Just before you reach Rissani are the ruins of Sijilmassa, the capital of the first virtually independent Islamic principality in the south. Its foundation is lost in myth, but by the end of the 8th century it was a staging post for trans-Saharan trade. Caravans of up to 20,000 camels departed Sijilmassa for the remote desert salt mines of Taodeni and Tagahaza (in modern-day Mali), then continued to Niger and Ghana, where a pound of Saharan salt was traded for an ounce of African gold.
By the 12th century, Sudanese gold refined in Sijilmassa had made it to Europe, where it was minted into European coins. The identical quality between European and Moroccan coins attests to the importance of trade between these regions. But as Berbers say, where there’s gold, there’s trouble. Internal feuding led to the collapse of the city in the 14th century, and although it was rebuilt by Alawite Sultan Moulay Ismail in the 18th century, it was finally destroyed by Aït Atta nomadic warriors in 1818. Sijilmassa has remained a ruin ever since, with only two decorated gateways and other partially standing structures.