The pristine dark skies of the North African country are attracting the interest of astronomers worldwide to stargaze from its mountains and the desert.
The hypnotic music of the snake-charmer drifts through the air. Women in djellaba sell prayer caps and argan oil, while hawkers call out to passers-by from stalls of fresh fruit juice.
Nearby a woman in hijab drives a scooter into the narrow twisting alleys of the souk, lined with merchants selling spices, herbs, traditional handicrafts, carpets and clothes.
The Jemaa al Fna square in Marrakech has an old world feel to it, despite the hordes of European tourists who frequent the place (before Coronavirus shut down holiday travel.)
Morocco is a popular destination for travellers looking for sun, tagine, colourful architecture and camping in the Sahara.
I find myself alone with the telescope to explore the night sky, silently in awe of the desert setting and the display of endless stars above
Less well known is its potential as a haven for astro-tourism, offering the opportunity to stargaze at dark skies in the empty deserts and the High Atlas Mountains of North Africa.
“One of the best things you can observe in the sky is the shooting stars,” says Hafili Mohamed Ali, also known as “Astro Ali”, a local astronomy enthusiast. “You just open your eyes and wait, and sometimes you can see magical moments in the sky.”
I was sitting with Ali on the upper floor of a cafe frequented by tourists and locals, just next to the square.
Ali runs his own company, Astronomie Marrakech, which promotes astronomy through workshops, exhibitions and educational activities.
Observing the sun differently
He goes to different schools where he explains to children concepts like the different phases of the moon and the technical methods to observe the sun safely. He also arranges astronomy events in places like desert resorts where people can come and look through his telescope.
Ali became interested in the night sky as a teenager twenty four years ago after attending a festival of astronomy organised by the community of astronomers in Marrakech who at the time had a project to build an observatory outside the city in the mountains.
He hasn’t looked back since, and enjoys looking at sky maps of different constellations and linking them with ancient mythologies of civilisations like the Arabs and Greeks. Sometimes he says he wonders if he is still living on Earth.
“My head is in the sky all the time,” he says.
Among the many hats he wears, Ali is a co-founder and member of a project called the Atlas Dark Sky. The project seeks to create a starry sky reserve of 80 kilometres radius.
“When we are successful in creating this reserve, it will become the biggest one in the world,” he says.
The potential of this dark sky reserve was made apparent to me on a trip to the Oukaimeden Observatory in the High Atlas Mountains.
At an altitude of some 2750 meters, the area is situated over 70 kilometres south of Marrakech and is better known as a ski-resort. The observatory was founded in 2007 and is involved in a number of collaborative international projects.
I came here with Zouhair Benkhaldoun, director of the Oukaimeden Observatory. He is also president of the Moroccan National Committee for Astronomy (MNCA) and president of the Arab Astronomical Society.
Our journey started from a cafe near Cadi Ayyad University, where Benkhaldoun does his research. We are a party of five, including a young researcher from the university and a couple of colleagues of Benkhaldoun.
Tagine under a marquee
To get to the observatory involved being driven across winding mountain roads, a stopover at an eco-lodge for some astronomy lectures and tagine under a marquee and stopping our car for a security check.
We covered the final leg of the journey on foot, leaving the car next to a lodge where we have a hot drink before setting out, trekking-up a reddish mountain terrain strewn with large rocks and boulders.
When we finally get to the observatory, we are warmly greeted by the caretaker who lives here with a cat.
Benkhaldoun is based in Marrakech and comes here occasionally for essential maintenance work.
The telescopes are stored inside white coloured domes situated across the grounds of the observatory. I am taken around for a tour and we enter inside one of the domes. With the press of a button a section of the cylindrical roof is parted to reveal the sky above a large telescope with a 20 inch aperture.
I am shown another dome where I need to climb up some stairs to reach the telescope. Benkhaldoun is standing with his head looking out of a gap in the wall as he talks to a visiting delegation in French.
From the observatory, you can see the magnificent view of the undulating mountains and the setting sun.
As it starts to get dark, we head inside the main building into a large room that is fully packed. Most of the people are part of the French delegation, which also includes some children.
Benkhaldoun makes a presentation about the observatory, including its history and the various international collaborations it is involved with. This includes research into exoplanets, space weather, near Earth objects and variable stars.
After the presentation, when we leave the building, everything has transformed. There is pitch darkness outside. With no artificial lights around the sky is lit in a dazzling display of stars and galaxies.
To witness an authentic dark sky with the naked eye is a unique experience in itself, making visible parts of the night sky that are hidden to a large part of the population today, thanks to the constant glow of neon-lights, street lamps and city structures.
With the naked eye not only can you see a significantly greater magnitude of constellations, galaxies, nebulae and star clusters, but the universe feels much closer. Even the white dooms of the Oukaimeden Observatory resemble alien spaceships.
We soon leave the observatory and trek back to the lodge. It is a good distance and the night is cold.
Benkhaldoun tells me the development of astronomy at his university in Marrakech has exploded in recent time.
“We do all our research remotely,” he says.
The data they collect through the telescopes is analysed in computers at the observatory. This information is later downloaded in Marrakech, as well as by international partners. The observatory collaborates with institutions in places like Belgium, South Korea, United States, Saudi Arabia and France.
Among its more prominent achievements was the observatory’s contribution to NASA’s discovery of exoplanets around the dwarf star TRAPPIST-1, with the help of a doctoral student at Cadi Ayyad University. Exoplanets are planets around a star other than the sun, and are of interest to astronomers for their potential to harbour life.
“There are no reasons [why] life exists only on Earth,” Benkhaldoun says.
His own interest in astronomy stems from having been entranced by the night sky in his youth.
When Benkhaldon was 14 years old he went on a trip to a desert oasis known as Skoura with his family. They stayed in a small village where he remembers seeing the clear night sky without light pollution.
Benkhaldoun is chair of the Atlas Dark Sky project. He says their project has to prove they have “good sky”, and to show their capacity to increase the area protected from light pollution. “We hope we can do that in the coming two to three years,” he says.
His long-term ambition is to have a telescope with a two meter (79 inch) diameter in the Atlas Mountains to be able to carry out even more sophisticated research. It would also help grow the country’s reputation in astronomy.
A few days after the trip to Oukaimeiden, I find myself sitting outside a McDonald’s at the train station in Marrakech having a cold beverage.
I am about to go with “Astro Ali” for an evening of astronomy at the Terre des Etoiles, an ecolodge located in the Agafay desert at a 45 minute drive outside the city.
Being in such close proximity to Marrakech, the Agafay offers a convenient escape to the dessert for those not interested in taking a longer journey. In comparison the Sahara would take at least a day just to get there.
Soon my ride arrives. Ali’s large telescope is in the back. As we drive out farther from Marrakech, leaving its distinctive sandstone buildings and traffic, the landscape begins to change. The buildings, and later the trees and shrubs, become less frequent. We are now driving through the emptiness of the desert. An occasional Bedouin passes next to a herd of camels.
After zigzagging through a roughly hewn path in the barren landscape, we finally arrive at Terre des Etoiles. There is still some daylight. Ali has three telescopes. He needs to fetch a trolley to transport the one he has brought today, a Skywatcher Dobsonian telescope with an aperture of 12 inches.
He sets it up in an open space near an outdoors bar, not far from the dining area. In the opposite far corner are tents for guests staying at the lodge.
As it starts to get dark, people start to approach Ali to look through the lens of his telescope. He shows them the moon and different planets and stars in the night sky.
Nearby there is a small fire burning surrounded by a few empty wooden stools. In the far background guests at the hotel eat dinner as pop music blares-out.
Ali makes presentations to individuals and small groups, responding to their questions about the night sky and conversing in fluently animated French.
Although the sky here is not as dark as at Oukaimeden, the view is still impressive considering we are not very far from Marrakech. Ali does these types of interactive sessions frequently with tourists and locals. The staff know him from previous visits, and a waiter happily shows me pictures of the moon on his mobile taken using Ali’s telescope.
We stay until it is closing time and all the guests have left one by one. Soon Ali goes to join the staff for a very late dinner before we can head back to Marrakech.
Having already eaten at the restaurant, I find myself alone with the telescope to explore the night sky, silently in awe of the desert setting and the display of endless stars above.
— Syed Hamad Ali is a writer based in London