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Preserving Historic North African Crossroads: RPI Program Supports Urgent Documentation of Morocco

Khirbet et-Tireh Byzantine Church mosaics

The towering entrance, known locally as Imi n Zawiya, to the traditional Moroccan Berber village of Aguddim, nestled in the beautiful Zawiya Ahansal valley of the High Atlas Mountains.

In this essay, Cloe Erickson, founder of the Atlas Cultural Foundation, describes her recent work, funded through the J.M. Kaplan Responsive Preservation Initiative, to use advanced documentation techniques to develop a preliminary restoration plan for the monumental gated entrance and courtyard to one of Morocco’s best preserved traditional villages.

For the past decade and a half, the Atlas Cultural Foundation has considered restoring Imi n Zawiya, the entrance and communal center of the traditional Moroccan village of Aguddim nestled in the beautiful Zawiya Ahansal valley of the High Atlas Mountains. The site of Imi n Zawiya, which means “the gateway to Zawiya” in the local Tamazight (or Berber) language, consists of fortified gates, a courtyard, animal stables, and other features that have greeted visitors to Aguddim for nearly 700 years.

Aguddim traditional village

The traditional Moroccan village of Aguddim located in the Zawiya Ahansal valley.

Although Imi n Zawiya has long attracted the attention of scholars and heritage professionals, both as an important historic site and as a locus of potential economic development in rural Morocco, there has been little systematic documentation of the site’s architecture, nor has there been a systematic plan to restore the remains and prepare the site for development.

As a result, I applied to CAORC’s J.M. Kaplan Responsive Preservation Initiative to document the site and create a preliminary restoration plan that would highlight particular areas of need, concern, and opportunity. The documentation campaign included the following:

  • site documentation (photos and drawings)

  • community roundtable discussions identifying priorities and challenges

  • schematic restoration drawings based on community priorities

  • restoration work plan and approximate budget

  • compilation of previous site documentation efforts, including:

(1) 3-D Imagery (by Scott L. Walker, ScEdD)

Draft 3D imagery of the Imi n Zawiya courtyard available for viewing online.

(2) Ancient Granaries of the High Atlas, 360 Film (by Christopher Carter, AICP)

A 360-degree film of the ighermin (granaries and saint houses) and Imi n Zawiya.

(3) Zawiya Ahansal Historical Walking Tour Map (Ann Justin and Christopher Livingston, AIA)

An online (and printable) historical walking tour of the valley of Zawiya Ahansal. The map was created with the same base drawings used for the schematic restoration plan. Montana State University and the Atlas Cultural Foundation collaborated on the map.

Zawiya Ahansal map

View the high resolution version here.

The resulting documentation and restoration plan has provided critical baseline data from which the Atlas Cultural Foundation will be able to develop future restoration campaigns in consultation with community members and local Moroccan partners.

Erickson and village leaders

To develop a preliminary restoration assessment that reflected the needs and priorities of the community, Erickson (front, right) consulted regularly with village leaders in Aguddum and Zawiya Ahansal.

Based on the documentation campaign and restoration plan we produced for Imi n Zawiya, a number of critical priorities emerged:

  • Architectural Degradation: Imi n Zawiya is threatened by severe structural and architectural degradation which presents serious safety risks to the site’s inhabitants.

  • Increasing Rural Development: Recent and rapid modern development, especially in the form of quick and easy concrete construction, has put Morocco’s historic buildings and sites at risk. Rural communities are being challenged to find a balance between preserving tradition and modernization.

  • Loss of Oral History: There has been little documentation of the tremendous wealth of traditions and stories known to Imi n Zawiya’s residents. Future projects must prioritize interviewing elders to document their knowledge about the site and its community.

But despite these concerns, there is still great potential to restore Imi n Zawiya and revive its place as a thriving communal center for Aguddim. Indeed, the site is currently undergoing a cultural renaissance, with locals using the courtyard for traditional celebrations, tribal mediation, community meetings, and pilgrimages. It is also becoming a destination for international and Moroccan students, tourists, and researchers interested in observing and engaging with traditional Moroccan culture.

Moroccan Berber music

Imi n Zawiya remains an important cultural space for local celebrations and festivals, like this performance of traditional Moroccan Berber music.

The restoration of Imi n Zawiya will support the sustainability of the site’s traditional culture while also providing locals with potential economic opportunities. When restored, the site will better serve local traditions and provide a rural venue for traditional festivals and cultural exchange experiences that will help preserve the culture while bringing economic benefit to the region.

The J.M. Kaplan-funded Responsive Preservation Initiative (RPI), administered by CAORC, provides critical funding to support urgent preservation, documentation, and site management efforts at cultural heritage sites around the Middle East, North Africa, and the Mediterranean.

Learn more about RPI-funded projects at


About the Author

Salah Al-Houdalieh author photo

Cloe Erickson is founder of the Atlas Cultural Foundation, which works in partnership with the local Moroccan association, Association Amezray SMNID. Since 2006, she has collaborated on cultural preservation and community development projects in the region of Zawiya Ahansal, Morocco. In 2011, she began overseeing the restoration of the region’s built heritage with the support of the Moroccan Ministry of Culture. Erickson has documented, planned, and overseen the restoration of six historic structures in the region.

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