We evolve in a unique way: instead of adapting to the environment, we transform it so that it adapts to us. This explains artificial islands and in a less spectacular but more familiar example, it explains why it is bearable to spend the summer in certain regions of southern Spain.
However, there was a time when this did not happen. In Morocco there are places that have not been transformed for us. We’re talking about Tamegroute, where the climate continues to dictate the lives of its inhabitants.
Tamegroute dates back to the 11th century, when it was established as a religious center. Its personality, however, began to be forged in the early 16th century. At that time, a Koranic school and a branch of Islam was founded: it was called Sufism. It focuses on an austere life to help the faithful draw closer to God.
With the aim of spreading this new approach, both the founder and the believers focused on promoting their ideas, writing and making trips in order to establish contacts with other Muslim communities. They conveyed the philosophy of Sufism, they also collected documents written in these places.
All this allowed Tamegroute to position itself as a religious point of reference in Morocco and became the focus of attraction and pilgrimage for locals all around.
Through the years, two combining factors; the weather and its geographical location linked to the Saharan trade routes ended up defining the city. Today, the sign at the entrance of the city reads “A Tombouctou 51 jours“, in English “51 days to Timbuktu”, clearly linking it to the Saharan trade routes.
What to do in Tamegroute
The description of this ksar does not seem outstanding at first. It sounds like any other place in Morocco. It’s made up of a residential nucleus with a couple of main streets with narrow alleys that connect them and houses made of thick mud walls. It would not stand out as different from other Southern Moroccan architecture, if it were not for the fact that it is more of a buried village, where sunlight comes in from occasional openings in the ceiling and from where the walkways open onto the streets.
Their lifestyle requires discipline, but the payoff is the refreshing, cool temperatures inside the homes in comparison with the heat outdoors. So, hundreds of families have remained here for centuries, in windowless homes.
Famous for its Pottery
In Morocco, modernization and the global economy continue to fight for a foothold. However people here continue to support themselves through age old professions. There is a tradition of Fez-style pottery in Tamegroute, since expert craftsmen from Fez originally brought this skill, which now boosts the city’s economy.
If we include this place in our visit, we will first walk into a large open-air esplanade where raw clay is extracted from underground deposits. Water is poured on it and then it is subsequently sieved, kneaded and left to rest. This is where the most basic pieces are molded, mainly roof and floor tiles, using molds and specialized tools.
Next, we visit a village workshop, where we see their special way of modeling more complex objects. We find a potter’s wheel sunken into the ground that is moved by a pedal. In this way, the potter keeps himself cool from the waist down by keeping his bottom half below the ground. The floor surface doubles as the working space, a true innovation that keeps in mind the high temperatures in Tamegroute.
If we’d like, we can give it a try and we will most likely be asked to do so. However, don’t expect the same results.
Then we head over to the clay baking area, which is made up of a small patio surrounded by small stone and adobe kilns. Inside them we find a mixture of desert herbs and palm wood which provide the necessary high temperatures.
The pieces have already been left to rest here for several days in the shade, and are covered in a gray enamel consisting of copper, khol, ground stone and flour. They are placed into the kiln and when they are removed they are ready to be sold. The chemical processes plus the heat have vitrified them and given them their characteristic and popular green tones.
Another method used is that of applying a similar treatment to the clay and leaving out the copper. This leaves a brown ocher tone. Sometimes ground stone is also not used, resulting in a flat ocher tint without nuances which is later decorated with hennah.
The Nasiriyya Zawiya
A zawiya is a Muslim religious institution that brings together different religious bodies. The zawiya in Tamegroute is built around two courtyards, one of them being larger but with little decoration and with a fountain in the middle and a perimeter corridor that connects with different administrative spaces and a mosque where the founder’s remains are housed.
Despite the fact that the mosque, as usual, does not allow access to non-Muslims, it’s worth going to see the outside of the Mosque for the picturesque influx of humanity in its corridors. Dozens of people make pilgrimage there and remain for days, waiting for Allah to help either them or a relative. They also have the approval and support of the local religious community, which provides them with food cooked in huge pots.
The smaller courtyard serves as a small school and a library, which is considered to be the most important heritage site in Tamegroute. To visit this site it is necessary to make an appointment with the person in charge, the custodian of the keys, who is a wise old man in a wheelchair, accompanied by another who pushes him and acts as an interpreter.
It’s an unexpected juxtaposition of old and new. The simple rectangular rooms with industrial furniture where more than four thousand, centuries-old manuscripts are kept. These writings deal with matters of Arabic culture and Islam as well as related knowledge (geometry, calligraphy, mathematics, astrology, etc.) culminating in an 11th century Koran written on gazelle skin. Although the library has no control mechanisms, the texts are in remarkable condition, most likely due to the low humidity of Tamegroute.
The wise old man will highlight the most remarkable manuscripts and, despite the language barrier, we can feel his wisdom and passion every time he points to a document. He is the personification of the centuries-old writings treasured within his library (*).
Unfortunately, we’re not allowed to take photos or video-records, with or without flash, or use any other form or resource that we can think of after looking for any loophole around the official warnings and prohibitions at the entrance and also at several places inside the building.
Therefore, we can only do our best to remember what we see and learn. We leave with memories of a surprising Morocco, that in a world of globalization and modernization still has treasures and a way of living now extinct elsewhere.
(*) Some time after writing this article, the gentleman in charge of the library passed away, his son assumed his privilege. We have kept the mention of this wise old man in his memory.
Coordinates: 30°16′N 5°40′W (see location)
Population: 6000 approx.
Founded: 11th century
Climate: Average low and high temperatures by season: Spring (14-30 ºC; 57-86 °F), Summer (25-45 ºC; 77-113 °F), Autumn (15-31 ºC; 59°-88 °F), Winter (06-23 ºC; 43°-73 °F). There is little rainfall throughout the year.
Tamegroute is at the gates of the desert. If you want to know more, visit our page about the Sahara.