From Midelt to the Tafilalt Oasis, passing the Ziz Valley – Morocco

03 Feb

The hidden surprises of Midelt

Short Description. Near Midelt, I went to Kasbah Outhmane ou Moussa, then to Kasbah de Myriem – the Notre Dame de l’Atlas Monastery and a local workshop with Berber carpets and embroideries. I passed the Ziz valley and gorges and stopped at a camping between the towns of Erfoud and Rissani.

Long Description

Although it seemed dirty and filthy, Hotel Bougafer surprised me with a hearty and tasty breakfast (omelet and crepes) served on the terrace of its restaurant. As I had enough dust, shabby houses, and pushy men who always tried to sell me something, I decided to not go to the souq in Midelt. I headed to the Kasbah Outhmane Ou Moussa – a small nearby village, encircled by mud-brick defensive walls. The kasbah had narrow pedestrian streets, rudimentary houses, and markets set up directly on the ground.

Near Kasbah de Myriem, there was Atelier du Tissage & Broderie Berber, a Berber weaving and embroidery workshop. La Maitresse (the landlady) Nicole was a French-born in Midelt. Her family, the Debono clan, had already been in Morocco for three generations. She encouraged me to take photos of her employees – local women who were weaving carpets on big wooden looms or others who were embroidering large table clothes.

Atelier du Tissage at Kasbah de Myriem near Midelt: traditional looms

Atelier du Tissage at Kasbah de Myriem near Midelt: traditional looms

Just opposite the carpets and embroidery workshop, the Kasbah de Myriem stood as a former mud-brick fort transformed into a Catholic monastery at the beginning of the XXth century – Notre Dame de l’Atlas. The Catholic church inside the fort was later built of mud bricks, in the traditional style of the region. The guardian told me to wait and he went to call Pere Jean Pierre. I didn’t know the history of the place, so I wanted to take some pictures and leave. Out of the blue, a tiny monk appeared, with serene eyes as blue as the sky. He was warm and close with everybody and smiled discreetly. He started to talk with me in French, with a calm voice. I changed my mind right away and stayed to talk with him.

Monastery Notre Dame de l'Atlas in the former Kasbah de Myriem, near Midelt: guided visit with Pere Jean Pierre

Monastery Notre Dame de l’Atlas in the former Kasbah de Myriem, near Midelt: guided visit with Pere Jean Pierre

Pere Jean Pierre was one of the two survivors of the massacre of 21st May 1996. The massacre had been performed by the rebels over the monks of the Tibhirine Monastery (which means ‘garden‘) in Algeria, during the civil war. I couldn’t believe what was happening to me! How was it possible for me to meet such a personality? A man who had overcome such a tragedy and yet he had such a serenity? Pere Jean Pierre was 91 years old. In 1996, he came to Fes, where he had a small monastery. Then in 2000, he came to Midelt at the current monastery, from where the nuns had recently moved to a nearby location.

Pere Jean Pierre slowly walked in front of me and showed me the monastery (the church, the library, and the chapel). The chapel with Berber decorations had been later extended in the Romanic style. The bell of the church had been brought from the church of Midelt when that one closed. Originally, the monastery belonged to Cistercians, but at the moment of my visit, five Franciscan monks lived there. Sister Theresa spent all her life in this monastery. A photograph of her stood as proof in the chapel. When we entered the church, Pere Jean Pierre showed to me the oratory built in honor of the seven brothers killed in the Tibhirine Monastery in Algeria. The movie ‘Les Hommes et le Dieux’ evoked the painful memory of this event.

Monastery Notre Dame de l'Atlas in the former Kasbah de Myriem, near Midelt: with Pere Jean Pierre.

Monastery Notre Dame de l’Atlas in the former Kasbah de Myriem, near Midelt: with Pere Jean Pierre.

After that, Pere Jean Pierre showed me another oratory built in the honor of some monks who had lived in the monastery. They had been hermits in the desert among the Berber tribes (a very interesting combination of Christians and Muslims). Their names were Pere Foucault and Pere Peyriguere. Pere Jean Pierre made me feel love. He filled me with calm, patience, and understanding. I felt peace and an unexpected joy, without any reason. His presence meant everything in that monastery. How had I wanted to leave without meeting him?!

The road from Midelt toward Erfoud and Rissani towns went along the Ziz Valley and Gorges. Fortified villages (ksar/ksour) with traditional mud-brick houses resembling fortresses were scattered along the road. Trees were very rare, while sheep and goats were grazing a few surviving dried herbs here and there. The road started to climb in tight bends through a reddish rocky landscape and narrowed as I approached the Ziz Gorges. I passed a mud-brick mosque with a green minaret and some more-or-less deserted ksars. Eventually, I stopped at Kasbah Douna to recover a bit from the heat.

Crossing the High Atlas Mountains: the first mud-brick ksar in the area

Crossing the High Atlas Mountains: the first mud-brick ksar in the area

After the settlement of Er Rich, palm trees became the main form of vegetation in the area, alongside some low acacias and dried shrubs. I passed through the famous Tunnel du Legionnaire (Tunnel Zaabal) – a natural rock arch, from where the road snaked through the reddish Ziz Gorges (approximately 30 kilometers long). A brownish water, the river Oued Ziz (mostly dried up) flowed down the valley and a few tufts of grass barely grew on the riverbanks. A formidable ksour lined the route along the valley. All of the ksours had the same brownish mud-brick architecture, resembling the volume of a fortress.

Ziz Gorges: yellow sand and rocks, palm trees, and an incredibly blue sky

Ziz Gorges: yellow sand and rocks, palm trees, and an incredibly blue sky

After the Hammat Mulay Lake, I crossed the military garrison city of Er Rachidia, which had mud-brick fortified walls. It dated from the French Foreign Legion period when it kept an eye on the nearby border with Algeria. Further on, the Ziz Valley widened and a necklace of oases with palms opened up, with numerous ksars scattered throughout the palmeraie. The road moved away from the course of the river and followed a contour line along the Ziz Valley, overlooking the dense palm forests in the valley. After Erfoud, I stopped at Camping Tiffina, where I pitched my tent among palm trees, Berber tents made of wool, and brownish cottages built of mud-bricks.

Ziz Valley: ksar in relation with the palmeraie

Ziz Valley: ksar in relation with the palmeraie

Route du Majhoul in the Tafilalt Oases

Short Description. From Camping Tiffina, I took a half-day round trip among the mud-brick fortified villages (ksar) in the Tafilalt Oases. Then I spent a relaxing afternoon at the campsite pool.

Long Description

On my way to Merzouga, the Tahiri Museum of Fossils and Minerals had a courtyard packed with all kinds of rocks from the surrounding mountains (~100km away). Each type of rock had a different color and was extracted from an area with a rich geological heritage of fossil beds. Brahim, the owner of the museum, told me that the southern part of Morocco had plenty of fossils. To see what was inside the rock and to reveal the fossil, one carefully removed a part of the rock using fine tools (similar to the ones used by dentists – Brahim laughed when I told him that). The fossil was extracted from the middle of the rock and then polished using different methods. The exhibition displayed phacops dating back to the Devonian period (408-436 million years old), ammonites, minerals, dinosaur’s bones, corals, and trilobites

Rissani: Musee Tahiri de Fossiles - how a trilobite is revealed from the mountain rock.

Rissani: Musee Tahiri de Fossiles – how a trilobite is revealed from the mountain rock.

Tafilalt stood once as the terminus point of the caravan route along the Salt Road. After the ruins of Sijilmassa, a chain of fortified villages (ksar/ksour) started. The villages usually stood near an oasis where the locals worked in the fields or picked dates. The crumbling mud-brick ksar looked rather primitive. They had earth as the pavement of the streets and inside the houses, garbage and debris, but also metallic gates and mosques with beautifully painted minarets.

Route du Majhoul in Tafilalt Oases: Ksar Tinheras - inner street

Route du Majhoul in Tafilalt Oases: Ksar Tinheras – inner street

The dwellings of a ksar stood one on top of the other one. This way, a street passed through the dark gangways from the ground floor of the houses. The public fountain stood in the middle of this underground street, where the children of the village were playing joyfully. On the street, a father was carrying his two children in the mule’s holsters. The locals picked up dates from the nearby oasis and brought them home for lunch.

Route du Majhoul in Tafilalt Oases: a normal 'underground' street, a good playground for children

Route du Majhoul in Tafilalt Oases: a normal ‘underground’ street, a good playground for children

In Ksar Tinheras, two little girls followed me, waved to me, and eventually ran to me, embraced me and kissed my cheeks. On the flip side, in Ksar Ouled El Ouali, the kids coming out from school gathered around me and started to insist on giving them something: hip pack, pen, pendant, money, candies. I couldn’t even move forward because of them. A man banished them but they insisted to come back and even became aggressive. I had to give up the exploration of the village and withdrew in the apparent safety of my car.

Route du Majhoul in Tafilalt Oases: aggressive children asking for money.

Route du Majhoul in Tafilalt Oases: aggressive children asking for money.

Later, in front of the Mulay Ali Ash Sharif Mausoleum, a kid asked me to take a photo of him. Then he got angry because I didn’t give him money for that. A man translated to me the cause of his annoyance. I showed the kid how I erased a photo of him. However, I had another back-up photo, which I didn’t delete from my memory card. Then I completed my round trip among the ksars near Rissani – a little town with brick houses in brown colors and dusty streets with sand from the desert.

Route du Majhoul in Tafilalt Oases: Zawiya Mulay Ali Ash Sharif Mausoleum - this little boy asked me to take a photo of him and then asked for money

Route du Majhoul in Tafilalt Oases: Zawiya Mulay Ali Ash Sharif Mausoleum – this little boy asked me to take a photo of him and then asked for money

In the afternoon, I relaxed at the swimming pool of Camping Tiffina, which had rather cool water though. The owner of the camp didn’t understand why I preferred to stay there instead of taking a tour to the nearby desert of Merzouga. In the evening, I enjoyed a traditional dinner at the campsite restaurant (tajine, crusty bread, and a delicious green salad).

If you want to read more about my trip through Morocco, here are all my Travel Diaries from Morocco (x 21).

Have you been to Morocco or plan to go there? Leave a comment below this post and tell me what you liked about Morocco or what you’re interested to see there.

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23 Responses to “From Midelt to the Tafilalt Oasis, passing the Ziz Valley – Morocco”

  1. Brian November 22, 2019 at 3:37 pm #

    This information is mostly new to me since the closest I’ve been to Morocco is when I ate Moroccoan food in the northeastern United States. Never even heard of the Ziz Valley!

    • Iuliana November 22, 2019 at 8:12 pm #

      You will have to eat true tajine in Morocco. It is absolutely delicious.

  2. Ambuj Saxena November 22, 2019 at 3:46 pm #

    Thank you for a wonderful post. I liked reading about the fossil museum the most in the entire post. I have visited fossil museums and been enamoured by the evolution of life forms!

    • Iuliana November 22, 2019 at 8:13 pm #

      I remember the special drills they had in that museum. I felt like going to the dentist, haha 🙂

  3. Christopher Mitchell November 24, 2019 at 1:19 am #

    I would love to get high up in the Atlas Mountains like it seems you did here. Amazing stuff!

  4. Paul Healy November 24, 2019 at 11:24 pm #

    I loved exploring the Atlas Mountains and the Berber villages around them. Sounds like you had an amazing experience. I had a similar sitation with the school kids in some of those remote villages as well.

    • Iuliana November 25, 2019 at 10:54 am #

      Yeah, those kids were pretty aggressive and I couldn’t enjoy my visit when they surrounded me.

  5. daniel March 2, 2020 at 12:51 pm #

    Great post!! Morroco has always been on my list and since I have already been to Morroco, I want to arrange another trip to more remote locations just like you have mentioned. It truly is an amazing country with a little bit of everything. Atlas mountain looks amazing.

    • Iuliana March 7, 2020 at 8:42 am #

      Indeed, Morocco can be a big country when you want to go to so many places.

  6. Jane Dempster-Smith March 3, 2020 at 7:00 am #

    We plan to visit Morocco one day. I found your article very interesting and thanks for sharing it with us. How fortunate to meet Pere Jean Pierre and to be shown through the monastery and learn more about him and the monastery and its significance. What a fun playground for the children at the Route de Majhoul. I would have found it unnerving with the insistence of the children especially the one with the photo.

    • Iuliana March 7, 2020 at 8:43 am #

      Yes, that moment with angry children surrounding me was a bit scary even for me but now when I remember it, it’s kind of funny.

  7. Elizabeth March 4, 2020 at 6:02 am #

    It’s interesting to hear about your adventures in Morocco, I actually have never heard of Midelt or the Tafilalt Oasis. I have never been to Morocco, but I think I would get tired of the pushy men as well. That’s nice you were able to go to Kasbah Outhmane Ou Moussa instead and have a great local experience at the weaving and embroidery workshop. Sounds kind of scary with all the kids coming up to you in Ksar Ouled El Ouali,

    • Iuliana March 7, 2020 at 8:45 am #

      Midelt it’s actually en route to Ziz Valley (which is pretty famous), while Tafilalt Oasis are near Merzouga (which again is very touristic). But visitors usually go to this touristy destination but they don’t know what beautiful places they have nearby.

  8. Mijia Eggers March 4, 2020 at 10:58 am #

    It is such a remote place. But fossil museum is of interest. How did you reach there? It is possible to see the place via public transportation from a bigger town?

    • Iuliana March 7, 2020 at 8:47 am #

      I had a rented car – which is the best way to visit Morocco and traffic is not crazy at all (except big cities). Public transportation is very scarce and it would be difficult to find someone to talk English in these remote areas.

  9. Manjiri Chitnis March 4, 2020 at 2:39 pm #

    Hi Iluana, I love how you have tarvelled an off beat trail in Morocco and seen the life of the locals first hand, I would absolutely love to do something similar! The handloom, fossil museum and the camping appeal to me a lot. I can almost imagine what it was like to meet Pere Jean Pierre! What were the day time temperatures like when you visited and how did you manage your meals while trekking through the villages?

    • Iuliana March 7, 2020 at 8:48 am #

      Actually, I didn’t trek through the villages. I had a rented car and stopped here and there en route. So, whenever I was hungry I stopped at a local restaurant or bought food from shops. Temperatures were very ok in October, 20-25 C degrees.

  10. Medha Verma March 5, 2020 at 1:41 pm #

    I have been very unsure about planning a trip to Morocco. To a great extent, it looks a lot like the UAE (where I live) and I always prefer to explore places which are starkly different from here. Having said that, I am also quite intrigued about Morocco, the more I read about it. Monastery Notre Dame de l’Atlas looks like a really interesting place to visit, so if I make it there someday, it’d only be because I was inspired by your post!

    • Iuliana March 7, 2020 at 8:50 am #

      Nothre Dame de l’Atlas it is indeed a great place to visit and has a lot of history. I don’t know if Pere Jean Pierre still lives, though.

  11. Agnes March 6, 2020 at 7:32 am #

    I was in Morocco in 2008, so long ago. I spent two weeks traveling with local transport. I enjoyed the Moroccan cuisine. I was delighted with nature and culture. Beautiful memories came back, thanks your article. I also traveled through the Ziz Valley. I enjoyed the Moroccan villages, too. The Atlas Mountains is the best part of Marocco for me. I like your story. I like your great photos.

    • Iuliana March 7, 2020 at 8:51 am #

      Thank you so much Agnes, I loved the tajine too. It is so hearty and I was never hungry after eating a tajine.

  12. Ami Bhat March 7, 2020 at 3:05 am #

    You were quite lucky to get the history lessons from none other than a survivor – Pere Jean Pierre. The first hand account definitely adds the punch to the story. I found your visit to the Fossil museum also, interesting, Amazing how much work goes into excavating and cleaning up those pieces of rock. Lovely account of your trip.

    • Iuliana March 7, 2020 at 8:52 am #

      Yes, I was also intrigued by the work of the guy in the fossil museum, especially that it reminded me by dentist visits.

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