Arabist and explorer Alice Morrison journeys deep into the history, culture and civilisation of both ancient and modern Morocco on her quest to reach the legendary city Timbuktu.
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The Sahara Desert, Mali,
home to one of Earth's most mysterious and legendary places.
Africa's fabled city of gold.
My name's Alice Morrison.
I'm an Arabist and explorer.
I live in Morocco,
and since childhood I've dreamt of making the gruelling journey
across the Sahara to see this ancient city
before it's lost for ever to sand and war.
I love touching history.
In this series, I'll track 2,000 miles following ancient trade routes,
often known as salt roads, across some of the world's most hostile lands.
Timbuktu is at the centre of all these trade routes,
and I want to follow them, and find it, and see what's there.
'I'll pass through some magical places that time has barely touched.'
'Relying on the hospitality of Berber nomads.'
He's just cutting up the heart.
'And I'll come face-to-face with some frightening modern-day realities.'
I'm beginning to feel quite nervous.
'Travelling deep beneath the veil
'into the heart of ancient and modern North Africa,
'I'll discover its incredible forgotten history...
'..en route to the legendary city of gold, Timbuktu.'
The Mediterranean Sea, Mare Nostrum.
'The basin of civilisation.
'My 2,000-mile journey begins here.
'Behind me, Europe, ahead of me, Africa
'and an intoxicating mix of new experiences, danger and untold wealth.
'First up, the historic trading port of Tangier,
'on the northernmost tip of Morocco.'
I'm trying to imagine what it was like hundreds of years ago,
when you had ships here in full sail, stuffed to the gunwales with spices,
with ostrich feathers, with metal, with wool from Manchester.
I wonder what it would have been like if you were a merchant in those days,
coming across from cold, rainy Europe,
and seeing Tangier glinting in the distance, this promise of Africa.
For centuries, merchants have crossed these waters
seeking the fantastic riches of the African continent.
Tangier was founded in the fifth century BC,
and has always attracted adventurers, pirates and even spies.
It's where European merchants would have encountered the flow of gold from
the south for the first time.
And it's my first leg of the journey on the original trade routes that
brought it all the way from Timbuktu.
'This city is full of treasures,
'and in a small book shop I've found a reproduction of the most important
'map of medieval times, the Catalan atlas.
'It confirms Timbuktu's reputation as the gold capital of Mali
'and of Africa.'
You can see, very clearly,
the king of the kingdom of Mali sitting there,
on his throne with a great big nugget of gold in his hand,
and a huge gold crown on his head.
This is Mansa Musa, king of Mali,
and stories of Timbuktu's fabled gold began to spread
during his reign in the 14th century.
Even today, he is said to be the richest man in history.
There is an inscription on the map...
"So abundant is the gold found in his country,
"that he is the richest and most noble king in the land."
800 years on, modern gold traders still thrive here.
'I'm dying to touch the real thing to find out why it was so prized.
'So I'm meeting an expert in Moroccan antiquities.
'Much of the gold was used to mint coins,
'and she has an ancient one to show me.'
Here are some inscriptions saying
that it was from the Marinid dynasty of the 15th century.
Gold came from the sub-Saharan Africa through the trans-Saharan trade.
And this is evidence of that, it landed in Morocco.
Do you think this coin might have come through Timbuktu?
Yes, of course, most likely it did come from Timbuktu.
Yes. I would say that it was probably the most important crossroads for gold.
It's very exciting for me, I feel like I'm touching history.
You are! Yes! You are touching history.
It's in your hands.
I've got gold fever.
I can feel how its allure drew the merchants of old to make the journey
south to Mali, and the city of Timbuktu.
The roads they forged are the very ones I'm going to travel, too.
This is going to be my Bible.
It is a map of all the major trade routes across the Sahara.
But I think the journey's going to take some doing.
I think we're going to have a lot of fun in the Atlas Mountains,
because that is a big, big natural barrier.
And each of those mountains is three times higher than Ben Nevis.
So it's quite a difficult thing to get across.
And, of course, then, that is all the Sahara Desert, all the way along.
That is going to be another major thing for us to cross.
And then the routes, all routes, lead to Timbuktu.
'It's not difficult to see why Timbuktu became a mecca for gold traders.
'It was surrounded by gold mines.
'But the merchants didn't just deal in gold.
'There was a huge trade in slaves, leather goods, ivory and also in salt.
'Back then it was the only way to preserve food.
'It was almost as valuable as gold,
'and that's why many of these routes were called salt roads.'
So, the gold went north, and then the salt came south.
And they met in El Dorado, they met in Timbuktu.
It makes perfect sense, when you look at the map.
The next place I'm heading on my desert odyssey is Fes.
Five hours' drive away,
it's where many merchants started the long trek to Timbuktu.
To get to Fes, I'm going to use one of Morocco's most popular forms of
transport, the grand taxi.
There's a taxi rank in every city,
with old Mercedes going in all directions.
And it's one of the cheapest ways to get around,
IF you know the tricks of the trade.
'First, you have to find one going your way.
'Then you negotiate your fare.
'But if you can find another traveller to share the back seat,
'you can split the fare.
'Having found a travel buddy to share the cost,
'we're whisked out of town towards the coast road.
'It turns out my fellow passenger, Driss, is a trader himself.
'He's going to Fes to buy artefacts to sell to tourists.'
Say you buy a dagger for 150 dirhams.
Daggers for 150 dirhams, no.
How much would you sell it for?
Maybe a profit, five euros, maybe a profit some day of ten euros.
Some days no profit.
That's my business.
And which country spends the most money?
-Oh! We love those dollars!
Profit. They have plenty of grand bucks!
We're travelling south along the Atlantic coast,
and I'm enjoying a comfortable ride with Driss.
But on such a long journey,
it's customary to pick up other passengers
along the way.
THEY SPEAK ARABIC
And just when I'm thinking three's company...
It's getting a bit cosy in here.
I'm in here with two Drisses and Akram.
'My fellow passengers make for charming company on the long drive,
'and ahead of me lies a city with a charm all of its own
'and a history of welcoming travelling merchants through its gates.'
Fes, the ancient capital of Morocco, dating from the eighth century,
and the oldest of its four imperial cities.
It's said to be surrounded by springs,
providing travellers with the supply of precious water.
And between the 8th and 16th centuries,
Fes grew rich from the gold and salt traffic coming across the Sahara.
Its old medina, or walled city,
is the biggest pedestrian zone in the world.
And it's full of narrow streets where life remains seemingly
untouched by modern times.
Once traders finally got here from Timbuktu,
they needed a sanctuary where they could rest, wash,
feast and store their goods.
'They would stay in a caravanserai, a motel with camel and mule parking.'
So this is a caravanserai.
I guess you'd have put your camel or your donkey
in these little rooms, in the past.
And then kipped down in your B & B.
The space is still occupied by traders.
The building was last used as a caravanserai more than 80 years ago,
but there are tantalising bits of evidence of its original use.
Upstairs was a safe place for weary merchant travellers to rest,
luxurious in comparison to where they'd been.
Berbers, Arabs and West Africans all would have stayed together,
vying for the best traveller's tale.
The atmosphere here is absolutely fantastic.
You can actually feel the history.
600 years old, relatively unchanged.
OK, it's different downstairs,
because that's where the animals would have been,
and now there's trading goods,
but up here you've got little girls sitting there drinking tea,
you've got their mothers doing the washing.
It feels like I've gone back in time.
'I've decided I'm going to bed down here for the night to get a feel for
'what it was like centuries ago.'
Just a sleeping bag.
'I've brought with me some writings from travellers and adventurers who've
'trodden this perilous path before me,
'to help bring these ancient journeys to life.'
"It is more profitable and advantageous for the trader
"to export his product to a distant land,
"and take a dangerous route.
"In this way, the distance and the risk incurred will give a rare quality to
"his merchandise and thereby increase its value.
"This is why the wealthiest and the most prosperous merchants
"are those who dare to go."
I've just woken up. Five o'clock, the alarm's gone off,
because I want to get up and see the dawn rising over Fes,
and hear the call to prayer.
It's very, very, very cold.
But I think my first night in a caravanserai, I would say,
it's not been at all bad.
Fes is known as the spiritual capital of Morocco,
and Islam was first brought to the country by the Arab invasion in 682 AD.
It spread to the native Berber tribes,
who went on to form Islamic kingdoms.
CALL TO PRAYER
I always find the early-morning call to prayer very moving.
Prayer is better than sleep, the muezzin says,
in the Adhan al-Fajr, the dawn call.
The five calls a day frame life in Morocco.
Hasten to prayer, hasten to salvation.
Dawn reveals ancient tombs left behind by the Marinid empire,
which flourished in the early Middle Ages.
They shaped Fes's religious and academic reputation.
The city has 14 theological schools and the world's oldest university,
the Qarawiyyin, founded in the ninth century by a woman, Fatima al-Fihri.
It's amazing to think that while Europe was languishing in the Dark Ages,
this was a centre of learning.
Philosophy, mathematics, religion and law were all being taught here.
And then, years later,
all that knowledge went back across the Mediterranean Sea, into Europe,
and informed the Renaissance.
There's an old Moroccan saying,
"manage with bread and butter until God brings you honey".
Every neighbourhood has a communal bread oven where people take their
dough to be baked, and it's hardly changed since the Middle Ages.
'I'm meeting a friend at one of them.'
Oh, my God!
How are you?
'Najat Kaanache is a Michelin- starred chef,
'a Berber from the Moroccan mountains.'
-How are you?
How does it make you feel?
The smell, it reminds me of home.
It reminds to childhood, for me.
Like, when I was little.
This, it just happens here.
Let me cut it. The power of bread.
'Najat is one of the world's top chefs.
'She worked in Spain's famous elBulli restaurant.
'She's come back to Fes to open one of her own.'
Look at all the sausages, dried.
-That's like haggis.
-Look at this.
'And she's bringing back the kind of food that merchants in the Middle Ages
'would have eaten, but with a modern twist.'
Here we are!
-This is the one.
-OK. Here we go. Oh, my goodness.
Our friend Camel has a little grin in the face.
So this is... Look at the meat.
It's really super beautiful.
It's really, really lean.
You wouldn't think this.
You would not think this meat is like that.
People think of a camel being very dry, but, no...
It's very soft. Look at the fat.
Amazing, from the back.
Oh, my goodness.
It's very unique, this.
That is the camel hump?
Yes. Very, very unique.
'Apparently, camel's milk was a popular drink for trans-Saharan traders too.
'So, of course, I have to try it.'
It's absolutely delicious.
SHE SPEAKS ARABIC
It has medicine, people believe.
They have been using for a long time.
The camel meat, camel fat, camel belly.
And that we're going to use like
the fat that you use when you cook some meat.
It's going to get a little brown, magically.
'And with two kilos of prime camel,
'it's off to Najat's newly opened restaurant, Nur,
'to cook up a trans-Saharan feast.'
So, here we are.
-Home sweet home.
-OK, thank you.
'It's my very own MasterChef.
'I'm helping Najat to prepare today's special,
I thought it was going to smell horrible...
-But actually, it certainly smells nice.
Now that we're doing this, look here.
I have my fermenting...
that is already a week.
But this is going to make a beautiful, magical...
Oh, my God, look at your face! Everything good smells horrible
-at some point.
-Yes. That's true.
-Yes, or no?
-Even human beings.
in the times of the great trade across the Sahara from Africa to Fes,
when the merchants arrived at Fes, would they have a feast of camel?
Because that's a special meat, isn't it?
I think camel was very important in their menu, because it meant,
like, wealth, you know?
Now, you see people, they try to buy camel, camel milk,
just for health benefits.
Still it's a little bit pricey.
But, in that time, it was festivity.
'Najat's ultramodern restaurant
'is one of several springing up in the city
'catering to tourists and the young, emerging middle class.'
I'm just going to try one of these meatballs.
'With growing prosperity, Morocco is evolving into a modern,
'global player, and Fes, like most of its cities,
'is embracing the change whilst still holding on to its cultural history.'
Michelin-starred camel meatballs.
I'm leaving Fes and heading for Marrakech,
'the other great terminus at the northern end of the trans-Saharan trade route.
'Both were places where merchants gathered money, provisions and goods
'for the long trek south to Timbuktu.
'But I'm exchanging Fes's spiritual calm for the buzz of Marrakech,
'where everything is for sale.'
The weather's really changed, so it's time now for the winter woollies.
It's very, very chilly.
'I was born in the '60s, so there's only one way to go to Marrakech.
'And that's on the Marrakech Express.'
MUSIC: Marrakesh Express by Crosby, Stills and Nash
# Looking at the world through the sunset in your eyes
# Travelling the train through clear Moroccan skies... #
'Today the train isn't the sun-filled hippie experience of my imagination,
'just modern Moroccans commuting between cities.
'It's an eight-hour train journey to Marrakech,
'but for a trader in the Middle Ages, it would have been a gruelling trek,
'lasting several days.'
"The distance and the hardship of the road they travel are great.
"They have to cross a difficult desert
"that is made almost inaccessible by fear and beset by thirst.
"Water is found there only in a few well-known spots,
"to which caravan guides lead the way.
"The distance of this ordeal is braved only by very few people."
'The explorers of old all say the same thing,
'that this was the toughest of journeys.'
Marrakech - it's called the Rose City, Daughter of the Desert,
and it's always been a place where traders picked up
high-quality goods to take with them on their journey.
It was founded in the 11th century by the powerful Almoravid Berber dynasty,
who made it the capital of a huge empire stretching right through North Africa
and into southern Spain.
50 miles to the east, the Atlas Mountains provide a spectacular backdrop.
Some of the most popular merchandise
on the trans-Saharan trade routes were
leather goods. And some of the best- quality leather was produced here at
Marrakech's oldest tannery.
It's as ancient as the salt roads themselves.
And I'm surprised to find it's still in full swing.
'Najib is one of the tannery's oldest workers.
'He's been here for 48 years.'
This is a cow.
'It takes 20 days to turn an animal hide into the leather used for the
'world-famous bags, shoes and belts sold in the local markets.
'It's dirty work.'
I'm primed, ready for action.
OK, so this tank is full of gypsum.
It smells totally and utterly disgusting.
And I can't believe this guy's doing it with his bare hands,
because I reckon this stuff burns.
'This potent cocktail removes the hair from the hide.'
That actually comes off really, really easily.
'But there's worse to come.'
Excited to get in.
'Pigeon excrement contains ammonia,
'which acts as a softening agent to make the hides more malleable.'
This is harder than it looks.
We're trampling on the animals in, like,
a circle but I can't keep up with them.
It's like being in a whirlpool.
A whirlpool of pigeon shit.
'Finally, we move the hides into a vat of water for rinsing.
'Is this what would have been happening 1,000 years ago?'
So, the process is exactly the same, passed down from father to son,
so basically what I'm doing now,
apart from the fact I've got new waders on,
is the same exactly as they'd have done in the 11th century.
This labour-intensive process was a highly skilled craft,
which back then ensured the global reputation of Moroccan leather.
And it's amazing that this tannery is still providing fine-quality hides
for the shoes, bags and belts in the souks of Marrakech
and markets all over the world.
At night, Marrakech, the party town, comes to life.
In the main square, Jemaa el-Fnaa,
you're transported back in time to a more exotic world.
The air is rife with hawkers' cries, wandering minstrels and magicians.
You could end up with a monkey on your shoulder or eating a bowl of snails.
And I can't help noticing how many more West African faces there are here,
echoes of traders from the past who would have arrived
from across the Sahara with their wares.
But the performer who is attracting the biggest crowd is offering perhaps
the simplest and oldest form of entertainment.
This is the most interesting history lesson in the history of the world.
He's talking about the trans-Saharan trade and about crossing the Sahara
and he's got this line where he says,
"The sun was beating down from above and the sun was burning up from below.
"The camels were dying, the men were dying,
"they were loaded with skins and hides from the south,
"coming north and they were searching for gold and for salt."
Many years ago, these stories would have been the only way for people to
learn about life in faraway lands.
Now they're opening a door into the past
for us and it's thrilling to hear
1,000 years of history, and the journey I'm making, come alive.
In this magical world,
I feel like Timbuktu could be just around the corner.
But I've still got 1,500 miles to travel.
Time for me to get some sleep,
as North Africa's largest mountain range awaits me.
For this next leg of my journey,
I've left Morocco's cities behind me and I'm continuing on foot
through the Atlas Mountains.
They stretch right across the country,
forming a massive natural barrier, and climb to over 4,000 metres.
I'm no stranger to endurance treks,
having completed the gruelling Marathon Des Sables across the Sahara and
run races through these mountains.
But this will be a different kind of challenge,
as the snows have come early, making it cold and treacherous underfoot.
Up here, it's Berber country.
There are around 14 million of them in Morocco and many of them live in
I'm starting my trek in the Berber village of Afra.
'In these villages, traditions are part of everyday life.'
This lady's been explaining to me about her henna.
So she... I asked if it was for a wedding and she said no,
but apparently she just wanted to look nice for her family,
so she went and got it done. And it doesn't last as long as you think.
I thought it would last a couple of weeks but she says it goes quickly
because, of course, she's working hard here, using her hands.
'I'm meeting my friend Saaid Naanaa, who's a mountain guide.'
-Saaid, la bas!
'We've taken on these mountains together before, but never in the snow.'
'If anyone can get me across these steep peaks in one piece, it's him.
'We're heading for Tizi n'Tichka, the highest major pass in North Africa,
'a gratifyingly tough half-day hike away.
'Trans-Saharan merchants would have made this journey by mule
'or, like us, on foot.'
How high are we up here?
We are here about 2,100 metres.
I can feel it already on my chest.
-Yeah, me too. It's normal.
'Up here, the air is thin, making it harder to breathe, even for Saaid,
'who has spent most of his life here in the mountains.'
-Saaid, my friend?
-You're a Berber?
Yes, I'm a Berber.
What does that mean?
Berber is... They say this is a nickname given by the Romans
-when they occupied the north of Africa.
But the original name is Amazighen.
-It means free people or noble people, if you want.
'The Berbers, or Amazigha, are the indigenous people of North Africa
'and can trace their heritage back to 3000 BC.'
Does Berber have its own language?
The Berber, they have their language,
which is totally different than Arabic.
So, Arabic you write from right to left and the Berber is the opposite,
from left to right, or you can write like Chinese, down.
The weather is closing in, which is worrying,
because the paths ahead are getting seriously precarious.
-You see, the path is going down from here.
-Then you see that rock ledge.
Then you go uphill to the path.
-So we've done the easy bit. This is the hard bit, isn't it?
We've still got four miles to go and the light will soon be disappearing.
I really like Saaid, but right at the moment I actually hate him.
He's making me go fast and we're uphill because we're worried about the dark.
I don't really want to go fast uphill, frankly.
He's all chirpy. I'm not the least bit chirpy.
And how they ever did this with donkeys and mules laden with goods -
totally beyond me.
It's zero degrees and plummeting as the afternoon draws on
and I'm cold and wet.
Have we got long to go, Saaid?
Nearly. This is the Tichka Pass.
-And there we go.
-I'm beginning to feel it a bit.
'It's one last push to reach the top
'and we make the Tichka summit just in the nick of time,
'before the bad weather really rolls in.'
Is this it, Saaid?
-We made it.
-Yeah, you did it.
We spend the night in the tiny village of Tazga,
where we're lucky enough to find rooms.
For the merchants centuries ago,
it might have meant a cold night under canvas.
In the morning, with the toughest part of this leg behind me,
I set off alone.
It's refreshing! Whew!
I'm following an old trade route south along the Ounila Valley.
The mountains here are rich in natural deposits - copper, silver,
iron ore and a commodity much favoured by the traders - salt.
The salt mines marked on my map are all in the desert,
so I didn't expect to find one this far north.
The track is dusted with the stuff,
the first evidence I've come across
of why these routes are named salt roads.
The place seems deserted, but as if from nowhere,
someone arrives to open the mine up.
It looks pretty old and I'm wondering whether it was around
in the days of the ancient salt roads themselves.
One of the men, Zakaria Aboelkassem,
is a co-owner of the mine and knows its history well.
'Parts of the mine date back to the 13th century,
'which puts it right at the peak of trans-Saharan trade.'
A flower of salt.
There were salt mines all along the routes to Timbuktu.
Until paper money was introduced by French colonisers
in the early 20th century, it was used as a form of currency,
and it's where our word "salary" comes from.
Some say that at the height of the trade across the desert,
salt was as valuable as gold by weight.
I feel like Indiana Jones. I've just been down this incredible salt mine,
and this is where they'd have come, the traders,
with their mules and their donkeys,
which they'd just brought over that snowy pass,
and load up with the salt to take to Timbuktu.
As I continue my journey southwards,
I'm finding evidence all along the way
that travelling merchants used this route.
It became known as the Valley of the Kasbahs
because it's dotted with ancient buildings where the traders stayed.
Proof of the sheer volume of trade crossing the desert.
Kasbahs, like this beautiful one in the small village of Tamatert,
were built by rich and powerful families
as fortresses for themselves
but also for the many merchants who passed through the area.
This is a fortified village,
absolutely typical along this route where all the merchants travelled.
You've got every single thing you would need in it for a stay -
somewhere to put your animals, a water supply, a granary,
somewhere to store your goods and to sleep, and also things like a mosque
and even in some of them they had two cemeteries,
one for the Jews and one for the Muslims,
in case you were unlucky enough to die on the route.
But really the main reason that the merchants wanted to come here...
..was for the kasbah. The kasbah was the fortress,
and typically had four big towers, one on each corner,
tiny little windows and each one of those towers would have soldiers
guarding it. So once you got yourself into a fortified area,
into a kasbah, you knew that your goods were safe
and that you weren't going to get robbed,
because there were a load of robbers and thieves on this highway,
and the only downside, I guess, is that, of course,
you had to pay for it. So the guy who owned this would take a tax
and there were really quite rich pickings from those caravans.
A safe and secure place to rest for the night was something
sensible merchants would gladly pay for.
After all, most were carrying a precious cargo.
"Six days past, a nobleman arrived here from Gago called Jordabasha.
"He brought with him 30 camels laden with tibar, which is unrefined gold,
"also a great store of pepper, unicorn horns
"and a great quantity of eunuchs, dwarves and men and women slaves,
"besides 15 virgins."
This must have made extraordinary reading for 16th-century Europeans.
Tales of this kind of cargo on the salt roads would only have added
to Timbuktu's already glittering reputation.
This morning, I've left the Valley of the Kasbahs
and I'm heading into the mountains and plains of the Jbel Saghro.
I'm trying to reach the ancient city of Sijilmasa,
the great northern crossroads of the old trade routes.
But first, I have to cross
some of the most barren terrain in the world.
Jbel Saghro means "mountains of drought".
This area of the Atlas gets a mere 10cm of rain a year,
the same as parts of the neighbouring Sahara Desert.
This landscape feels completely prehistoric, it's so rugged,
it's so violent in some way and yet it is completely beautiful,
and very, very few outsiders,
very, very few Westerners get to come here,
so it's unchanged.
I have some help to navigate this vast territory.
This is home to the Ait Atta tribe of Berber nomads,
who for centuries have guided traders across these mountains.
I'm lucky enough to count one of the last surviving nomad families
I was saying I can see the whole family waiting for me.
-Alice, la vas.
THEY SPEAK ARABIC
'Zaid is the head of a large family.
'He and his wife, Izza, have six children,
'including a little one, Brahim, who I haven't met before.
'Zaid's mother, Aisha, is 77.'
'Berbers venerate their elders and she commands a certain respect.'
Zaid and his family have 250 goats, which are the main source of income.
To find grazing for them, they have to keep on the move.
Every day in summer,
they pack up the tent they live in and all their belongings
to find new pastures.
All the family, young and old, help out.
Traversing this rocky landscape is no mean feat
with all the animals, goods and people in tow.
We have six miles to cover before we stop for the night
and there are few paths or landmarks to navigate by.
Their knowledge of the area made these Berber tribes invaluable
to the merchants, who needed to get their goods across the terrain.
Centuries ago, these Berbers were doing exactly this.
They were transporting goods across these treacherous mountains,
down these difficult paths that they know so well,
and still today it's the Berbers, with their mules and donkeys,
who get things to the very remote villages
that aren't accessible by vehicle. So nothing has changed.
Zaid's family come from the Ait Atta tribe of Berbers,
whose history dates back to before the arrival of Arabs and Islam
in the seventh century.
At the height of trans-Saharan trade,
they were the leading Berber tribe.
But now, nomad numbers are dwindling.
So Zaid's just been telling me about how he came into this life
and his father was a nomad before him.
And his father used to migrate between here and Ait Bougmez,
which is a three-week trek, and he did that all his life.
Then when he got older and a bit more tired,
he bought a very small piece of land down in the valley
and Zaid is carrying on the tradition with his family,
which he will pass on to his sons, probably.
After five hours, our entourage finally comes to a halt.
It doesn't look much to my eye,
but this is going to be home for the night.
But first, there's some work to do.
The first thing the women did when they got into camp was to go and
collect the kind of dry scrub
and then they've just put it straight onto the fire
because it burns immediately and they put the tea on, first thing.
This is an azib, left behind by other nomads passing through.
Experienced hands quickly turn the tumbledown walls into
a robust enclosure and shelter.
Once the goatherd tent is up, it's time to think about dinner.
With typical Berber hospitality,
they're preparing a meal in my honour,
and with no supermarket for miles, there's only one thing on the menu.
Fahid and Zaid...the two Zaids are taking a goat up here to kill it
for a celebration for my arrival, and of course for me
it's really difficult to watch an animal being killed,
even though I do eat meat, so I'm not looking forward to this
but I have to do it, so I'm going to.
It's hard to watch, but it's a great honour.
Goats represent the family's wealth, so it's a big deal to eat one.
They immediately set to work to skin the carcass.
As night falls in the Jbel Saghro mountains,
Zaid is preparing skewers
to put the best bits of goat on the open fire.
Nothing of this animal will be wasted.
He's just cutting up the heart.
Got the livers cooking already
and the kidneys are somewhere in the middle.
The smell of the meat and Izza's bread cooking on the fire
is making everybody hungry after a long and active day.
But I'm not sure whether hearts, livers and kidneys are going to be
as much of a treat for me as they clearly are for them.
Tastes really, really good.
Salty and really savoury but it's a little bit crunchy.
By 8:30, I'm ready for bed.
The family all sleep together under rugs and blankets in the tent,
much as their ancestors would have done,
and I'm bedding down with them.
It's just after six in the morning and everyone's starting to wake up.
The mother's got up and has put on the fire.
The kids are awake.
I'm beginning to get a feel for what the caravans must have been like,
loading up the animals, unloading them,
living in a big tent all together,
eating together and everyone having their job to do and doing it quickly
and efficiently as they can,
but I still haven't experienced the burning sands of the desert
and I'm beginning to look forward to that because it's been so cold.
The morning fire takes a little chill off the mountain air
and the hot, sweet tea helps as well.
THEY SPEAK ARABIC
Zaid's just telling me that life here in the mountains is too hard,
that it's too cold, that every day packing up the tent,
putting up the tent, trying to find food for the animals,
the children always, always being cold,
the children getting sick because there's no medicines here,
that it's too much and what he really wants within the next ten years is to settle in the village
and what he wants for his children is that they go to school
and that they get jobs, things like drivers.
Which of course, to us seems, you know,
it's such a romantic lifestyle, this, when you see it,
when you see the family all together,
when you see how happy they are,
when you see how hard they're working.
But having spent the night under canvas, it is absolutely freezing
and seeing how hard they have to work even to get a fire going,
it makes you think, would you want to do this?
And I have to say, the answer is no, I wouldn't. It is too hard.
So I can completely understand
why he would want something different for his children.
It's sad to say goodbye to Zaid and his family.
There are few nomads left in these mountains, and in a few years' time,
this way of life may have disappeared altogether.
I'm leaving the rocky mountain terrain of the Jbel Saghro
and travelling east.
100 miles away is my next destination, Sijilmasa,
an ancient city which was a mecca for trans-Saharan traders due to its
position on the edge of the Sahara.
Strangely, it's not marked on any modern maps,
but I do know that it's next to the modern town of Rissani.
Rissani seems typical of so many towns in Morocco.
A bustling market in the centre of town
and a lot of new houses going up on the outskirts.
And so far, there's nothing to give me a clue
as to where the ancient city might be.
It's proving very difficult to find - no signs, no blue plaques
and at the moment I'm in what appears to be
a great big building site.
Then, something begins to show itself above the skyline.
A vast, lost city in the sand.
Sijilmasa was founded at the end of the eighth century
and became the most important city
on the trade routes north of the Sahara.
Its position on the northern edge of the desert meant
it could control the gold supply coming up from the south.
It boasted a mosque, a palace
and probably barracks for soldiers.
And on its fringes, a huge oasis
meant there was one thing in abundance - water,
a lifeline for travellers
arriving after a gruelling journey through the desert.
'I've arranged to meet Chloe Capel, a French archaeologist
'and one of very few who have worked on this site.'
It's about 2km long,
800 metres wide and there are so many things to know about it.
It's not done, not yet.
There's lots of work for archaeologists here on this site.
The site has remained a well-kept secret
and no-one has excavated here for several years.
There are still pieces of history lying all over the place.
Here, as you can see...
-..there is a lid.
You take it this way on the top of a...
a cup or a little jar, something like that, and it's medieval.
-How do you know?
-Because of the shape, because of the paste.
Maybe it's 12th century or 14th century.
And it's just lying here on the site?
-It's everywhere, all around you, on the 2km wide of the site.
And if I were here at the height of the trans-Saharan trade,
what would I have seen?
Probably a very rich city with many houses,
gardens, numerous gardens,
because medieval texts tell us that there were many gardens
inside the city and it was spectacular for travellers
because they were just emerging from the desert
and they found this oasis, it was impressive for them.
The oasis was large enough to cater not only for the townsfolk
but visiting traders and caravans too.
And Chloe believes it was planned that way,
to attract the burgeoning trans-Saharan traffic of the time.
People, travellers, merchants were aware that
when you stop in Sijilmasa,
whenever you stop here, whenever it is in the season, you can find food,
water, camels, numerous camels to travel, dates, fodder,
everything to be sure to go safe until Timbuktu,
until the sub-Saharan Africa.
It seems to me that in its way, this was the Timbuktu of the north,
a vital refuelling stop for traders coming out of
or heading into the Sahara.
How sad, then, that this great city
was destroyed in the early 19th century by invading Berber nomads.
In fact, the same tribe as the nomad family I've just stayed with.
It's less than a mile back into the centre of Rissani and I'm travelling
in the way of most traders here, by donkey cart.
We park up at the town's answer to pay and display.
SHE SPEAKS ARABIC
In Rissani's bustling market,
you can buy just about anything and there are stalls laden with the same
fresh produce that would have gladdened the hearts of weary desert
travellers of the Middle Ages.
-How are you?
'I've come here to meet Hafida H'douban,
'Morocco's first-ever female trekking guide.'
Are you looking for some dates?
'Hafida's taking me on the next, most dangerous leg of the journey,
'into the Sahara Desert, and she's stocking up with provisions.'
Taste it, if it's OK.
I think the best one is that, so I will take from there.
'Dates were a staple food for people crossing the Sahara.
'They say you can survive on just seven a day
'and their high-sugar content means they last for ages.'
Very energetic and very nice
and now we are lucky because it's a time for the dates.
-It's for this year, it's the new one,
because in October we have dates.
-So it's OK.
Tomorrow, Hafida and I will be embarking on the most challenging part of my journey so far,
one which many a trans-Saharan trader didn't survive.
we trek into 3.5 million square miles of desert...
..and some of the most extreme temperatures on the planet -
the great Sahara.
It was incredibly perilous.
This is why the goods, when they got to the other end, cost so much,
it was the danger factor.
Modern life takes an ugly turn...
My security contingent has got extremely nervous
and they won't let me go any further.
..and I finally make it to the city of my dreams, Timbuktu.
Now I get it, my first glimpse of the icon of Timbuktu.
Timbuktu - a place so mysterious, mythical and far, far away that it has become a legendary destination. Alice Morrison, Arabist, writer, explorer and Marrakech resident, follows what was once one of the world's richest trading networks - the infamous salt roads - across north Africa from the top of Morocco to the fabled sandstone city of Timbuktu. Trekking 2,000 miles across some of the deadliest landscapes on earth, Alice journeys deep into the history, culture and civilisation of both ancient and modern north Africa.
Standing at the crossroads between north and sub-Saharan Africa, and straddling the vast Sahara Desert and the great River Niger, the legendary trading post of Timbuktu, now one of the most dangerous places on earth, was founded over a thousand years ago, and its wealth was built on two precious commodities - gold and salt. Over the centuries, caravans with thousands of camels passed regularly between Timbuktu and Morocco. They were led across the deadly trans-Saharan 'salt roads' by a desert tribe called the Tuareg, who still patrol the desert today.
Setting off from Tangier, Europe's gateway to Africa, Alice learns how gold was in high demand in north Africa, to be minted into coins and adorn palaces. Its source was the gold mines of sub-Saharan Africa, and so the routes across the desert were forged. Hitching a ride in a crowded taxi of locals, Alice passes through the Islamic city of Fes, home to the world's oldest university, where she stays in a caravanserai, the ancient traders' version of a motel with mule and camel parking, and helps prepare the merchant's dish of the day, camel meatballs.
Next, she catches the famous hippy train, the Marrakech Express, to the other northern terminus of trans-Saharan trade, the great market town of Marrakech. Deep in the ancient city, she learns how to treat leather the ancient way by wading up to her waist in vats of cow hide, poison and... pigeon poo. And at night in the grand square, Djemaa El Fnaa, she hears tall tales of the traders of old and their perilous travels across the Sahara.
Continuing on foot, she treks in snow and storms across the mighty Atlas Mountains dotted with Berber villages; the Berbers, or Amazigh, are the indigenous people of Morocco. On the other side of the Atlas, Alice discovers ancient caves of salt, the commodity which gave the salt roads their name.
Further south, she travels through valleys lined with casbahs, fortresses where the traders could stay in safety along the route with their valuable goods. In the barren, unforgiving heat of the Jebel Saghro desert, she enlists the help of Berber nomads. They still graze their animals there and live the same traditional lifestyle. They help her on her way to the ancient city of Sijilmasa, whose amazing forgotten ruins sit on the edge of the great Sahara Desert. It's a lost city, which was once a great trading post, a sanctuary for merchants arriving after the long trek across the Sahara from Timbuktu.