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La géoarchéologie française au xxie siècle

Nathalie Carcaud
Gilles Arnaud-Fassetta

Partie III. Alluvionnement, peuplement, stratégies et formes d'adaptation/Section 3. Alluviation, settlement strategies and adaptation

Chapter 14. The territorial stakes of the safeguard of the heritage in the oasis of Figuig (Morocco)

Laurence Gillot et Jean-Pierre Vallat

Texte intégral


1Figuig is an oasis situated in the south eastern tip of Morocco, approximately 400 km south of the Mediterranean Sea and 7 km away from the Algerian city of Beni Ounif. Figuig is surrounded by Algeria on three sides (Fig. 1). Throughout its history, Figuig played a major role on the routes of the trans-Saharan caravan trade and on the east-west sub-Saharan axis. The oasis was an important location of exchange and cultural production in the antique, mediaeval, modern and contemporary times, and was occupied by various communities: Arabic, Berber, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian (Vallat, 2014). Engravings and rock paintings, mosques, churches, cathedrals and civil buildings of colonial times are the numerous landmarks of this past within the oasis.

2Consequently, the territory of the oasis was shaped by the successive occupation by groups of heterogeneous populations. At present, the oasis of Figuig is formed by an urban nucleus consisting of seven ksour (in the singular ksar), term of Berber origin indicating a fortified settlement. These seven ksour form three urban areas (Fig. 2): the first one consists of Loudaghir, Laâbidate, Oulad Slimane and El Maïz in the northwest, the second of Hammam Fukani (“from above”) and Hammam Tahtani (“from below”) in the northeast and the third, and more important, of Zenaga, which gathers 7000 inhabitants out of a total of 12577 (register of population of 2004). The separation between both groups in the North and in the South is marked by a steep rocky slope, the Jorf. The ksour are interconnected by the recent extension of the built-up space or by the palm grove, which extends on approximately 650 ha. From a socioeconomic point of view, the oasis is characterised by a particular ecosystem. Every ksar possesses its own area of palm grove shared by families who exploit small plots of land surrounded by walls, ‘the gardens’. Within every ksar, an institutional network of groups and associations (djemaa, associations of irrigants, gardeners and owners) manages its functioning independently, away from the arbitration and the municipal political orientations.

Fig. 1. Location of Figuig in Morocco (from Google Earth).

3The oasis also represents a fertile ground for the archaeologists and historians of Morocco. In particular, the prehistoric archaeology and the building archaeology are two areas where progress could be made, as evidenced by the rupestral engravings and the tracks of houses identified by French geographers more than a century ago as well as by the map of mounds and sites realised more recently by the team of the university Paris-Diderot and the ENSAPVS. Also, the researches carried out in respect of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries show the wealth of the religious texts and practice from the origin of these communities’ presence to their departure around 1960. The ruined ksar of the Ouled Jaber, situated between ksour Laabidate and Loudaghir is another example of the archaeological potential of the oasis (Gillot, 2014). The ksar of Ouled Jaber formed a residential area surrounded, as other ksour, by a rampart, by towers and by doors and consisting of houses. The ksar was implanted on water springs, the spring of Thaddert being the best known and the most popular. Nowadays, the ksar is neglected and the major part of its structures are buried or degraded. he aim of the archaeological excavations, scheduled since 2009, is to identify the conditions of establishement of the ksar and the origins of the tribe of Jaber, the nature of the structures (religious buildings, houses, baths, etc.), its functioning and its relation with the other ksour (coexistence, conflicts, etc.) before any attempt to understand the conditions of its abandonment and destruction. In addition to the urban and architectural history, the excavation also aims at documenting the environmental aspects and to understand the link between the ksar and the palm grove.

Fig. 2. Map of Figuig city and its ksour (from Janty, 2014; Google Earth).

4The oasis of Figuig thus presents a rich study ground and an important heritage. The oasis of Figuig is a coherent, material and cultural set, based on the complementarity between the architecture and the spatial organisation of the ksour, the palm grove and its irrigation system, and all the social and cultural practices, which constitute an immaterial heritage of great importance. Tales, bibliographic and genealogical narratives, music, meals and ceremonies, political structures bound to families and tribes form a rich fabric of immaterial practices. Figuig also has a wealth of diverse, architectural and archaeological material heritage: great walls, ramparts, watchtowers, mosques, mausoleums, foggaras, ponds and irrigation channels. Finally, the oasis represents a valuable natural and environmental heritage (Fig. 3). Moreover, studies of the palaeoenvironment and mappings of the ouadis, the nature and the evolution of terraces would make it possible to develop a betterunderstanding of the context in which the various communities developed.

Fig. 3. Figuig, a cultural landscape (photo: A. Del, 2008).

Fig. 4. Abandonment and degradation of the architectural heritage (photo: A. Del, 2011).

Fig. 5. Abandonment and degradation of the environmental heritage (photo: G. Janty, 2010).

5Nevertheless, the oasis is currently facing an unprecedented socioeconomic crisis, accompanied by socio-spatial transformations at the origin of a degradation of the heritage of the oasis. For example, with the progression of a modern urban style, the former fabrics and the ancient constructions in mudbrick degrade (Fig. 4). Besides, the palm grove is partly abandoned, which entails the degradation of parts of the irrigation network as well as of the gardens themselves (died palm trees, abandonment of the cultures; Fig. 5). The threats of degradation of the heritage, either of anthropological origin (new modes and materials of construction and exploitation) or of non-anthropological origin (wind, rain) are such that the need for safeguard measures is more and more urgent.

6However, in spite of the fact that both the local authorities and the population wish to protect the heritage of the oasis, Figuig is subjected to contradictory trends, where protection of the heritage and development are competing. After all, even though Figuig was a caravan crossroads, a meeting place of diverse civilisations from the antiquity until today and was among the first ten cities of Morocco, at the beginning of the 20th century, it is at present enclosed because of its particular position with regard to Algeria, which surrounds it on the East, the South and the North. In addition, the closing of the border between Morocco and Algeria in 1994 strengthened the isolation and the decline of the oasis, which was forced to turn to other resources and to rethink its future development (Sanmartin, 2011). Besides, the strong emigration and the dispersal of the inheritances, although limited by the numerous resources coming from the Diaspora (Alaoui, on 2011), require local actors to seek other models of development inspired by experiences led in other Moroccan and North African oases. Such models, based in particular on the development of tourism in these areas, give however rise to other questions, in particular in terms of the social, cultural and environmental impacts (Minvielle et al., 2008; Battesti, 2009; Carpentier, 2011).

7The territorial stakes – not to say the challenges – of the safeguard of the heritage of the oasis (and of its inscription on the UNESCO world heritage list), which the whole population of the oasis has to meet, can comprise several dimensions which relate to the multiple uses and values of the heritage: scientific, identity and cultural, social, political, economic and touristic. All these stakes articulate around a territorial development in multiple scales from the local level until the regional level: the urban district or municipality of Figuig, the province of Figuig, and the region of the Oriental, which put on a new strategy of sustainable and integrated development (Agence de l’Oriental, 2011).

The scientific stakes: A multidisciplinary ground of studies but an ill-assorted documentation

8As far as it is concerned, by reason of the diversity of the heritage that it contains, the oasis constitutes a fertile area of study for historians, archaeologists, geographers, anthropologists, etc.; its safeguard seems to represent a major stake in the eyes of local, Moroccan and foreign researchers. However, the important scientific production on Figuig, emanating from universities, local scholars and NGOs, is rather ill-assorted and the implementation of a heritage GIS could represent an interesting alternative allowing a sharing of the knowledge by all the actors (Gillot and Del, 2012; Gillot et al., 2013). It is also a way to address the matter of the protection of the heritage from a global perspective based on the documentation and the preliminary study of this heritage, in particular with a view to submit the request of inscription of the oasis on the World Heritage List, as we shall see below.

The identity and cultural stakes: The recognition of the diversity of communities and the strengthening of a shared common identity

9In a context where the oasis stems from a long history of settlement, where several communities competed and shaped their own space, the safeguard of the material and immaterial tracks of this history represents an important stake, both for the various groups and for the whole population. Indeed, it is a question of preserving all the features that define the cultures of the various ksour and the unique figuigui identity, by choosing to protect memory marks that tend to disappear (archaeological tracks, architecture, social practices, etc.). These identity and more widely cultural stakes are particularly worsened by the fact that they hark back to conflicts between the communities of the oasis. But they also occur at other levels, the Fuiguigui population having to assert its presence on the regional, national and international arenas. In fact, the recognition of the heritage and its preservation take part in this positioning and in the sharing of a culture common to the territory of the oasis, which go beyond the frontiers of the oasis if account is taken of the importance still attached by the Figuigui Diaspora to all these material and immaterial heritage (Gillot et al., 2012, 2013; Gillot and Del, 2014). Morocco and the international community became aware of this because, since 2011, the UNESCO has included Figuig on the tentative list of the world heritage, doubtless prefiguring the final insertion in the WHL.

The social stakes: Strengthen the participation and appropriation by the citizens to maintain the sociability associated with the heritage

10The individual and the collective (djemaa, network of associations) practices, which represents a will to transmit the heritage to future generations, constitutes the social stakes of the protection of the heritage of the oasis, which is not in conflict with the aspiration for modernity. This is particularly identifiable in the local practices of safeguard, which do not entail a strict material preservation but rather a reactivation of practices that make it possible to preserve the social relationships within the oasis and with the Diaspora in Morocco and in France. Firstly, the development of the cultivation of the palm tree, which attempts to maintain the traditional modes without searching for economic profit, testifies of these facts. The Diaspora is very attached to the palm grove as the element of its identity and contributes therefore to its preservation by providing financial support to the residents and to the maintenance of gardens. Secondly, the preservation and the rehabilitation of the vernacular housing environment in mudbrick, carried out obviously on a small scale but spontaneously and individually without any public support and the hope of any individual economic prospect, is another example (Gillot and Del, 2014). However, the initiatives of the municipality or the planners do not meet the citizens’ aspiration of transmission. Therefore, some development projects can be detrimental, even destructive, to the pre-existent sociability, as was the case with the development of the traffic roundabout at the entrance of the city (Fig. 6), which led in particular to the destruction of the bar ‘the Oasis’ where men used to meet and it relegated the people who were playing the “Game of the water” to another place. Since then, it appears that this traffic roundabout has much less traffic than previously. On the contrary, other developments, not having apparently a strong link with the local context, have impacts that we could consider as “positive”. It is the case in particular of the place in front of the City Hall and of the pachalik, where women, children and teenagers meet (Fig. 7).

Fig. 6. Development of the traffic roundabout at the entrance to the city (photo: A. Del, 2013).

Fig. 7. Development of the square outside the Town Hall (photo: A. Del, 2014).

The political stakes: An integrated local development

11The safeguard of the Figuig heritage also refers to political and governance stakes, which concern various levels of power and also the diverse components of the society. The DELIO project (Local Development Integrated by the Oriental, 2007-2011), based on a partnership between the UNDP, the Agency of the Oriental and the Municipality of Figuig, reflects a willingness to strengthen the capacity of the various stakeholders, including the civil society, regarding democratic governance. The domain of heritage management is not immune to these trends, even if there are still certain stages to be crossed, in a context where the cleavages remain numerous: between Berber and Arabic communities, between the peripheral and central regions, between the civil society, political and economic actors, etc. (Gillot and Del, 2014). The protection of the heritages can seem then contradictory with the aspiration of modernity of certain members of Figuig community. In fact, the measures taken by the municipality, scholars’ local associations and institutions and international organisations, designed to protect the cultural and natural heritage of the oasis, are still not taken on board nor accepted by the citizens or the actors of the town and country planning (Gillot et al., 2012). In this context, we propose to strengthen the forms of protection (in particular legal), even if Morocco already has of a set of effective laws. In this perspective, the inscription of Figuig on the World Heritage List could be one of these ways, aiming at ensuring a better protection and governance, on the condition that it is taking place in a real dialogue with all the actors concerned. Such an inscription would also make it possible to rebalance the list of the Moroccan sites registered on the World Heritage List (Vallat, 2014), by drawing the attention to a type of particular heritage, the cultural landscape, and to a peripheral region that launched a real process of development in the last years. It is in this context that our research teams were called to participate in the development of the file required for the inscription of Figuig on the ‘tentative list’, before the delivery of the file for the purposes of the request of inscription on the WHL, which must be instructed by the Moroccan Ministry of Culture. What is therefore at stake is the recognition, by the central authority in Rabat, of a peripheral territory as well as the participation of the civil society in the processes of heritage protection and in tourist and economic development (Gillot and Del, 2014).

The economic and tourist stakes: The development of a sustainable and responsible tourism based on the exploitation of the patrimonial wealth

12Another stake in the protection of Figuig heritage is directly linked to the socioeconomic development of the oasis and its positioning within the national territory. The municipality, the region of the Oriental and the local actors consider tourism as a potential lever of development and are of the view that, in this respect, the heritage could be a lever of revitalisation of the traditional activities and the implication of the local populations in the development of the architectural, environmental and immaterial heritage (Haut-commissariat au Plan, 2010). In the course of these last years, interesting initiatives were launched, such as guesthouses (Fig. 8), which are associated with ‘niche’ rather than mass tourism (Agence de l’Oriental, 2013). These initiatives are part of a strategy defined on a regional scale by the Agency of the Oriental. However, other initiatives, such as that of the village 80 (Fig. 9), raise questions and underline the need for a careful approach in the development of the tourism in Figuig, with due regard to the strengths and weaknesses of Figuig from a tourism point of view, in particular its enclosing and its location in a region (the Oriental), which is badly positioned on the national and international tourist stage (Elayoubi, 2012). Also, by opting for a diversification of the economic resources, the development of the oasis will again be possible, in particular from the point of view of the management of the palm grove (Cohen, 2014; Cohen and Janty, 2014).

Fig. 8. Dliam Home (photo: A. Del, 2012).

Fig. 9. Village 80 (photo: A. Del, 2014).

Multiple territorial stakes: The safeguard of the heritage as the engine of the sustainable development?

13The case of Figuig reflects current (or postmodern) trends whereby heritage is regarded as a tool of a sustainable social, economic and environmental development. Therefore, the heritage is promoted by multiple values and considered as an element to be protected and to be valued at the same time. This conception of the heritage, as a lever of development, testifies of an approach of the heritage as an element that is likely to evolve through the new uses, which we make. It is in this perspective that the actors tend to use currently the term “safeguard” rather than “protection”. Therefore, the heritage became a tourist and trade resource at the heart of public policies, and even an element of territorial marketing. Clearly, if a sustainable tourist development could be jointly applied to projects for the development of the ksour and palm grove, based on a compromise between preservation of the existing and revival to satisfy new social needs (Micaud, 2014), it is also advisable to measure the risks posed to the oasis by the application of exogenous models, as mentioned by Jean-Pierre Vallat in the introduction to the book Le patrimoine marocain. Figuig, une oasis au cœur des cultures (Vallat, 2014). The fact remains that, in view of the complex set of challenges and divergent aspirations, which arise within Figuig’s territory, the oasis society, both on-the-spot or emigrated, should take appropriate steps to ensure a proper balance between protection of the environment and territorial development.



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Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 1. Location of Figuig in Morocco (from Google Earth).
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Légende Fig. 2. Map of Figuig city and its ksour (from Janty, 2014; Google Earth).
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Légende Fig. 3. Figuig, a cultural landscape (photo: A. Del, 2008).
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Légende Fig. 4. Abandonment and degradation of the architectural heritage (photo: A. Del, 2011).
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Légende Fig. 5. Abandonment and degradation of the environmental heritage (photo: G. Janty, 2010).
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Légende Fig. 6. Development of the traffic roundabout at the entrance to the city (photo: A. Del, 2013).
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Légende Fig. 7. Development of the square outside the Town Hall (photo: A. Del, 2014).
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Légende Fig. 8. Dliam Home (photo: A. Del, 2012).
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Légende Fig. 9. Village 80 (photo: A. Del, 2014).
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Professor emeritus, University of Paris-Diderot (Paris 7), Mixed Research Unit (UMR 8210) CNRS/Universities of Paris 1 & Paris 7/EHESS/EPHE (Anthropology and History of Antic Worlds – ANHIMA), Paris, France (

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