The Draa river is Morocco’s longest river and, although in the east it is mainly dry, the river marks the southernmost limit of cultivable land. The Draa valley is famous as the date basket of Morocco as its water is used to irrigate palmeraires along the banks. The majority of the Draa valley however consists of arid desert-like landscape with mountainsides, salt flats, sand dunes and the occasional oases.
The Draa valley has been home to numerous civilizations and has thousands of years of history. It was in the Draa valley where the Venus of Tan-Tan was discovered – the oldest human figurine ever found. Cave paintings and carvings in North Africa’s largest pre-historic burial ground (necropolis) of Foum Larjam witness of civilizations long ago. The first reference to the Draa River in historical times comes from the area of Carthage (around 550 B.C.) on a mission to establish a colony in west Africa. Almoravids conquered the region in the 11th century and during the time of the Saadis the region was the home of many important religious figures. Ancient Jewish cemeteries are found in the Draa valley and the ksour of Tagounite is home to the centuries old Arabic library founded by saint Ahmed Naciri.
In the 17th century the Alaouite dynasty succeeded in establishing its authority in the valley and constructed numerous ksar. A ksar is a village consisting of attached houses, with common mosques, baths, ovens and shops. Ksars often are entirely within a single, continuous wall normally made of adobe (mud and straw) or cut stone. The Draa valley is also home to many famous kasbahs seen in movies all over the world. Kasbahs are a unique kind of medina or Islamic city or fortress. It was the place for the local leader to live and as a defense when the city was under attack. Kasbahs were often built on hill tops for defense purposes. Having a kasbah built was a sign of wealth. The ksar and kasbahs were very important during the area of trade caravans traveling from all corners of the world to Marrakech.
In the next two centuries the Draa remained the object of fights between warring nomadic tribes and warlords. With the rise and domination of the Glaoua tribe at the beginning of the 20th century the domination of many of the ksar by the nomads (like Ait Atta) was brought to an end. Later in the 1900s the French colonisation completely ended the nomad influence and social structures are radically changed.
Today the Draa valley is characterized by many different cultural and religious groups such as Berbers, Christians, Jews and Muslims. Religious tolerance and cultural diversity shapes its unique civilization. The main languages are Arabic, and Berber dialect. Despite its rich history and culture the Draa valley remains a marginalized zone in Morocco marked by the harsh desert landscape and high poverty.
Sources: ADRAPAC, Maxwell, Gavin (1966) “Lord of the Atlas”, and Wikipedia.
A Berber Village in Morocco.
Kasbah of Aid Benhaddou in the Draa Valley.
Palmeraires with date trees along the Draa River.
Photos by Victoria Gunnarsson