Ait Ben-Haddou was one of my biggest disappointments in Morocco. I had looked so forward to going to the places where some of the worlds greatest movies had been made. I wanted to see the sets of the movies such as the area from the movie Gladiator. Imagine how frustrating after 9 hours in a van to get there and then find out the city had been declared a UNESCO world heritage site because of its importance as a trading center for the caravans from the Sahara.
The problem was that all of the manmade movie sets had to be removed. Now it is really just like all of the other mud cities in that part of Morocco. The guides still try to play it up and show you where each part of the city was used as parts of movies like Lawrence of Arabia but for me, it was not what I came for. I have to think that UNESCO was wrong here and that the history of the city in modern times was important as well.
Ait Ben-Haddou – The City
The famous Citadel of Ait Ben-Haddou lies in the southern Moroccan town of Ouarzazate. Our first glimpse of this crumbling citadel explains why it continues to be a favorite for us.
The legend is that to the town of Ait-Ben-Haddou came into being around the year 757. The tomb of founder Ait-Ben-Haddou lies buried here in this spectacular city. None of the constructions are actually dated earlier than the 17th century. The answer to this disparity in dating is not yet solved. However, the techniques used as well as the materials were from a much earlier period.
This city on the caravan route that stretched across the Sahara was a necessity. It was the perfect stop between Desert to the city of Marrakech to get supplies. It was a vibrant place of importance as caravans came and went.
Ait Ben-Haddou and Its Decline
At some time trade between the Sahara and Marrakech and beyond declined. Ait-Ben-Haddou’s importance as a stopping center faded. There a still a few families who continue to keep their homes within the ksar.
Today, the majority of the inhabitants of the Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou no longer live in the city. They have moved across the river to more modern living quarters. You can use stepping stones to cross the river to the city. It remains a popular tourist destination today for its close connection to Hollywood.
With a large amount of traffic, the villagers within Ait-Ben-Haddou have set up shops near the old city. They all sell fake artifacts and other souvenirs.
This town is located along the road to Kasbahs. The word Ksar is a word meaning a large collection of kasbahs (homes). They are all built close together, all within the fortified walls of a city. Sometimes spelled Casbah, in the films, Pepe le Moko, and Algiers.
This earthen cities construction is clay bricks made from mud and straw. The builders incorporated very thick defensive walls to protect the interior. When it was built, there were no guards or other protection, save for the cities ability to build thick walls. Thick enough to withstand an attack by hostile forces. Corner towers reach even higher than the rest of the city. They gave the people within a good vista of the surrounding countryside. This, seen from outside, casts a very intimidating shadow against the sunny sky.
This led UNESCO to list Ait-Ben-Haddou as a World Heritage Site in 1987.
Ait Ben-Haddou The Movie History
Ait-Ben-Haddou and Hollywood have an interesting bond. The locale is a favorite for many films requiring desert and ancient structures. Lawrence of Arabia, David Leans epic tale, used this site for many scenes in 1962. He saw the crumbling state of many of the buildings when arriving to do the film. He set about having a considerable restoration on some of these unique homes. Since that time, continuous reconstruction has continued. The result is that a good deal of the front part of this beautiful site is enjoying a new life. It is still an amazing sight to see. Sadly, the buildings farther back are still in dire need of restoration.
Jewel of the Nile in 1985 used Ait-Ben-Haddou for many of its scenes. Films using Ait-Ben-Haddou for scenes are The Living Daylights-1987, Kundun-1994, and The Mummy-1999. More recent films using Ait-Ben-Haddou’s unique style had been Gladiator-2000 and Alexander-2004.
Tourists fall in love with Ait-Ben-Haddou’s historic beauty and its uniqueness. There’s little wonder then that UNESCO designated it as World Heritage Site. They walk in awe along these same streets that some of their favorite film stars walked. This as well as the realization that these streets have been in use for some 1,200 years.
Visitors enjoy a meal in the village across the river. They can take in the fresh air while surrounded by the breathtaking landscape. This is a photographer’s opportunity to shoot some exciting and memorable photographs.
Ait Ben-Haddou And Its Rebirth
Ait-Ben-Haddou is now composed of six Kasbahs and around fifty ksours (individual Kasbahs). We love our time as we wandered inside this fortified city. The houses varied from tiny to something approaching a castle in stature. There had once been public buildings surrounding an open square. A mosque and separate cemeteries for families, both Muslim and Jewish.
There was a caravanserai for travelers. UNESCO has declared this a World Heritage Site because of its unique group of buildings. Today they give us one of the finest examples of pre-Saharan earthen construction techniques.
I am surprised that despite the ravages of time, a few families live on today in the village. Certain conservation efforts are ongoing as the buildings of red mud and straw find a new life.
The TV series, Game of Thrones has featured the city as Yunkai (the Yellow City). In the show, it is a center for the slave trade. and is reborn as one of the three great Ghiscari city-states in the program.
There is no charge for entry into the walled village. There may be a small fee of ten dirhams (about 1 US dollar) for entry into some of the Kasbahs. This modest fee helps with maintenance. The views are amazing, particularly at sunrise and sunset. Ouarzazate (war-za-sat) is still popular today. This has led to the construction of quality hotels and restaurants.
After the Ait Ben-Haddou Citadel, where to next?
Check out Seeing the Best of Cairo