Written and Cartographic Accounts of Amizmiz in History

Map with Amizmiz A French map from 1791 shows “Imizmizi” on the southern border of the “Rme. de Maroc” (Kingdom of Morocco). The city of “Maroc” (Marrakech) is correctly located to the northeast of Imizmizi.

Amizmiz has been a part of recorded history for several centuries. Travel accounts of European visitors to Morocco during the past 500 years nearly always include passages detailing their time passing through Amizmiz. In the nineteenth century, this was especially true of British explorers stopping at Amizmiz en route to the Atlas Mountains. Before modern roads, the town was an important stop for those hoping to cross the mountain range.

Like other Moroccan cities and towns, however, Amizmiz has been known by a few different names over time. Variations in the spelling of Amizmiz include all of the following: Imizmizi, Imizimiz, Imizmiza, Imizmiz, Imisimis, Imismis, Amsmis, Amsmiz, Amismiz, Amezmiz. There is no doubt, however, that in each case the writer or mapmaker was referring to modern-day Amizmiz.

Leo Africanus

Leo Africanus (1494 - 1554) wrote the first detailed descriptions of Morocco ever published in Europe. His work, entitled Description of Africa, was published in 1550 in Venice, with an English translation appearing in 1600. His work includes passages on many cities in Morocco, only some of which are still in existence today. Among them is his description of a town called “Imizmizi,” what is now modern Amizmiz.

Leo Africanus “Upon a certain part of the Atlas stands a city called Imizmizi...and this city the ancients are reported to have built. Near unto this city lies the common highway to Guzula over the mountains of Atlas....snow falls often thereupon...Not far from this town likewise there is a very fair and large plain, which extends for the space of thirty miles, even to the territory of Maroco (Marrakech). This most fertile plain yields such excellent grain, as (to my remembrance) I never saw the like, and the flour is perfect. Because the Arabians and soldiers of Maroco do so much molest this plain country, the greater part thereof is destitute of inhabitants. Indeed, I have heard of many citizens that have forsaken the city itself, thinking it better to depart, than to be daily oppressed with so many inconveniences. They have very little money, but the scarcity thereof is recompensed by their abundance of good ground, and their plenty of grain.”

Luis del Mármol Carvajal

Luis del Mármol Carvajal (1520 - 1600) wrote another 16th century account of Africa entitled General Description of Africa, first published in a Spanish edition in 1573. In chapter 38 of Book III, Carvajal includes a section on “Imizimiz,” most of which is a direct translation from Leo Africanus. There is an interesting note of optimism at the end, however. While Leo had commented that much of the Amizmiz area was losing inhabitants due to outside incursions, Carvajal ends his account by stating, “Now it is very populous, and the inhabitants have been well treated because of an Almoravid called Sidi Canon, who was from it.” 

Maps of Abraham Ortelius

Abraham Ortelius Besides the inclusion of Amizmiz in various written historical accounts, another indication of its importance can be found in the many maps of Morocco that include it as well. The earliest and most important of these is the 1570 atlas of Abraham Ortelius entitled Theatrum Orbis Terrarum. This is generally regarded as the first modern atlas, comprised of 53 maps covering the known world of the time. His map of “Barbariae,” or the Barbary Coast, charts the modern nations of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. The major city of “Marocho” (Marrakech) is included on the map, as is the smaller town of “Imizinizi.” This spelling is no doubt a copying error of what was probably intended to be “Imizmizi,” the name given by Leo Africanus. However, the second “m” was miscopied as the letters “in.” By his 1595 edition map of Morocco, this error had been corrected. 

Below is a detailed section of the 1570 map of the Barbary Coast, showing both “Imizinizi” and “Marocho”:

Detail of 1570 Ortelius map

In 1595, Ortelius produced a map of Morocco that included corrections from his 1570 map. Here, we see Amizmiz now written as “Imismis.” The great city of “MARRVECOS” (Marrakech) is also visible:

Detail of 1595 Ortelius map

Map of Nicolas Sanson

One of the major reasons that Amizmiz held importance for European explorers in the 16th to 19th centuries was due to the fact that it was an important stop before crossing what are now known as the High Atlas mountains. Leo Africanus mentions this fact in his description of Amizmiz, but we also encounter evidence of it from a 1655 map by Frenchman Nicolas Sanson. His map of Morocco clearly places “Imizmiza” next to a route passing over the mountains into the region of “Guzula.” The city of “Marochvm” (Marrakech) is also visible:

Detail of 1655 Sanson map

English Map of S. Bulton

The English map of S. Bulton from 1800 places “Imizmizi” barely within the “Kingdom of Maroco,” an indicator that the town would have been one of the last stops still under the control of the Sultan before entering the mountains:

Bulton's map of 1800

The British Explorations of the 19th Century

The 19th century saw an increase of British interest in Morocco and its geography. The 1809 publication of An Account of the Empire of Marocco by James Grey Jackson marked one of the earliest firsthand accounts by someone who had spent a considerable amount of time in the country. Jackson recognized the scarcity of reliable information about Morocco, and suggested that “Leo Africanus is, with very few exceptions, perhaps the only author who has depicted the country in its true light” (11).

The first volume of The Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, published 1831, contains an account of Lieutenant Washington's expedition to Morocco in the winter of 1829-1830. He travelled south of Marrakech into the Atlas mountains, but stayed northeast of Amizmiz and therefore does not mention the town. However, it is interesting to note what he does say about the Atlas mountain region and its people: “How little is known of the central recesses of the Atlas! Doubtless these valleys are all inhabited by a race of men probably as unmixed as any existing, of whom nothing is known, hardly even a few words of their language! Here is a field for an inquiring mind” (149).

Throughout the century, many explorers took up that challenge. In fact, the exploration of the Atlas mountains was one of the major recurring projects by members of the Royal Geographical Society during its first seven decades of existence. In almost every instance, Amizmiz was included in the itinerary of British explorers surveying the people, plant life, and geography of the Atlas mountains.

1836 - John Davidson

In August of 1835, world traveller John Davidson embarked on a journey that he had hoped would take him all the way to Timbuktu. Unfortunately, he was killed approximately 25 days before reaching the city. However, his account of travels in Morocco is filled with stories of personal encounters with Arab and Berber Moroccans. Published posthumously in 1839 by his brother under the title Notes Taken during Travels in Africa, Davidson's journal includes entries from February 21-23, 1836 that speak of the town of “Almishmish,” which his brother interprets as “Imizmizi” in a footnote entry. The entries are below:

Sunday, Feb. 21.—Therm. 47°
Our road was very beautiful, but trying, as we continued to ascend. Some of the ravines surpass any thing I have ever seen. We passed several tanks, built along the route, for the convenience of travellers: the water was fine: I picked up many curious specimens. At three P.M. we crossed the river Nefísah, a noble stream; above which stands the town of El-Arján, where we saw the women's heads dressed fantastically with flowers, and some fakirs adorned with curious ornaments. We did not reach Almishmish [Amizmiz] till just before dark. The Sheïkh Sídí Mohamed Ben Aḥmed is a great Káïd, who sent us lots of presents. This, which I hoped would be an easy day, turned out the hardest of any we had travelled. My horse is so knocked up, that I find we must remain here the whole of to-morrow.

Monday, Feb. 22.—Therm. 50°
There was a little rain during the night. I have been so bitten by fleas, that I look like a person with the small-pox. Our journey yesterday was twenty miles, W. by S. and W. S.W.; we went a part of the way up the dry bed of a river. I found here some varieties of mixed stones, and a spring nearly equal to that at Vaucluse: there were numerous mills scattered through the country, which was very beautiful. We went to breakfast with the Káïd in his garden; it was done in great style. Received lots of presents, and had many patients, especially some old women; amongst the rest, there was brought to me a man who had been attacked when employed in the fields, and had both of his arms broken and half of his nose cut off: I replaced the piece of the latter and set the arms, for which I had to manufacture splints....Many of the ladies here are ill, but I have no remedy for them. The chief of the Jews sent for me, to shew his hospitality; but I have no appetite....I must, however, pay him and his household a visit....Long—very long, will it be before I forget this visit....Returned home about eleven, P.M.; it was very cold. 

Tuesday, Feb. 23.—Therm. 50°
It turned very cold. I remarked on the road the strange manner of keeping their corn in large baskets, plastered over, and set on the roofs of the house, where they present a very odd appearance. Received presents again before starting, which did not take place till nine, A.M.

1839 - Royal Geographical Society

The ninth volume of the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society mentions Davidson's earlier exploration of Morocco, and specifically mentions the route he takes past Amizmiz. This no doubt contributed to making Amizmiz a regular stop for later British explorers. The relevant passage is reproduced here:

“In Marocco we find, from the rough note-book of the lamented Davidson, that, following the steps of the British mission to that country in 1830, related in the 1st Vol. of the Geographical Journal, he proceeded from the city of Marocco across the plain in a S.S.E. direction into Atlas, as far as the ruined town of Tasremút, at an elevation of 3000 feet above the sea; thence turning to the westward he continued along the valleys of Atlas by a route not laid down in any of our maps, and which we are enabled partially to trace only in that of M. de Gråberg; passing within a few miles of the site of Aghmát Warikah, he appears to have issued from the mountains beyond a place called Amishmish, perhaps Imizmizi of our maps, and then to have crossed the plain to Mogador. Geographers cannot but feel grateful to Mr. Thomas Davidson, the traveller's brother, for allowing his rough notes of this novel route to be made public” (lxxii - lxxiii).

1871 - Joseph Hooker

Joseph Dalton Hooker A close friend of Charles Darwin, Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker was one of Britain's greatest botanists and explorers of the 19th century. For two decades he was the director of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, during which time he made a visit to Morocco in 1871 in order to collect specimens of plant and animal life. His account of that journey, written with John Ball, was entitled Journal of a Tour in Marocco and the Great Atlas (1878). That account contains the most detailed description of “Amsmiz” up until that time period. Hooker spends considerable length detailing the geography, plant life, and notable people of Amizmiz and the Amizmiz valley. In fact, it is through the Amizmiz valley that Hooker and Ball ascend the Atlas mountains to the peak known at that time as Djebel Tezah, from which the two view the Sous valley before returning back to Amizmiz. From the vast amount of material, here are some notable passages:

“This [Amizmiz] is the most considerable place on the northern declivity of the Great Atlas, and, from the number of inhabitants, may deserve to rank as a town. It stands on a shelf of flat rocky ground, somewhat above the level of the adjoining plain, and nearly 200 feet above the stream issuing from the mountains close at hand, which, for want of any other name, we have called the Amsmiz torrent” (246).

“The Governor [of Amizmiz] was courteous and even friendly in manner, and in general terms expressed his readiness to forward the objects of our journey. He seemed pleased with the articles which Hooker presented to him— a musical box, an opera-glass, and a long sheath-knife; but when a thermometer was added, and an attempt made to explain the use of the instrument, he at once returned it, saying that it would be of no service, and that he would much prefer a brace of pistols” (248).

“In the afternoon we went out for a stroll, and were able to form a better idea than we had hitherto done of the character of the scenery. The position of Amsmiz somewhat reminds one of that of villages in Piedmont, that stand at the opening of some of the interior valleys of the Alps, and still more of similar places in the Apennines of Central and Southern Italy. The lofty hills that form the outer extremity of the spurs diverging from the Great Atlas slope rather steeply towards the plain, while the torrent issues from them through a cleft so narrow that no path is carried along it into the valley. Trees, that naturally clothe the outer ranges of the Alps, are here very scarce, and the upper declivity, as commonly in the Apennine, is covered with brushwood and low shrubs; while the lower slopes are partly under tillage, or else planted with olive and fig trees. We descended from the plateau, where our camp stood close to the town of Amsmiz at 3,382 feet (1,030.7 m.) above the sea, by steeply sloping banks to the level of the torrent; and followed this for some distance, collecting plants by the way; and then made a circuit among fields, enclosed by high hedges, in which grew a profusion of climbing plants. The chief prize of our excursion was a curious new species of Marrubium, whose spherical heads of flowers are beset with long stiff bristles hooked at the end, formed by the elongated lower teeth of the calyx” (249).

1887 - Walter Harris

Diplomatic mission to sultan The British mission meeting
the Sultan of Morocco, 1887.
Click photo for full size.
A fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, Walter B. Harris was a member of an official 1887 diplomatic mission to the Sultan of Morocco in Marrakech (depicted at right). In his book The Land of an African Sultan, published 1889, Harris details his time in Marrakech and and also some of the travels that were taken by members of the diplomatic mission.

Four of those members, Harris included, were given special permission by the sultan, Moulay Hassan, to visit the Atlas mountains in May of 1887. They were provided an interpreter, four soldiers, some servants, and a letter from the sultan himself: “We give permission, by the help of God, to the four Englishmen who are bearers of this letter to travel in all parts of our Empire in which there is no present danger. But in parts where there is danger, or where the inhabitants are in rebellion, they must not go, whether in the plains or mountains. And to those whose business it is, I give this command...that they take care of them and pay all attention to their wants; that they accompany them, and supply a fitting escort; and that they point out to them the dangerous places, and advise them not to enter them. --Moulay Hassan”

In their journey, the Englishmen visit Ourika, Asni, and eventually Amizmiz. Harris noted that “Amsmiz is a place of some size and importance, and boasts a 'mellah,' or Jews' quarter, separated from the walled town, of which latter the mosques and gateway are fine. Altogether it is a most picturesque place, situated in the opening of a large valley” (238).

Over the course of several days in Amizmiz, the group explores that valley and some of the mountain villages near Amizmiz: “Early next morning we started off up the valley, keeping to the right-hand side. The path, the merest track in the side of the precipice, was not a good one, as it was in no place more than two feet to three feet wide, and proportionately slippery. Riding along such roads as these is not over-pleasant work, especially when, hundreds of feet below one, rushes a turbulent river, into which one would ultimately alight...should the horse make one false step. However, after some two hours and a half of more or less holding one's breath, we emerged into a valley running at right angles to the one we were in. The scenery all along the road was very grand; far below boiled and bubbled the river, its banks green, vividly green, with narrow strips of corn-fields and groves of walnut-trees, while a line of crimson oleanders marked out the river's edge. The valley we entered was very lovely. At the end, which opens into the great valley, stands a village of some size, by name Imminteli, close under the walls of which runs a swift, clear, deep river, whose bed is cut out in the solid rock. On each side of the river is a lawn of green grass, the whole shaded by gigantic walnut-trees. We crossed the river some few hundred yards up to where it issues from the solid rock, a most curious spot, for there is no cave, simply a pool of water at the foot of the precipice—a clear, deep pool, from the centre of which, far down in its transparent depths, issues the stream” (240-241). The Amizmiz valley, the village of Imintala [Imminteli], the famous spring that flows into a river surrounded by grass and walnut trees—all of these can still be visited today (see our villages map and our custom excursion itinerary).

1888 - Joseph Thomson

Joseph Thomson A Scottish geologist and explorer, Joseph Thomson was famous for his travels throughout Africa. A fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, Thomson made a trip to the Atlas mountains in 1888. A year later he published a personal narrative of that trip entitled Travels in the Atlas and Southern Morocco: A Narrative of Exploration. In it, he describes the geography and people of Amizmiz and the river valley to the south. He is also the first person (that we know of) to ever photograph Amizmiz.

Thomson begins his description of Amizmiz with a general survey of the geography:  “Amsmiz lies at the foot of the outer mountain terrace of the Atlas, and close to the entrance of a narrow glen, through which may be caught a glimpse of the backbone of the range, only some eight miles distant. The town stands at an elevation of 3020 feet above the level of the sea, according to our boilingpoint thermometer” (282).

Residents of Amizmiz, 1888 Residents of Amizmiz, 1888.
Photo by Joseph Thomson.
Click photo for full size.
He speaks of the people as well, including the sizeable number of Jewish residents. “The population of the town of Amsmiz we guessed to be somewhere about 2000, of which a very considerable proportion are Jews” (283). He comments that the Jews of Amizmiz “had a manly and independent air about them sufficiently rare in these lands, and seemed to be on very good terms with themselves and with the government” (283). Regarding all the inhabitants of the town, Thomson remarks that they are a population of “fine healthy men and women” (284).

Much more time is spent by Thomson describing the river valley and mountains to the south. In fact, chapter 20 of his book is titled “Glen of the Wad Amsmiz,” the word “wad” being Arabic for river. The entire chapter recounts Thomson's exploration of the Amizmiz river valley, the same valley that our excursions visit nowadays (see our maps). Thomson remarks on the incredible beauty of the area: “It had never before been our good luck to find such a charming camping-ground. In the Atlas flat pieces of ground covered with green sward and sheltering trees are extreme rarities; but here, in the glen of the Wad Amsmiz, we had a delightful bit of turf on which to pitch our tents, splendid walnut trees to shade them, a noisy torrent to babble at our feet, and majestic mountains to fold us in their giant arms and cool the tropic heats. Berber villages also were at hand, to send us store of corn for mules and horses, milk, eggs, and fowls for ourselves, and couscous, tajine, and barley bannocks for our attendants” (290-291).

1897 - R. B. Cunninghame Graham

R. B. Cunninghame Graham Bontine Cunninghame Graham was a Scottish adventurer and writer who also spent several years involved in politics. In 1897, he travelled  to Morocco with the hopes of reaching the southern city of Taroudant in the Sous valley, an area that had not been reached by earlier explorers. Graham disguised himself as a Turkish doctor in order to avoid the obstacles that often troubled Europeans who openly travelled in Morocco. Despite his efforts, he failed to reach Taroudant when he was imprisoned for four months by Berbers in the Atlas mountains. His 1898 book about his time in Morocco, entitled Mogreb-el-Acksa: a journey in Morocco, contains numerous references to Amizmiz.

Originally, Graham had no intention of passing through Amizmiz. After having arrived in Mogador (modern day Essaouira), three routes were available for reaching Taroudant. Graham's first choice was to travel along the coast to Agadir and then eastward. This was the preferred course simply because he would not need to traverse the Atlas mountains. Unfortunately, the local Howara tribe that controlled the road from Agadir to Taroudant was in rebellion, and the road was reportedly closed. Graham had two other routes available, both of which required his passing over the Atlas mountains. Of the two, he first chose the road leading from the town of Imintanout south across the mountain range. He encountered another set of unfortunate events upon his arrival in Imintanout, however. The tribe of Beni Sira closed the pass because they were unhappy with the newly appointed governor, and in recent days they had been opening fire on anyone trying to cross the Atlas through their territory. Graham had only one other route available to him if he wanted to get over the Atlas and reach Taroudant: take the upper and more difficult pass to the Sous valley. This route began in Amizmiz.

When Graham first arrives in Amizmiz, he describes a bit of what he sees. “We crossed the Wad el Kehra, and early in the afternoon tied up our animals under a fig-tree, with a river running hard by, a stubble field in front, and Amsmiz itself crowning a hill upon our right. Amongst the ‘algarrobas,’ fig-trees and poplars, swallows flit, having come south, or perhaps migrated north from some more southern land. At the entrance of the town stood the palace of the Kaid, an enormous structure made of mud and painted light rose-pink, but all in ruins, the crenellated walls a heap of rubbish, the machicolated towers blown up with gunpowder. The Kaid, it seems, oppressed the people of the town and district beyond the powers of even Arabs and Berbers to endure; so they rebelled, and to the number of twelve thousand besieged the place, took it by storm, and tore it all to pieces to search for money in the walls” (109).

“An orange grove, backed by a cane-brake, with the canes fluttering like flags, was near to us; cows, goats, and camels roamed about the outskirts of the town, as in Arcadia—that is, of course, the Arcadia of our dreams—or of Theocritus.”

“Jews went and came, saluting every one, and being answered: "May Allah let you finish out your miserable life"; but yet as pleased as if they had been blessed. Their daughters came, like Rebecca, to the well—all carrying jars—unveiled, and yet secure, for in this land few Moors cast eyes upon the daughter of a Jew.”

“Upon the ramparts, shadowy white-robed figures, with long guns, go to and fro, guarding the town from hypothetic enemies....On every hedge are blackberries and travellers' joy; whilst a large honeysuckle, in full flower, smells better than all Bucklersbury in simple time; a jay's harsh cry sounds like the howl of a coyote, and Europe seems a million miles away. In the evening light, the footpaths, which cut every hill, shine out as they had all been painted by some clever artist, who had diluted violet with gold” (111).

The Early Twentieth Century

The turn of the century brought with it a diminished interest in Amizmiz among British explorers and scientists. Much of the geography and flora of the Amizmiz valley had by now been documented and there was less need for using Amizmiz as a base for further exploration of the Atlas mountains. Nevertheless Amizmiz continued to be a popular cultural destination for those foreigners travelling in Morocco—especially because of its close proximity to Marrakech. Photographers, too, recognized Amizmiz as an easily accessible location for documenting, in print, the life of Berbers in the Atlas mountains. In the early twentieth century, Amizmiz would continue being mentioned regularly among written travel accounts of the country.

The Pall Mall Magazine - 1900

Amizmiz, 1900 Amizmiz, 1900.
Photo by F. G. Aflalo.
Click photo for full size.
Writer F. G. Aflalo contributed a piece on “Morocco, the Imperial City” to the British literary magazine The Pall Mall in its January 1900 issue. Including photographs taken by the author himself, Aflalo describes Marrakech (also known at the time as Morocco City) from a purely literary, outsider's perspective. His account includes a mention of “Amsmiz,” which he visited en route to the Atlas mountains where he intended to search for a famous type of wild sheep in the area:

“Away to the south-west [of Marrakech], just as the great [Atlas] range lifts itself above the burning plain, lies Amsmiz, the city of almonds, nestling amid its groves of perfume and colour, and showing on its battered barbicans traces of political differences with the dynasty, or with some robber tribe from the hills. History is not my theme, and I care not which. But the remains of the struggle are picturesque” (58).

Eugène Aubin - 1902

A Frenchman and world traveller, Eugène Aubin visited Morocco in late 1902, a fortunate time when relations between the Sultan and Europe “had, for the first time, opened up in some degree this country, so hostile to foreign influences” (vii). An English account of his travels was published in 1906 under the title Morocco of To-day. Among his many descriptions of the country, Aubin speaks of Amizmiz:

“Amsmiz is a little town that nestles at the very foot of the range, on the banks of a tributary of the river Nefis, whose ravine has a setting of snowy summits. The earth dwellings, crowned by a square minaret, huddle together on a piece of rising ground, dominated by the ancient Kasbah of the Kaïd of the tribe. To-day the Kasbah is only a heap of ruins. It was destroyed at the time of the death of the Sultan Moulay el-Hassan, when the tribes of Southern Morocco, taking advantage, as their custom is, of this unique opportunity of shaking off the yoke of authority, rose in revolt against their Kaïds, and pillaged the Jews. The revolt spread till it was almost universal, and it was only the most powerful of the chiefs that were spared. The Kaïd el-Masmazi has thought it wiser not to rebuild the ruined Kasbah. He has removed his residence to a spot outside the city, in an azib with fortified walls. Like all the other Kaïds, he is elsewhere, and in his absence his son, Si Mohammed ould el-Hassan, rules the tribe in the capacity of Khalifa” (43).

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