Amtoudi's Sacred Granaries
Among the rugged communes of Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains, the igoudar nurtured and preserved the livelihoods of local people through sophisticated systems of agricultural, social, and economic management.
WHERE WE WORK
It is in country such as this that the Berbers have always made their home. The high desert spires and sheer, imposing rock faces of Morocco’s Anti-Atlas mountains present the perfect environment for this rugged and hardy people, inured to the solitary mountain life and baptized in the desert’s endless tribulations. “The whole life,” wrote The Times correspondent Walter Harris in 1921, “was one of warfare and gloom. Every tribe had its enemies, every family had its blood-feuds, and every man his would-be murderer.”
This prudent caution for life extended to the livelihood of the Berber tribes. In response to the need for a secure place to store their food and valuable possessions – everything from barley and oil to silver, jewels, and carpets – the local Berber tribes developed communal granaries. These fortified igoudar (singular agadir) helped to protect the tribes from floods, desert marauders, and clashes among one another. While precise dates are not forthcoming, it is assumed that the agadir tradition is more than one thousand years old, originating in the period when the tribes of the Anti-Atlas were still nomadic.
Igoudar were emergent phenomena of the nomadic lifestyle, a necessary feature of that era’s many uncertainties
It was in such a cultural, economic, and ecological context that the first igoudar were built. It may be too charitable to describe these retrofitted caves as depositories, but the small warrens nevertheless served important storage functions during their nomadic owners’ long absences. As nomadic communities became settled into a pastoral way of life, the igoudar followed suit, increasing in both complexity and inaccessibility in tandem with the changing needs of their makers.
A 1998 article from Geographical described one agadir as, “a telltale watchtower… hugging the cusp of a ridge. Chambers and hives cling like swallows’ nests to its sheer face. Though tantalizingly close, the structure remains inaccessible to all but climbers now that many of the original walkways have crumbled away.”
Perched among cliffs and mountainsides, the crumbling igoudar remain as reminders of a strange past
The transition to a pastoral life also introduced a new role for the nominally utilitarian structures, which became literal and figurative foundations of the community. Whereas past igoudar were mere hiding places for a nomad’s possessions, in time they became communal granaries, holding the produce of the nearby village’s yearly harvest; sanctified by the blessing of the baraka, they became bustling marketplaces, each an agora of delights safe and secure from thefts or other chicanery; and, in the most uncertain of times, they became hiding places for their owners, unassailable fortresses to weather the storms of tribal conflicts or interfamilial squabbles.
With each passing year, the igoudar increased in complexity and inaccessibility, and soon became sanctified accessories to the settled life of a Berber community
The amin, or guardian, who managed this important communal structure was thus invested with much religious significance and secular respect. It was indeed a very prestigious appointment, commanding respect and implying responsibility. Appointed by a council of dignitaries for a fixed term, the amin resided within the agadir and would open its gates at fixed hours every day, usually in the morning. Scorched by frequent brigandage, the amin would spend the majority of his days scanning the skyline for marauders. Today, though most igoudar have fallen into disuse, many retain an amin for ceremonial significance.
In November 2014, deadly rainstorms in the Anti-Atlas region caused entire districts to collapse under water after channels were breached. Three days of flash floods were the worst recorded since 1986, and more than 25 centimeters of rain were recorded in just a few hours. The human impact was staggering, with 32 recorded deaths and widespread misery in the flood zones. It was also a cultural catastrophe. Some of the most beautiful of the Atlas’s sacred granaries were badly damaged, and a number of them collapsed as a result of the storm.
These recent developments are compounded by the location and complexity of the igoudar themselves. Their remote location makes them hard to access, and these high mountain eyries require a level of maintenance that only a dwindling number of skilled local artisans can provide. As the climate has shifted, the old mud towns once sustained by the igoudar have been abandoned, leaving many of the granaries in severe states of decay. Finally, despite their contribution to cultural identity, traditional building skills have been lost as an influx of modern, standardized architecture sweeps through the villages from the north.
WHAT WE DO
Dilapidated and disintegrating, demolished and renovated past the point of recognition, many of the finest examples of medieval architecture and landscaping seemed to be slipping from reality and into the history books. Global Heritage Fund and our partners stepped up in 2008 to prevent the last remnants of Europe’s feudal past from being lost forever.
Global Heritage Fund’s emergency outreach initiative centers on the immediate restoration of two collective granaries in Amtoudi, agadir Aguellouy and agadir Id Issa. Both of these granaries have sustained significant damage as a result of the 2014 floods, and are thus prime candidates for preservation by GHF.
GHF’s strategy will be to stabilize and partially reconstruct the imperiled support structures of the granaries that collapsed due to the heavy rains. Before beginning, we will first conduct a professional survey of the damage, along with an assessment of the necessary engineering and reconstructive work. Next, we will conduct long-term site management and hydrology studies to ensure the granaries are able to withstand future threats from the elements.
The lack of skilled maintenance workers in the region is likely to be a problem, but we plan to address this by providing training to local teams and assigning tasks to perform the repairs. By employing local communities in the stabilization, reconstruction, and planning processes, we hope to enrich local people with practical skills that will help them attain further employment well into the future. This project will be led by GHF and Dr. Salima Naji, a Moroccan architect and social anthropologist specializing in built heritage.
WHY IT’S IMPORTANT
In the High Atlas Mountains, resources are few, and what nature grants is precious to the people. The Berber tribes who live in this region adapted by settling their communal roots near underground water sources and along dry riverbeds. It was in such a context that the first igoudar, or communal granaries, were built. The culmination of all the brilliant social and technical innovations of the Berber tribes, the igoudar tradition crowned the complex socio-ethnic hierarchies centering on the management of land, water, and agriculture. Indeed, they made life possible in what was – and still is – an otherwise uninhabitable deadzone. This important communal tradition has fallen into disuse as tribes have modernized, however. Climate change has seen the old towns once sustained by the igoudar abandoned, their inaccessibility has made them difficult to repair, and the knowledge of local building methods and materials has been lost with time.
Together with Dr. Naji, Global Heritage Fund will investigate the communal granaries of the oases of southern Morocco. GHF’s long-term goal there include:
- Validation of traditional collective architecture and spaces for their aesthetic, cultural and spiritual meanings as well as their role in collective memory, and potential value in the development of sustainable cultural heritage tourism (local and foreign).
- Address the issue of maintenance and ownership of monuments to local communities, especially public spaces, as this approach no longer exists in new towns.
- Enhance the local quality of life through the collective conservation of culturally meaningful places.
- Promote earthen building as a sustainable and affordable technique for contemporary living.
- Promote traditional building skills at risk of disappearing.
Dr. Salima Naji
For more than a decade, Dr. Naji has been involved in the preservation of sacred and collective oases in several towns across the Anti-Atlas Mountains in Morocco. Her projects extend to four sites of impressive undertaking, from communal granaries to fortified towns. Dr Naji’s work on the preservation of earth buildings in southern Morocco has awarded her with the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2013, among many additional honors and accolades.
Coming from an anthropological background, she became intensely curious about the social functions of the granaries, as well as their historical and spiritual links to the people. Naturally, this thinking led her to recruit the local communities in her preservation work, as they were able to make social sense of the sites and the role of granaries in everyday life. While ambitious, this decision also awoke long-held tensions between communities, heightened by the fact that she was entering those aforementioned conservative, social-ethnic hierarchies both as a woman and as an outsider.
Naji’s determination to integrate the local communities in the restoration of Morocco’s cultural treasures might seem like an intuitive decision but, while growing in awareness, is still a very rare experience for many communities. Not only does it open the door to renewed creativity, fertile connections, and economic opportunities, it also establishes a sense of collective ownership of the built and intangible heritage of a country. The understanding that a site is worth saving for its cultural value is deepened when you consciously involve the local communities in the preservation of a site, thereby reinstating traditional skills and reviving its correlating traditions. These are the stepping-stones to sustainable development, and the very vision shared with Global Heritage Fund.