Ifrane (population 12,000 in 2004) is a small resort town in the Middle Atlas Mountains, 1,650 m in altitude and about 60 km south of both Fez and Meknes. Being surrounded by pristine cedar and scrub oak forests, Ifrane is a pleasant place to spend hot summer months and snowy winter weekends—there is even some skiing in good years.
The first permanent settlement of the area dates to the 16th century, when a saintly sharîf by the name of Sîdî ‘Abd al-Salâm established his community in the Tizguit valley, seven km downstream from the present town. By the mid-17th century the zâwiya was well enough established to receive an extensive iqtâ‘ (land grant) from the ‘Alâwî sultan Mûlây Rashîd b. Muhammad. While the founder's lineage was ethnically Arab, the inhabitants of the village today mostly speak Tamazight, the regional Berber tongue. In Tamazight, yfran means “caves” and this is the etymological origin of Ifrane. Today though, the village is referred to simply as the zâwiya (or Zaouiyet Sidi Abdesslam in official parlance). For a long time it consisted of cave dwellings hollowed out of the limestone. Only in the last forty years or so have its inhabitants build houses above ground. The caves which now lie under these houses are still used as mangers and for storage. Al Akhawayn University has a number of social outreach programs in the village, include in adult women's literacy.
The modern town of Ifrane was established by the French administration in 1929 on land expropriated from the inhabitants of the zâwiya. The town was to be a “hill station,” a cool place for colons families to spend the hot summer months, and it was initially planned according to the “garden city” model of urban design then in vogue. The plan called for chalet-type summer homes in the “Jurassic” or “Alpine” style, laid out among gardens and curving tree-line streets. A Royal Palace was also built for Sultan Muhammad b. Yûsuf. The town's first public buildings consisted of a post office and a church. Moreover, a penitentiary was built which served as a POW camp during WWII.
As elsewhere in Morocco, a shantytown called Timdiqîn soon grew up next to the colonial establishment. It housed the Moroccan population (maids, gardeners, etc.) that serviced the French vacationers. Timdiqîn was separated from the colonial garden city by a deep ravine.
After independence the French properties in the original garden city were slowly bought up by Moroccans. The town was enlarged and endowed with a mosque, a municipal market and public housing estates. Furthermore, the shanty neighborhood of Timdiqîn was rebuilt with proper civic amenities.
In 1979 Ifrane became the seat of the administrative province of the same name and some government services were established. Many other services however are located in Azrou, a much larger town of about 50,000 people, 17 km. south-west of (and 500 m. lower than) Ifrane.
In 1995 Al Akhawayn, an English-language, American-curriculum university opened and this has helped re-launch Ifrane as a desirable destination for domestic tourism. Consequently, Ifrane continues to develop as both a summer and winter resort. Old chalets in the center of town are being knocked down and replaced with condominium complexes, while vacation centers and gated housing estates are springing up on its outskirts.