Driving for miles along the brownish red plateaus out of Marrakech reminded me of the red clay earth that my home state of Georgia is known for as its soil. The snow-capped peaks in the distance, however, was not a sight I was used to seeing. This mountain range called the High Atlas is the highest part of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco.
The High Atlas is home to the northern African culture of Imazighen or Amazigh (Berber) people. They are ancient indigenous tribal people who were known as Berbers but prefer to call themselves Amazigh, which means “free people.”
The Amazigh live in small villages in a rural and challenging environment. Some homes in the village are huts built into the ridges of the hills using local timber and brown clay bricks. Many have houses constructed with rocks and cement. Others reside in tents made of wood and goat’s hair.
The house we visited during our trip to the High Atlas was one of the more modern ones with both the comforts of home and the simple life of the Amazigh. It has intricately crafted doors, ornate with metal mosaic plates and handles. Morocco is known for its unique doors. Some of the most photographed images captured by travelers to the country are its doors. Inside the house wooden beams supported thatched ceilings. The walls were covered with beautiful mosaic tiles and the floors with colorful rugs. Moroccan tiles and tapestries are distinctive to the region.
A Tribe of Herders & Artisans
The people are mainly farmers and herders. We could see their goats easily maneuvering the steep slopes of the hillside. They don’t fall off the narrow cliffs because they have “sticky” hooves that help them scale precipitous rocky surfaces. Mountain goats have elastic, and rubbery like pads with sharp outer edges on the soles of their hooves. It gives them traction and keeps them from slipping.
The Amazigh keep camels and mules to transport not only themselves but also their belongings, food, and wares. As we walked around the village, we encountered a father being greeted by his young daughters as he returned home on his mule. A woman wearing a long dress, a sweater, and the traditional hijab (headscarf) waved to us as her mule carrying a load of material and long tree limbs walked slowly behind her.
For thousands of years the Amazigh have also passed their artisan skills like tapestry weaving, crafting tagines, jewelery making, metalwork, and leatherwork down through the generations. They became key local merchant traders. In many villages, the women have been the master rug weavers. They have helped to keep their culture and language alive by incorporating symbols, patterns, and characters into their rug designs distinguishing them as part of an Amazigh tribe.
Where did the Amazigh Come From
Amazigh can be traced back to 10,000 B.C. They are thought to be native to the Sahara region with first origins across Africa’s Mediterranean coast. There is evidence from early Greek writing of their existence at the start of written history. They are also mentioned in Egyptian and Roman texts. Historically, they have been referenced as Libyan and Temehu.
The French, Spanish, Egyptians, Romans, and the Arabs heavily influenced them. In fact, it was the Romans that gave them the name Berber, a Roman word that means “barbarian.” Arab culture shaped their language and religious beliefs, today the Amazigh are predominantly Sunni Muslims and many speak Arabic.
Today, the Amazigh makes up over three-fifths of the population in Morocco. Once suppressed, the Amazigh language Tamazight has been recognized as an official written language. Moroccan tourist industry benefits from the Amazigh as it attracts the rest of the world for their beautifully crafted artisan wares, the generosity of its people, and the vast landscape of their homeland.
Where they once traditionally lived a nomadic life herding and selling their wares in trade caravans across the desert. Many Amazigh today market their crafts in the souks of Marrakech and Fez. Most villages even have their own olive press where they can make olive oil from crops for their family and if they have enough, to sell for profit.
Our host Said of Berber Homestay and his family greeted us with an Amazigh welcome of dates and milk, fresh baked bread, almond butter, olive oil and mint tea. As was the custom in Morocco when serving tea, he lifted a teapot and poured out a long thin stream filling several small glasses on a silver tray in a single pour. Our group was able to see and participate in the art of tagine crafting and to purchase our first tagines. Tagines are earthenware pots and the dish of stewed meat, potatoes, and vegetables prepared in it has the same name. We also visited a women’s cooperative for rug making and learned about their empowering community.
Spending time in an Amazigh village was the experience I was looking forward to the most on my trip through Morocco with World Towning Voyages. I was excited to connect with the people and culture of this country. Our time spent laughing, sharing sweets, and playing futbol with the village children was very special. World Towning’s original vlog about their Amazigh visit was one of the first that I had watched on their YouTube channel. It is also their most viewed vlog. It was only our third day traveling as a group but I already knew that this was going to be the trip I wouldn't soon forget. Morocco will stay with me for a long time, it already holds a place in my heart.