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Letter from Morocco

Splendor at the Edge of the Sahara

Excavations of a bustling medieval city tell the tale of a powerful Berber dynasty

May/June 2020

Morocco BathhouseFifteen years ago, retired archaeologist Ronald Messier, who had spent much of his career excavating the site of Sijilmasa on the northern edge of the Sahara, got a phone call from Frederick Vreeland, a former American ambassador to Morocco and the son of the fashion editor and columnist Diana Vreeland. Vreeland, who was also retired and lived on an estate just south of the bustling city of Marrakech, asked Messier to come and take a look at some nearby ruins that locals called the hammam, the Arabic word for bathhouse. Vreeland was concerned that something important might be slipping away from decay and neglect at the dilapidated site next to a slaughterhouse on the outskirts of the modern village of Ghmat.


Morocco MapMessier visited the site a few days later, and, after just a few minutes of inspecting the tops of three well-worn stone and brick domes poking out of the red soil amid the trash, was convinced it was, indeed, important. “I could tell from the pottery sherds scattered about that the remains went back to the Middle Ages,” says Messier, a professor emeritus at Middle Tennessee State University. “I knew that this was likely the ruins of medieval Aghmat.” The location of Aghmat, which is partially encircled by the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains, was not a mystery. From the ninth through fourteenth centuries, the city was a key trans-Saharan trading hub. It is well-known from contemporaneous texts and is even noted on a few modern maps. But while many travelers over the centuries had sketched the ruins, and the site was partially surveyed by French archaeologists in the 1990s, it had never been excavated.


Messier soon abandoned his retirement plans, and along with Abdallah Fili of Chouaib Doukkali University and Chloé Capel of the University of Paris, began excavating Aghmat in earnest. Thus far, the team has uncovered the large bathhouse whose domes Messier saw during his initial visit, along with a palace and mosque, residential villas, remains of water systems, parts of the ancient city walls, and thousands of artifacts. The rest of ancient Aghmat, which may once have extended over three-fourths of a square mile, still lies buried under the homes and farms of Ghmat. “This site has undeniable scientific value,” Capel says. “It’s an almost unique source of knowledge about medieval urban societies in North Africa, of which we know little.”