You can experience a place, just a day tour from Marrakech, that set the scene for epic movies and series such as Game of Thrones, Prince of Persia and Gladiator. More classic movie productions also utilized this place such as Lawrence of Arabia, Indiana Jones, and Cleopatra just to name a few. Welcome to Ait Benhaddou.
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Resting on a hilltop overlooking a riverbed, Ait Benhaddou is glowing with reddish brown clay under the Moroccan sun. Palm trees are spread across groves and along the riverbed. Under the everlasting blue sky, this ‘Ingram’, or fortified village, has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987 under its official name Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou. And with good reason.
The village was originally founded by Berber tribes as a strategic settlement on the caravan route between the Saharan Desert and Marrakech. A place for the camels to refuel on fresh cold water running down from the Atlas Mountains to the north as well as for the merchants to rest in the shade before pressing on.
It will take you a few hours to drive south from Marrakech. You start out early in the morning. It was rather chilly even in December so bring a sweater if you visit at this time of year. You then drive up into the foothills of the Atlas Mountain range for a brief stop for breakfast. Crossing the Atlas, you will get a feel for the rugged terrain and the reddish rock formations of these barren expanses.
Some 2-3 hours later, you arrive at Benhaddou.
Arriving at Benhaddou
Most likely, you will be greeted by a Berber guide dressed in traditional clothing. Whether you have agreed to or not, he will probably be your guide for the next couple of hours. At the end of the tour, he will charge you some money. Tourism is pretty much the entire livelihood of all these guides and their families, so just go with it.
We Danes believes agreements should be made beforehand, formal or informal, rather than after the fact, so it was rather challenging to accept paying for something we had not agreed to. Guess that is just the way of things around here.
Right, off we go. Together with a small group we left the modern village on the other side of the riverbed and started heading down to the riverbed. The modern village near the main road has all the modern amenities required such as electricity and running electricity. The old village does not. And yet, a couple of families still lives inside the clay and straw walls of several ‘Kasbahs’. We’ll come back to these families in a short while.
As you cross the riverbed, you really get a wonderful look up towards Benhaddou. Red walls, blue sky and green palm trees. You now understand why this place has been used for so many movies. Skipping across the riverbed on sandbags, you circle around and enter the village.
Along the way, you can see towers and walls, which is remains from the movie props. You can imagine Orlando Bloom from Kingdom of Heaven standing on the fortified wall overlooking what was Jerusalem in the movie.
Back to the Berber families living inside Benhaddou and the Kasbahs. As we mentioned, tourism is the primary source of income for these families and they earn their living by guiding tourists, but also from selling handcrafted goods and carpets.
Berbers, or Amazighs, originates from the entire North African stretch from Morocco in the west to Egypt in the east. They have a rich and interesting history going back thousands of years which we recommend you explore more. They were closely connected to the Greek, Egyptian and Roman eras.
As you enter the village of Benhaddou, you pass several small workshops where different types of crafts are made. Woodcarvings, paintings, jewellery and much more. As you pass through the tight walking paths you get a closer look at the typical clay architecture of the place.
Higher up in the village you are invited into a Berber house. You don’t know it yet, but you are about to get an introduction to the Berber craft of carpetmaking. It is interesting enough and the house décor looks like something from a movie set. There is a dusty and clayish smell to the place.
As you feel the carpets, you can sense the strong durable wool that is used. Almost all carpets made by Berber villages are woven by women. Each tribe has its unique symbols and women often use these carpets to express themselves. They are very colorful and each to different likings.
Handmade and durable
If you are in the market for a traditional and guaranteed handmade carpet, this could be the place to try and strike a bargain. Although, you could probably barter for a better price in the Souks in Marrakech where the competition is harder amongst the sellers. It’s up to you.
The peak of Ait Benhaddou consists of a ruined fortress. The reddish rocks and stones from the Atlas have also been used to build this place. We decided to walk around a bit for ourselves, enjoying the views across the valley. Shortly after, you will get herded down from the top and across a bridge back to the modern village.
At this point in time, you are ready for a brief rest and perhaps some lunch and a cold drink. We enjoyed a traditional terrine with beef and potatoes, a salat and some fruits. Very affordable and it was quite nice. From the restaurant roof top, you have a nice last view towards Ait Benhaddou. It was a little windy, so remember a scarf or a pullover.
Extra stop in Ouazzane
After the visit to Ait Benhaddou, we went on towards the town of Ouazzane. The pace and atmosphere of this place is much more relaxed and laid back compared the buzzing medina of Marrakech. For many Moroccan Jews and Islamic believers, it is a holy city, and some make pilgrimages to here to visit the resting place of their saints.
Staying in the movie atmosphere from Air Benhaddou, you can visit a movie museum which shows some history of the movie making in the area. A walk in the area reveals that this is a great place to pick up some cheap dates and dried figs. These are produced in the area and local produce is usually cheap, fresh and of high quality.
We had hoped to see a glimpse of the real Saharan Desert, but we unfortunately did not have enough time to head further south. After spending a couple of hours in Ouazzane, you can can still make it back to Marrakech for the evening.
All in all, a very interesting day tour from Marrakech and a small peep into the Berber way of living. Visiting Ait Benhaddou was an interesting experience, although we could have wished for more freedom to explore the place and at our own pace.