World Heritage Day: Morocco’s Rural Treasures

18 April, World Heritage Day.  How serendipitous, then, that AIMS grantee Cloe Erickson presented her work on preserving Morocco's rural architectural heritage at TALIM.  Even though we at TALIM are housed in America's only National Historic Landmark located overseas, and Cloe too lives and breathes historic preservation, we were both blithely unaware of the coincidence in timing.

An audience which included architects, anthropologists, and just plain interested citizens got the benefit of Cloe's very humane approach to architecture, to community development, and to life in one of Morocco's most inaccessible villages.  Beautifully illustrated by husband Chris, a photographer and mountain guide, Cloe Erickson's work is truly inspiring, leading one prominent Tangier architect – herself an experienced restorer of historic monuments – to comment that Erickson's work should be taken as a model.

Cloe's Atlas Cultural Foundation is active in a number of areas, all of which have human development at their core.  Counterintuitively, it is Cloe the American who counsels urban Moroccan officialdom that slow is better, that time in Zawiya Ahansal cannot be measured in fiscal years or quarterly targets.  When it snows, roads (such as they are) are closed, and work stops.  Simple as that.  An architect's calculations might not translate to local workmen's ideas of quantity.

"Translation" is a concept that Cloe knows well, and it's not just language.  She often finds herself the third party in negotiations between Moroccan officialdom – often mistrusted and feared – and the untutored rural people among whom she, her husband, and little daughter live.  In fact, they are the only expatriates for miles around.

"It's too far away" is an objection that some officials have made to explain why development aid hasn't been forthcoming, though a road is being built to cut access time down from days to hours from the nearest city, Marrakesh.  Soon local children won't have to devote four hours daily for the "commute" to school.

So what are these structures, in Berber igherm, that Cloe and the ACF are helping restore?  Grain storage on the lower floors, and dormitories for pilgims on the upper levels.  The village is a zawiya or shrine to a local saint, with a charming back story:

Zawiya Ahansal was founded in the 13th century by Sidi Said Ahansal, a traveling North African Islamic scholar.  Local legend states that Sidi Said Ahansal’s mentor told him to stop his travels and establish a religious school where his cat jumped off of his donkey.

So, thanks to a grant from AIMS, the American Institute for Maghrib Studies, Cloe Erickson is working to help mitigate the impact of breakneck development that has sometimes seen Morocco's urban built heritage fall under the bulldozer.  "Built heritage is a non-renewable resource," says Cloe Erickson, and she is doing her level best to ensure that these 500-year old rural structures live to see a few more centuries.

Gerald Loftus

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