THE ATLAS MOUNTAINS
...the most fabulous mountaine of all Affricke [that] shineth often many times with many flashes of fires, and his haunted with the wanton lascivious Aegipans [Goat Pans] and Satyres whereof it is full, that it resoundeth with noise of hautboies, pipes, and fifes, and ringeth again with the sound of tabers, timbrels and cymbals.
Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 77 AD
I left Fès still pursued by hustlers, who ran alongside the bike, snapping with the steady persistence of starving dogs. One of them had the nerve and the humour too to insist on trying to sell me a ticket for a non-existent train journey to Timbuctoo, and all with such flawless sincerity.
The first dozen kilometres along Route Principale Nº24 cut across a sumptuous agricultural land, the road itself lined with cypress. Lush irrigated fields of barley, maize and poppies flashed by, then small orchards of almond, citrus and strangely twisted olive trees. Then came richly verdant hills, laced and spotted with violent explosions of red and violet, white, orange, blue and yellow. As the road gradient rose, so did the temperature and the wind, and before long I was sweating and cursing as I struggled up the last twisting hairpins towards the village of Imouzzer-Kandar.
A small and calm settlement, four thousand feet up on the ledge of a limestone plateau overlooking the checkerboard fields and woods of the Saïss plain, Imouzzer-Kandar marks the beginning of the Berber-dominated Middle Atlas. It is a region, like the Rif, that was known until sixty years ago as the Bled es-Siba, and that the French military called the 'Zone Insécurité'. The town is the domain of the Aït Seghrouchen tribe (aït meaning 'children of' and hence 'tribe'), some of whom lived until the turn of the century in caves at the far end of the village. For much of the sixty-odd kilometres to Ifrane ('the Caves'), the road skirts the beautiful Route des Lacs, a land thick with heavily scented cedar forests, sparkling waterfalls and mineral springs. It is a haven for wild flowers. Violets, primrose, lemon verbena, pink azalea and purple rosebay, are among the few that I could identify. It is a land very reminiscent of the little I recall of the Lebanon Mountains on the Beirut to Damascus highway, that I had visited aged five. At any rate, the region was tranquil enough for a homesick French governor to order the construction of Ifrane in 1929; a mountain sanctuary well away from the chores and headaches of colonial Morocco. The town reminded me of villages in the Massif Central and the Jura, with its leafy roads and avenues, alpine-style chalets and lovingly nurtured gardens of geranium and hibiscus hedged with bougainvillaea. King Hassan reputedly ordered the evacuation of Ifrane a few years ago when he realised his vacation palace on the outskirts of town - a kitsch Gothic chateau with mustard walls and green roof - was open to voyeurs from the hills facing it!
Azrou, fifteen kilometres further on, is the first real town of the Middle Atlas, and stands at the conjunction of roads from the imperial cities of Fès and Meknès, and the Middle Atlas trading towns of Khenifra and Midelt. Its towering Kasbah was built in 1684 by the Alaouite Sultan, Moulay Ismaïl, to control the rich caravan routes from West Africa. As a result, Azrou grew quickly to become an important trading centre. The 55-year-rule of Moulay Ismaïl (1672-1727), although fabulously cruel and brutal, brought Morocco one of her few interludes of calm and prosperity, the nation having fragmented into innumerable fiefdoms and sultanates after the fall of the Merinids. The legacy of Ismaïl's rule of iron survives in a magnificent collection of architecture, all on a monumental scale. So prolific was Moulay Ismaïl's building programme that it is easy to believe that virtually anything and everything of historic significance in Morocco was built by him. Beside a string of fortified Kasbahs built to suppress revolts and impose his will on the people (including Rabat's Oudaïa fortress, and the renovation of Chefchaouen's Kasbah), his greatest and most astonishing construction was the city of Meknès itself, inspired, it is said, by Louis XIV's equally outlandish creation of Versailles.
The key to Ismaïl's power was his infamous Black Guard, an army of Negro menservants (abid) which was bred up, using slave girls, from an initial 16,000 to create a force of over 150,000 troops, in its time one of the largest in the western hemisphere. Legend has it that when the abid died, their bodies were used as building material in the rapidly rising battlements of imperial Meknès, slaves in death as in life. Like all megalomaniacs, Ismaïl was a man blessed with the power to remain always as a spoilt child. Apart from his megalomaniacal thirst and despotism (said to be so ferocious as to turn white with fright the hair of babes in arms), Moulay Ismaïl was also renowned for his voracious sexual appetite. Contemporary accounts report that he kept a harem of over five hundred concubines and, as a result, fathered more than one and a half thousand children! The problem with this was that, when the sultan finally deigned to die, the bickering of his many sons caused Morocco to sink once more into a morass of anarchy and disunity from which, ironically, it was next rescued only earlier this century by the French. Ill-luck determined that I was not to make it to Azrou, for I mistakenly took a left turn on to a small secondary road leading eastwards, only discovering my error a good half hour later. Being too lazy to turn back (something I hate to do), I decided to take advantage of fate by trying out both myself and the bicycle over a rough unsurfaced piste, cutting twenty kilometres across the foothills of the Middle Atlas to rejoin the road proper to the south of Azrou. I reasoned that if either my bike or me could not manage even this little bit of rough riding, then there was little point in attempting an excursion into the Sahara.
Past the aptly named Valley of the Boulders, the road started abruptly upwards through a dark and steep forest of purple juniper, oak trees and 120-foot Blue Atlas cedars. This is the eastern periphery of the ancient Gouraud Forest (some of whose trees are over eight hundred years old), and in which wild Barbary apes are said still to roam. Further up, at a gradient where I had to push the bicycle, an old Berber goat herder sporting a woolly bobble hat slid out noiselessly from the trees, then stared nonchalantly as I stumbled past huffing and puffing. My breathless greeting prompted a cheerful cackle from his toothless mouth. 'M'zien, m'zien,' he urged encouragingly. 'Makein mushkil!' I shouted back. No problem.
A little further up, the trees began to thin. Eagle country. Up and over the mutton-clouded pass of Tizi-n-Tretten (2104m), the piste reverted unexpectedly to asphalt, before swooping down into a wide grassy plain, and then down again into the ski resort of Mischliffen: a small collection of hotels and villas with a season lasting approximately five weeks. Now, in April, the place was completely deserted, marooned in a sea of rocks and volcanic craters. After Mischliffen, the road wound down still further through a short stretch of alpine firs, before the hills parted to give way to a wide and windblown plateau. To either side rose gently sloping escarpments, crowned with a few cedars and spruce, while from the shards and stones of the plateau itself sprouted grasses and a few down-bearded thistles. The air was cold and soothing.
At the southern edge of the plateau, the road joined Route Principale Nº21, built on an ancient caravan trail from the Algerian Sahara, three hundred miles southeast. A few yards after the conjunction of the roads, the land dropped away. In the very distance, the pastel rose peaks of the main ridge of the Middle Atlas reared up into a lilac sky. The mountainsides - great interlocking hulks - were grey and black, scarred by ancient glaciers as well as by the sun. Straddling the foreground stretched layer upon layer of hills, lower peaks, and tree-topped hillocks, across which the lonely road unwound like a spool of cream coloured ribbon. With the abundance of the intense but soft light, and from my still elevated vantage point (over 5000 feet), cycling for the next hour was like floating high above the land, looking down upon and indeed over the extended horizon. The scenery was so dramatic and rapidly changing (every few hundred yards the road would reveal yet another variation of the panorama), that even crossing it on a push bike seemed to be too fast a mode of travel. Atlas is a land that begs for a little time from the traveller, a place whose atmosphere should be savoured like a good Cognac, and not just gulped down in one go. Richard Hakluyt, 'Preacher, and sometime Student of Christ Church in Oxford', and Elizabethan England's greatest geographer, wrote of the Atlas:
the aire in the night season is seene shining, with many strange fires and flames rising in maner as high as the Moone: and that in the element are sometime heard as it were the sound of pipes, trumpets and drummes: which noises may perhaps be caused by the vehement and sundry motions of such firie exhalations in the aire, as we see the like in many experiences wrought by fire, aire and winde.
Rising near the Atlantic coastline, and petering out as far east as Tunisia, the Atlas Mountains are at their highest and most impressive in Morocco. Here, they form three major ranges: the Middle Atlas, the High (or Great) Atlas, and the Anti (or Lesser) Atlas. All three lie diagonally from east-northeast to west-southwest, and on a map (or with an open imagination) resemble the pleats and rumples of a gigantic cloak of rock. Many of its plains and plateaux have been denuded by the elements, and consequently look bald and monochrome: green in spring, brown in summer and autumn, and (in some places) white in winter. Only rarely do these mountains bear much resemblance to the lush beauty of the Alps, though the Atlas has a kind of rough, uncut beauty all of its own. The Atlas is very much a borderland - not so much politically as geographically - for immediately to the south lies the Sahara, the greatest desert in the world. It is only Atlas that prevents northern Morocco from succumbing to its sands.
The Berbers call the Atlas Idraren Draren, the Mountains of Mountains. Atlas is the fitting domain for a thousand fables and legends, a land of celebrated saints and fierce, rifle-brandishing Berber horsemen of old. The Atlas is a land of nightmarish trees twisted by evil forces, and cascades and streams infested with djinn. Particularly feared are black demons with burning hands and laughter like that of angry thunderstorms. Through the ages, these ancient mountains have drunk the blood of countless invasions and revolts. Hannibal came to these wild lands for the elephants with which he crossed the Alps, creatures that roamed the region over two thousand years ago according to Hanno the Carthaginian, the first man to circumnavigate the African continent. The folded pillars of Atlas, with its high, windswept plateaux and dark, magical caves, are also part of a world once inhabited by 'the most cruel and devouring lions in all Africa' (Leo Africanus), as well as leopards, hyenas and a host of legendary beasts and other cerebral monsters. For thousands of years these mountains represented the very edge of the known world. It is a place well suited for one of the most famous legends of all, that of the Titan Atlas:
This Atlas [wrote Ovid] surpassed all mortal men in size. He was the lord of earth's furthest shores, and of the sea which spreads its waters to receive the panting horses of the sun, and welcomes his weary wheels. No neighbouring kingdoms encroached upon Atlas' realm. In his meadows strayed a thousand flocks, all his, and as many herds of cattle; and he had a tree on which shining leaves of glittering gold covered golden boughs and golden fruit.
Alas, the giant was foolish enough to take part in the failed rebellion against Zeus, and so, in punishment, was sentenced to bear the burden of the heavens upon his shoulders for all eternity. In a variation of the legend, recounted by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, Atlas was visited by Perseus seeking the golden fruit, who turned the Titan into stone using the gaze of the Gorgon Medusa's severed head:
Atlas was changed into a mountain as huge as the giant he had been. His beard and hair were turned into trees, his hands and shoulders were mountain ridges, and what had been his head was now the mountain top. His bones became rock. Then, expanding in all directions, he increased to a tremendous size such was the will of the gods and the whole sky with its many stars rested upon him.
Herodotus, writing well before the advent of Islam, noted that the native 'Atlantes' knew the mountain as 'The Pillar of Heaven'. Curiously enough, the Arabic word for mountain - jabal (djebel in Moroccan dialect) - is used in the Qur'an also to mean 'Great Man' or 'Chieftain' (metaphorically speaking, a man as big as a mountain), especially one who has been subjugated or destroyed by Allah. All the way to the village of Timahdit, I was scarcely able to catch my breath through sheer exhilaration at the beauty of these mountains. The setting sun caught the peaks and the mackerel sky in a blaze of colour, and I reached Timahdit, 110km from Fès, in a state of mind comparable to ecstasy, a state of mind above all of extreme ebullience. What a welcome contrast this all was to the claustrophobic squalor of Fès.
A small village of unpainted limestone buildings and dusty streets, Timahdit sits in all isolation half way up the bleak northern ridge of the main Middle Atlas spine, overseeing a realm of open pasture patterned with dry stone walls, barren grey slopes, cliffs gouged with cascades and rock screes, and airy woods of fir and pine. Flanking the village are little terraces of ripening maize and barley, and a scattering of polka dot olive groves, watered by a crystalloid tributary of the River Sebou. In the pastures there are minuscule hamlets usually a couple of thatched huts and a tent the whole enclosed by fences of brittle thorn brush to exclude wild animals and other beasts.
The day was already old when I arrived. Laughing children could be seen and heard almost everywhere, leading their charges back towards outlying farmhouses. Night time gaslights flickered into life as the sky deepened from a rosy mauve to brush strokes of aqueous violets and sultry lilacs, then sparks of electric purple and finally a smooth, deep ultramarine. Older girls returned to the village alongside their mothers, with great bundles of firewood perched on their backs, and as the sun finally slipped beneath the craggy horizon, the muezzins began their ancient snaking calls, the refrain passing from mosque to mosque as though a tender gift. Traders closed shop and made their way to prayer, as tentative slivers of smoke rose up from the bakeries, only to linger over the hot alleyways and straining rooftops. My nose caught mingled whiffs of jasmine, roses and mint. I sensed an aura of anticipation, perhaps because there was but a day remaining until the beginning of Ramadan, or perhaps because I was so happy and so relieved to be on the road again.
Women of all ages milled around a pebble-strewn square beside a mosque, chattering and laughing. Some carried babies and toddlers on their backs, others were old and wrinkled. All seemed to be laughing. Some of the oldest ladies reminded me of Omi, my grandmother: forever old in my memory, hunchbacked, with shrunken figure, tough, brawny, wiry, stubborn, and yet indefatigably cheerful. Many bore indigo tribal tattoos on their foreheads - simple symmetrical arrangements of lines and dots - and their hands and wrists were decorated with intricate patterns made from henna. The patterns, in addition to the herb itself, are protection against the Evil Eye. The tattoos and henna were the limit of their make up. Jewellery, however, was displayed in abundance: thick silver bangles and bracelets, chunky rings, richly beaded earrings, strange amulets, and much-prized amber beaded necklaces. Of these, the amber resin can, in times of need, be scraped, then ground to dust, burned and the smoke inhaled to relieve colds.
The clothing of these women was a riotous cacophony of colour. The majority were dressed, Victorian-style, in floral patterned dresses and pale work aprons, which suited them remarkably well. Except for the very young, their hair was tied back into scarves, worn loosely and for much more practical reasons than mere religious obligation. Like their Riffian cousins, the Atlas Berbers are fiercely proud of their independent spirit. Although Muslim, the women enjoy a level of freedom unprecedented among their Arab counterparts a combination of Qur'anic teaching and surviving pre-Islamic tradition ensures a uniquely open-minded approach to life and to the world outside their particular corner of the mountains. In the High Atlas, for instance, the Aït Haddidou tribe hold an annual three-day moussem where women are expected to choose their partners, a custom unheard of in the Arab world. The women's independence shows itself in other ways too. When I stopped in the village to buy bread and yoghurt, I was followed around by a group of four or five middle-aged women, one of whom (the smallest) amused herself and her friends by repeatedly pinching my bottom! What could I do but carry on as though nothing was happening? When I eventually reached a bakery, the women dashed in front of me to bar the entrance, showing only their backs. When, after a few minutes of acute embarrassment, they finally turned around to face me, the small woman handed me three loaves, pinched me once more for good measure, and to shrieks of laughter demanded to know which one of them I fancied for supper!
* * *
The morning air drifted cool and misty. As had been usual when cycling through Europe, the first thirty or so kilometres passed by easily enough on my empty stomach. Although the scenery was still stunning, a certain level of desiccation became evident. Whereas a few kilometres to the north, the grass was lush and green, here it was sparse and yellowed, despite the fertile volcanic soil. Trees and shrubs, too, were less frequent, and much more isolated. Then, as the road continued up through the wide valleys, all remaining signs of cultivation and irrigation disappeared altogether, leaving only virgin pasture which, save for the tarmac road, was unblemished by any sign of humanity. Here, also, the mountains seemed improbably close, their peaks almost tangible, and so small, as though they had kept their form but had simply shrunk to a quarter or less of their original size. High above soared a trio of golden eagles, scouring for movement the chalky dazzle of the bones and skeletons that lay strewn across much of the land. Columns of ants filed across the shimmering road as the sun beat relentlessly down. In the yellow stubble grass impatient locusts itched, while by the roadside the odd lizard grinned mischievously. These hills and mountains had a definite frontier feeling about them, even though I was still a good 250km from the Sahara. It was a distance, nevertheless, that I was avidly counting out as the asphalt whirled beneath my feet.
Just when I was beginning to wonder whether the Sahara had somehow managed to breach the mighty barrier of the Atlas, I came upon a welcome roadside fountain, one of the many sources of Morocco's largest river (oued), Oum er-Bia or the 'Mother of Spring'. The effect of the cold waters on the land was immediate, spawning fresh green grass which in turn had attracted a handful of pastoral nomads and their dusty, rawhide tents. Beside these, a few goats and mules grazed contentedly. From April to October, these semi-nomads roam, and indeed rule, the plains, before the ice and snow closes in. Then, they spend their time in remote and often cut-off villages, sitting out the long, cold winter nights.
Past the fountain, the road veered to my left and due south, to begin a steep climb up and on through the now familiar evergreen oaks and cedars to the Col du Zad (2178m). Along the way, I passed the stranded 'Express Relax' coach from Meknès, behind which half its passengers - mostly women - were trying to push it back to life! Near the neck of the pass, the tussocks of vegetation vanished once more, leaving only naked, ravaged peaks, fleshy in colour, arid and rock-strewn. But slipping over the brim of the pass, another astounding sight met my eyes, sneaking into view as I imagined a hidden Tibetan kingdom might appear from behind a great sheet of Himalayan ice. In the space of only a few dozen yards, the horizon lengthened from two or three kilometres to seventy, perhaps even eighty, as though the earth had suddenly swallowed itself. The southern horizon, across a heat haze, was dominated by the eternally snow-capped eastern ridge of the High Atlas, breaking into a wispy sky of varying shades of azure and lilac. Straight ahead, in the centre of the range, was the highest of these peaks, the Djebel Ayachi (3747m). She is the 'Mother of the Waters' who misled early explorers into thinking that she was the highest mountain of all North Africa (that accolade belongs to Mount Toubkal, further west, which rises to an altitude of almost fourteen thousand feet, three times that of Ben Nevis). In the middle distance stretched a great desertic valley of beige and brown, the cause of the heat shimmer, and a daunting prospect to have to cycle over. A little closer lay a short spine of ribbed and dotted hills, whilst in the foreground all around me and framing the panorama like an Ansel Adams shot of Yosemite Valley, a few stunted and diseased cedars stood like skeletons to attention on the rusty soil.
As I descended, every corner turned saw the land grow richer and greener. Cycling was effortless, and I shot freewheeling through the hamlet of Aït Oufella and onto the plain. There, at its very edge, grew thousands of blood red poppies and waist high yellow broom, bursting from a rich myrtle-green meadow. It took me a while to pick out the three tents pitched on the near fringes of the desert scrub, for they lay low and almost invisible against their monochrome backdrop. A couple of mules and dromedaries stood idly nearby, saddled with red and black woollen rugs and metal hoops from which to attach tents and their poles. This was my first sighting of camels in their natural environment, and an event that brought a rush of adrenaline carousing through my veins. I felt tantalisingly close to the desert.
Further into the plain, the vegetation thinned out once more, in parts leaving only a few dishevelled clumps of bleached stipple grass and brittle bushes, clinging desperately to otherwise bare rock. Boulojoul, the first settlement, turned out to be a lifeless semi-desert outpost: a motley collection of modern buildings and whitewashed tree trunks that for some reason are much admired by administrators and officials. The only other things of note in this dreary place were a few crumbling villas bounded by desiccated gardens, a dusty police jeep, and several officious signs. Zeïda, a small settlement situated beside an open cast lead mine, was much the same. Whatever its history, it now serves only as a faceless stopover for buses and other infrequent traffic, with a couple of neon-signed petrol stations and a few dust-blown cafés to cater for road weary travellers. I saw no one when I passed through Zeïda, and felt like some outlaw cowboy riding into a tumble-down ghost town after a shoot out. The buildings - grey or brown mud brick and concrete - seemed to have curled up like tortoises inside their shells to shelter from the heat. Only the shimmer on the road gave any impression of movement. From here on all the thirty kilometres to Midelt (the commercial and administrative centre of this forlorn region) there are no more settlements (and I saw no vehicles either). The name given to this plain is singularly appropriate: the Arid Plateau. Its colours consist entirely of subdued tones of ochre and beige, grey and bleached out red. For mile upon mile, the only company I had were the rickety telegraph posts that flanked the road. Some had had their conductors shot up. Others had simply been pulled down. The silence, though, was beautiful, as indeed was my exhaustion. It felt so good to be in total control of what I was doing, even if it was ever so slightly masochistic... The difference with Fès was that here, out on the open road, I was responsible for everything I did. I was able to decide, and decide in my own time, whereas in Fès, I was continuously being side-tracked, harangued, pulled aside, and urged to do things that I didn't really want to do. Sometimes, I like to think that obtaining freedom is only the easy part, and that using that freedom is when it gets difficult. But as I cycled on past those interminable busted telegraph poles, I felt sure that there was a lot to be said for freedom as an end in itself.
* * *
The Arid Plateau is actually not a plateau but rather a valley, polished smooth by the action of countless millennia of heat and abrasion. Through it flow the seasonal tributaries of the Oued Moulouya, ultimately to the shores of the Mediterranean. But as I crossed it, most of the watercourses were dry, leaving only grotesquely contorted gorges of a sickly greenish-grey clay that looked like unravelled brains (if that were possible), or else a twisted mass of petrified snakes. Through sun-baked eyes, they could even have been the bloody locks of Medusa's severed head:
As the victorious hero [Perseus] hovered over Libya's desert sands, drops of blood fell from the [Gorgon's] head. The earth caught them as they fell, and changed them into snakes of different kinds. So it comes about that that land is full of deadly serpents.
The only serpents that I was to see in Morocco were dead - squashed by cars. The land itself, though, often seemed deadlier. Here, it was bare but for one or two stunted bushes, tussocks of fern-like weeds, ground hugging thistles and a few withered and grey plants. The sky too was grey, but for a small patch of wispy cloud that hovered over the distant mountains. In parts, the little clumps of savannah grass were wholly swallowed up by the sand, only their wizened tips betraying their presence. The ancient hills to either side, too, had been scrubbed bare over the ages, and now rose only a couple of hundred feet above the Arid Plateau, whilst smaller hillocks nearby looked like sand dunes, and perhaps they were. It is hard to believe that a thousand years ago, the Arab geographer el-Bekri reported that the plain of the Moulouya boasted an abundance of cereals and richly-watered pastures, upon which roamed great flocks of sheep and oxen. Now, the only things to roam this land was when the hot wind summoned enough courage to throw up tiny dust squalls - iblis, the devil of carnal desires; a term used also to describe the charms of a young woman.
I reached Midelt at about three in the afternoon (I had no watch, but usually managed to tell the time from the sun). With a population of around sixteen thousand, Midelt is one of the Atlas' larger towns. It is a sleepy place though, encircled by water storage towers and vast slag heaps from nearby mines. To the south, the town is dominated by the towering iceberg peaks of the Djebel Ayachi, its foothills criss-crossed with mule and donkey tracks. Midelt has a relaxed enough feel to it, if only because of the oppressive heat and the dearth of things to do. It functions as the site of the central souk of the Aït Idzeg tribe, and has the usual handful of mosques, concrete box shops, equally bland offices, a bank and, to my surprise, a ready supply of would-be guides clad in snakeskin shoes. Further exploration unearthed the Hôtel El Ayachi, the Restaurant Excelsior, and the Hôtel Roi de la Biere, all showing that in Midelt, at least, tourism has already left its mark. More striking, however, was the fact that everything seemed to be coloured orange or red, when what I longed for (to ease my sunburn and eyestrain) were cooling shades of white, green or blue. To elaborate: the road was covered with red dust, the dust devils that danced across it were red, the walls of the buildings were coated in red plaster, the chalets that the French built were roofed with red tiles, the bizarre crystallised 'dessert roses' found in the market were red, my skin was red, the surrounding desert was red, and, if I stared too long at the sun, my vision turned red too. The red ink in the large thermometer nailed to the door of the general store hovered at around 40ºC, with the highest temperature recorded since January chalked up at 48ºC. The hottest time of year was still to come. I was hounded out of Midelt by a hustler who, like the chap on the motorbike on the approach to Fès, had asked what I was doing with my bicycle. I fatuously told him that I was playing a grand piano, to which he understandably became a little irritated and called me a dog.
It was towards late afternoon that the road finally began twisting, at first painfully and slowly, up and onto the High Atlas and Tizi-n-Talrhemt, the Pass of the She-Camel. Until their demise a century or so ago, the pass had been used by gold- and spice-carrying caravans from West Africa, a trade that began in ninth century, perhaps earlier still. The name of the pass comes from the Qur'anic parable of the apostle Salih, who attempted to demonstrate the truth of his Faith to the non-believers of Thamud by presenting them with God's she-camel:
This she camel of God is a sign unto you: So leave her to graze in God's earth, and let her come to no harm, or ye shall be seized with a grievous punishment.
Alas, the citizens of Thamud chose to ignore this threat, and instead hamstrung and slew the poor beast, whereupon the people and buildings of Thamud were destroyed by a dreadful earthquake. It is perhaps because of this that camels are rarely, if ever, slaughtered by nomads.
As I struggled up the mountain, passing twisted lotus trees and perilous rock slides, the sky clouded over to bring relief from the biting sun. Just before the summit, where the slope of the road mercifully slackened and the tarmac clung to one side of a wide and breezy valley, I was spotted by a group of children tending goats further down to my right. I waved at them, and they waved back, before scrambling up the mountainside to greet me. It was with a twinge of fear that I realised that I had been duped, for they were brandishing rather big branches in their sweet little hands. I pushed and pulled harder on the pedals, hoping to outpace them, but to no avail, for they had already reached the road ahead of me, and were jumping around impatiently awaiting my arrival. The normally deflective 'Peace be on you' seemed only to further encourage their malevolent intentions. As I cycled on uneasily, one of the children - the one with both the biggest grin and the biggest stick -nstepped out in front of me, whirling the branch above his head to encouraging jeers from the others. Quickening to a sprint, which was difficult enough after a wind-beset climb with thirty kilos of baggage and bike, I charged at him yelling, arms and legs flailing, and to my relief somehow managed to avoid the thrusted branch. A hail of other sticks and then rocks followed, that thankfully were all too late to meet their target.
It is this region of the High Atlas, lying between Midelt and the city of Er-Rachidia on the desert's edge, I found out later, that is the heartland of the Aït Haddidou (they who hold the 'Moussem of the Bridegrooms'). In addition to being incurable romantics, they were, until recently, a tribe notorious for their raiding, and were only 'pacified' in the 1930s. Old habits obviously die hard. The Aït Haddidou are a division of the Aït Atta group of Berbers who populate much of the High Atlas and its Saharan fringes, of whom Walter Harris wrote: 'They are a fierce tribe ... intent upon the annexation of everybody else's country and property'. In consequence, the hills hereabouts are dotted with old French Foreign Legion outposts, and there is a water hole which someone in the past had helpfully christened 'Drink and then Flee!'
Down from Tizi-n-Talrhemt, I all but flew into an enthralling landscape of wide and spacious interlocking valleys, populated with stunted lotus trees, juniper and ash. The chill was unexpected after the fierce heat of the Arid Plateau, though it was a pleasant shock to see several steaming patches of half-melted snow and ice, in places nourishing small patches of pea-green grass. The first settlement, some fifteen kilometres from the pass, consisted of angular whitewashed rows of concrete and clay buildings lounging one of the dry tributaries of the River Ziz ('gazelle'), that I was to chase until it eventually disappeared into the desert sands. The more recent buildings were constructed in mock Ouarzarzate style: rectangular, flat-topped structures whose roofs were edged with whitewashed triangular battlements pricked-up like ears. There was a blacksmith, a pharmacy, and a general store, outside which a tobacconist's sign swung noisily in the wind. I half expected tumbleweed to blow across the road and to hear the crack of gunfire or the whooping of Little Bighorn's Indians.
The settlement, it turns out, was built on the site of an ancient n'zala, a pitching ground erected for the sole purpose of lodging caravans overnight. This particular n'zala was usually reached after five days' travel from Fès (compared with two on my bicycle). The Tafilalt oasis, where I was heading, would have been another five or six days distant (120km). For me, this meant only another day's cycling.
Venus, as ever, was first out in the evening sky it. Below, from over the encircling mountains, was the new moon, a sliver thin crescent that seemed to embrace the planet in its cusp. This is the traditional sign for the beginning of the month long fast of Ramadan. The fourth Pillar of Islam, Ramadan falls in the ninth month of the Hegira lunar calendar. It is Ramz, or the Hot Month (a throwback to the pre-Islamic, pre-lunar calendar). The fast commemorates the time, in the year 610, during which the Qur'an was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in his mountain cave retreat. Throughout the month, Muslims are expected to abstain from food, drink, smoking and sex between sunrise and sunset. The reasons are various: to cultivate spiritual well being, compassion and charity; to purify both one's body and soul; but above all, to demonstrate one's subservience to Allah. The focal point of Ramadan is Mecca's Ka'bah, the most sacred pilgrim shrine of Islam, which occupies the site of Abraham's sacrificial altar (Abraham is seen as the founder of monotheism). The Ka'bah contains the venerable Black Stone which, by one theory, is a meteorite, the very same that was given to Abraham by the archangel Gabriel.
Man has always nurtured a great fascination for the sky. The birds that flew above showed, if ever he doubted, that there were limits to his abilities, that no matter how hard he tried, he could never properly emulate the feat of the birds. The sky is beyond reach. The sky is mysterious, and the sky is beautiful. The sky is the dwelling place of spirits and gods. The sky is Heaven. To reach out and touch the sky has been the dream of mankind since time immemorial. Since time immemorial, it is to great mountains that holy men and religious sages have gone to encounter the Divine. Atlas, after all, held the sky on his shoulders (and it is thought that the Greeks originally knew the name 'Atlas' from a primitive astronomer). In legend, the first man to climb the Pillar of Heaven that was Atlas was Hesperus, who wanted to come closer to heaven and to watch the stars. For his audacity, he was swept away in a sudden storm to became the Evening Star (Hesperus, or Venus). It is also in the High Atlas that the twelfth-century theologian, Ibn Tumert, founded the Almohads (al-Muwahhidin, 'the Affirmers of God's Unity'). I found it easy to see whence they drew their spiritual and moral strength.
Mountains all over the world represent Utopia, the marriage of Heaven and Earth. Olympus the Mountain of the Gods was a place which in time and legend detached itself from earth to become the heavenly abode of the greater gods. In the Himalayas, mountains are often holy, forbidden places, where only the semi-divine may reside, and are sometimes themselves said to be gods. The Alps were first climbed by Neolithic shamans in search of spiritual guidance. Moses descended Mount Sinai with fresh wisdom for Mankind. Noah's ark is said to have come to rest atop Mount Ararat. Ancient Jewish Cabalists equated mountains with temples, in whose innermost sancta resided the philosopher's stone. The word that the Arabs use for minaret is sawma'a, which means mountain top.
Perhaps because of my own impending success (after all, I had almost cycled all the way from Manchester to the Sahara), that night I too gazed at the moon and the stars with much more reverence than to which I was accustomed. I gazed up at something that I did not understand, at something that I found at once beautiful and reassuring. I felt, possibly for the first time in my life, as though I were living a most beautiful dream.
* * *
I awoke at dawn, only to fall asleep for another hour or so. When I did eventually manage to crawl out of my sleeping bag, I was accosted by a couple of young goat herders who, unusually for Moroccan women, walked straight up to me and in unison shouted 'Banjoo, messieu!' I returned their greeting somewhat groggily, as they sniggered and moved closer still. One of the girls was dressed in a coarse cotton smock, and held one hand over her nose in a manner characteristic of many Berbers (and that at first I mistook for a comment on my personal hygiene). The other was barefoot, her legs grey, dusty and scabby. Both wore woollen head scarves adorned with silver sequins and brightly coloured strands of wool, and bore three vertical blue lines on their chins the mark of the Aït Haddidou. The first girl pushed her face so close to mine that I could smell her breath, but she just stared into my eyes - straight into the eyes of the Nazarene - her mouth frozen in a semi-quizzical grimace. She giggled, and then said a lot of things very quickly that I didn't understand. The girls hung around for about an hour, and only returned to their goats having conned me out of a bag of boiled sweets. I was to regret this, because they were useful in keeping my mouth moist.
The Kasbah of the Aït Messaoud tribe was the first building I saw (after half an hour's cycling); an eight towered fort resembling something out of Beau Geste. A few kilometres further on, guarding the entrance to the narrow gorge of the N'zala Defile, is the reddish ochre Ksar of the Aït Kherrou, the first of many that I was to see lining the River Ziz. The Ksour (plural of Ksar) can perhaps best be described as giant sand castles: much the same colour as the surrounding desert, often monumental in design, and fabulously decorated with bold geometrical patterns incised or even painted on their exterior walls and slanted towers. Many have great ramparts, with crenellated roofs and tapering turrets to protect their inhabitants against the once endemic threat of lightning fast razzias, ruthless raids for which the Aït Haddidou were much feared. Behind these imposing mud walls are entire villages in miniature: jumbles of courtyards, passageways and dwellings, large enclosures, guarded mosques and collective storehouses. I was once shown into a Ksar after I requested some water. It was a magical place riddled with dark sandy passageways and seemingly endless tunnels of a greenish yellow obscurity, illuminated only by the occasional door or window admitting great blinding pools of golden white sunlight. A couple of barefoot children played with an old iron hoop in the shafts of light. Some Ksour are large enough to permit even a small amount of cultivation within their confines. There were plots of henna, the odd fig and citrus tree, and even damask roses for making attar perfume.
The Ksour are made of pisé (a form of adobe), being straw or split palm trunks packed tightly together with wet clay and then baked hard by the sun. Needless to say, this kind of structure has only a limited life span, and the ruins of older constructions can usually be seen nearby, victims to one too many downpours. There's a wonderful existential irony about these monolithic desert castles made of sand:
We therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life.
The Book of Common Prayer
Like most things Berber, the origins of Ksour architecture are obscure, although it is tempting to draw comparisons with the walled Nilotic villages of Pharaonic Egypt and similar constructions in Yemen (the 'ears' on the roofs, especially, are very similar). The designs may have been brought to the Maghreb by the Arab invasions, or perhaps in the Middle Ages along with an influx of rebellious Yemeni exiles. The theory that the skill involved in constructing these magnificent castles was imported from the east is supported by the name Ksar itself, believed (like the Russian Czar) to be a derivation of Caesar. Now, however, because of the drastic decrease in the nomad population and the eradication of inter-tribal raids and feuds, the Ksour are in decline. Their inhabitants are largely elderly, since the younger generations tend to move away to the towns and cities, where they hope to find work and make their fortunes. It is a pattern of depopulation and urbanisation that repeats itself all over the world.
The road followed the narrow gorge, cutting through a bizarre ridge of stratified mountains, its exposed layers folded crazily one over another. At the southern end of the gorge was the village of the Aït Labbes, a small brown stain on the gentle brown slopes of a naked brown mountain. From there, I cycled across an equally barren and brown plain, strewn with soft clay and rocks, and then on towards the next ridge, its jagged golden peaks throwing shadows over its smooth golden slopes. The vegetation was minimal, the atmosphere hot and choking. The only colours were bleached tones of khaki and ash, the dusty olive grey of a few hardy plants, and the powdery blue of a completely cloudless sky. The lack of rain, it hardly needs saying, is an immense problem, as are the denuded and desiccated mountain sides. For the most part, there is not even any soil, however poor. There is just rock. As a result, many people still believe in rain gods. They have to, for there is no one else to help them. Sometimes, a sacrifice is made a rain bride. She, thankfully, is not a living woman, but an unnervingly accurate mannequin a wooden skeleton dressed and adorned in all the finery of a woman on her wedding day. Thus clothed and bejewelled, the bride is stuck into the bed of the dry river, a beautiful scarecrow to appease the spirits, waiting to be swept down river to the joyous relief of her creators.
A few kilometres further on, the dry tributary of the Ziz that I had been following was joined by a small stream. Here, at their confluence, was another ancient Ksar, together with a few outlying houses and palm trees. A black woman stood with a bright orange bucket at the threshold of her house, gazing expressionlessly and seemingly mesmerised at a pile of yellow maize stalks in the courtyard. On top of the house was a cylindrical stork's nest. This is always a good omen, for like the sacred ibis of Egypt, in Islam the stork is treated with a respect bordering on reverence. It is called marabout by the Berbers because of its habit of nesting atop saintly mausolea. Some people say that storks are men from faraway lands come to marvel at the beauty of Morocco. Others say that they fly south from Europe in winter in order to wash their wings of Christian dirt in the divinely favoured rains of the Maghreb. In Fès, there was once even a hospital for old and sick storks, established, legend has it, with money brought from a necklace that was given to a sharif by a stork whose nest had been knocked off its roof. If, however, a stork fails to return to its accustomed roost, then evil is feared. The Arabic word for fate is taïr - bird.
I wondered what the black woman was thinking as she stared at the maize with the stork in her mind. I imagined that she was thinking of lands that she had never seen, and had only heard about through stories passed on down through the generations. I imagined her thinking of maize plantations and of little thatched villages, palaver and mango trees, the gargantuan roots of baobab, her roots, her black skin, and the clanking chains of the caravans that had carried her family so far away from home. It occurred to me that it was I, of course, who was really imagining all this, and that someday I should like to go to the black woman's land. Pink inselbergs ('island mountains') rose in the distance, together with stratified escarpments. The sand encroached. Crossing over a dry riverbed, the road swerved off southwest and onto yet another desolate plateau. Here and there mounds of rubble seemed to have bubbled up in the heat, mounds where once great mountains had stood. The landscape was utterly surreal, crushed and pounded as thougby the steady hand of some invisible giant. I half expected to see enormous statues like those in the Valley of the Kings, but the only king here is the desert. At the turning to the town of Rich, 75km south of Midelt, a windbreak plantation of ailing grey poplars struggled to remain one step ahead of the desert. It seemed a rather futile gesture.
Then off towards the seemingly impregnable face of Djebel Bou Hamid. Shortly afterwards, beside the Ksar of the Aït Krojmane, the River Ziz itself appeared for the first time. The road swerved suddenly to cut through a short tunnel, then past a lonely army outpost, to plunge into fantastic gorge. Here, the snaking river has cut a steep and narrow valley through the orange limestone to form dizzy cliffs that resemble those found in the nearby Todra and Dades gorges, and most of all Arizona's Grand Canyon. Although the river had in places swollen to fifty yards or more across, the riverside vegetation - reeds, palms and bushes - was only intermittent, and for much of its course the river formed little more than a succession of stagnant pools, connected with barely flowing threads of water. Wheeling past a succession of riverine settlements and Ksour, the road left the confines of the canyon to climb high up onto the surrounding mountainside, offering an unmatchable panorama over the enormous natural amphitheatre that is the gorge of the Ziz. Shortly after the climb, the last of the mountains folded away unexpectedly, to reveal nothing but a vast and shimmering expanse of sand and rock, stretching from the foot of the destitute south facing slopes of the mountain I was still on, out endlessly towards and past the faraway horizon. This was the Sahara. It is nigh impossible to describe on paper the full force of the emotions that hit me then, as I stared dumbfounded over the northernmost reaches of the greatest desert in the world. I was struck with a mixture of elation and excitement, pride and disbelief, awe and fright. I just stood there, on top of the last mountain of the High Atlas, gazing out over the desert as hot gusts of air buffeted me. The smell of this air, too, was something else. I can recall it even now: unmistakably thick and sweet, slightly sickly, fleshy, sweaty and alluring.
In Arabic, el-Sahra means 'the waste' or 'the wilderness'. Spanning four thousand miles from east to west, and over one and a half thousand from north to south (an area as large as the United States), the Sahara represents almost a third of Africa's land mass. Bordering the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, the Ethiopian Highlands, the southern Tropics, the Atlantic and the Atlas Mountains, the Sahara is the largest and hottest desert in the world. It is the great 'River of Sand' of ancient legend, the 'torrid zone' of which Pliny the Elder wrote that it was a place in 'the middle of the earth, where the Sunne hath his way and keepeth his course, scorched and burnt with flames, [which] is even parched and fried again with the hote gleams thereof, being so near.' The Arabs know the Sahara as The Land of Fear.