In March 2008 I visited Morocco, to learn earth building and plastering skills from Manfred Fahnert of Lehm Express. Each year Manfred takes professionals and students from around the world to Kasbah Caid Ali to restore parts of the Kasbah and to learn more about earth building.
I was part of a group of eight working on the kasbah this year, with the work coinciding with the Rendezvous de la Musique festival.
During the work we visited a number of rammed earth sites in the Draa valley, including the world heritage sites at Ait Ben Haddou and Telouet. Following the work with Lehm Express I explored many of the rammed earth sites of Marrakech.
The Lehm Express project is run by Manfred Fahnert, an earth building expert from Germany. Since 1998 Manfred has been restoring parts of the Kasbah Caid Ali. Each year two groups come to Morocco to learn about methods used in the restoration of the Kasbah.
The first group are usually students, who learn ‘hands on’ techniques and about traditional architecture.
The second groups are usually professionals, who may be able to offer skills, or are looking to learn, so they can use the skills at home.
Kasbah Caid Ali
Lehm Express has restored many parts of the new Kasbah since 1998. One end of the courtyard has been completely rebuilt, and a major crack in the wall of the Kasbah has been sucessfully repaired. Many rooms inside the Kasbah have been fully restored, a library has been begun, and it is now possible to stay in the rooms restored by Lehm Express.
The New Kasbah was visited in the 1960s by American Rom Landau, who wrote of his experinces in Morocco in The Kasbahs of Southern Morocco, published in 1969. It is possible that the Kasbah and garden are those so delicately described by Landau.
In order to reach the Caid’s residence we had to run off the main road, and a few hundred yards away there stretched a vast oasis of palms and verdure as opulent looking as any in the south. The Caid’s own garden was a little paradise of growing things, with practically every fruit bearing tree or plant represented, from strawberries and apples (a great rarity in the very hot climate) to grapes, figs, peaches, dates, oranges and bananas.
The temperature prevailing in his garden must have been at least ten degrees lower than it was in Agdz itself, and I had hardly commented on that welcome phenomenon when the water of a fountain in the centre of the garden gushed up in a sparkling parabola.
After we had finished breakfast in the tree-shaded loggia in the garden, the Caid took me on a quick tour of what interested me most in his area – the main Kasbah. It was large and not without a certain grace – not surprising, since it was built by Caid Brahim Glaoui. Though mainly of pise, it seemed to be well-constructed and solid, and showed non of the disarray that characterises the interior of so many Kasbahs. Its inner courtyard was surrounded by large halls and reception rooms, more suited to a patrician house in Marrakech that to a Kasbah on the borders of the river Draa. Its handsomest feature was its garden, ample in size and full of fruit trees and flowering plants.
(Rom Landau, The Kasbahs of Southern Morocco, Faber and Faber Ltd, London, 1969).
The Kasbah now forms the centrepeice of a camping site and restaurant complex, with the family occupying part of the Kasbah, with rooms for visitors available around the courtyard.
It is these rooms which are being restored by Lehm Express, and I can recommend Manfred Fahnert as an excellent teacher of all things earth building.
Seiving soil in the courtyard. Newly plastered stairwell.
The Kasbah had a huge crack in one face, which was repaired by Manfred and a Lehm Express team in 2000. The crack was stitched diagonally using grouted anchors, and a concrete frame constructed against the wall to resist any outward movement.
Repaired rammed earth crack, Asslim, Morocco
We looked around the old Kasbah with Maalen M’Balek who had lived there as a child, but left when the upkeep of the structure became too difficult. I saw a few people around the kasbah, suggesting that a few old individuals still lived in the the kasbah. Assuming Maalen was around 50, this suggests that he, and many other abandoned the kasbah around the end of the 1950s.
There are plans to stabilise and repair the old Kasbah, but the complex is vast, and any repairs would require lots of time and money.
Rammed earth formwork
Maalen showed me the traditional formwork used. The formwork is similar but certainly not identical to that found in Asia, and to modern formwork.
Traditional rammed earth formwork in Morocco
The Draa valley is famous for the Kasbahs along its length. The valley drains water from the Hamada du Draa, with the Draa river begining at M’hamid, on the edge of the Sahara, through Zagora, to join the Dades valley at Ouarzazate. There are around 55 villages in the Draa valley, many centred around Ksours.
Rock art and prehistoric figurines suggest that the Draa valley has been occupied for millenia. The first reference to the Draa valley comes from Hanno, king of Carthage, who lived around 550BC, and the Draa river is found on a map of Africa made by Ptolemy (90-168 AD).
The expansion of Islam following the death of Mohammed led to the Damascus based Umayyad dynasty’s conquest of the Atlas mountains and the Draa valley in 680AD.
The indingenous Berbers converted to Islam and became increasingly distant from the ruling Muslim Caliphates in Baghdad and Andalucia. The Berber dynasties set up their own governments and the Berber Almoravid expansion of 1053/54 began in the Draa valley, before heading north to the Mediterranean coast and then to Andalucia. An Almoravid fortress still exists on a hill outside Zagora.
In 1255 the Maqil Arabs invaded the valley and their domination over the Berbers lasted for a century before the indigenous Berbers returned.
The rise of the Saadi dynasty from Tagmadert in the Draa valley gave the Draa an increasingly important role in the history of Morocco at that time. From 1509 the Saadi dynasty expanded out from the Draa valley, controlling all of Morroco by 1554 and ousting the Portuguese. The height of Saadi power came during the reign of Ahmad al-Mansur 91578-1603) who built the El Badi palace in Marrakech. Following the death of al Mansur, the Saadi dynasty declined, and the Draa valley fell back into anarchy.
The Draa valley was conquered in 1642 by the Alaouite dynasty who ruled from d’Aghlan, 20km north of Zagora, and stabilised the position of Morocco against aggression from Spain and the Ottoman empire who were encroaching westward.
Until the 20th century the Draa valley remained a region of tribal leaders, based in semi independent Kasbahs, working with nomadic Arabs.
In the 20th century the Glaoua tribe emerged from the Kasbah of Telouet in the High Atlas, and it is thought that many of the more recent Kasbahs in the Draa valley date from this period.
The Draa valley
Tamnougalt Kasbah in the Draa valley
Aït Benhaddou is a large ksar situated on a caravan route between the Sahara desert and Marrakech. In 1987 the ksar became a UNESCO world heritage site.
Many famous films have been shot at Aït Benhaddou, including, Lawrence of Arabia, The Jewel of the Nile and Gladiator.
Reinforced concrete beam at Ait Benhaddou, masquerading as rammed earth
Bamboo wall protection at Ait Benhaddou
Ait benhaddou at sunset
Ouarzarzate is a major town at the confluence of the Draa and Dades valleys. The Kasbah there, Taourirt, was home to the Glaoua family, before independence in 1956, and is now a museum. The complex has been restored by Cerkas, an organisation dedicated to the restoration of kasbahs in southern Morocco. We visited the headquarters of Cerkas, but unfortunately it seems as though some of the restoration techniques they are using as not as sucessful as was hoped. For details of exactly why some of these restorations have been unsucessful, see my thesis.
Kasbah de Taourirt, restored by Cerkas
A crack in the newly repaired wall, and an attempted stitch
A cement rendered wall, water has built up at the base and caused the render to spall
In Marrakesh we stayed with Michele who owns Douraskoll, a fantastic little hotel right in the middle of the medina. From here there is excellent access to the centre of Marrakesh and to the city walls.
Marrakesh was founded in 1062 the the Muslim Almoravid leader Abu-Bakr Ibn-Umar, who moved constructed the new city to prevent the previous capital of Aghmat from becoming too overcrowded. Craftsmen from Cordoba in southern Spain were brought to build palaces, baths, gardens and mosques to create a city without equal in north Africa. The city walls were built using red soil from the plains surrounding the city,
Marrakesh was taken by the Almohads in 1147 and almost completely destroyed, but the Almohads rebuilt the city, with its greatest period under the reign of Yacoub el Mansour. Marrakesh declined following the death of el Mansour, with other cities becoming the capital of the region.
Marrakesh became increasingly important because of its location on the trade route between the Sahara and the Atlantic coast, and was revitalised by the Saadian dynasty (from the Draa valley) who built the El Badi palace.
The Alaouite dynasty came to power in Morocco in 1668, and used Marrakesh as their capital until it was moved to Meknes by Moulay Ismail in 1672.
Marrakesh again became the capitial of Morroco in 1757 and in the early part of the 20th century Marrakech was dominated by T’hami El Glaoui. Marrakesh is now a popular tourist destination, with its amazing sights and sounds now only a short journey from western Europe.
The city walls were originally constructed around 1062, and there are many gates, a large number of which are still in use. The walls are constructed completely in rammed earth, although recently the walls appear to have been covered using a red coloured cement based render. I assume that this rendering is intended to protect the walls from the pollution of the city, but it is obvious that rendering is causing more harm than good in places, and the rendering is pulling away from the wall. For more details of exactly why this happens, see my thesis.
Marrakech city walls
Cement rendering of the city walls has led to water building up at the base, causing the render to spall
El Badi Palace
The El Badi palace is now just a shell of its former self, a magnificent palace built by the Saadian king Ahmad al Mansur in 1578. The original palace took over 25 years to construct and is thought to have had over 350 rooms, and was decorated with marble from Italy and gold from Sudan.
Unfortunately the palace was destroyed around 1680 by Sultan Mawlay Ismail, who used the materials to decorate his own palace in Meknes.
Although only the massive rammed earth walls remain, the grandeur of the palace is clear. Some stablisation of the rammed earth has taken place, and it seems that the walls will remain standing for a long time.
El Badi palace complex, Marrakech
Rammed earth acting as a beam at the El Badi palace, Marrakech