are copyright by Michael Peyron. Material from same may be quoted in compliance with current academic practice.

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Revisiting Morocco’s Great Atlas Traverse, or GTAM (1989-2004)

Posté par Michael Peyron le 24 août 2010

Revisiting Morocco’s Great Atlas Traverse, or



By Michael PEYRON 


Midelt-Tinghir traverse, with guide and Yves on Jbel Harouch, Feb 1992 (photo: Y. Biville)

The GTAM goes international 

A first article on this website outlined the genesis of the Grande Traversée de l’Atlas Marocain through various reconnaissance trips and partial follow-throughs (1972-1988), expressing this writer’s grand design, and given his limited availability in the field, labouring as he did under certain professional and familial constraints. True, he was at a distinct disadvantage vis-à-vis free-wheeling bachelors and other would-be GTAM end-to-ending rivals with more time on their hands. This, more than anything else prevented him from ever end-to-ending at one fell swoop. However, go over the ground in detail, he did! A point that should be borne in mind.

His move from Rabat to Grenoble in the late 1980s coincided with two developments. One the one hand, Robin Collomb at West Col Productions having displayed interest in an English-language version of the GTAM, the present author found himself requested to produce a two-volume edition of his successful guide-book. Most of the work on this project was done in a beach hut at Témara, the finishing touches being applied between sessions on the ski slopes above Grenoble. The resultant volumes emerged respectively in 1989 and 1990. Twenty years down the road they are still variously acknowledged by different sources as “definitive”, “meaningful” or « most useful » with regards to hiking in the Moroccan Atlas.


In the meantime, travel-wise Moroccans had been putting their house in order: DAI/BDTR, an off-shoot of the Moroccan Tourism Ministry, was thus founded under the aegis of François Chalumeau, a Frenchman well-known in local mountaineering circles, and he set about centralising information on trekking in the Atlas Mountains. This office brought out a yearly booklet, containing practical information on the GTAM, supposedly standing for “Grande Traversée des Atlas Marocains”. Not quite plagiarism, though dangerously close to our 1984 deposited trade mark !


Palm-tree mountain logo on back cover of the GTAM practical info guide-book that ran under that title till 1998 (Moroccan Ministry of Tourism)

However, as our French version of the GTAM guide-book was quoted in their bibliography, we didn’t feel that the matter justified a costly law-suit. This new GTAM went hand-in-glove with a palm-tree mountain logo that appeared at various points across Morocco’s mountains, chiefly outside government-approved lodges and guest-houses, from Imilchil in the north-east, to Jbel Saghro in the far south, though after Chalumeau withdrew from the project in the late 1990s, the notion of “Traversée” as such (the T in GTAM) appears to have been firmly put on the back-burner! By then the annual booklet lamely referred to mountain and desert tourism, overly denying any connection with the GTAM, past or present. 


This meant that, with the trekking market in Morocco so far more or less cornered by Terdav, Explorator and Allibert, non-French TOs (Brits for the most part like Sherpa and Exodus, Minitrek having disappeared from the scene) were entering the field. Guess where they fished for info? You got it right! Peyron’s GTAM guide-book is the answer. Amusingly, several agencies marketed a 22-day High Atlas traverse, the spitting image of the one we had suggested in writing a short while earlier. But then this was only the first time that TOs were living up to a new, copycat ethos. 

The 1990s then, were something of a bonanza for Atlas trekking. The GTAM, devised in its raw, no-nonsense form for backpacking, straight and honest, found itself being dubbed into the trekking mode; even for stalwarts on mountain-bikes and ponies! Practically each TO made a point of including it in their brochure. Bit of a come-down, that, though only to be expected. Simply a case of giving customers what they expect in keeping with market trends; that’s what the pundits will tell you. 

Putting the T back into GTAM 

For our part, we felt we had to return to the field whenever possible to keep the GTAM pot boiling. A noteworthy achievement: our uninterrupted 9-day Midelt-Tinghir backpacking traverse in February 1992, undertaken with former Chasseur alpin Yves Biville and his son, Yan. 


Shaded alley-ways of Tazrouft, Feb 1992 (photo: Y. Biville)

A restful night at the Hôtel Ayachi in Midelt, courtesy of Milouda and Ali, set us fairly on our way. By the end of the day we had scaled the Merziqti pass, strolled down through titanic Tabja canyon to emerge at the qsar of Ennd. On the morrow, a healthy day’s trail-bashing took us past Tazrouft and Tannghrift, not to mention the unlikely village of Idalliwn, peopled by blacks, and onto Ayt Yaqoub, site of a famous battle between Berbers and the Foreign Legion back in 1929. Here we were made truly welcome by a local bard, and our host’s daughter delighted us with a recital of timawayin.

There followed another ambitious day down to Mzizel, a grotty little hole on the Rich-Imilchil track boasting one or two run-down cafés, and then a prolonged road-bash well past Igli, that lasted till sundown, when we put up for the night in some trail-side huts. Luckily, friendly road-workers provided bread and tea that evening. Next morning the road-bash resumed as far as Tabratjout, where, after ritual mint tea, the village headman kindly placed a guide at our disposal for the next leg of our journey.


Author with Ou-Hediddou guide and Yves, Jbel Harouch, Feb 1992 (photo: Y. Biville)

This entailed another gruelling day trudging wearily up to nearly 3000 metres, over the frosty brow of tree-wasted Jbel Harouch, till we could make out the rolling pre-Saharan hills overlooking Rachidia, and then down unendingly to the large village of Tana, which we reached by moonlight. Tana, with its walnut grove, was the last place with sizeable trees we saw on our walk. 


Our party leaving Igherm n-Tana, Feb 1992 (photo: Y. Biville)

After that it was alfa steppe and barren hillsides all the way. What the landscape lacked in fertility, however, was more than made up for by the sheer good cheer of the inhabitants. At Ayt Sidi Mha an elderly shaikh regaled us with stories about local resistance fighters Ou-Skounti and Zayd ou-Hmad; at Assoul, Mohamed Sane the school-teacher, an acquaintance from a previous trip to the area, entertained us en famille. At Amdghous, where Lonely Planet tourists had once been beleaguered for days awaiting a problematic truck, the inn-keeper fed us oranges. Our last night in the mountains we spent among the Ayt Merghad at Tametettoucht. Then came a straightforward grind down the Todgha gorge. And it was all over bar the shouting. As we were by that time quite footsore we hitch-hiked the last few miles into Tinghir. Not really cheating, but understandable in the circumstances. At a disreputable little hotel with a decidedly kitsch air about it, we ate a rather second-rate cous-cous. As a result, the next day, most of us had the Khatmandu trots, but we managed to reach Marrakech and a well-deserved rest at the Mamounia Hôtel, via Ouarzazat, by a combination of bus and taxi.

Birth of the Al-Akhawayn connection 

For several years afterwards visits to Morocco were too short to allow much time in the Atlas Mountains. After 1997, however, thanks to a local version of the old-boy network, there developed a lasting connection with Al-Akhawayn University that was to provide plenty of opportunities to reach time and again for the heights.  


On the Ayt Hadiddou plateau, Alemghou, Oct 1997 (photo: M. Peyron)

In October of that year this writer soloed from Tounfit to Alemghou and back over a week, via Imilchil and Taghighacht. It was a spiritual as much as a physical journey, devoted for the most part to collecting oral literature material for a book, and entering into closer communion with the Ayt Yahya and Ayt Hadiddou people. The weather stayed fine throughout and gave us a close look at the Tahgighacht community on a day marked by a collective circumcision ceremony. Though this kind of ceremony was still observed, traditional native garment tended to be discarded by young people, who preferred to wear jeans and cotton dresses.


Autumn evening, Alemghou, Oct 1997 (photo: M. Peyron) 

In May 1998, covering much of the same ground,  though without the Asif Melloul dog-leg, we made a 5-day Tounfit-Anargui backpacking traverse with daughter Caroline and her companion Hakim.


Carline Mackenzie, Sidi Moh Azayyi & H. Daoudi, Asaka, May 1998 (photo: M. Peyron)

An early highlight was an evening spent at Asaka with old friend Sidi Moh Azayyi, while in Imilchil we bumped into another acquaintance, Ahmed Daghoghi, a local tour leader just out of the Tabant Mountain Training facility in Ayt Bougemmaz.


Loading up mule outside Semlali house, Oul-Ghazi May 1998, (photo: M. Peyron)

Beyond Imilchil we had the good fortune to meet up again with Saïd ou Haddou, but it was another Oul-Ghazi man, a certain Semlali, who accompanied us with his mule (plus sister) on the final day to Anargui. This gave us the opportunity to follow the right bank of Asif Melloul beyond Tousefseddi, climaxing in a memorable, ankle-twisting descent from Tizi n-Cheffart to Anargui. The return via Cathedral Mountain to Wawizaght in an over-crowded Land-Rover the following day provided  an unsavoury, bone-jarring anti-climax.


Start of descent from Tizi n-Cheffart to Anargui, May 1998 (photo: M. Peyron)

In September 1998, with daughter Caroline we travelled from Midelt to the Imilchil musem in five days, backpacking most of the way. The first day was a somewhat lacklustre experience as we took stock of the recent havoc caused by drought-stricken nomad shepherds on foothill stands of Mediterranean oak near Bou Admam Forstry Hut. That night a hospitable Ayt Merghad family at Tilawin n-Ja’afar raised their tent flaps to take us in.


Ayt Merghad bivouac, Tilawin n-Ja’afar, Sep. 1998 (photo: C. Mackenzie)

Day 2 took us to Ayt Bou Izgarn (Imtchimen), whence we hitchiked to Tounfit on a van that had been commandeered by a wedding party, complete with musicians! Friend Daghoghi put us up for the night at his place in qsar of Ichemhan. Couldn’t help noticing that Tounfit was developing, for sure, with tarmac and cafés, but getting noticeably grubbier in the process!  The absence of toilets, it seemed, had been instrumental in contributing to epidemics over the past few years. The next day we took things easy, only going as far as Asaka, where friend Azayyi and wife Ftima made us welcome. Day 4 was a classic footslog over Tizi n-Ayt Brahim, past Anefgou and onwards to the house of Aatrou at Tirghist. The 5th and final day brought us to Alemgho, via Tizi n-Inouzan, Taghihgacht and Sountat. At Alemgho we stayed with the hospitable moqqadam who had looked after the author the previous year.


Author with moqqadam‘s family, Alemgho, Sep 1998 (photo: C. Mackenzie)

We then spent a couple of days at the bridal fair, or musem, getting nearly rained out of our tent on the second night. The quality of the folkdancing hadn’t really improved since our 1987 visit and the phony Touareg phenomenon appeared to be on the up-swing, not to mention the numbers of foreign visitors disguised as Saharans, or hommes bleus. To make things worse, this writer was floored by a vicious attack of the trots, so we hitchiked out of there as fast as we could go.

Zaouit Ahansal – Imilchil section of the GTAM

On May 19, 2000, we headed for Azilal, launch-pad for a 5-day traverse from Zaouit Ahansal to Imilchil via Zaouia Tamga, Anargui and Taghzout n-Ayt Abdi. My friend Ayad Kerouach was there, together with Assou and Khadija, their niece Lamiae and a cousin, Hmad, from Midelt.


Members of our party doing muleteer’s work for him, Amezray, May 2000 (photo: M. Peyron)

The first three days to Anargui we were slowed down by a disastrously incompetent muleteer, who knew little of his trade, even less of path-finding. On certain occasions, my Berber companions actually had to take care of loading our baggage on the mule. Interestingly, the Tizi n-Hammadin path presented signs of being less used than in the past, pointing to changing patterns of mule traffic in the area, linked to new TO itineraries and the fact that market-going locals tended to employ Land-Rovers more than they did mules in the past.


Leaving Chrifi’s lodge, Anargui, May 2000 (photo: M. Peyron)

After Anargui we sent our muleteer home and hired two keen young fellows; things then improved marginally. While picnicking on the Tingarft pastures we met a singularly upbeat and congenial Ou-Sokhman shepherd with whom we swapped timawayin. His sheep had possibly the cleanest fleeces we had ever seen on the hoof. At Tingarft we observed yet another fresh phenomenon: locally made hammam-s, accounting for exaggerated wood-cutting in the area.


Our party in Tizouggwat valley, Ijberten on R, May 2000 (photo: M. Peyron)

Our onward leg over Ijberten to Tastaft and finally Imilchil proved uneventful, apart from a violent cloudburst that lashed us mercilessly as we were coming down off the escarpment into the Asif Melloul valley. Luckily, we received a warm welcome at Moha ou Zayd’s inn, especially from his sister Fadma. The downpour switched to snow overnight and next morning the hills were well plastered above 2500 metres – a common enough occurrence in the High Atlas at the end of May. 


New bridge over Oued Ziz at Rich afer flooding, May 2000 (photo: M. Peyron)

The uncommon amount of precipitation concentrated on the Saharan slope of the Atlas had led to rising water levels so that when our local bus arrived in view of Rich, early in the afternoon, the swirling current of Oued Ziz left us in no doubt. We were stranded. Fortunately, the bridge actually under construction was only just awash and we finally paddled to safety through 6″ of water. Not before a furious argument, however, between Ayad and the local Public Road Works overseer about whether it would have been judicious or not to attempt the crossing by vehicle!

2001: an Atlas odyssey

The following May we brought together a sample of my French and Moroccan friends (E. Hatt, M. Morgenthaler, Y. Biville, A. and K. Lhatoute + author’s daughter Caroline) for an outing south-west from Tounfit to Imilchil and points beyond, that, echoing a famous block-buster title, was to be known as   »2001: an Atlas odyssey ». As a coincidence, after encountering light snow in the Middle Atlas, it was May 19th and we were foregathering in Tounfit.


Backpackers versus pro-mule exponents leaving Tounfit, May 19, 2001 (photo: M. Peyron)

The first two stages witnessed an amusing situation in which backpacking stalwarts humped their sacks alongside walkers with their hands in their pockets – the pro-mule brigade (our friend Assou!) who had hired a muleteer and steed.


To backpack or not to backpack; Asaka, May 20, 2001 (photo: M. Peyron)

At Asaka we slept at the moqqadam‘s house. His wife, Labha, proved a perfect host. The good-natured confrontation between backpackers (see above) and pro-mule supporters continued unabated, Caroline actually humping her pack as far as Amandar. Conditions in Tatrout gorge were iffy but the party safely reached Tirghist that evening notwithstanding. While passing Lake Izly my French friends had a dip in its cool waters. Having caught cold after indulging in just such a prank some years earlier, however, the present writer refrained from joining them. Though staying at Moha ou Zayd’s we visited the Hôtel Izlane, now much used by the Club Méd and other TOs offering hybrid tours with Land-Rovers, combining off-roading with minimal walking. Managed to have a brief but satisfying slanging-match with the female tour leader of one of these TOs.


Author’s daughter Caroline Mackenzie with friends, Amerdoul Awragh, May 22, 2001(photo: M. Peyron)

Beyond Imilchil we humped our packs as far as Amerdoul Awragh, where the pro-mule brigade insisted on our hiring a pack-animal. Thus encumbered we repaired to Aqqa n-Tissout n-Iysan for a well-earned picnic. After lunch, attracted by the surrounding verticality, we scaled the rock bands of Sidi Amandar to visit the saint’s tomb at the summit.


Muleteer, C. Mackenzie & Y. Biville approaching Tagatemt (3037m), May 23, 2001 (photo: M. Peyron)

The nearby pasture of Almou n-Oumandar boasted several shepherds’ shelters, one of which provided acceptable accommodation for the night. The next day we pushed on past tabular peak of Tagatemt and its lone snow patch till we reached the remote meadows of Almou n-Wensa around lunch-time.


Tussock-bearing Oult-Heddidou ladies,  Almou n-Wensa, May 23, 2001 (photo: M. Peyron)

There were a few Ayt Hadiddou tents in the vicinity. In fact we spotted a brace of tussock-bearing Oult-Hediddou ladies who, in terms of load-carrying, really put our backpackers to shame! That evening we doubled back towards Imilchil and eventually found lodgings at some sheep-pens, high up on the edge of a hill, where we had a large herd for company, including some charmingly bleating kids. Eric and Michel chose to sleep on a comfortable mattress of goat-crut! Next morning we followed the ridge to Tissekt Tamda and enjoyed the 360° view from its commanding heights. By early afternoon we were back in Imilchil. Next day came the usual long return via Rich, with kebab lunch at restaurant run by Ouzzarouj (mais il manquait le coup de rouge, according to Eric red wine was lacking!).


F. Conynghame near Timmicha on Asif Melloul by-pass, Feb 2002 (photo: M. Peyron)

In February 2002 there came a short, 4-day winter traverse from Imilchil to Tillougit with Frazer Conynghame. Most of the ground covered was familiar, Day 2 taking us south of Asif Melloul via Taiddert and the Ayt ‘Abdi. Day 4, after a restful night in Anargui, was not a success, the muleteer we hired proving slow and inefficient, putting us in Tillougit well after dark after foolishly insisting on short cutting past Tizi n-Smetz! Can’t say we managed that stage really expertly, but then you live and learn!

The 2002 Coffret Nathan Maroc guide-book

During the summer of 2002 the author was approached by former TO tour leader Gilles Bordessoule who wanted him to co-author a three-volume package on the Moroccan Atlas Berbers: a guide-book, actually an updated, watered-down version of the GTAM (see cover-pic below); a general info volume, and a coffee-table picture album in which 95% of the illustrations were Bordessoule’s. 


Peyron’s GTAM-based backpacking guide, part of the 2002 Nathan Coffret Maroc (photo: G. Bordessoule)

Although this writer got paid in full for his contribution to the package, overall the exercise proved something of a washout. Retailing at € 30,- the Nathan Coffret Maroc  2002 was definitely overpriced, most would-be purchasers being interested in the guide de randonnée section; less so in the coffee-table effort. As a result sales were sluggish; by 2005  copies of the Coffret were being given away for  € 8,- in discount shops!


Backpackers from Dauphiny skirting Lake Izly, May 2002 (photo: J. Bellet)

4-day Imilchil-Midelt traverse

End-May 2002 witnessed a successful 4-day Imilchil-Midelt traverse with  French friends who were visiting from Allevard in the Dauphiny Alps. This again proved a triumph for the backpacking ethos; participants humped their rucksacks all the way with no nonsense about mule support! Approach was direct from Ifrane by taxi with a change of vehicles in Rich and a night at Moha ou Zayd’s inn in Imilchil, after inspecting market-place where preparations were in full swing for morrow’s ssuq ssebt. Day 1 took party over Tizi n-Isswal to Tirghist after companions had shunned a plunge into Lake Izly’s cool waters.


Backpacking between Tizi n-Isswal and Tirghist, May 2002 (photo: M. Peyron) 

Had several friendly encounters en route with neighbouring Berbers: some Ayt Atta shepherds detouring via the Lakes Plateau; a couple of girls near Tirghist.


 Our party chatting with a couple of friendly Berber girls, Tirghist, May 2002 (photo: J. Bellet)

Accommodation was obtained at the Forestry Hut annexe, where somewhat basic arrangements amused our Dauphiny companions: smell of goat-crut coming up thru floor-boards; a ram’s carcass hanging from the toilet wall! After watching Barbary Sheep on Fazaz slopes through binoculars, we dined at the Tirghist Forestry Hut, sampling génépi for a night-cap, just as if we were back in the Alps.


R. Bertin crossing stream in full backpacking mode, Tatrout, May 2002 (photo: M. Peyron) 

Beyond Aqqa n-Ouyad and the Tatrout gorge on Day 2, we found Azayyi at home. Our Allevard friends were delighted with his warm welcome, remarking that conditions were similar to those obtaining in the Dauphiny some hundred years earlier! Arriving in Tounfit around lunch-time on Day 3 we decided to take up one of the local inn-keepers on a long-standing invitation to a kus-kus lunch.


Backpackers making for Tounfit thru Tiboulkheirin forest, May 2002 (photo: M. Peyron)

As no such dish was forthcoming, Fernand Beranger amused us all by asking whether, failing kus-kus, could we not have a little saucisson-based snack. « Wrong country to be placing that kind of order! » observed Jean Bellet. Commandeering a taxi, and after a change of vehicles outside the Brasserie Excelsior in Midelt, we were at the Auberge Ja’afar by mid-afternoon. On Day 4 we walked up onto the Taarbat ridge (an Ayyachi outlier) with lightened packs; on the way back we enjoyed the privilege of drinking from a leach-infested spring! That night we rendez-voused with the back-up group, got the gut-bash we had been deprived of in Tounfit, preparatory to a return to Ifrane on the following day.

Tour du Bou Iblan, 2003 version

The following year (2003) the author re-enacted the Franco-Moroccan walking experience with Michel Putz and Yves Biville from France, Ayad and Brigitte Kerouach, Khadija and Assou Lhatoute, not to mention Hakim Daoudi and Caroline Peyron from Morocco. The venue this time was Bou Iblan for a second, 5-day circuit. 

Having arrived from Ifrane in the morning, we made a  disastrously late post-lunch start from Beni Aliham, after which we were drastically slowed by Birgitte who practically konked out after a few hundred yards and had to be helped along by her husband. Making our way across thuya and oak-studded hillsides at a snail’s pace we were eventually benighted well short of Tafadjight, our hoped-for destination.


Backpacking on 2nd Bou Iblan circuit: H. Daoudi, M. Putz, & A. Kerouach, May 2003 (photo: M. Peyron)

After a mirthless, improvised bivvy and no breakfast we pushed on the following morning and were at the moqqadam‘s house within a couple of hours. There, at least, we put matters right with a good tuck-in.


M. Putz, Y. Biville with C. Mackenzie in  Ich n-Temghilt oak forest, May 2003 (photo: M. Peyron)

By mid-morning we resumed our traverse of the Ich n-Temghilt, a pleasant oak- and cedar-covered ridge with Pied flycatchers and other birds everywhere, and grass growing beneath the trees. By late-afternoon we were abreast of Talzemt and a lengthy descent commenced down steep slopes. Had an introduction to a General, who owned one of the fine, flat-roofed, cedar-planked mansions, but found him away. Nonetheless the care-takers placed a room at our disposal, and which some of us used, others settling for a garden bivvy, with a hedgehog as unlikely bed-companion. Shades of Mrs. Tiggy Winkle


Arriving at Talzemt, Bou Iblan circuit, May 2003 (photo: M. Peyron)

Next morning a couple of muleteers were hired to convey our baggage part of the way to Tamjilt, our next stop. After crossing the Meskeddal gorge we trudged across the flattish expanses of Laari Jerrah. Southwards we could see giant trucks bringing out trunks of dead cedars from flanks of Chegg el Aard – a sorry sight! Within 50 years the cedar will be probably wiped out from most Atlas locations…


Southward slope of Bou Iblan, near Tamjilt, May 2003 (photo: M. Peyron)

Arriving at Tamjilt party rather unwisely stopped at house of moqqadam, who, despite our request for a light meal and early to bed, insisted on slaughtering a goat, which meant a meal at midnight and corresponding lack of sleep. Not the ideal recipe for the impending big stage, involving a traverse of Bou Iblan itself and prolonged knee-jarring descent and traverse to reach the Taffert Hut.


Y. Biville circumventing large névé, Tizi Zirouch, Bou Iblan, May 2003 (photo: M. Peyron)

Luckily, a Land-Rover was available to propel party a couple of miles to the very foot of the main slope, near a road construction site. From there on it was a typical Moroccan south slope grind – ideal for keeping participants focussed – with a large névé blocking the vital pass over the divide. The site of the planned ski resort was barely recognizable, the hotel having been converted into a Maison du Bou Iblane, outside which a score of locals were awaiting the arrival of the qayd from Meghraoua. By five we were at the Taffert Hut and making arrangements for dinner and accommodation. The meal was barely sufficient but the subsequent peaceful night’s sleep more than made up for earlier shortcomings. On the final day we trekked in bright sunshine across Bou Iblan’s NW outliers, down to Karia, rounding off the circuit with an unhealthy road-bash as far as Kerouach’s house near oued Zloul.

Imilchil-Zaouit Ahansal Haute Route 2004

For our end-May jaunt of 2004, old hands Michel Morgenthaler and Eric Hatt flew in from France intent on joining present writer on a follow-through of the Imilchil-Zaouit Ahansal, 4-day Haute Route. After a 7-hour taxi ride had put them in Imilchil, the party settled in for the night at Moha ou Zayd’s inn. Next morning, breakfast over, a muleteer with his steed, ordered the night before, were ready for the load-up.


M.Mogenthaler and E. Hatt between Tizi n-Oughroum and Taghighacht ridge, May 18, 2004 (photo: M. Peyron)

The first day took them beyond Tizi n-Oughroum along a ridge trail providing challenging views, what with the amount of snow that still lay on the peaks. By end of afternoon they reached the lush upland meadows of Almou n-Wensa. Attempts to obtain hospitality met with refusal from youngish Oult-Hediddou women – not surprising as the three of them looked raffishly disreputable! Still, this attitude was surprisingly at variance with previous visits to these parts, circa 1977. Luckily, their muleteer met with a friend who invited them into his tent, guarded by a particulalrly ferocious-looking dog with whom they became friends after they’d offered him some scraps from the evening meal.


Muleteer in tent after uncomfortable night, Almou n-Wensa, May 19, 2004 (photo: M. Peyron)

Before turning in several frogs were observed besporting themselves in the shallows. A largish unidentified bird-of-prey – probably a Short-toed eagle – was disturbed in its repast and flapped lazily away to alight on a nearby hillock. There ensued a  pretty uncomfortable night on stony ground. The muleteer, especially, appeared to have hardly slept because of a stone wedged into the small of his back. Breakfast firmly sealed our friendship with the watch-dog who displayed his feelings with much tail-wagging.


M. Morgenthaler enjoys morning sunshine, Almou n-Wensa, May 19, 2004 (photo: M. Peyron)

The mule was loaded up and we left Almou n-Wensa, pushing off across barren highlands and sparse grazing, such as at Timit, where the aridity was harrowing. Also Asfalou n-Timit where we found a well almost brimful, with a lone partridge in the vicinity. By lunch-time we were at Allen Ighboula where an Oult-Sokhman woman suggested that this writer settle down in that remote spot and take wife since he spoke Berber.  According to the season, buttermilk, barely bread and the fast of ramdan would be his to enjoy!

The party moved uphill due south along a grassy ravine which eventually brought them out at the Ayt Sokhman huts of Almou n-Selloult, one of the finest complex of pastures of the whole area with a resident amghar n-igudlan (‘shaikh of the pastures’). A pleasant evening followed, not to mention a restful night.

Next morning it was the parting of the ways with the Imilchil muleteer who, so it turned out, had never been this far from home before. We accordingly switched to full backpacking mode and followed the shaikh up Aqqa n-Timeqqit to see us on our way along the ridge trail of abrid n-tajmart.


M. Morgenthaler tackling névé just short of 3000-metre col on NE side of Izelfen/ Taouya n-Talghemt ridge, May 20, 2004 (photo: M. Peyron)

This took us well past Izelfen and down to a large hill-girt Ayt Hadiddou pasture. After lunch we made a bee-line for Tafraout n-Ayt Abdi. This brought us over the next hill to yet another pasture – a large one as its name implied – Almou Akhattar. Trending west we eventually breasted the main pass over the divide, Tizi Melghas, with the snow-covered peaks of Jbel Tafraout opposite. A lengthy, complicated descent led down to Tafraout. While resting by a waterfall we met two fellow-travellers. One, a dour-looking, turbaned individual riding a mule (probably one of those mountain-roaming neo-Salafi imams) who rode on after pointedly ignored our greeting; the other, a loner on foot who, on hearing my Berber, took me for a Jew formerly resident in that area back from Israel for a short visit! At Tafraout we enjoyed a quiet evening resting our travel-sore feet.


With E. Hatt at Ifferd tarn between Azella and Jbel Tafraout, May 21, 2004 (photo: M. Mogenthaler)

For the final day of the outing, May 21, 2004, our host introduced us to a cousin who, for a consideration, kindly acceptd to accompany us to Tizi n-Ifferd. This proved a most interesting stage; first up a steep, stony ravine to Tizi n-Oustiff. Down to to the unlikely tarn of Ifferd, across Almou n-Ifferd then, with a lot of Berbers around, up and over a large snow-field to Tizi n-Ifferd (Tizi n-Tefraout, for wayfarers coming  from Zaouit). Down again via a steep, twisting mule-path past gaunt juniper till opposite Toughd; right along a bafflingly complex system of wooded ridges and ravines, so that it was well past tea-time when we finally made it to Zaouit Ahansal.


Delightful smiling welcome at Zaouit Ahansal guest-house, May 21 2004 (photo: M. Peyron)

Any travel-weariness we might have felt peeled off us as we were confronted with the cheerful countenances of the inn-keeper’s wife, his daughter and daughter-in-law. After a good dinner and welcome night’s sleep we spent a lazy morning waiting for the transportation situation to sort itself out. And sort itself out it did after yet another substantial meal. By 3pm we had clambered into a battered Land-Rover and climbed towards Tizi n-Illisi to do battle with the Ayt Mhammed piste and its myriad bumps, ruts and curves. Shortly before Ayt Mhammed we made a discreet roadside transfer to a 1970s-model Mercedes. That night we slept at the Hôtel de Paris in Beni Mellal, famous for  its beer-bar, wine-serving restaurant and 3-course menu. The next day a local bus took us past Khenifra, up to Azrou, where Josiane was waiting with a car.

It had been a perfect outing, very much in the spirit of the GTAM, considered not so much as an end-to-end bash but as a selected multi-day section to be worked by a small band of backpackers. Preferably individual tourists unshackled by membership of some commercial caravan or another, and therefore free of any mercantile constraint. As such, Imilchil-Zaouit deserves to become a classic. As such, it will conclude this chapter devoted to fifteen years (1989-2004) revisiting portions of the GTAM itinerary by the person who first visualized, then actually implemented the project on the ground.

   Lone Backpacker


 GTAM maps from 2002 Nathan guide-book


 NB. Unless otherwise specified texts and illustrations are copyright by Michael Peyron. Material from same may be quoted in compliance with current academic practice.  

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Serious backpacking along Morocco’s Great Atlas Traverse, or GTAM (1972-1988)

Posté par Michael Peyron le 16 juillet 2010

Serious backpacking: reconnaissance trips and follow-throughs of Morocco’s Great Atlas Traverse, or GTAM (1972-1988)

by Michael Peyron


First Eastern High Atlas backpacking guide-book (1977) in French, with M. Morgenthaler on cover (photo: M. Peyron)


After half a dozen years of mundane mountaineering weekends in the Moroccan Atlas, many of them limited to the Toubkal massif, this writer felt irresistibly attracted to the remoter reaches of the Atlas. The idea of spending a whole week away from work, even two weeks, setting off down the main range, linking up on the ground the various beauty spots earlier visited (Imilchil, Anergui, Zawit Ahansal, Bougemmaz, Seksawa, etc.), and following paths used since time immemorial by local travellers, presented a tantalising challenge. Thus was born the notion of a Grande Traversée de l’Atlas marocain (GTAM), or « Great Atlas Traverse », as it came to be known in English, especially after Robin Collomb’s version appeared on the market.


First steps along GTAM: M. Morgenthaler approaching Ayt Merzoug village, Jbel   Maasker circuit, Eastern High Atlas, March 1972 (photo: M. Peyron)

Admittedly, inspiration for such a venture was there for the taking. The idea in itself was hardly new; in fact had already materialised in other ranges. The Pacific Crest Trail, the West Highland Way, the Cambrian Way, La Grande Traversée des Alpes, immediately come to mind. However, as Morocco’s Atlas Mountains are ideal walking country the undertaking appeared both timely and appropriate. More to the point, and making the whole grand design a wee bit more worthwhile, many upland valleys remained out of reach of vehicle transport for months on end, hence inaccessible other than on foot or mule-back. Forty years down the road, of course, this situation has changed. But in those days the big-walk approach, encapsulating the sheer joy of unadulterated, unsupported backpacking, was the only viable option. And it is a well-known truism that the best way to discover a country, especially its hills, is on foot.


GTAM variant: with  C. Luya near Tizi n-Tilst on « Tour du Haut Zat », Marrakech High Atlas, Aug 1972 (photo: M. Peyron)

The big-walk ethos, as transplanted to the Moroccan Atlas in the 1970s, rested on the premise that the enthusiast should hump his own backpack, carry minimal edibles, basic maps, adequate gear and spare clothing to cope with changing weather patterns, only resorting to mule support as and when dictated by circumstance. Hence the notion of “serious back-packing” aired above; also lending credence to the motto: “the back-up is in the backpack”. A type of programme devised well before the GPS spoiled route-finders’ fun, and calculated to appeal more to the loner than the crowd-lover. 


C. Luya studying avalanche debris in upper Zat valley, Aug 1972 (photo: M. Peyron)  

Travelling with a chosen companion or two, our big-walk man should have adequate gear for a bivouac. Always be ready to rough it with fellow-wayfarers. Far better, in fact, to live off the land in an intelligent, sustainable way: putting up for the night in a Berber house and paying one’s host for board and lodging. Acquiring a modicum of Tamazight to establish friendly contact with the locals may also be visualized as a prerequisite. Travelling in style is what it’s all about, though some of the more obviously modern creature comforts such as foam-rubber mattresses and portable loos will have been dispensed with. Then, of course, Atlas Berber cuisine may take a bit of getting used to: barley bread dipped in rancid butter (also used to liven up kus-kus); really spicy vegetable stew with stringy mutton; a form of Berber polenta called tagulla n-usengar, or deliciously refreshing buttermilk. At any rate, healthy and wholesome food, quite adequate for the noble purpose of long-distance walking. 

Understandably, the reassuring tent-carrying option, all the rage with today’s commercial caravans of cossetted tourists, is firmly put on the back-burner, implying as it does near-total reliance on mule transport, and keeping participants well away from villages, thus minimising intercourse with the locals. Thus depriving themselves of half the fun involved in an Atlas trip. 

First steps along the way

So much for the philosophy behind the project. When it came down to the nitty-gritty, the Grande Traversée de l’Atlas Marocain (GTAM) gradually got off the ground in 1972, in the shape of disconnected three-day loop trails (the Maasker circuit and “Tour du Haut Zat”). Mere trial gallops. On each occasion, the twosome involved in the exercise carried everything on their backs. There was strictly no nonsense with mule-hire. It wasn’t as much as contemplated. 


Lakes Plateau-Anergui traverse, March 1975 (pre-Google Earth period!)

Come 1975, however, the GTAM achieved form and substance in the shape of a 7-day stint between the Lakes Plateau and Anergui, with a return to jumping-off point at Tassent by a slightly different route. The initial plan was to push on towards the south-west, hopefully reaching Zawiya Tamga, so as to achieve something to write home about. Trouble was, the vehicles had been left at Tassent, north of Imilchil. A case of no-go.

Nonetheless, it proved a positive outing. Although the backpacking option had taken a bashing, with one muleteer accompanying us throughout, the man turned out to be an absolute gem in the person of a certain Saïd ou Haddou. What he couldn’t tell you about the ins and outs of the Asif Melloul region wasn’t worth knowing. He was to acompany us on many a subsequent trip.


Descending on Lake Izly, Ou-Sokhman muleteer with M. Waeckel, March 1975 (photo: M. Peyron) 

The region itself was arguably one of the most remote and captivating in the entire Atlas range. Unperishable memories remain of the Lakes Plateau, a cold, high country, its Imazighen inhabitants – a proud, noble, hospitable people – leading a more or less self-sufficient existence as they had been doing for centuries. And whose sometimes stern faces light up as soon as they hear you speak Tamazight!  


Crossing a névé on descent from Tizi n-Cheffart to Anergui, March 1975 (photo: M. Peyron)

In terms of scenic beauty, too, the land of the Ayt Abdi and Ayt Hadiddou knows few equals. There is, above all, a certain, distinctive quality to the light, affording vast vistas, especially on calm, crisp mornings with fresh snow on the tops following a day of unsettled weather. 


Thunderheads building up above Anergui, Central High Atlas, March 1975 (photo: M. Peyron)

Our failure to effect a traverse as far as Cathedral Mountian, however, rankled with this writer. He was unhappy about that. During the second half of May, he made a solo traverse, Tounfit-Zawit Sidi Hamza, via the Ta’ara’art valley and Tizi n-Mawtfoud, just to acquire a bit more experience at tackling Atlas cols and by-ways.


 Tounfit-Za Si Hamza traverse, May 1975 (sketch map: M. Peyron)

Meanwhile, Fez-based colleague and close friend Denis Dourron had also been doing his stuff. At the end of May, accompanied by his wife Michou, in three days of mule-supported hiking, part of it in the company of Ayt Hadiddou came-driving semi-nomads from the southern slopes, he took the first steps along what was to become the « Tour de l’Ayyachi ». Thus paying fitting tribute to the eastern giant of the main range, that for long had passed as Morocco’s highest mountain.


« Tour de l’Ayyachi » reconaissance, Eastern High Atlas, May 1975 (photo: D. Dourron)

1976: a bumper year for the GTAM

But 1976 was to prove a bumper year in terms of putting the GTAM well and truly on the map and  promoting the small foot-hill town of Tounfit to Number One jumping-off place for the Great Atlas Traverse. Actually, it was a pioneering 14-day Tounfit-Demnat expedition (May 19-April 3) that really set the ball rolling.


First page of present author’s article on GTAM in La Montagne, 1977

After two harrowing stages, foot-slogging through slushy snow in near white-out conditions, the return of fine weather put the party firmly on course for Asif Melloul and points beyond. On this trip the serious back-packing option tended to alternate with periods of mule-hire, according to whim or fatigue.


Putting the GTAM on the map: 2-week traverse Tounfit-Demnat, March 1976

Much of the ground covered in 1975 was thus re-visited, most of it with Saïd ou Haddou and his son, Moha, until Anergui was reached. After that, new ground was broken  during a circumvention of the Kousser massif, including the clear trout-stream of Aqqa n-Oukhashan and a magnificent view of Azourki from Tizi Hammadin.


    Anergui with shrine of Sidi ‘Ali Lhoussein in foreground, Kousser in background, March 1976 (photo: M. Peyron)

 The abiding impression, though, was one of wild, unspoiled scenery. Whole slopes of mountainside covered with thick oak and pine forest rolling upwards to green pastures around Talmest, with a foaming torrent cutting its way down through canyons, plunging over escarpments to join Asif n-Ouhansal. A welcome night at the Chambon saw-mill (Zawiya Tamga), complete with drinks, hot showers, clean sheets and beds, set the party up for the next stage to Zawit Ahansal. And all this before the first TO had had a go at the area!


L. Lambert, J-Y Raffin & Peyre on Anergui-Tamga leg of 2-week Tounfit-Demnat traverse, March 1976 (photo: M. Peyron)

After sampling a roller-coaster mule-trail to Tifwina, then following the dirt road, on the evening of the 9th day the party reached Zawit Ahansal, made famous by Gellner’s book, Saints of the Atlas. The next morning our walkers had a brief lie-in and rest. Lunch over, they laboured along the very base of Jbel Ayoui’s murderous cliffs. Apparently, shortly before,  a couple of Polish women alpinists had come to grief here while roping down from the crags. By tea-time,  just as ominous grey clouds blotted out the surounding hillsides, the would-be end-to-enders had cleared Tizi n-Ilissi and traversed to some sheep-enclosures near Assemsouk at the foot of Azourki, where Saïd ou Ichou, a hospitable Ou-’Atta, took them in for the night.

Luckily, apart from a few snow-flakes, the weather held as the party skirted Azourki next morning and traversed to Tizi n-Tirghist with views into Ayt Bougemmaz. Actually, about half the able-bodied men of the tribe, under the shaikh of the local rural commune, were up there vigorously plying spades in an effort to clear away the snow-drifts that obstructed the col. At 17:30 at the end of a 10-hour hike, backpacking most of the way, the party stopped at Ikhf n-Ighir and were shown into a neatly whitewashed guest-chamber by the village dentist and his charmingly smiling young wife.


Ikhf n-Ighir village dentist and wife, Ayt Bouguemmaz, March 1976 (photo: M. Peyron)

The following day was at once bucolic and restful. With backpacks stowed on Moha ‘Addi’s mule, our GTAM walkers headed off down the Ayt Bougemmaz valley on which winter had not yet relinquished her grip. Peach and almond trees, however, were in blossom and made a pleasant picture against a backdrop of snow-capped peaks. At Igelwan, after paying off the muleteer, all concerned cheerfully reverted to the backpacking mode. Twenty-one kilometres had been covered when, at 17:30, the party stopped outside a rambling great mediaeval fortress of a place – the shaikh’s house in Abachkou n-Ayt Bou Wlli.


« Castle of the snows », Ighrem n-Oumlil & Jbel Rat, March 1976  (photo: M. Peyron)

A lavish Berber breakfast is an unforgettable experience, but boy, can it screw up your day in terms of an early start! However, on the morning of the 13th day nobody was complaining. Substantially restored, our backpackers embarked on an easy stage past Ighboula and then Ighrem n-Oumil, a kind of derelict « castle of the snows » at the foot of Jbel Rat, while a lammergeier soared overhead; then up past the rock-carvings at Tizi n-Tighist, down to Tirsal, through the gorges to Imi n-Ouaqqa and on to road-head at Irouhan. For a final backpacking session, forsaking the winding piste, the party took a short-cut straight to Imi n-Ifri, whence an uninspiring  road-bash brought them to Demnat and the rather basic arrangements of the one hotel in town.

Further developments, summer 1976


  5-day Tichka tour, Western High Atlas, July 1976

That summer witnessed other noteworthy endeavours. First came an early-July, 5-day stint in the Western High Atlas, up the Nfis valley to its source, down into the Seksawa, round the Tichka plateau and back down the Nfis, adding a useful western leg to the GTAM. On this occasion, though, the author fell foul of companions committed to the baggage-mule option.


Approaching Tizi n-Imedlawn on « Tour du Tichka« ; Temttaden (3366m) in background, Western High Atlas, July 1976 (photo: M. Peyron)

This gave rise to interesting situations: daily verbal punch-ups over morning departure times and choice of bivvi sites, not to mention hours wasted on picnics and re-loading the mules. Nevertheless, the outing was an unqualified success. Many years later certain Brit TOs more or less cribbed this route, working it into what they styled « Trek of the titans », or some suchlike hype denomination.


Tizi n-Imedlawn bivvy site, « Tour du Tichka« , Western High Atlas July 1976 (photo: M. Peyron)

Actually, in terms of nights spent beneath a starry canopy, fresh ground covered and group dynamics studied at first hand, much was achieved. Such was the amount of tinned food carried, not to mention other goodies, that no fewer than four baggage mules were necessary. Unsurprisingly, the disgruntled chief muleteer almost sparked a mutiny when he felt he was being asked to operate too far “out of area” for too low a wage. Anyhow, it confirmed the present writer in his opinion that mismanaged muleteers could easily jeopardize the successful outcome of an Atlas expedition. Better not to rely on them too much !   

A month later, with two companions (P. & F. Verny) the present narrator made an  unsupported 3-day tour of Jbel Ayyachi from Tattiwin to the Mitqan forestry hut via Aïn Taghighat, Taaraart and Ayt Chrad. Each participant was kitted out with a 7-8 kilo backpack, containing sleeping-bag, warm clothing and a few edibles. Luckily, the weather was fine but relatively cool at altitude. A good thing, as the first leg, Tattiwin-Taaraart (35 km), lasted 14 hours and proved something of a killer; especially the toe-stubbing descent from Tizi n-ou Adil to Taaraart. The second day was kinder on the party’s feet, however, and there was even a bathing interlude in the Ayt Bou Arbi gorges.That night was the highlight of the trip in the shaikh’s house at Ayt Chrad when a scrumptious chicken and olive tajine graced the dinner-table.


Ayyachi circuit: starting descent from Tizi n-Tifelghest to Ayt Ouchen, Aug 12, 1976 (photo: M. Peyron)

The final  day saw our backpackers swinging around ‘Ayyachi through oak and juniper, via Aqqa n-Bou Ghaba’s swift-flowing stream, across the Imtchimen hamlets and on to the Mitqan cedar forest where they were picked up by by Verny’s people from Midelt.


Skech-map of Ayyachi circuit, Aug 10-12, 1976

This writer recuperated for a week or so. Enough anyway, to hype himself up for a solo effort (Aug. 21-27), from Bougemmaz to Oukaimedden, to bring the GTAM trail to the foot of Toubkal. His rucksack contained:- a) four sticks of nougat, four Mars bars, a handful of dates, some dehydrated soup, a few tea-bags and a billycan; b) an anorak, light sleeping-bag, three T-shirts, two pairs of under-pants; a spare shirt and gym-shoes (for river-wading; came in useful along the Tassawt). Not to mention an old SLR camera with 80 and 200 m/m telephoto lens.


7-day Bougemmaz-Ouka route of  GTAM, Aug 1976

Being alone among the Ichelhayn for a week proved a two-sided experience. While offering an unprecedented opportunity for practising Tamazight and meeting some highly likeable people, walking solo places you at the mercy, so to speak, of the inhabitants. In 1976, so the author discovered, certain stretches of country on this particular route had already been irrevocably contaminated by tourists: Bougemmaz, especially, not to mention Ichebaken village in the upper Tassawt valley and the Yagour plateau.


Fording the Tassawt river near Tagoulast (photo: M. Peyron)

Thus there were numerous cases of cigarette-cadging, begging in various guises, hassle from kids and dishonest muleteers on two occasions when their services were resorted to. A bad mark for non-standard behaviour goes to the village of Ayt Ouiksan, between the Rdat and Zat valleys, where despite having politely requested hospitality with the ritual anebgi rebbi, this writer had several doors closed in his face. Night was falling when finally a muleteer, homeward-bound from the ssuq, spontaneoulsy welcomed him with a merhba, ay anebgi rebbi! Luckily though, and that was what saved the trip, on many other occasions, the most heartfelt, disinterested kindness was shown to this traveller.


Tisselli from near Ibourrouden, Tassawt valley (photo: author’s scrap-book)

After some punishing stages, especially as soloing tends to make one walk longer than necessary, it all ended most fittingly. Late on the afternoon of August 27th, after a thirsty climb from the Ourika valley, he breasted Tizi n-Ou Attar in thick mist, with a bare half an hour between himself and the CAF-Hut, Oukaimmeden, where his wife and two daughters were waiting to greet him. Yet another chapter had been written in the development of the GTAM. The main route, together with several variants, had been successfully reconnoitred.

A first guide-book appears (1977) 

The project subsequently evolved in a somewhat haphazard manner, rhyme and reason being in scant supply at this early stage. The time factor also curtailed exploratory efforts, this writer rarely being able to get away for more than three or four days at one go. Unaccountably, too, reconnaissance trips tended to trend north-east/south-west. In fact, GTAM planning unwittingly built on that rationale for several years, to the point of listing the opening legs of a future Grande Traversée de l’Atlas Marocain in a first guide-book, De l’Ayachi au Koucer, co-authored with Denis Dourron in 1977 (see below). 


However, the trend was reversed when the project re-emerged in 1983-84. The main route was re-oriented along a south-westerly/north-easterly axis due to inclusion of the skiing option, given that most snow-retaining cwms face NE. Even though, to this day, the present writer tends to favour a NE/SW itinerary when working specific sections of the GTAM on foot. It’s probably got something to do with the fact that the range is usually approached from the north, when coming by car from, say, Rabat or Ifrane. For Agadir- or Marrakech-based parties, though, the south-west/north-east trend would make better sense. 

Filling in a few more gaps


Iger n-Wul, Ayt Mdiwal valley, Jbel Rat in background, Oct 15, 1978 (photo: R. Proton) 

Meanwhile, there had been some noteworthy reconnaissances: a 4-day loop with René Proton around castle-like Jbel Rat – which became « Tour du Rat » in the GTAM guide-book -  from the Tifni Forestry Hut, up the Ayt Mdiwal valley and over Tizi n-Ibolozn into the forgotten valley of Ait Mallalhl. Undertaken from October 15-18, 1978, this was a great backpacking enterprise, though with some mule support half-way through.


Looking from Tizi n-Ibolozn down Ayt Mallahl valley, Oct 16, 1978 (photo: R. Proton) 

Also a 6-day circuit with M. Suzor, mostly in the backpacking mode, from Cathedral Mountain to the Kousser plateau and Upper Dades with a return via Zerchan and Anergui, featuring a couple of punishing 13-hour stages (5-10 July, 1980). On the last day, during a fishing episode, Suzor caught several trout in Aqqa n-Oukhachan, but at least one trophy was recaptured by a huge black and yellow snake that dived back into the river immediately!

Another 6-day loop developed when the original 3-day « Tour de l’Ayyachi » underwent a thorough revisit (March 21-26, 1981). This time the author teamed up with former Chasseur alpin Y. Biville, both of them humping king-size backpacks.


Sunrise departure from Ta’ara’art with Aomar and Y. Biville, « Tour de l’Ayyachi », March 1981 (photo: M. Peyron)

Apart from a couple of mornings when a Berber  accompanied them to the nearest col with his mule, the Biville-Peyron team wore their ruck-sacks in pure GTAM style. There were a couple of 9-hour stages to start off with, then came a 10-hour stint.


At Tizi n-Wamghas on « Tour de l’Ayaychi« , March 1981 (photo: Y. Biville)

As they were getting into their stride, the 4th day saw  a round-the-clock, dawn-to-dusk extravaganza from Taaraart to Tazrouft; the bone-jarring descent from Tizi n-Wamghas will long live in this writer’s memory. So will the evening peace and quiet of Tazruft, not to mention awaking to the twittering of myriad birds next morning. There followed a « rest day » – a few hours’ walk - which took them just beyond the brow of the next hill, to Enndt,  a rather warm location with sedate, bee-keeping inhabitants. The return to Midelt via Enndt and Tizi n-Merzitqi proved something of an anti-climax, once the pass had been crossed via a rather hot, toe-stubbing piste.

For ten days in early September of 1981 this writer escorted four CAF-ites (who had flown out from France) between Tounfit and Tamga, GTAM-style, fitting in the Imilchil bridal fair en route.


Conversation with Berber ladies between Imilchil and Tasraft, Sep 1981 (photo: J. Dugas)

The trip had been arranged through correspondence with the parties concerned in an attempt, however small, to take some of the Tour Operators’ business away from them! And it was an unqualified success, the party alternating between backpacking and mule-supported mode.

A 1982-1983 winter interlude witnessed the N-S winter traverse with M. Barbaud from Tounfit to Agoudim – a welcome opportunity to don crampons on Jbel Ma’asker’s steep frosty slopes.


Winter variant: N-S traverse of Jbel Ma’asker, Tounfit-Agoudim, with M. Barbaud, Jan 1983 (photo: M. Peyron)

Putting the « great » back into « traverse » 

In 1983 long-distance reconnaissance activity resumed along the GTAM in the shape of a 10-day Azilal-Midelt traverse via Upper Dadds and the Ayt Hadiddou plateau. The party of consisted of seasoned backpackers: former Chasseur alpin Yves Biville and the Dugas couple from Lyons (France), who had walked theTounfit-Tillougit « trade route » with us in September 1981.


Graph showing Azilal-Midelt traverse, 19-28/03/1983

 Undertaken in indifferent weather, the traverse showed that participants were in fine fettle, the muleteer less so. On reaching Ayt Khouya in Ouzirimt the party had put behind them a day’s stage of 32 kilometres and scaled two passes for a total up-and-down of 3100 metres. Much to the disgust of their mule escort, Hmad of Sremt, who had been banking on a cushy ticket with easy stages. The party had hired him on the strength of his knowing the way to Oussikis; which he didn’t!

In the end, though, our backpackers’ map-reading efforts put him back on track. After a restful night on a mattress of sheep-dung in a cattle-pen came a longer stage (35 kilometres) on Day 4, across an expanse of high-altitude desert between Arj Amskan and Oussikis. Enlivened by a spot of drama. Once clear of Tizi n-Taghfist Hmad clambered onto his mule. Minutes later, as he jerked into a trot, the whole contraption suddenly came tumbling down: Hmad, load, mule and all. Lucky thing his animal didn’t bust a leg in the process, or the party would have been up the creek in a big way! At Tabwidamt the next morning, it was the parting of the ways as Hmad steeled himself for the long haul back to Bougemmaz and we shifted with relish into backpacking mode.


Map of 10-day Azilal-Midelt traverse, March 1983 

Beneath a grey, drizzly sky, a gentle stage along Asif Imdghas took the party to the last Ayt Hadiddou village in the valley before the big jump over the very backbone of giant Atlas. Delightful hospitality: tasty kus-kus served as the rain came down in buckets outside. The following day brought bright blue skies and fresh snows on the tops. Ideal conditions for the protracted tramp (37 kilometres; 10 hours on the trail) over Tizi n-Ouerz, on across upland steppe and down to Agoudal n-Ayt Brahim. Here, villagers’ welcome rated as A1. As soon as they approached the party were invited to to come and warm their hands by a bonfire.

Day 7: more backpacking across unrelieved waste-land, rendered desolate by local women daily foraging for tussocks of tifsy, the only fuel available. After climbing down from Tizi n-Ousfel a profusion of blossoming peach trees announced Ou-Terbat, a sizeable settlement where qayd proved friendly and accommodation was available in an upstairs room looking out onto the main street.


Tizi n-Ousfel (near Ou-Terbat) on an Azilal-Midelt traverse with seasoned backpackers  S. & J. Dugas + Y. Biville, March 1983 (photo: M. Peyron)

Day 8 involved yet further, inspired backpacking and a 31-kilometre grind: first up and over Tizi n-Wiskuran with a grandstand view of superbly snow-capped Ayyachi; then pounding for hours down an unending dry valley, sparsely covered with ash and boxwood. Met timber-rustlers en route, each one of their mules dragging a cedar trunk.


Approach to Tizi n-Wiskuran above Ou-Terbat with S. Dugas, March 1983 (photo: Y. Biville)

That night our walkers put up for the night in Ayt Hattab, at the moqqadam‘s; this lowly official proved a mite suspicious regarding some hidden, sinister purpose behind our Atlas journey, but the atmosphere eventually cleared. Another fine day took the party over Tizi n-Lamsaf to a hospitable bothy where they had tea with the shepherds; then down hideously eroded slopes, past multilated cedars to Agouddim, where a warm welcome awaited them at the house of Moha ou ‘Ali.

It had clouded over during the night, so the party battled head-winds on the final stretch to Tounfit, which was reached as the first snow-flakes fell. No time was lost commandeering a clapped-out, unlicensed cattle-truck for the onward connection to Boumia, and then Midelt. A gendarme who checked the driver’s credentials en route was non-plussed that a party of four Europeans (including a full-colonel in the French army) should have spent ten days roughing it in the wilderness, only to end up in such a dilapidated contrivance on the Midelt road. And all of it for fun!

Middle Atlas GTAM: reaching up to Taza

That summer, the Dugas returned for a final push from the Zad Pass to Taza (June 27 – July 05, 1983), to conclude a series of recce trips and finally link up the GTAM with its planned terminal at the NE end of the range.


G. and S. Dugas on the Middle Atlas leg of the GTAM, June 28, 1983 (photo: M. Peyron)

Undertaken during Ramadan it was not an unqualified success in terms of group dynamics, personal relations emerging somewhat frayed from the experience, though the actual route was followed through as planned. Luckily, the weather remained fine throughout. The remote wooded valleys between Bou Iblan and Tamttroucht proved the most interesting stretch of country in the Middle Atlas.


  Middle Atlas leg of GTAM

Tying up loose odds and ends

This traverse had highlighted the much neglected Middle Atlas, in which connection another shortcoming had been revealed: the gap between Aghbala in the High Atlas proper, and the Zad Pass whence the Middle Atlas leg of the GTAM snakes off towardsTaza. This particular piece of business was a heaven-sent excuse for a 3-day backpacking romp  concluded in fine  style with companion Yves Biville, a former Chasseur alpin.


Y. Biville pulls up his socks in Kerrouchen forest, May 1984 (photo: M. Peyron)

These endeavours had emphasized the importance of the Middle Atlas as prime walking country, whereas it is sometimes unkindly dismissed by some observers as a range of little consequence. For a further stint we teamed up with Ayyad Kerouach, himself a native of the area, for a memorable 4-day tramp around Bou Iblan during the last week of May 1984.  


With A. Kerouach near Tizi ou-Mouch,  »Tour du Bou Iblan« , Eastern Middle Atlas, May 1984 (photo: M. Peyron)

This little venture afforded some first-class backpacking, especially over the first two days. The weather remained fine throughout. Day 1 took our hikers from Sidi ‘Ammar to Talzemt via Tizi ou-Mouch, through quaint Aghbal hamlet lost high up in the cedars, and over Tizi Widal. It worked out as a 10-hour + jaunt, yet without undue distress for toes and/or boot-soles.

The second day was marked by a crossing of the impressive Meskeddal gorge, with cedars jutting out from ledges half way up cliff faces. Quite a place; in fact, the last local resistance fighters in 1927 had holed up in this canyon. That evening, the party slept in the house of shaikh Abdallah ou Bni Bhar at Tamjilt.


Eastern Midle Atlas showing Bou Iblan tour itinerary (2131-2134)

The following day our walkers put their backpacks onto a mule for the tough, arid climb to Tizi Tandadart where they said goodbye to their escort. A lengthy descent ensued, over pastures and then across impressivley steep, cedar-covered slopes below the cliffs of Ich Izedian.


With A. Kerouach below Ich Izedian on « Tour du Bou Iblan » May 1984 (photo: M. Peyron)

Arriving in Tanchraramt around tea-time, the party were kept waiting, somewhat boorishly un-entertained, until the moqqadam showed up, when traditional hospitality was finally forthcoming. The last day, fortunately with mule support till half-way stage, developed into a mammoth 11-hour walk past Tizi n-Hatran and its flower-carpeted meadows, followed by a plunge down through impenetrable oak forest  to Beni Suhan. From there a blistering bout on tarmac brought our backpacking pair to « Jerda », whence they hitched a ride on a van back to Ayyad’s house overlooking the Zloul plain.

The focus was to remain on the Middle Atlas that autumn during an outing with Michel Barbaud from Immouzzar-Marmoucha to Oulad ‘Ali and back, over the weekend of October 6-7, 1984. This was backpacking with a vengeance. Day 1: a gruelling 11-hour grind from Ayt Youb n-Temghilt Forestry Hut, to Tizi n-Rsas and over the Chegg el-Ard escarpment to Ayt Belqassem just above Oulad ‘Ali.


South of Bou Iblan with M. Barbaud, Oct 6, 1984 (photo: M. Peyron)

After overnighting in the house of Haddou Lahssen, crazily perched on a cliff-edge, the return took just 7 hours by the direct route: back across the plateau toTafercht n-Tammlalt, Tizi Amghan, the Tiferqwatin pastures and Wawlzamt village. Just before the last-named village a couple of foxes were spotted, a rare sight in broad daylight.

Tounfit back-country trails

A month later, it was back to the Tounfit area with daughter Caroline, Claude and Michel Barbaud,  and friend Béatrice Humbert. On November 4th, we reached the Tirghist  Forestry Hut in 10 hours via the usual Assaka-Anefgou route.


B. Humbert & C. Peyron, amid cedars of Tizi n-Ayt Brahim, Nov 4, 1984 (photo: M. Peyron)

The next day fresh ground was broken as the party pushed past Tirghist village to foot of Wilghissen, which was ascended by an unlikely, steep and winding path, known as sellum n-igenna (‘heavenly staircase’). Quite a grind, that! Then due E along the Wilghissen ridge as it started to snow; finally down to Tizrawlin village and great welcome in the house of moqqadam Boulman Ouzzeriy. An 11-hour grind in all.

The third day, as they had to return urgently to Rabat, the Barbauds braved a blizzard and-a-half (narrowly avoiding frost-bite in the process) as they clambered back due north over Tizi n-Oulmou Igri to Anemzi, while the rest of the party headed off down-valley to Tazzarin. Here they caught a lorry at 18:00 which put them in Rich by 21:00. After a light snack they boarded the night bus from Rachidiya at 22:00 and were in Meknes by 04:30 the next morning. They finally made it to Rabat by taxi at 06:45 on November 7, 1984.


Serious backpacking: M. Barbaud & friends head past shrine of Sidi bou Wnzar, Dec 7, 1984 (photo: M. Peyron)

A month later exactly, the present writer was back again at the Tirghist Forstry Hut with Fournié, Michel Legras, Hélène Ripoll and Michel Barbaud. This time, however, on December 8th, the party turned right and made for Tizi n-Isswal, then to Enzar n-Oufounas on edge of Lakes Plateau, over Tizi Widammen and down to Asif n-Ougheddou. This was followed upstream, involving some wading, along foot of Jbel Tazigzaout to Agheddou village where, arriving after the by now standard 12-hour path-bash, accommodation was easily obtained. From there, on December 9th, the backpackers crossed Tizi n-Ighil, descended through the cedars and made it to the Sidi Yahya ou-Youssef Forestry Hut (where vehicles were waiting) before lunch .

The GTAM comes of age (1985)

In January 1985, after intense editorial efforts over the previous six months, the first edition of the GTAM guide-book in French was officially launched, backed by book-signing  and lecture evenings in Rabat. A 280-page volume, the Grande Traversée de l’Atlas Marocain (GTAM) represented the sum total of the various recce trips and traverses done up till then, with miscellaneous loop trails, variants, ascents of easy summits, together with some info on ski-touring, including the  classic Atlas off-piste ski-runs.

Its unavowed purpose was to provide the dedicated, independent backpacker with the necessary tools to do his own thing, to go it alone or with a fistful of hand-picked companions. Above all, to dispense with the services of a TO.

Actually, there weren’t awfully many of these outfits in the Atlas game at the time. It was a pretty exclusive club: Explorator, Sherpa,Terdav, Mountain Adventure, French guides Rey, Jaccoux, and « Bernouze »,  some of their Swiss and Italian counterparts, etc. But the very fact that they were out there, with their glossy catalogues and programmed trips every spring and summer, represented the thin end of the wedge. It was easy to visualize a rapidly expanding market, as other players jumped onto the band-wagon. Not to mention the saturation that was to follow, the unsavoury fall-out from regular visits by the big battalions, the abuse of Berber hospitality and culture shock, over-use of mules to the detriment of local agriculture, and other factors that would gradually destroy the undefinable appeal of these beautiful hills. That the guide-book was an anti-TO exercise was patently clear, for which reason the present writer came in for a fair share of flak from some quarters. In fact, to say that the Peyron volume caused quite a stir at the time would have been the under-statement of the year. The more so as certain parties that shall remain unnamed, feeling that somebody had stolen their thunder, chose to register disapproval. Anyway, deservedly or not, the offending volume sold out within a few months.


Cover of the 1st GTAM guide-book, January 1985

The main dish on the menu, of course, was a blow-by-blow follow-through of the basic GTAM itinerary from Imi n-Tanout (SW of Marrakech) to Taza (a foothill town N of the Middle Atlas). As such it  became the first guide-book description to take in the entire Moroccan Atlas chain. As the author was at pains to point out, however, existence of the guide-book was not an end in itself. Allowance obviously had to be made for development; like a living entity the GTAM project was bound to undergo pruning and embellishment over the years to come.

Adding further bits and pieces

The spring holidays of end-March 1985 witnessed an interesting medium-altitude traverse from Imi n-Tanout to Amzmiz with daughter Caroline and four of her school-friends from the Rabat Lycée Descartes: two boys, two girls. The idea was to see how a group of teenagers would fare in the mountains on a backpacking trip, sleeping in Berber villages, eating simple but healthy food, and generally roughing it well away from Mum and Dad.


G. Cressman, A. Desfaut & B. Steinger fording Seksawa torrent, March 24, 1985 (photo: M. Peyron)

The first day saw the party emerge somewhat cramped and stiff from a night in the Imi n-Tanout funduq. There ensued several hours following the lower reaches of the Seksawa river, sometimes wading (wow! the water was perishingly cold…). Slept at Tabratjout in house of Mohammed Chitithi, but decided, for the morrow, to hire a muleteer to convey the party’s baggage on the first leg to a col west of Addouz. Fom there, once more with packs on their backs, with challenging views of the Erdouz massif ahead, it would be plain sailing for the teenagers down to the Adassil administrative outpost and the completion of a gruelling 11-hour stage.


With teenagers at Tizi n-Tazoult, Erdouz massif in background, Mar 25, 1985 (photo: M. Peyron)

This proved to be a sizeable village, with the qayd‘s building affording some makeshift lodgings for the night. The third day was spent on the track that climbs E from Adassil to Iberdaten, where a hospitable villagers entertained the party to lunch. They then worked round the base of Wirzan, crossed a low col and descended on Medint with its maze of walnut-trees.


C. Peyron, A. Desfaut,  S. Alaban, G. Cressman & B. Steinger above Adassil, March 26, 1985 (photo: M. Peyron)  

No invitation at Medint so pushed on to Anerni where, after being 10h30 on the trail, we spent the night in the very friendly house of Ali Ayt Abbou. The final day saw the party cross a low ridge into Asif Anougal, which valley was then followed without further ado to Amzmiz. By a combination of taxi and electric train, Rabat was reached that night via Marrakech. The outing had proved that teenagers are quite apt to stand up to the rough-and-tumble of adventure backpacking in the Atlas Mountains. No cry-baby behaviour; no wanting to be back home with Mummy! Less so, in fact, than with certain grown-ups.


Approaching Tizi n-Tighboula with M. Barbaud between Izoughar and Tafrawt n-Ayt Abdi, April 1985 (photo: M. Peyron)

In keeping with the evolutive rationale of the GTAM, in April 19-22, 1985, a stimulating weekend recce trip was undertaken with Michel Barbaud to investigate the possibilities between Bougemmaz and Zawit Ahansal. Highlights included a bivvi at Lake Izoughar; a 12-hour stage to Tafraout n-Ayt Abdi; an almost equally long haul over Tizi n-Ifferd, with a peep at its exciting snow-melt lake, followed by the descent to Zawit Ahansal.


About to descend from Tizi n-Ifferd on Zawit Ahansal, April 1985 (photo: M. Peyron) 

Weekend of November 7th-9th, 1985: a great little outing to the Imilchil region in the by now well-established autumnal walking tradition, with Michel and Claude Barbaud, Michel Legras, Jacqueline and Lou-lou Audouin. Basic ingredients: bulging, body-hugging backpacks, tough trail-bashing, uncomfortable bivvi, hospitable mountain Berbers and photography. Reaching Imilchil in perfect weather on Friday, November 8th, we parked our cars near the Boudrik café-hôtel (Izlane) and lost no time making tracks for Oul-Deddi village, a few hours downstream.


Drinking tea with Saïd ou Haddou, C. Barbaud, Mme Audouin, J. Legras, at Ou-Lghazi, Nov 8th, 1985 (photo: L. Audouin)

Were away by 9am next morning, skirting Asif Melloul and following track to Oul-Ghazi, where we looked up our old companion Saïd ou-Haddou. After drinking mint tea outside his house, got him to show us the way up Aqqa n-Tissout n-Iysan thus putting us on the trail to Amandar, where we intended to bivvi. There ensued a bitter night in a roofless sheep-pen. Next morning, however, (November 9th) came the reward: a smooth ridge traverse of Amandar (3037m) mountain with superlative visibility: all-encompassing views rom Azourki at our backs to Ayyachi ahead of us.


Very essence of serious backpacking; C. & M. Barbaud on Amandar ridge, Nov 9th, 1985 (photo: M. Peyron)

A brief descent took us past Aghbalou n-Inejda into the upper part of Aqqa n-Sountat; followed this along a R-bank path, recognizing scenes from photographs in classic book, Maroc central by J. Robichez, below distinctive peak of Amghid, and thus to Asif Melloul at Sountat village. From there all that remained was a straightforward road-bash to Imilchil.

Now was the time to return to the Marrakech High Atlas. Proved quite a lark, it did, that outing with Andrew Byatt along the far western leg of the GTAM, from Timezgadiwin to Ijoukak, April 24-28, 1986. This is how it went.


Imi n-Wasif village and Ras Moulay Ali, Apr 26, 1986 (photo: M. Peyron)

After an approach by rail and bus the twosome backpacked through the western hills, sleeping in Berber villages along the way, from the 511 road to the Aghbar Forestry hut just below the Tizi n-Test, whence they hitch-hiked down to Ijoukak.


On Western High Atlas traverse, Apr 24-28, 1986 (sketches by A. Byatt)

Andrew proved a superb walker, with plenty of Scotttish Highland experience to draw on. Berber polenta, however, gave him a bad attack of the trots, and he slowed dramatically on the climb to Tizi Azdim. Rallying bravely, he led on uncomplainingly down into the tangled Tiziatin forest and trout-filled Aghbar stream. For this writer it was a perfect treat to revisit those unspoiled Seksawa valleys and their beautiful peaks, « which reach to the sky » according to Ibn Khaldoun’s Histoire des Berbères. Little had changed in the past 20 years since he’d visited them for the firts time.


The GTAM was to be re-visited just a couple of times before the present writer went into French exile for a decade. First, a winter stint: Tounfit-Tillougit December 23-28, 1987; followed by a final fling the following spring: Telwat-Tillougit March 1988.

It was a party of eight (including daughter Caroline as far as Imilchil) that swung off along the well-trodden track through Tiboulkheirin forest. Lodgings were obtained at house of local circumciser, Ou-Baâ, at Lmerri. Uneventful progress saw party reach Tirghist Forestry Hut before dusk.


Chatting up Berber ladies, Anefgou, Dec 24, 1987 (photo: A.N. Other)

Next morning, it was Christmas and by lunch-time they had reached shores of Lake Izly which they shared with a lone yellow-footed Herring Gull (larus cachinnans micahellis). Christmas night was spent at inn of Moha ou Zayd at Imilchil. The following day, five of the party chose to catch northward-bound transport; this writer plunged on with two companions down the Asif Melloul canyon to Oul-Ghgazi.


Backpacking in Asif Melloul canyon between Ou-Deddi and Oul-Ghazi, Dec 26, 1987 (photo: A.N. Other)

At this point, after four days of backpacking, the party felt they could resort to mule-hire. A short leg brought them to a lone house above Tousefseddi, where the author collected several poems that later appeared in his book, Isaffen Ghbanin. On December 27th our hikers settled down to a lengthy footslog to Agerd n-Wul and over the Achfart pass, that saw them home and dry in Anargui shortly after tea-time. The next day they got to Tillougit, and the day after a combination of Land-Rover and taxi landed them in Beni Mellal.


Author near Beqrit, Middle-Atlas, June 1987 (photo: M. Barbaud)

Final fling along GTAM prior to French exile came in the shape of an 11-day valley-crawl and pass-trundle during end-March 1988 vacation. From Anmiter near Telwat up to Imi n-Warg, just short of Tillouggit n-Ayt Messat. Carried out with three companions as far as Tirsal, after which this writer went it alone.


On Day 6 of 11-day traverse; Jbel Rat reflected in lake, Tirsal, March 1988, (photo: M. Peyron) 

It was a somewhat frustrating execise, at first, with snow at lake Inhgemar forcing the party to make a southerly detour before crossing Tizi n-Fedghat. Highlights included a restful night at Tagoukht; wading Tassawt’s swollen, muddy waters at Ayt Ali n-Itto; a superbly decorated ceiling adorning an igherm NW of Jbel Rat; an improbably peaceful  tarn nearby, and a warm welcome by mountain Berbers of Ayt Bou Wlli and Ayt Ayt Bougemmaz. Following a pleasant interlude among the Ayt Atta of Talmest, the final ride down to Wawizaght on the back of a lorry proved something of an anti-climax. But that is all part of the GTAM experience: « ye takes the rough with the smooth! »


Be that as it may, the above compilation contains the more outstanding trips that fit into the end-to-end traverse rationale. Gives some idea of what it took, in terms of blisters, blackened toe-nails, worn socks and boot-soles, of hours spent on mountain trails, to put together over 16 years so vast an undertaking as the present « Great Atlas Traverse », alias Grande Traversée de l’Atlas Marocain, or GTAM.

By 1988, the year this writer left Morocco for ten years in France to round off his career, he felt the time was right for a revamped version of the GTAM guide-book. The first edition of the GTAM  had been basic and amateurish, if detailed and genuine, even judged rather arid by some readers as it boasted no photos - only line drawings and sketch-maps. Remember: this in an age in which an uncompromisingly superficial reading public accepts nothing less than colour photos on glossy paper.

Result barely lived up to expectations. What the reader got was a coloured cover, a selection of black and white photos, a fuller account of the main itinerary and side-trips, but only a few very general maps, as route descriptions were directly linked to the corresponding 1/100.000 IGN sheets. Since these were rather hard to obtain from a tight-fisted adminstrative office in Rabat (Le Service de la Carte), with baffling opening hours, route-finding became something of a problem for prospective GTAM enthusiasts. Worse still, the number of typos and other mistakes was appalling and proof-correcting an unfinished nightmare. However, as it was, the book was there and available – at least until the turn of the century.* As the French say, au moins il avait le mérite d’exister.

  Lone Backpacker

Grenoble, July 2010


 Cover of 2nd edition, GTAM guide-book (1988) depicting M. Morgenthaler on Isk n-Yahya in June 1971


Map of GTAM in 2nd edition of guide-book (1988)


* Now, of course, it has become a collector’s item, with a copy occasionally featuring on !

N.B. Unless otherwise stated all texts and illustrations are copyright by Michael Peyron. Material from same may be quoted in accordance with accepted academic standards.

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Catherine Manhardt – Religion and Legitimacy: Amazigh challenges to the central government in Morocco in the 16th-19th centuries

Posté par Michael Peyron le 2 juillet 2010

Catherine Manhardt 

Amazigh History and Culture 

Professor Michael Peyron 

Final Paper 

Religion and Legitimacy:  Amazigh Challenges to the Central Government in Morocco in the 16th- 19th Centuries 

One of the most striking features of the Moroccan political system has, and continues to be, the interaction between religion and politics.  From the King whose legitimacy rests in his role as Commander of the Faithful to the local marabout who serves as an arbiter in tribal politics, political legitimacy and action in Morocco is deeply entwined with religious belief and practice.  This paper will focus on the appropriation of religious institutions as a tool for challenging the central government by Morocco’s Amazigh populations.  It shall endeavor to explain the social and political context which made this action possible and then outline specific key instances where Amazigh populations used religious institutions as a vehicle for achieving political objectives. 

For Morocco’s rural, Berber speaking populations, religion has consistently played a key role in ordering social, political, and economic life.  In these Amazigh societies saints, also called murabitin or igurramen, helped to maintain a level of political stability in what is conventionally understood to be an inherently anarchic tribal system of social ordering.  These men (and occasional women), are defined by Ernest Gellner in his seminal work, Saints of the Atlas, as: 

“one who is descended from the Prophet…and is thus a sharif, is visibly a recipient of divine blessing, baraka, mediates between men and God and arbitrates between men and men, dispenses blessing, possesses magical powers, is a good and pious man, observes Koranic precepts…is uncalculatingly generous and hospitable and rich, does not fight or engage in feuds… [2]” 

While certain parts of this description are not terribly helpful to this analysis, it is important to note that these saints do derive their legitimacy from religious grounds.  As Gellner states, the saint possesses a sort of divine blessing, or baraka.  Baraka, however, is not a static personal characteristic or attribute.  The saint has the ability to transmit this baraka to others.  This phenomenon places saints in a position where they are uniquely suited to serve as an intermediary between God and the people of their community, passing divine blessing along to their clients.  The possession and ability to transmit baraka, personal characteristics, such as generosity and hospitality, and the neutrality lent to their position by the inability of saints to engage in feuding, are all factors that helped saints rise to occupy positions of political importance within their communities.    It is also necessary to briefly touch on the issue of descent from the Prophet Mohammed, or being a sharif.  This lineage could act as a powerful source of legitimacy for saints, but being a sharif was not strictly necessary to qualify a person as a saint.  This issue will be explored in greater depth later in this analysis.   

Once a person achieved the status of saint, they could fulfill a number of roles within their society, some of them decidedly political.  One action consistently associated with saints is that of arbitration.  Because of their inherent neutrality, saints were seen as a occupying a position whereby they could serve as intermediaries and help the disputing parties come to a mutually beneficial resolution.  On a more specific level, Gellner describes the activities of the saints in the village of Zaouia Ahansal.  In this community the local marabouts also supervised the elections of chiefs from amongst the lay tribes, provided a type of political continuity as tribal offices did not have permanent occupants, and played an important role in the main legal decision procedure of trial by oath.

These saints could also serve as leaders if more than one tribe needed to band together against outside aggression, a trait that will play a large role in this analysis.  Morocco’s political system throughout much of the 15th and 16th centuries lent itself extraordinarily well to the proliferation of these local saint leaders.  The central authority of the Sultanate was not nearly as well ordered or strong as it had been during the previous centuries, under the rule of the Almoravid and Almohad Dynasties.  The Marinid Dynasty was in definite decline and under serious threat from Spanish and Portuguese invaders looking to Morocco to expand their commercial interests. When the Marinid Dynasty finally collapsed, the Wattasids that succeeded them were unable to keep the same level of centralized control over the country.  The Wattasids ruled with a more tribally oriented strategy.  The Wattasid Sultan was not an absolute ruler by any stretch of the imagination.  He was much more like a patron and protector of the tribes that supported him, gaining their allegiance through marriage and the granting of land use rights.

In practicing politics this way, the Wattasid Dynasty established the foundation for the political system that would define Morocco until the advent of the protectorate period.  This system is that of the bled-makhzen and the bled-siba.  In this system the Sultanate was not the absolute center of power and legitimacy in the country.  Instead it was one of many competing centers of power in the Moroccan political field.  Tribes who swore allegiance to the Sultan, paid taxes, and/or provided troops for the Sultan’s armed forces were considered to be part of the makhzen. Tribes that refused to pay taxes and recognize the administrative authority of the Sultan made up the siba.  These tribes could still recognize the religious authority held by the Sultan as the Commander of the Faithful, but remained outside the central government as they would not submit to the Sultan’s fiscal authority.   

Every new Sultan would have to renegotiate alliances with tribal leaders once he came into power, regardless of the relationships these same tribes held with his predecessor.  Then, once these relationships were reconstructed, there was no real guarantee that the tribes would stay within the makhzen fold for the Sultan’s full reign.  A good example is the case of Massa, a city in the Sous region of Morocco.  In the year 1835 Massa rebelled against the Sultan after an attempt to dramatically raise the annual taxes paid.  The people of Massa won a decisive victory against the forces that the Sultan Moulay Abd al-Rahman sent to collect the taxes owed, with the end result being that for the short term, at least, Massa no longer had to pay taxes.   

This situation of outside threats from Christian European powers and lack of strong central authority created an environment where local saints and religious brotherhoods were able to flourish.  For this reason, the period in Moroccan history from the 15th century to the 17th century has been termed by some as the “Maraboutic Crisis”. As mentioned earlier, local saints had the ability to draw together people from various tribes in times of trouble.  Throughout this era, the Sultanate was unable to face the threat of Portuguese and Spanish invasion on their own, and the local murabitin were the ones to organize the resistance movements needed to push the Europeans back.  Men who distinguished themselves in the jihad against the Christian forces also sometimes gained the standing needed to become a marabout after successful campaigns.   

In addition to local saints, trans-tribal religious brotherhoods, or zawiya-s also began to expand their political role during this period.  While not exclusive to Berber speaking areas, these brotherhoods certainly did include a number of Amazigh peoples in their membership.  Sufism gained prominence in the Moroccan religious scene from the 13th century onwards,  and increasing numbers of Sufi shaykh-s began creating their own religious practice and establishing zawiya-s through the collection of members. Some of these brotherhoods, such as the Nasiriyya based out of southern Morocco, were primarily concerned with economic interests.  These types of brotherhoods generally maintained, if not friendly, neutral relationships with the central governing power and did not try to mobilize their substantial membership for the purposes of directly challenging the rule of the Sultanate.  They limited their political activities to arbitration in economic issues such as water disputes.  Other zawiya-s did take on more political roles and in some cases acted as arbiters between the makhzen and other local political or economic groups.  These zawiya-s tended to be conceived as more of a threat to the makhzen powers, as they had the potential to become dissident and challenge the central government.   

Zawiya-s or murabitin were seen especially threatening to the Sultanate because of the fact that they drew their source of legitimacy from a primarily religious base.  When the Sa’adi Dynasty rose to power in the 16th century, one of their greatest claims for legitimacy in ruling was their status as sharif-s or descendants of the Prophet Mohammed.  Although conventional history shows that the Sa’adians were actually members of a Berber tribe, their claim to the Sultanate on the basis of religious lineage was strong enough to assist them in winning the throne.  This success, in turn, ushered in a new trend of Arab lineage as a justification for ruling power.  This tradition has continued though Morocco’s current rulers, the ‘Alawi Dynasty who derive much of their legitimacy from their status as sharif-s.  In fact, the King in today’s monarchy is still considered to command a substantial amount of Baraka, resulting from his sharif-ian heritage, which helps legitimate his claim to the position of Commander of the Faithful.

            This emphasis on religion as a source of legitimacy provided something of a conundrum for the makhzen powers in their dealings with saints and zawiya-s.  No small number of saints or shaykh-s claimed sharif-ian descent of their own.  All of these actors, regardless of their status as Amazigh or sharif claimed the same legitimacy on the basis of possession of divine grace, or Baraka.  Thus, it was difficult for the Sultan to attack the ideological basis for marabout-ism, even though saints and zawiya-s could potentially command the influence, political legitimacy, and sheer numbers necessary to present a serious challenge to the ruling power.  As such, tensions remained high between the makhzen and popular religious institutions, particularly those considered powerful enough to serve as a viable threat. 

              So, to briefly summarize, by the ascension of the Sa’adian Dynasty to the Sultanate in the 16th century, the political system in Morocco was one based on the interaction between the bled-makhzen and the bled-siba, in which the central governing body drew its legitimacy from the fundamentally Arab concept of descent from the Prophet Mohammed.  The weak control of the central state apparatus as personified by the makhzen, as well as the influx of Christian European invaders created a situation that lent itself well to the proliferation of trans-tribal religious brotherhoods and local saints who already held political power according to the social traditions of Morocco’s Amazigh population.  It is in this political environment, which defined the rule of the Sa’adian Dynasty and the sharif-ian ‘Alawite Dynasty that succeeded them that Morocco’s Amazigh populations began turning to these traditional religious institutions as tools to challenge the makhzen authority.  The remainder of the paper will focus on two specific instances where this phenomenon occurred, namely the rise and fall of the Dila Zawiya in the 17th century and the so called “Berber Revolts” of the 19th century. 

            The Dila Zawiya was founded in the 16th century by a shaykh named Abu Bakr ibn Mohammed.  The Dila Zawiya quickly rose to prominence, in part, because of their vast pool of human resources.  The Dila initially enjoyed the support of the Sanhaja Berbers of the Middle Atlas and gained more followers as it spread beyond the Middle Atlas region.  As the zawiya grew it began to expand its economic interests far beyond the homelands of the Sanhaja.  At the pinnacle of their economic power, the Dila controlled important commercial such as Salé, Fez, and Tetuan, as well as the rich agricultural grounds of the Sais plain and the Gharb.  It was under the leadership of Mohammed al-Hajj in the period of 1640- 1660 that the Dila Zawiya achieved the height of their political and economic power.   

            The decaying Sa’adian Dynasty was not best pleased with the amount of political power that Mohammed al-Hajj was beginning to amass, and felt particularly threatened by his efforts to raise a regular army.  When confronted by the central government, al-Hajj, realizing the political weakness of the Sa’adian Dynasty professed his respect for the Sultan’s status as a sharif but refused to recognize their right to rule on the basis of their failure to establish a stable government. He used the position of the zawiya as the strongest political actor in the region to unify the Sanhaja Berbers and in 1638 the Dila forces defeated the army of the Sa’adian Sultan in the battle of Abu Aqaba. Instead of pursuing a total victory over the Sa’adian forces, al-Hajj backed down out of respect for the Sultan’s religious authority, thus giving up the best chance that the zawiya ever had of challenging the state authority.  

            Although the economic power of the Dila continued to expand throughout the next two decades, the military and moral base of the zawiya remained strongly tied to its Sanhaja Berber origins.  This alienated the Arab tribes that came under Dila control, and ultimately weakened their political power. By the 1660s the zawiya was experiencing a decline in its political and economic power after the loss of important cities, such as Fez and Salé.

            At this point, Moulay Rachid of the ‘Alawi family from the region of Tafilalt decided to step into the power vacuum left by the collapse of the Sa’adian Dynasty and establish himself as ruler of Morocco.  In 1668 he met the Dila forces and achieved a decisive military victory against the zawiya.  Rachid then razed the zawiya to the ground, effectively destroyed their political base, and continued to unify Morocco under his new dynasty.  

The Dila Zawiya holds an important place in Morocco’s Amazigh history as it represents a time when a largely Amazigh based institution was almost able to gain control of the Moroccan central government.  Unfortunately the Dila Zawiya relied too heavily on their Sanhaja origins and was not able to overcome the status held by the Sa’adian Sultan as a sharif, even while the dynasty was clearly in the midst of collapse.  Instead it was another family claiming descent from the Prophet that was able to step into the power vacuum and establish control after the Sa’adians. 

            The second instance of Amazigh peoples appropriating religious institutions as a means of achieving political goals that will be examined in this analysis took place in the 19th century under the rule of the ‘Alawi Sultan Moualy Sliman.  Moulay Sliman, under the influence of Moroccan pilgrims and ambassadors returning from ecca, decided to embrace the Wahhabite doctrine of Islam. This particular brand of Islamic ideology calls for a return to pure Islamic principles and is opposed to institutions such as saint worship.  In the ensuing years Moulay Sliman began a campaign against orocco’s traditional religious institutions of saints and brotherhoods.    

         Needless to say this did not go over terrifically well with the Amazigh tribes who still relied heavily on their local murabitin for political and social stability or the murabatin themselves who saw this as threat to their authority.  In 1818 Boubker Amhaoush, a marabout from the Middle Atlas and the zawiya of Ayt Sid ‘Ali gathered the Ayt Oumalou and the tribes of Ayt Seghoushen n-Sidi ‘Ali and Marmousha to defend their institution of saint worship from the threat put to their zawiya by Moulay Sliman.  Several other tribes, the Idrassen and the Gerwan, who had been co-opted into the imperial army, defected as they were unable to fight against the marabout.  It is interesting to note briefly that Amhaoush’s zawiya was established in area once controlled by the Dila.  It is even possible to say that given the geographic proximity of the Dila Zawiya and the seat of Amhaoush’s rebellion, Amhaoush considered himself to be the spiritual heir of the Dila and viewed his actions as following in the Zawiya’s erstwhile footsteps.

The culmination of this rebellion was a battle near the village of Lenda, a locality that, once again, can claim a close proximity to the original site of the Dila Zawiya.  In the battle of Lenda Moulay Sliman was captured and many of his close companions, including his son were killed.  Strangely enough, the Sultan’s status as a sherif was enough to guarantee him gentle treatment at the hands of the Amhaoush supporters and was released a few days later in respect to his role as Morocco’s primary religious leader.   

The Amazigh forces rose again, however in 1820, and this time Amhaoush was aided by two powerful zawiya-s, the Derkawiya and the Wazzaniya, who had been formerly allied with the makhzen but cut off ties due to Moulay Sliman’s hostility towards religious brotherhoods.   This insurrection attempted to place a new Sultan on the throne, but ultimately failed due to the capture of the Derkawi shaykh.  The brotherhood members refused to do anything that could endanger their leader’s life, and as such Moulay Sliman held onto the man as his bargaining chip until his death.  This story ends rather anti climactically with the death of Moulay Sliman.  His successor, Moulay Abderahman freed the sheikh and backed down from the Wahhabite doctrines, thus reestablishing the status quo. 

A clear historical continuum can be seen between the events surrounding the Dila Zawiya in the mid 1600s and the rebellions of Amhaoush in the early 1800s.  In both cases, religious institutions with a primarily Amazigh base, and origins in the very same geographic location, rose up to challenge the authority of the central government.  In the case of Dila, a political opportunity to step in and fill the power vacuum left by the weakening Sa’adian Dynasty was presented, and the Dila tried to take advantage.  In the case of Amhaoush, the Sultan’s new policy of adherence Wahhabite doctrine presented a serious threat to the traditional institution of saint worship in Morocco, and the marabout was not about to let the Sultan take away his position of political and social authority.  In both cases the Amazigh groups almost met with success.  The Dila actually managed to defeat the Sa’adian military forces and Amhaoush had the Sultan Moulay Sliman as a prisoner for a few days.  Why then were these two attempts at seizing control from the central government unsuccessful? 

The answer to this question lies in the issue of political legitimacy and descent from the Prophet.  After the Sa’adian Dynasty used the fundamentally Arab idea of tracing their lineage back to the Prophet Mohammed as a source of political legitimacy, it became next to impossible for anyone not claiming this same lineage to challenge the central governing power.  Although the Dila Zawiya was stronger than the decaying Sa’adian Dynasty and the forces of Boubker Amhaoush actually managed to capture the Sultan himself at the battle of Lenda, neither group was able to overcome the respect and authority inherent in their opponents’ position as a sharif.   

Thus, given these historical instances, it is possible to say that even though Amazigh peoples were able to rise to positions of great political and economic power through the use of traditional religious institutions, in the new political system achieved through the success of the Sa’adian Dynasty, it became almost impossible for any Amazigh group to make a successful challenge to the central government because of their lack of sharif-ian lineage.    


Anonymous, “Massa, Tazerwalt, and Tamgrout,” in The Amazigh Studies Reader, ed. Michael Peyron, 137- 142. Rabat: Imprimerie el Maarif al-Jadida, 2006.  Originally published in “The Personal Narrative of the Taleb Sidi Brahim Ben Muhammed al-Massi of the Province of Suss”, (transl. W.B. Hodgson), Journal of the Royal Atlantic Society. London, March 1837. 

Chiapuris, John. “The Dila zawiya and ‘The Berber Revolt,’” in The Amazigh Studies Reader, ed. Michael Peyron, 124-131. Rabat: Imprimerie el Maarif al-Jadida, 2006.  Originally published in The Ayt Ayash of the High Moulouya Plain, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1979). 

Cornell, Vincent J, “The Logic of Analogy and the Role of the Sufi Shaykh in Post-Marinid Morocco,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 15, no. 1 (Feb 1983): 67-93. Eikelman, Dale F. Moroccan Islam: Tradition and Society in a Pilgrimage Center. Austin:University of Texas Press, 1976. Gellner, Ernest. Saints of the Atlas. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969. 

Gutelius, David P. V., “The Path is Easy and the Benefits Large: The Nasiriyya, Social Networks, and Economic Change in Morocco,” The Journal of African History 43, no. 1 (2002): 27-49. 

Hagopian, Elaine C, “The Status and Role of the Marabout in Pre-Protectorate Morocco,” Ethnology 3, no.1 (Jan 1964): 42-52.  Mojueta, B.A., “Legitimacy in a Power State: Moroccan Politics in the Seventeenth Century during the Interregnum,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 13, no. 3 (Aug 1981): 347-360. 

Peyron, Michael.  Class Lecture. AMDEAST Rabat, Morocco. 25 February, 2010. 

Rabinow, Paul. Symbolic Domination: Cultural Form and Historical Change in Morocco. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975. 

Vidal, F. S., “Religious Brotherhoods in Moroccan Politics,”
Middle East Journal 4, no. 4 (Oct 1950). 427-446. 

Vinogradov, Amal and Waterbury, John, “Situations of Contested Legitimacy in
Morocco: An Alternative Framework,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 13, no. 1 (Jan 1971): 32-59. 

Waterbury, John. Commander of the Faithful: The Moroccan Political Elite, A Study in Segmented Politics

N.B. For technical reasons, the end-notes originally accompanying this piece have not been included. I am greatly indebted to Miss Catherine Manhardt, one of 15 US students attending my Amazigh History & Culture lectures in Rabat, spring of 2010, to have accepted that I include her final paper here.

Publié dans General Berber History | Pas de Commentaire »

De- and re-construction of an Atlas Berber epic: battle of Tazizaout

Posté par Michael Peyron le 1 juillet 2010

De- and re-construction of an Atlas Berber epic: battle of Tazizaout (central Morocco, summer 1932).(1)


Tazizaout battle site, general view from Taoujjaâout hill, May 2007 (photo: M. Peyron)


By way of a preamble, suffice it to say that, today, in the Moroccan Middle Atlas cultural ensemble (2), among Amazigh militants and Berber peasantry, both of them fully aware of a recent heroic past, Tazizaout lives on as an exceedingly strong symbol. As a symbol of defiance, desperate courage and hopeless sacrifice in defence of one’s home turf. 

Tazizaout is a remote, rugged, cedar-clad ridge some 9,000 feet high, snowbound in winter, situated in the Imilchil region, east of Kasba Tadla.(3) It is irrevocably linked to the last stand made there by local marabout Sidi Lmekki in the summer of 1932, when, at the head of a thousand fighting men from Ayt Sokhman, Ayt Hadiddou and other tribes, he fought off two converging French army columns, until after a month-long siege, he was compelled to surrender. Last of a line of charismatic holy men (igurramn) who had dominated power politics in the area for upwards of a century, Sidi Lmekki has been since discredited in the local collective psyche for, not only capitulating, but eventually hobnobbing with the invader, to the point of being appointed qayd of the Ayt Sokhman in 1935. 

The legend grows 

Interestingly, the Tazizaout Berber epic went through a process exemplifying a reversal of the normal “orality to literacy” process. The first version, a colonial episode known prosaically in French as l’affaire du Tazigzaout, or, to strike a more heroic note, l’épopée du Tazigzaout, emerged in two stages:

1/ in the form of somewhat fragmented, sometimes personal, late-1930s accounts by junior French army cadres,(4) written for an esoteric audience; 2/ late-1940s/early 1950s semi-official descriptions featuring in senior French officers’ memoirs;(5) also a novel aimed at a broader reader-ship, La Légende du Goumier Saïd, a chapter of which is devoted to Le Jour du Tazigzaout (6). More than anything else this effectively set the seal of romanticism on the epic. 

The sum total of these written accounts thus constitutes the epic in its initial form, as seen through French eyes. An epic destined to be de- and eventually, re-constructed as and when oral accounts by Atlas Berbers (Imazighen) became available as a result of field-work by foreign and Moroccan researchers in the 1975-2005 period. 

In the meantime, knowledge about the Tazizaout epic remained sketchy. From 1932 to 1939 it was perceived as an heroic episode in the annals of the Armée d’Afrique, as the French colonial army was called. It was a text-book example of how firm persuasion, coupled with vigorous use of recently-recruited Berber levies, captained by high-minded young Frenchmen, with aircraft and artillery to support them, could subdue unruly mountain tribes for their own benefit. The fact that they were thus introduced at one fell swoop to the rule of law and so-called modern society came as a convincing contribution to the empire-building mystique. 

Although the siege of Tazizaout eventually receded from most French minds, being totally eclipsed by the all-encompassing horrors of the Second World War, together with events linked to decolonisation, it survived in the guise of popular, or regimental sub-culture, whenever be-meddalled veterans from the Goums, Tirailleurs and Foreign legion got together “for old times’ sake”. Thus enshrined in writing, Tazizaout continued for many a year to occupy pride of place in the battle records of various French units.(7) But that was not really where it belonged. It was time for the epic to come home, as it were. 

In Morocco, response to the epic was far more complex. It remained muted as long as the Protectorate lasted; even though ballads (timdyazin) were devoted to the event, they tended to be recited in a confidential manner, such material being perceived as subversive by the colonial authorities.(8) Even with the coming of home rule in 1956, an oddity such as Tazizaout, highlighting as it did desperate resistance by die-hard, marabout-led tribesmen from the back of beyond, was an unpleasant reminder that al-fitna al babariyya (‘Berber anarchy’; the bane of Islamic Spain(9) and an old Makhzan nightmare) might still be lurking up in those hills. Significantly, it also failed to fit in with the post-independence Moroccan vulgate and its emphasis on nation-building, the Arabic language, orthodox Islam, strong spiritual links to Saudi Arabia, and active sympathy with the Palestinian cause. For ideological reasons, the heroic contribution to national resistance by Imazighen from the mountains and deserts was wilfully ignored, down-played, or declared irrelevant, official-speak studiously maintaining that the urban-inspired Istiqlal movement alone had played a meaningful role in achieving independence. A version that endured until well into the 1980s. Early in that decade, however, Moroccan press magnate Moulay Ahmed Alaoui finally reversed the trend through a series of newspaper articles devoted to the great resistance period battles in which Imazighen had distinguished themselves: Lehri, Tarda (wi n-iwaliwn) and Bou Gafr (Jbel Saghro).(10) Yet, to the best of the present writer’s knowledge, the siege of Tazizaout was kept under wraps, linked as it was to the politically incorrect geste of the Imhiouach marabouts, long-time Makhzan adversaries and killers of two princes.(11)

Meanwhile, among Atlas villagers still recovering from the double trauma of French military conquest and imposition of full Makhzan rule, at the time of independence (1956), the hallowed memory of Tazizaout, and of all the heroes(12) who had fought and perished there, was carefully preserved and cherished. This would take the form of an annual three-day August pilgrimage (ziyart), when, summoned by one of Sidi Lmekki’s descendants, former fighters and/or their next of kin would congregate at the foot of a sacred cedar for commemoration, prayer, and sacrifice.(13) In fact, on a par with a visit to Mecca, a ziyart to Tazizaout is seen today as a poor man’s h’ajj. So much for the bare bones of the legend. 


Wooden tomb of Tazizaout martyr, Aug. 2005 (photo: M. Peyron)

Reconstruction of the epic 

Tazizaout, in its reconstructed Moroccan Berber form, naturally draws heavily on the region’s living memory. Unsurprisingly, the recollections of surviving veterans tend to include quotes from period poets Taougrat n-Oult-‘Isa and Taoukhettalt, women both, who emerge as undisputed oral archival sources. Oft-quoted Taougrat, the subject of a book by Native Affairs officer Reyniers,(14) and a cult figure in her own right, actually died near Tounfit around 1930, but her repertoire remains relevant as it covers the decade of events leading up to Tazizaout. Taoukhettalt, an influential and by local standards wealthy woman, had, shortly before 1932, seen all of her seven sons happily married on the same day in a collective wedding ceremony, or tameġra. Before the net was drawn round Tazizaout at the end of July, 1932, she saw to it that her sons joined other resistance fighters in Sidi Lmekki’s mountain stronghold, also supplying much of her livestock, including all her camels, to feed the imžuhad. In the subsequent fighting, she lost all seven sons and her herds were decimated. To add insult to injury, Sidi Lmekki, whom she had backed to the hilt, treacherously surrendered, rendering vain not only her sacrifice, but that of countless other imžuhad and their entire families. The mindless slaughter, followed by the marabout’s final betrayal, became the favourite themes of the very engagé verse which is attributed to her in the aftermath of Tazizaout. 

Much of this oral production was diligently, almost confidentially, collected in the 1930s and 1940s by a French priest and life-long friend of the Imazighen – Lqbab-based Father Peyriguère.(15) Little of this material filtered through to the world of academia, however, until the 1970s, when Jeanine Drouin’s thesis on Middle Atlas hagiography, published by the Sorbonne in book form,(16) was seen to contain fragments of the Peyriguère corpus. 

After the early 1980s, thanks to the welcome, albeit snail-slow process of the Berber cultural renaissance in Morocco, there occurred a revival of local interest in Tazizaout. Subsequent to the setting up of the Royal Institute for Amazigh Culture (IRCAM) in Rabat (2001), officially sanctioned field-work was conducted in February 2004 by IRCAM researchers Mustapha el-Qadery and Houssa Yakobi.


Amazigh fox-hole sited between roots of giant cedar, Tazizaout, Feb 2004 (photo: H. Yakobi)

During this field-trip, the latter, who had lost a relative at Tazizaout, interviewed several local tribesmen and, aiming at further in-depth research, set up a useful network of informants.(17) 


Lhajj Nacer Buqebbou, a Tazizaout veteran, Feb 2004 (photo: H. Yakobi)

In August 2005, Houssa Yakobi accompanied the present writer to Tazizaout. Together, they conducted video interviews of five veterans from surrounding villages, investigated a large cemetery at the eastern end of the mountain and carefully combed the rocky, bushy terrain. Some evidence of previous fighting was still visible: caved-in fox-holes and rifle-pits, bones and even a skull protruding from the dry, eroded, stream-banks of Aqqa n-Ouchlou. Sufficient information was gleaned, both from oral sources and on-the-spot observations, to whet their appetite for a further visit in the spring of 2006 (of which more in a separate paper). 

De- and re-construction of the Tazizaout epic 

By that time, enough data had been gathered to confront the classic French account of l’affaire du Tazigzaout, as contained in Guillaume’s landmark work describing pacification operations in the central Atlas,(18) with the Amazigh version of the battle obtained from local oral sources. A task rendered arduous by the bombast and inconsistencies of the former and a propensity for hyperbole in the latter. After a description running to well over twenty pages, general Guillaume has the reader wondering whether he actually set foot in the area; there are discrepancies between text and photographs, while the validity of numerous place-names that senior officer employs is questioned by local observers.(19) In fact ignorance of this kind accounts for a blatant example of toponymic confusion concerning two key features: Tawjjaâout hill, which is simplistically itemised as crête n°1, while Amalou n-Tezra becomes crête n°2. Even then, Guillaume’s text and pictures continue blithely to contradict each other. Be that as it may, for comparative purposes, thirteen items common to or contrasting with either account are enumerated below to enable the reader to draw his/her own conclusions. 


Comparison between L’affaire du Tazigzaout (French version,

or F.V.) and ti n dzizawt (Moroccan Berber version, or M.B.V.)

(20 & 21)

1/  F.V. Enemy described as rebelles, insoumis, or dissidents

M.B.V. Imazighen refr to own fighters as imžuhad (mujahideen) or izmawn (lions). 

2/  F.V. Psychological effect: “une cartouche miraculeuse léguée par Sidi Ali Amhaouch à Sidi El Mekki, donnerait le signal de la délivrance”.        

M.B.V. Psychological effect: Sidi Lmekki’s pronouncement: “A magic cartridge my father did bequeath to me!” ( tella ġuri tadwatt iusa-yi baba ). Once fired, it will achieve victory. 


Bou Genfou hill, where French artillery was sited, seen from cedars at head of Achlou ravine, Tazra hamlet L of centre, Aug 2005 (photo: M. Peyron)

3/ F.V. Elaborate French preparations: from rear base at Tassent supplies and pack howitzers sent to forward positions by mule-train; big guns manhandled to top of Bou Genfou hill. 

M.B.V. To counter devastating effects of artillery fire, Amazigh fighters dig in; “Hollow out holes and caves!” ( ġzat ixba, ġzat ifran ) their leaders tell them.(22)