Ancient granaries served as safe places where people stored grains and valuables. This one is near Lalla Taalat Village in Souss Massa region, Morocco. (REUTERS/Abdelhak Balhaki)

Ancient granaries served as safe places where people stored grains and valuables. This one is near Lalla Taalat Village in Souss Massa region, Morocco. (REUTERS/Abdelhak Balhaki)

These ancient manuscripts contain laws governing how the granaries worked. (REUTERS/Abdelhak Balhak)

These ancient manuscripts contain laws governing how the granaries worked. (REUTERS/Abdelhak Balhak)

The igoudar (granaries) are some of the world’s first banks. (MarokkoErfahren/CC BY-SA 4.0)

The igoudar (granaries) are some of the world’s first banks. (MarokkoErfahren/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Aesha stands outside the cave where she lives with her family. The descendants of the Berbers, called the Amazigh, still live in Morocco. A few still dwell with their sheep and goats in remote mountain caves. (AP/Mosa’ab Elshamy)

Aesha stands outside the cave where she lives with her family. The descendants of the Berbers, called the Amazigh, still live in Morocco. A few still dwell with their sheep and goats in remote mountain caves. (AP/Mosa’ab Elshamy)

These Amazigh houses stand in Azrou, Morocco. (AP/Mosa’ab Elshamy)

These Amazigh houses stand in Azrou, Morocco. (AP/Mosa’ab Elshamy)

Safety Deposit Boxes over the Ages

Posted: September 1, 2021

What is chiseled into those jagged red rocks in southern Morocco’s Anti-Atlas Mountains? Surprise! Those compartments are an early example of a once-nomadic tribe’s banking system.

Tribal tradesmen called Berbers long ago carved these storage caves deep into the rock face. The caves, called granaries, stored treasures like staple foods—grains and legumes. High up and hard to reach, the granaries protected their contents from floods and bandits. Later, gold and jewelry were often stashed here too.

Morocco’s Berber granaries are a national heritage. Now officials will include them on the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s world heritage site list.

The Berbers were a tribe of traveling tradesmen. They lived in the Sahara Desert. But some settled around Morocco. There, they built igoudar, or granaries, to store their goods. These granaries served a function like our financial banks do today.

Each Berber tribe had its own granary. Families in the tribe had boxes of their own in the granary, like your family probably has its own account at a bank. Granaries also offered individual smaller compartments. One of those was like an extra-large safety deposit box. That is a secure container banks today use to protect people’s most important documents and belongings.

In addition to crops like wheat, dates, beans, and spices, the granaries also stored silver, jewels, and carpets. Palm wood doors were sealed with metal locks, the way today’s banks have vaults. They were heavily guarded against looters.

Tribes elected amins to guard the granaries. An amin was a man who lived at the site of the granary. He served as a security guard.

These ancient Berber banks have existed at least since the 1400s. They display the creativity of people who need to preserve the fruits of their labors. The Berbers saw in God’s rugged mountains a way to keep their belongings safe. Today’s modern banks owe their existence to these types of safe-keeping ventures, according to research professor Khalid Alaroud. “These collective granaries may be the first indication of the emergence of banks,” he says. 

Today, the granaries are hard to get to. Their remote locations make them difficult to find. Even if you can locate one, the walkways leading to and through it are often crumbling and unsafe. So Morocco’s Ministry of Culture has launched a project to save what remains of the granaries and to teach people about them.