Mountains, Desert, Diversity

By Jheri St. James

Essaouira Ramparts


The full Arabic name of the country, Al-Mamlaka al-Maghribiya translates to the Western Kingdom. Al Maghrib (meaning the west) is commonly used. The name “Morocco” in many other languages originates from the name of the former capital, Marrakech. The Berber/Amazigh word Murakush means Land of God.

The constitutional monarchy known as Morocco has a long coastline on the Atlantic Ocean that reaches past the Strait of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean Sea. It borders Algeria to the east, the Mediterranean Sea and a relatively thin water border with Spain to the north, and the Atlantic Ocean to its west. There are also two Spanish exclaves, Ceuta and Melilla, bordering Morocco to the north. The border to the south is disputed; Morocco claims ownership of Western Sahara and has administered most of the disputed territory since 1975.

In 788, about a century after the Arab conquest of North Africa, successive Moorish dynasties began to rule in Morocco. In the 16th century, the Sa’adi monarchy repelled foreign invaders and inaugurated a golden age. In 1860, Spain occupied northern Morocco and ushered in a half century of trade rivalry among European powers that saw Morocco’s sovereignty steadily erode; in 1912, the French imposed a protectorate over the country. A protracted struggle for independence with France ended successfully in 1956. The internationalized city of Tangier and most Spanish possessions were turned over to the new country that same year.

The northern coast and interior are mountainous with large areas of bordering plateaus, intermontane (basins lying between two mountain ranges) valleys and rich coastal plains. The Atlas Mountains extend about 1,500 miles through Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, including The Rock of Gibraltar. The highest peak has an elevation of 13,665 ft.. The Atlas ranges separate the Mediterranean and Atlantic coastlines from the Sahara Desert. The population of the Atlas Mountains is mainly Berber in Morocco and Arab in Algeria.

The first phase of three emergences of the formation of the Anti-Atlas Range was formed in the Paleozoic Era as the result of continental collisions. North America, Europe and Africa were connected millions of years ago. The Anti-Atlas mountains are believed to have originally been formed as part of Alleghenian orogeny (the folding, faulting and uplift of the earth’s crust, often accompanied by volcanic and seismic activity), when Africa and America collided, and were once a chain rivaling today’s Himalayas. Today, the remains of this chain can be seen in the Fall line in the eastern United States. Some remnants can also be found in the later formed Appalachians in North America. The Sierra Nevada Mountains in Spain were similarly formed in this continental collision.

NASA Satellite Image of Atlas Mountains
(in red)

The second phase took place during the Mesozoic Era and consisted of a widespread extension of the Earth’s crust that rifted and separated the continents mentioned above. This extension was responsible for the formation of many thick intracontinental sedimentary basins including the present Atlas. Most of the rocks forming the surface of the present High Atlas were deposited under the ocean at that time.

Finally, in the Tertiary Era (about 65 millions to 1.8 million years ago), the mountain chains that today comprise the Atlas were uplifted as the land masses of Europe and Africa collided at the southern end of the Iberian peninsula. Such convergent tectonic boundaries occur where two plates slide towards each other, forming a subduction zone (if one plate moves underneath the other) and/or a continental collision (when the two plates contain continental crust).

In the case of the Africa-Europe collision, it is clear that tectonic convergence is partially responsible for the formation of the High Atlas, as well as for the closure of the Strait of Gibraltar and the formation of the Alps and the Pyrenees. However, there is a lack of evidence for the nature of the subduction in the Atlas region, or for the thickening of the Earth’s crust generally associated with continental collisions. In fact, one of the most striking features of the Atlas to geologists is the relatively small amount of crustal thickening and tectonic shortening despite the important altitude of the mountain range. Recent studies suggest that deep processes rooted in the Earth’s mantle may have contributed to the uplift of the High and Middle Atlas.

In Morocco, it's possible to see the Atlantic and the Mediterranean at the same time.
Tahar Ben Jelloun

Morocco’s capital city is Rabat; its largest city is its main port, Casablanca. Other cities include: Agadir, Essaouira, Fes, Marrakech, Meknes, Mohammadia, Oujda, Ouarzazat, Safe, Sale, Tangier, Tiznit, and Tan-Tan, names that reverberate with romantic vibrations to westerners, thanks to the many films with similar titles that have fed our imaginations. Most people live west of the Atlas Mountains, a range that insulates the country from the Sahara Desert. Casablanca is the center of commerce and industry and the leading port; Rabat is the seat of government; Tangier is the gateway to Morocco from Spain and also a major port; Fez is the cultural and religious center; and the dominantly “Berber” Marrakech is a major tourist center.

Morocco’s official language is classical Arabic with some distinctive dialect for the region. Approximately 12 million speak Berber, which exists in Morocco as three different dialects. French, which remains Morocco’s unofficial second language, is taught universally and still serves as Morocco’s primary language of commerce and economics, in education and government.

Morocco is an ethnically diverse country with a rich culture and civilization. Through Moroccan history, she hosted many people coming from both east (Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Jews and Arabs), South (Africans), and North (Romans, Vandals, Moors and Jews). All those civilizations have had an impact on the social structure of Morocco, which conceived various forms of beliefs, from paganism, Judaism, Christianity to Islam. Each region possesses its own specificities, contributing to the making of national culture. Morocco has set among its top priorities the protection of its legacy and the preservation of its cultural identity.

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Mr.Hassan Chaabi, from the Agricultural Affairs Office in Rabat, was our soil collector for this diverse country of Morocco. He was assigned this job by his boss, Michael Fay, the Agricultural Attache for that office, and the U.S. Ambassador to Morocco, Thomas Riley, was informed of this important activity, the collecting of some dirt for the Common Ground 191 project—perfect for the Agricultural Affairs Office.

The site Hassan chose is called Chellah, in Rabat, the oldest monument in that area, as seen by the photos he forwarded. Here’s what Lonely Planet had to say about Chellah:

“Beyond the city walls, in the south of the city at the end of Ave Yacoub el-Mansour at the the junction with Blvd ad-Douster, are the remains of the ancient Roman city of Sala Colonia, enclosed by the walls of the necropolis of Chellah, built here by the Merenids in the 13th century. The sultan who completed it Abu al-Hassan Ali, was intent on protecting his dynasty from attack. Fig, olive, orange and banana trees and all other sorts of vegetation prosper amid the tombs and koubbas (shrines), and abundant birds and butterflies. At the bottom are the remains of a mosque wherein lie the remains of Abu al-Hassan Ali, his wife, and the tombs of local venerated saints. Infertile women come here with peeled boiled eggs to feed the eels that dwell in the murky waters of the pool.”

Nearby is the modern Archaeology Museum, with its displays of implements and some artifacts dating back 350,000 years to the Pebble Culture period, as well as rock carvings, ceramics, and statuary. The monument almost faces the U.S. Embassy.

All of us here at Common Ground 191 send our heartiest appreciation to Mr. Hassan Chaabi and the inspired folks at the Agricultural Affairs Office and the U.S. Embassy for all their efforts on behalf of this project.

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Morroco is a country that embodies elements both earthly and symbolic—the many centuries of warfare on the surface of the rumbling and shifting tectonic plates under the earth that formed the Atlas Mountains; the negotiations over control of the living sands of the Sahara Desert; the wonderful diversity of its people and their veneration of their history and culture.

The Common Ground 191 project takes the soil of Morocco--the story of Morocco, past and present—and prepares it for fusion with the soils/stories of the other 150-now countries who have also sent their little jars of dirt to our studio here in Laguna Beach, California, with the vision of Gary Simpson as the impetus to a global unity never before experienced.

Morocco as it is is a very fine place


spoiled by civilization.

Richard H. Davis

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It may be significant that the date of Hassan’s soil collection in Morocco was September 11, 2006. It was that date in 2001 that was the inspiration for the entire Common Ground 191 conceptual art project. The word for peace in Morocco is assallam.




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