By Meredith – Port Elizabeth. Unbeknown to the average traveler the Sahara Desert in eastern Morocco contains vast fossil and mineral deposits. The glint of fossils, carved marble items, and colorful geodes might catch your eyes in the souks of Morocco. For those intrigued by these precious stones, this article provides some detail as to the geology of Morocco.
Morocco is one of the most geo-diverse countries on earth dominated by the Atlas Mountains to the west and the Sahara Desert to the east. The arid conditions mean that large areas of rock are exposed making it easy to understand its geology. Fascinating natural features such a folded-rocks, towering sand dunes, and numerous fossil deposits, dating from the pre-Cambrian to Recent geological time, await eager nature enthusiasts. Fossils of trilobites, ammonites, and other prehistoric life including dinosaurs, coral, and shark teeth can be found in eastern Morocco. Paleontologists have been able to significantly improve the geological record through excavations in Morocco.
It is crazy to think that millions of years ago the Sahara Desert would have been a shallow sea. Prehistoric sea creatures called Ammonites, Orthoceras and Trilobites flourished in this sea and as they died accumulated on the seafloor. Their bodies were buried in the sediment and over millennia were turned into stone. Ammonites are similar to modern-day snails (mollusks) and recognized by their spiral bodies. Orthoceras resemble modern-day squids with a narrow body and ‘toothlike’ beak. The hard exoskeleton of Trilobites is divided into three distinct segments that fossilize well. These floor dwelling creatures are the ancestors of modern insects, spiders, centipedes, lobsters, and crabs.
The Kem Kem Beds formation between Morocco and Algeria in south-eastern Morocco is a well- known archaeological site. A sheep herder in the small desert village of Hassi Begaa found fish bones in 1991. This led to an increased interest in the area and resulted in the discovery of numerous dinosaur bones and even footprints. One of the most interesting finds has been that of the Spinosaurus– the first known semiaquatic dinosaur. It is believed to be the largest predatory dinosaur on Earth, even bigger than a T-rex! Similar remains have also been discovered in Egypt.
The best place to find fossils in Morocco is in the town of Erfoud in the middle of the Ziz Oasis, near the famous Erg Chebbi Desert. Tourists can visit the Museum of Fossils and Minerals or a number of fossil factories in the area to experience first hand the process of finding and extracting fossils. Many Berber families from Erfoud and Midelt have been involved in the mining and restoration of fossils for many generations. Hand-dug trenches are mined with shovels, picks and chisels, the marble rocks are extracted and hand micro-blasted to remove rock fragments from the fossils. Some fossils are polished for display purposes, other large pieces of marble may be carved and polished to make tables, fountains, soap dishes, bowls, pendants and a variety of decorative items. These items can be purchased in Erfoud and in the souks of Marrakech and Fes. Large items such as fountains can be ordered online and shipped worldwide.
Various beautiful crystals and minerals occur in Morocco, too many to name for the non-discerning traveler. The Bou Azzer District near Ouarzazate is well known for its cobalt silver mines and the small town of Taouz near Merzouga has rich mineral and fossil deposits. Morocco has the second-largest reserves of phosphate in the world and is the largest producer of silver and lead in Africa. Moroccan amethyst is special as it is naturally purple. Amethyst is a type of quartz that is usually heat-treated to produce the purple color.
Colorful, shiny gemstones and geodes (a rock containing a cavity filled with crystals) are often for sale in the souks of the bigger towns and stone selling markets along the roadside between the Sahara Desert and Marrakech. Jewelry inlaid with gemstones and colorful beads are popular. Merchants are often pleased to hand tourist’s nondescript looking rocks that upon further inspection open to reveal beautiful crystals inside.
I am not sure what laws pertain to mineral trade in the country and the ins and outs of purchasing such products. But I have read comments that these crystals are sometimes altered or painted to enhance the color or trick buyers into thinking it is a rarer stone. So, if you are interested in purchasing geodes or fossils to commemorate your trip to Morocco, I recommend you do some research beforehand and shop around to get an idea of prices. Also, remember that you are more likely to get a better deal the more items you purchase.
Desert Morocco Adventures can personalize any tours to suit the interests of its travelers. Any of the Sahara Desert trips could involve a stop at a fossil factory in Erfoud, where one can learn more about these ancient animals. Stalls selling precious stones and geodes are common along the Tizi n’ Tichka Pass linking Marrakech to Ouarzazate.
Although not as outstanding and alluring as Morocco’s other attractions, I hope this article draws your attention to the beauty of these natural, millennia-old rocks. For me, the intricate beauty of perfectly angled crystals and the incomprehensible thought that those weird creatures we once alive are quite humbling.