The cliff is almost impassable. Nearly 400 meters high from the Oued Attach, a stone cornice is only accessible by a staircase laid in a 700 meter long hole inside this wall. There, cavities are linked and superimposed, similar to bird’s nests when viewed from afar. These hollows are the famous granaries of the Aoujgal cliff, located south of Boutferda, in the Azilal region, 110 km from Beni Mellal. A region which alone concentrates 71 collective granaries out of the 550 in Morocco.
Built by the Aït Abdi tribes, the huts of Aoujgal, “strongly ventilated by openings to guarantee the longevity of foodstuffs, are spread over the narrow natural cornices cutting the cliff into floors. Along the axis are tangles of planks embedded in posts with small stone bridges and wooden walkways. The rough or rough rubble walls enclose the doors in the cliff”, is described in the registration project from collective granaries to the world heritage of Unesco. A project launched in April 2021 by the Ministry of Culture, and the result of which should be completed in 2025 or 2026.
Read also: “Collective granaries: Here are the sites to be listed as UNESCO heritage by 2026”
Amazigh architectural genius
Beyond their specific forms and regional peculiarities, the granaries (or stores) are named differently depending on whether one is in the North or the South. In the central Atlas, the granary or collective store is called Irherm (Irherman in the plural) in Amazigh, and Agadir (Igoudar, or Iguidar, in the plural) in the Anti-Atlas. “There are, of course, differences at the lexical level, but all the names are Amazigh. Which means that it is a local Amazigh heritage that has always existed, even before the arrival of Islam. This is also why we need to do more research to better deepen our knowledge of the subject”, explains Khalid Alayoud, teacher-researcher and author of the book “the Igoudar, a valuable universal heritage to be valued”. In Morocco, five types of collective granaries have been identified: cave granaries, cliff granaries, high granaries, plain granaries and village granaries.
On a mission to study the collective granaries of the Berbers of the Moroccan Atlas between 1941 and 1942, the French ethno-sociologist, Djinn Jacques Meunié (1902-1985) already described the collective granaries as “fortified constructions, often very vast, in which the Berbers of the mountains store their harvests and all the objects that are precious to them : deeds, money, jewelry, clothing, carpets, and, formerly, arms and ammunition. In the event of an alert, animals and people retreated to the attic-citadel and prepared for resistance”.
Author of several works on Morocco (“Greniers citadelles au Maroc”, “The price of blood among the Berbers of the Atlas”, “Saharan Morocco, from the origins to 1670…”), Djinn Jacques Meunié was also project manager at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Rabat. In her publication “Les grenierscollectifs au Maroc”, she states that most of these very old warehouses look like fortified castles located on more or less steep or accessible heights, easy to defend and largely windy. . Inside, they consist of individual grain chambers, the number of which remains highly variable. Each room contains the reserves of a family whose father alone has the key. “That’s where he goes every morning to get the food for the day. If he lives far from the store, he comes less often, and sometimes only once or twice a month,” describes the ethno-sociologist, also a CNRS researcher.
One of the specificities of the granaries of the Azilal region is that they belong to semi-nomadic tribes. The operators of these Irhermans “were not sedentary. These are tribes who spent their lives between two sites, the mountain and the plain. They climbed to the heights in the summer, after the passage of winter. They then devoted themselves to agriculture and grazing. And in winter, when the snow arrived, they joined the plain. This is why they built these granaries, the main specificity of which is their height,” explains Khalid Alayoud, who has been working for 25 years on granaries and the enhancement of heritage in the south, particularly in the region of Souss- Massa.
These cliff granaries date back to the 17th or 18th century, according to the 1999 Berber Encyclopedia. Some date them to well before this period. They are arranged along the cliff using beams embedded in the cracks of the rock and joined together by slabs, the free spaces being divided into boxes, called tihuna.
Of all the cliff granaries, Aoujgal is the largest in Morocco. At the height of its operation, it had some 370 squares. “In terms of form, cliff granaries are not very large like those in the Souss region, for example. They are rather medium in size. But Aoujgal is gigantic “, emphasizes Khalid Alayoud.
Two other cliff granaries are known among the Aït Abdi n-Kousser and the Aït Benndeq. The attic of Aït Abdi n-Kousser had, in its primitive state, 130 boxes, according to the Berber encyclopedia. Partially destroyed during military operations in 1933, it will be put into service again in 1950 according to the ethno-sociologist Jacques Meunié. As for the second granary, that of Aït Benndeq, it was in use during the 1950-1960 decade but has since been disused (Domenech, 1989).
Keep an eye
Why the choice of the cliff? “Because the first thing that drives people to create granaries is security. You have to have a safe place, and as they are semi-nomadic populations, they left their territory for six months. So Aoujgal is a bit like Ali Baba’s cave. It is a place where treasure is stored – here the treasure is barley – and to access it, there is a secret passage that only the people in the attics know”, reveals Khalid Alayoud to us. The 1999 Berber encyclopedia also teaches us that to thwart any attempt at night attack, the guards removed a few beams every evening to make access to the attic impossible.
In this same desire to protect these places, “there is something that is very curious, and that people don’t talk about a lot, namely the presence of snakes, cobras in particular, inside Aoujgal. And somewhere, the guardian-angel of Aoujgal was not the guardian-manager, but the serpent. The herdsmen used to leave some inside the granaries, even with something to eat, and once they left the place, no one dared to venture for fear of being bitten. When they returned, they used products such as cade oil to clear them,” says the specialist.
The contributors to the Berber encyclopedia (1999, Gland – Hadjarien) affirm, in this regard, that the snakes were tolerated there and ensured the protection of the grain by swallowing the rodents. These same reptiles recognized, by his whistle, the owner of the hut they occupied and thus refrained from attacking him (Hart, 1984). What is certain is that these attics enjoyed a certain sacredness. As such, any misdeed committed inside the enclosure was inevitably punished, as well as any act of violence.
In the granaries, there is always a guardian-manager appointed by the tribe, called L’amine. “Normally, he is the one who has the keys to open and close the attic. He is remunerated in kind, notably in barley. To ensure the management of the granaries of the Anti-Atlas in the region of Agadir for example, there was the Inflass, a council of wise men elected by the tribe, which has a customary law called the Llouh (also called Azerf, it was transcribed in Arabic letters by a taleb or Aalim on paper or wooden boards, editor’s note). On the other hand, in the region of Aoujgal, we did not find Llouh, but there is an oral customary law to manage these granaries. So there are a lot of similarities between the granaries, but there are also local specificities,” says Khalid Alayoud.
In the Azilal region, in addition to the cliff granary of Aoujgal, there is also that of Sidi Moussa. Located on a promontory over 2,000 meters above sea level in the happy valley of Aït Boughmez, it belongs to the category of high attics. In its plan to register collective granaries as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the cultural heritage department indicates that this granary “is built of rammed earth and bounded by a split circular enclosure reinforced by four towers. It houses the tomb of the eponymous saint where women come to implore fertility through votive practices”.
In the Anti-Atlas and the western and central High Atlas, the attics of height are, according to the direction of the cultural heritage, buildings which marry the top of the hills or barred spurs overhanging a ravine or a valley. They are difficult to access due to the topographical layout of the land on which they were erected.
Ways of (on) life
“According to the interpretation of certain researchers in archeology and history, the high granary corresponds to an evolutionary phase of collective granaries linked to the improvement of the way of life which has changed from transhumance to sedentary lifestyle. This type of granary invariably has an enclosure, a cistern, apiaries, cells and surveillance towers”, underlines this Directorate under the Department of Culture.
Of cliff, height, plain, village, plains or caves, the attics represent part of the Amazigh and Moroccan identity and testify to the spirit of mutual aid and solidarity where they were built. “It is an extraordinary example of the ‘survival’ together that our ancestors created in spaces that have always been hostile. We must not forget that we are in semi-arid zones where there is not an abundance of resources and where we are therefore managing scarcity. These granaries were insurance for life. A kind of guarantee against food shortages and famines. When these granaries were well managed, we were sure to have enough to eat,” notes Khalid Alayoud.
Thus, and long after their construction, collective granaries concentrate, according to the teacher-researcher, a heritage that is both material, through buildings and construction techniques, and immaterial, which is reflected in the methods of construction. organization and management of very rare foodstuffs, without forgetting the very significant socio-cultural and spiritual aspects. Hence the urgency of their restoration and preservation in the face of the ravages of time and climate, but also of their classification as world heritage of humanity. A deal fully integrated today by the Ministry of Culture, which has already taken the lead on this subject through its Project to register collective attics on the UNESCO World Heritage List.