Land of Thousand Kasbahs

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Day1 - G Adventure orientation meeting.

Our CEO (Chief Entertainment Officer, not Chief Executive Officer), Mohammed, was giving a rundown on our upcoming trip. Halfway through our itinerary briefing Mohammed told us,

“After Sahara, we are going to Ait Ben Haddou and Rock the Kasbah.”


I did wonder whether he was referring to “The Clash” song or Bill Murray’s movie. Neither of them has any real connection to Morocco or the Kasbah. Clash song was filmed in Texas, and Bill Murray’s film is based in Afghanistan. However, rocking the Kasbah definitely sounded very appealing!

Mohammed later explained to us what a Kasbah is. It is the central part of a fortified village (known as Ksar), a protected area made for the ruling family. Usually, they are located on high grounds providing a vantage point against enemies and surrounded by a defensive wall.

A Brief note on Ouarzazate

Ait Ben Haddou is located in the province of Ouarzazate. The capital of this province is the city of Ouarzazate, a dusty town with a mesmerizing appeal. Situated between the high atlas mountain in the north and the Sahara in the south, it is truly the door to the desert. The city is home to some of the biggest studios in the world. Films such as The Lawrence of Arabia, The Mummy, Gladiator, and most recently Game of Thrones were shot here. Rightfully so, Ouarzazate is often referred to as the movie capital of Morocco.

The land of thousand Kasbahs

Due to its prime location in the trans-Saharan trading route, thousands of Kasbahs were built in Ouarzazate and its surrounding area. Tifoultoute, Stork’s, Telouet, and Ait Ben Haddou are some of the prime examples.

Built in the 17th century, Ait Ben Haddou is an excellent example of southern Moroccan earth clay architecture. Inside this fortification, there is an extraordinary ensemble of dwellings, castles, mosques, and stable made out of earth brick. As most Kasbahs in Ouarzazate, this UNESCO world heritage site is strategically located in the high ground surrounded by river and oasis, providing an upper hand against the enemies. Walls surrounding the clay buildings offered extra protection.

Ait Ben Haddou was a major trading post. It used to be a stop-over point for caravan routes of the past carrying gold, ivory, and salt. A place to rest and re-stock. Today, its narrow dusty streets are lined with artisanal shops selling rugs, jewelry, and other Moroccan handicrafts. They add vibrancy to the clay brick colors of roads and houses. Four families still live inside Ait Ben Haddou. With a nominal charge (10MAD), they allow you to get inside their dwellings and see their way of life. What astonished me is the simplicity of the design, yet the durability of these earthen structures. Today it looks easily sackable, but, in fact, it was built to protect.

Why is it so popular?

Ait Ben Haddou is now the face of Morocco tourism. Airport arrivals in Casablanca and Marrakech boast big billboards of this fascinating site. Funny thing, unreal characters made it a famous tourist destination, not the real history associated with this place. First, it was Maximus Decimus Meridius. As he shouts, “Are you not entertained?” the city of Ait Ben Haddou comes onto the screen. More recently, it’s fame skyrocketed thanks to Daenerys Targaryen. After having released Astapor (filmed in Essaouira - a coastal city in Morocco) of slavery, Daenerys was seen headed to Ait Ben Haddou, sorry, Yunkai ;-)

How long?

Spend at least half a day. Later half of the day seemed like a better choice. Reddish bricks of Kasbah catching the golden light of sunset is a view to remember for life! We started at the base of the hill with narrow pathways that wind around each other and are surrounded by cramped, tight houses. A bit further up, with each turn, a steep staircase took us to the next level. At the summit, there is a citadel that the residents can retreat to as the last line of defense. You will also be rewarded with the beautiful views of Atlas mountains from the top.

A detour worth doing

Todra gorge at Tingis is worth a visit. Todra and Dades River carved out some spectacular canyons in this area. During our stay in December, the riverbed was kind of dry with a shallow stream of water. But a half an hour walk along the river in the cool shades of 500 feet tall walls of grey and pink rocks is very refreshing. Street vendors add a lot of color to the streets. The nearby town of Tinerhir hosts some hotels if you would like to stay in the area.

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