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Atlas Mountains

High Atlas Mountains

The High Atlas (in Berber: ⴰⴷⵔⴰⵔ ⵏ ⴷⵔⵏ Adrar n Dern1, in Arabic: الاطلس الكبير al-Atlas al-Kabir) is a Moroccan mountain range oriented southwest / northeast. This chain belongs to the Atlas massif and more precisely, to one of the three elements of the Moroccan Atlas, the other two being the Middle Atlas and the Anti-Atlas.

It is the highest massif in North Africa, sometimes nicknamed the “roof of Morocco” or even the “roof of North Africa”. It forms an immense barrier of approximately 750 kilometers in length which delimits Saharan from Atlantic and Mediterranean Morocco. It constitutes the centerpiece of the expanses of high Moroccan mountains – the whole of which covers an area of ​​100,200 km2.

The population, mainly Amazigh of the Chleuh group, lives on pastoralism and agriculture. The inhabitants of the High Atlas can also speak a dialect different from the tachelhit, like the Aït Atta, the Aït Yafelman and other inhabitants of the region of Tinghir who belong to the cultural and linguistic area of ​​Tamazight of central Morocco.

Atlas Mountains hiking

The relief of the High Atlas is divided into three different entities, from west to east, the western High Atlas, the central High Atlas and the eastern High Atlas.

Western High Atlas

The Western High Atlas is the oldest massif, made up above all of Jurassic or Cretaceous formations (with some less extensive outcrops of the Triassic, Permian, and even the Carboniferous2) cut into deep valleys. Its highest point is Jebel at 4,167 meters above sea level, visible from Marrakech. Toubkal National Park was created in 1942 because of the biodiversity and natural wealth of Jebel Toubkal.

Central High Atlas

The central High Atlas is an essentially limestone massif, morphologically dominated by tabular zones culminating at 2,500 meters above sea level, which stretches from Azilal to Ouarzazate.

Jebel M’Goun (4,071 meters) is the highest peak in this part of the High Atlas. We meet there a Berber population renowned for its hospitality.

Eastern High Atlas

The Eastern High Atlas is made up of the vast high altitude plateaus of the upper Moulouya. These plateaus extend from Midelt – province of Khenifra, home to Jebel Ayachi (3,747 meters) – to Imilchil – province of Errachidia, where Jebel Saghro and the ancient massif of Tamlelt are located, the northern edge of which is occupied by its highest peaks, such as Jebel Ayachi (3,760 meters).

The altitude weakens towards the east, where the hamadas domain (pre-Saharan zone) begins.

This massif has become a paleontological site of international renown, following the discovery of the bones of a then unknown dinosaur, the Atlasaurus, a herbivorous quadrupedal dinosaur about 18 to 20 meters long which inhabited 165 years ago. million years ago (Middle Jurassic). Another dinosaur about nine meters long was named Tazoudasaurus naimi, named after the village of Tazouda where it was discovered (70 kilometers from the city of Ouarzazate). It is older than the previous one (around 180 million years) and may well be the “ancestor” of the sauropods of North America which are 140 million years old – a time when North Africa and the American continent were united.


There are two types of mountain climates in the High Atlas.
One, oceanic subtropical, occurs on the northern and southern slopes of the western part (up to Jebel Toubkal) as well as on the northern slope of the central part (from to Imilchil). Exposed to disturbances from the Atlantic, they are relatively humid with spaced but sometimes torrential precipitation. Between 600 and 1000 millimeters of water fall per year on average. The summer drought, interspersed with thunderstorms, is intense. The snow cover is generally tenacious above 2,500 to 3,500 meters from November to April and can persist from September to June for the high peaks (with large variations depending on the exposure). Some rivers are never dry (asif Melloul, oued n’Fis, oued Tessaout, etc.), feeding fertile high-altitude basins: Aït Bou Guemez, Imilchil, etc. These conditions allow the existence of the forest (pines, holm oaks, cedars, etc.) but it is declining because of the triple effect of the drying up of the climate, overexploitation (heating and construction) and overgrazing of sheep. goat.

The other type of climate, continental semi-desert, manifests itself on the southern slope of the central part (from to Imilchil) and all the eastern part (beyond Imilchil), with marked thermal amplitudes. There lie high steppes, deserts of stones and more rarely of sand, and a few valleys provided with water where agriculture, very localized, is possible. The forest is almost absent. This climate is quite similar to that of the Rocky Mountains of the southern United States.



Felines: the caracal lynx, as well as the Berber leopard, exist, but in a very limited area. Common mammals are mostly nocturnal: weasel, jackal, fox, and porcupine. Wild boars are very common in the oak groves. The bighorn sheep are only visible between 2,000 and 4,000 meters away. The getulia squirrel is easily observed. The nest egg, a monkey from the macaque family, frequents the gorges of the High Atlas and the cedar groves of the Middle Atlas. Snakes are present up to high mountains, while only one poisonous reptile is found, the latest viper (30 to 40 centimeters long). As for the trout, they live at altitude in the streams. Numerous raptors are found, such as the ferocious hawk, booted eagle, Circaetus, hawk, kestrel, peregrine falcon, and up to 4000 meters, golden eagles and vultures. We can also observe the rock pigeon. Two species are common to the mountainous regions of the Near East: the pink-winged finch and the horned lark, identifiable by the yellow feathers of its head. Migratory birds cross the Atlas Mountains in spring and autumn at high altitudes. The Meadow Pipit breeds in Europe and spends the winter in the lower Atlas valleys.

The vegetation appears in a tiered manner between the plain and the mountain. On the first floor (850 to 1,200 meters), the doum (dwarf palm) is next to the cedar, carob, wild olive, mastic pistachio, and oleander. Lavender, cistus and broom abound. Sometimes thuja is associated with various kinds of junipers. In mid-mountains (1,000 to 2,000 meters), humidity increases, and holm oak dominates, mixed with red junipers.

On the high plateaus and the high valleys (2000 to 2500 meters), the trees disappear, replaced by broom and bushy plants. The only one that remains is the thuriferous juniper on the north or west slopes. In March and until June, a damp lawn appears on the plateaus, brightened up with daffodils. Only the thorny pads are maintained in high mountains (from 2,500 meters): the alyssum with gray leaves, the bupleurum, the balance laburnum, a broom with yellow flowers, the prickly sabine.

Above 3600 meters, the pads disappear and vegetation is absent. Atlas Leucanthemum, a thick-leaved violet, blooms atop Toubkal. The vegetation has been degraded by man and his herds, to the point of not being able to regenerate. In the past beautiful oak groves were supposed to cover the slopes of the Atlas, today attempts are being made to reforest them, it seems with success, with plantations of Aleppo pines.


The crossing of the Moroccan High Atlas, on the route of the three parts of the Atlas, was carried out in more than 50 days

In culture

The man with the fleece, Bilmaun in Berber, Boujloud in Arabic, is the name of a carnival character who dons the remains of the sacrificed beast (during the Muslim feast of the Sacrifice) and, for two days, participates in a rite archaic, still alive in the High Atlas7. The anthropologist Abdellah Hammoudi studies it in his book La Victime et ses masques (1988).

Notes and references
  • Jacques Pegurier and Ahmed Bellaoui, “Restructuring of the recent rural space through its relations with the urban”, Horizons Maghrébins – Le droit à la mémoire, vol. 16, no 1, 1991, p. 15–24 (DOI 10.3406 / horma.1991.1065, read online [archive], accessed July 25, 2019).

  • (en) Jean-David Moreau, Naima Benaouiss, Abdelilah Tourani, and J. -Sébastien Steyer, “A new ichnofauna from the Permian of the Zat Valley in the High Atlas of Morocco”, Journal of African Earth Sciences, vol. 172, December 1, 2020, p. 103973 (ISSN 1464-343X, DOI 10.1016 / j.jafrearsci.2020.103973, read online [archive], accessed November 25, 2020).

  • Michael Peyron, La GTAM – The Great Crossing of the Moroccan Atlas, 1988.

  • Jeffry Tailer and Driss Hemmi, “Among the Berbers”, National Geographic, January 2005.

  • National Geographic Magazine” [archive], on Magazine (accessed February 11, 2020).

  • Fatiha Aboulhorma, “Boujloud” or the saga of a rite that refuses to die [archive], Menara, September 29, 2014.

  • Hassan Hermas, “Bilmawen Bodmawen”: A carnival of colors in the streets of Inezgane and Dcheira [archive], Map Express, September 20, 2017.

  • Hammoudi Abdallah, The victim, and his masks. Essay on sacrifice and masquerade in the Maghreb, 1988 [read online [archive]].