1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Atlas Mountains

ATLAS MOUNTAINS, the general name for the mountain chains running more or less parallel to the coast of North-west Africa. They extend from Cape Nun on the west to the Gulf of Gabes on the east, a distance of some 1500 m., traversing Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. To their south lies the Saharan desert. The Atlas consist of many distinct ranges, but they can be roughly divided into two main chains: (1) the Maritime Atlas, i.e. the ranges overlooking the Mediterranean from Ceuta to Cape Bon; (2) the inner and more elevated ranges, which, starting from the Atlantic at Cape Ghir in Sús, run south of the coast ranges and are separated from them by high plateaus. This general disposition is seen most distinctly in eastern Morocco and Algeria. The western inner ranges are the most important of the whole system, and in the present article are described first as the Moroccan Ranges. The maritime Atlas and the inner ranges in Algeria and Tunisia are then treated under the heading Eastern Ranges.

The Moroccan Ranges.—This section of the Atlas, known to the inhabitants of Morocco by its Berber name, Idráren Dráren or the “Mountains of Mountains,” consists of five distinct ranges, varying in length and height, but disposed more or less parallel to one another in a general direction from south-west to north-east, with a slight curvature towards the Sahara.

1. The main range, that known as the Great Atlas, occupies a central position in the system, and is by far the longest and loftiest chain. It has an average height of over 11,000 ft., whereas the loftiest peaks in Algeria do not exceed 8000 ft., and the highest in Tunisia are under 6000 ft. Towards the Dahra district at the north-east end the fall is gradual and continuous, but at the opposite extremity facing the Atlantic between Agadir and Mogador it is precipitous. Although only one or two peaks reach the line of perpetual snow, several of the loftiest summits are snowclad during the greater part of the year. The northern sides and tops of the lower heights are often covered with dense forests of oak, cork, pine, cedar and other trees, with walnuts up to the limit of irrigation. Their slopes enclose well-watered valleys of great fertility, in which the Berber tribes cultivate tiny irrigated fields, their houses clinging to the hill-sides. The southern flanks, being exposed to the hot dry winds of the Sahara, are generally destitute of vegetation.

At several points the crest of the range has been deeply eroded by old glaciers and running waters, and thus have been formed a number of devious passes. The central section, culminating in Tizi n ’Tagharat or Tinzár, a peak estimated at 15,000 ft. high, maintains a mean altitude of 11,600 ft., and from this great mass of schists and sandstones a number of secondary ridges radiate in all directions, forming divides between the rivers Dra’a, Sús, Um-er-Rabíā, Sebú, Mulwíya and Ghír, which flow respectively to the south-west, the west, north-west, north, north-east and south-east. All are swift and unnavigable, save perhaps for a few miles from their mouths. With the exception of the Dra’a, the streams rising on the side of the range facing the Sahara do not reach the sea, but form marshes or lagoons at one season, and at another are lost in the dry soil of the desert.

For a distance of 100 m. the central section nowhere presents any passes accessible to caravans, but south-westward two gaps in the range afford communication between the Tansíft and Sús basins, those respectively of Gindáfi and Bíbáwan. A few summits in the extreme south-west in the neighbourhood of Cape Ghir still exceed 11,000 ft., and although the steadily rising ground from the coast and the prominence of nearer summits detract from the apparent height, this is on an average greater than that of the European Alps. The most imposing view is to be obtained from the plain of Marrákesh, only some 1000 ft. above sea-level, immediately north of the highest peaks. Besides huge masses of old schists and sandstones, the range contains extensive limestone, marble, diorite, basalt and porphyry formations, while granite prevails on its southern slopes. The presence of enormous glaciers in the Ice Age is attested by the moraines at the Atlantic end, and by other indications farther east. The best-known passes are: (1) The Bíbáwan in the upper Wad Sús basin (4150 ft.); (2) the Gindáfi, giving access from Marrákesh to Tárudánt, rugged and difficult, but low; (3) the Tagharat, difficult and little used, leading to the Dra’a valley (11,484 ft.); (4) the Gláwi (7600 ft.); (5) Tizi n ’Tilghemt (7250 ft.), leading to Tafilet (Tafílált) and the Wad Ghír.

2. The lower portion of the Moroccan Atlas (sometimes called the Middle Atlas), extending north-east and east from an undefined point to the north of the Great Atlas to near the frontier of Algeria, is crossed by the pass from Fez to Tafílált. Both slopes are wooded, and its forests are the only parts of Morocco where the lion still survives. From the north this range, which is only partly explored, presents a somewhat regular series of snowy crests.

3. The Anti-Atlas or Jebel Saghru, also known as the Lesser Atlas, running parallel to and south of the central range, is one of the least elevated chains in the system, having a mean altitude of not more than 5000 ft., although some peaks and even passes exceed 6000 ft. At one point it is pierced by a gap scarcely five paces wide with walls of variegated marbles polished by the transport of goods. As to the relation of the Anti-Atlas to the Atlas proper at its western end nothing certain is known.

The two more or less parallel ranges which complete the western system are less important:—(4) the Jebel Bani, south of the Anti-Atlas, a low, narrow rocky ridge with a height of 3000 ft. in its central parts; and (5) the Mountains of Ghaiáta, north of the Middle Atlas, not a continuous range, but a series of broken mountain masses from 3000 to 3500 ft. high, to the south of Fez, Táza and Tlemçen.

The Eastern Ranges.—The eastern division of the Atlas, which forms the backbone of Algeria and Tunisia, is adequately known with the exception of the small portion in Morocco forming the province of Er-Ríf. The lesser range, nearer the sea, known to the French as the Maritime Atlas, calls for little detailed notice. From Ceuta, above which towers Jebel Músa—about 2800 ft.—to Melilla, a distance of some 150 m., the Ríf Mountains face the Mediterranean, and here, as along the whole coast eastward to Cape Bon, many rugged rocks rise boldly above the general level. In Algeria the Maritime Atlas has five chief ranges, several mountains rising over 5000 ft. The Jurjura range, extending through Kabylia from Algiers to Bougie, contains the peaks of Lalla Kedija (7542 ft.), the culminating point of the maritime chains, and Babor (6447 ft.). (See further Algeria.) The Mejerda range, which extends into Tunisia, has no heights exceeding 3700 ft. It was in these coast mountains of Algeria that the Romans quarried the celebrated Numidian marbles.

The southern or main range of the Eastern division is known by the French as the Saharan Atlas. On its western extremity it is linked by secondary ranges to the mountain system of Morocco. The Saharan Atlas is essentially one chain, though known under different names: Jebel K’sur and Jebel Amur on the west, and Jebel Aures in the east. The central part, the Záb Mountains, is of lower elevation, the Saharan Atlas reaching its culminating point, Jebel Shellia (7611 ft. above the sea), in the Aures. This range sends a branch northward which joins the Mejerda range of the Maritime Atlas, and another branch runs south by Gafsa to the Gulf of Gabes. Here Mount Sidi Ali bu Musin reaches a height of 5700 ft., the highest point in Tunisia. In the Saharan Atlas the passes leading to or from the desert are numerous, and in most instances easy. Both in the east (at Batna) and the west (at Ain Sefra) the mountains are traversed by railways, which, starting from Mediterranean seaports, take the traveller into the Sahara.

History and Exploration.—The name Atlas given to these mountains by Europeans—but never used by the native races—is derived from that of the mythical Greek god represented as carrying the globe on his shoulders, and applied to the high and distant mountains of the west, where Atlas was supposed to dwell. From time immemorial the Atlas have been the home of Berber races, and those living in the least accessible regions have retained a measure of independence throughout their recorded history. Thus some of the mountain districts of Kabylia had never been visited by Europeans until the French military expedition of 1857. But in general the Maritime range was well known to the Romans. The Jebel Amur was traversed by the column which seized El Aghuat in 1852, and from that time dates the survey of the mountains.

The ancient caravan route from Mauretania to the western Sudan crossed the lower Moroccan Atlas by the pass of Tilghemt and passed through the oasis of Tafílált, formerly known as Sajilmása [”Sigilmassa”], on the east side of the Anti-Atlas. The Moroccan system was visited, and in some instances crossed, by various European travellers carried into slavery by the Salli rovers, and was traversed by René Caillé in 1828 on his journey home from Timbuktu, but the first detailed exploration was made by Gerhard Rohlfs in 1861-1862. Previous to that almost the only special report was the misleading one of Lieut. Washington, attached to the British embassy of 1837, who from insufficient data estimated the height of Mount Tagharat, to which he gave the indefinite name of Miltsin (i.e. Mul et-Tizin, “Lord of the Peaks”), as 11,400 ft. instead of about 15,000 ft.

In 1871 the first scientific expedition, consisting of Dr (afterwards Sir) J. D. Hooker, Mr John Ball and Mr G. Maw, explored the central part of the Great Atlas with the special object of investigating its flora and determining its relation to that of the mountains of Europe. They ascended by the Ait Mízan valley to the Tagharat pass (11,484 ft.), and by the Amsmiz valley to the summit of Jebel Tezah (11,972 ft.). In the Tagharat pass Mr Maw was the only one of the party who reached the watershed; but from Jebel Tezah a good view was obtained southward across the great valley of the Sús to the Anti-Atlas, which appeared to be from 9000 to 10,000 ft. high. Dr Oskar Lenz in 1879-1880 surveyed a part of the Great Atlas north of Tárudant, determined a pass south of Iligh in the Anti-Atlas, and penetrated thence across the Sahara to Timbuktu. He was followed in 1883-1884 by Vicomte Ch. de Foucauld, whose extensive itineraries include many districts that had never before been visited by any Europeans. Such were parts of the first and middle ranges, crossed once; three routes over the Great Atlas, which was, moreover, followed along both flanks for nearly its whole length; and six journeys across the Anti-Atlas, with a general survey of the foot of this range and several passages over the Jebel Bani. Then came Joseph Thomson, who explored some of the central parts, and made the highest ascent yet achieved, that of Mount Likimt, 13,150 ft., but broke little new ground, and failed to cross the main range (1888); and Walter B. Harris, who explored some of the southern slopes and crossed the Atlas at two points during his expedition to Tafílált in 1894. In 1901 and again in 1905 the marquis de Segonzac, a Frenchman, made extensive journeys in the Moroccan ranges. He crossed the Great Atlas in its central section, explored its southern border, and, in part, the Middle and Anti-Atlas ranges. A member of his expeditions, de Flotte Rocquevaire, made a triangulation of part of the western portion of the main Atlas, his labours affording a basis for the co-ordination of the work of previous explorers. (See also Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Sahara.)

Authorities.—Vicomte Ch. de Foucauld, Reconnaissance au Maroc 1883-1884 (Paris, 1888, almost the sole authority for the geography of the Atlas; his book gives the result of careful surveys, and is illustrated with a good collection of maps and sketches); Hooker, Ball and Maw, Marocco and the Great Atlas (London, 1879, a most valuable contribution, always scientific and trustworthy, especially as to botany and geology); Joseph Thomson, Travels in the Atlas and Southern Morocco (London, 1889, valuable geographical and geological data); Louis Gentil, Mission de Segonzac, &c. (Paris, 1906; the author was geologist to the 1905 expedition); Gerhard Rohlfs, Adventures in Morocco (London, 1874); Walter B. Harris, Tafilet, a Journey of Exploration in the Atlas Mountains, &c. (London, 1895), full of valuable information; Budgett Meakin, The Land of the Moors (London, 1901), first and last chapters; Dr Oskar Lenz Timbuktu: Reise durch Marokko, vol. i. (Leipzig, 1884).