Mining in Morocco
Morocco knows a lot about mining – in fact the Minister of Energy tells us that Morocco mined 35 million tons of minerals and precious metals in 2017, earning MAD 56.5 billion in revenue.
The top of the list are phosphates and silver but did you know that kohl used to also be mined here?
Kohl is an ancient eye cosmetic, widely used in the Middle East, Mediterranean, South Asia and the Horn of Africa as eyeliner to make eyes look more seductive and is worn by men and women. In fact, originally it was used as protection against eye ailments and was also believed to protect the wearer from the sun.
Berber women also apply kohl to their faces. Most commonly, a vertical line is drawn from the bottom lip to the chin and along the bridge of the nose.
Originally the line from the bottom lip to the chin showed whether a woman was married or not. Other symbols are also used each with different meanings relating to fertility, protection from bad spirits or as tribal identifiers.
This form of using Kohl for tattoos was introduced in the 7th century in North-Africa and was known as loucham. In certain parts of Morocco it is still occasionally practised but the custom is dying out fast, partly because tattoos are forbidden in Islam.
So, it was the requirement for Kohl that resulted in the building of M’ifis Mine. The mine is located at one end of Erg Chebbi, an stunningly beautiful area of 150m high dunes, on a high plateau of hamada (rocky desert) with a huge panoramic view of the sea of dunes and varied desert landscapes. Did you know that not far from this area can be found Turtle Valley where you can still spot turtle fossils from the creatures which lived here millions of years ago?
The French Government was focused on the exploitation of Morocco’s mineral wealth and this mine at M’ifis, was only one of several significant mines of considerable size which played an important role during the era of the French Protectorate.
Nowadays however, the village of M’ifis is all but abandoned.
Back then, it existed as an administrative town and military post. But more important, were the mines of kohl and quartz which it contained. These minerals were used both within Morocco and as part of a lucrative French export business. The mines provided employment and an income to several people and consequently many settled here and so the village of M’ifis was established.
These hardworking men experienced a daily challenge of working in pits and trenches more than 30m (and up to 50m) deep surrounded by toxic smoke pouring from the machinery used. It is tragic, but little surprise, that there is also a graveyard close by.
Why was M’ifis abandoned?
On 7 April 1956, France officially relinquished its protectorate in Morocco and after Morocco gained full independence from the French, the mines were no longer proactively managed. The French Colonial Administration left M’ifis and took their military and machinery with them.
However the mineral deposits were still active and therefore there were some leftovers from the mines. For a while these open cast mines were kept operational by the local Berber workers. The French administration used heavy machines and materials, and when they left, the miners continued without machinery. However, the pits were too deep for the workers to mine by hand. The miners had only the most modest of tools to keep up the work, which put their lives into further danger.
As these mines had always provided 100% of the income for the locals, when the site was finally drained, the people had no choice but to abandon their homes and move to the nearby town of Merzouga.
The only people who remained were a handful of military personnel from the post that the Moroccan Government had taken over from the French. It still exists today as a small military annexe, one of several in Morocco.
Can you visit the Ghost Town?
Nowadays you can visit the ghostly mud-brick village, once a prosperous community housing hundreds of people employed by the mine. However, it is a desolate, deserted place of dust and decay. Just a tiny mosque, which still calls out for prayers five times a day, is still operational and one or two military men still pray at the Mosque of the Abandoned Village.
We can include M’ifis in your trek itinerary, just ask us.
Interested to know more about Berber Tattoos? Check out this blog by Camelia Khadraoui