Of an impressive beauty, located about 190 kilometers from the city of Marrakech and about 30 from Ouarzazate, Ait Ben Haddou presides over the valley of the Ounila River and is one of the many magical places in Morocco. Ait Ben Haddou has been recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO since 1987. This group of kasbahs is one of the best preserved, oldest and most splendid ksars in the country.
Although it is usually known as the Kasbah of Ait Ben Haddou, it is actually a Ksar. That is, a fortified village made up of kasbahs made of adobe (sand, clay, water and sometimes organic material such as straw or dung) which, once moulded, is left to dry in the sun. This is a very peculiar way of building using materials from the ground itself and it generates the sensation that the construction emerges from the landscape, but it also requires continuous maintenance and restoration.
The History of Ait Ben Haddou
The exact date of construction of Ait Ben Haddou is not known, although it is believed to date back to the 11th century. Its origin, like that of other ksars, is the settlement of a Berber tribe (tribe in Amazigh is said Aït), who built these characteristic walled cities in places near rivers and lands suitable for cultivation.
With time it became one of the major strategic points from which to control the route that linked ancient Sudan with the imperial cities of Marrakech, Fez and Meknès, supplying the caravans of traders and acquiring great importance in this period.
Later on, the issue was gradually depopulated, which, together with the vulnerability of the adobe constructions, plunged it into a state of semi-abandonment. Funds provided by UNESCO, by some public and private initiatives and the shooting of many films have made it possible to halt the process of deterioration and to rehabilitate it.
The inhabitants of the ksar, looking for better living conditions, moved to the other side of the river, creating the new village or villa where most of them live. Due to the affluence of visitors, in the last years different establishments dedicated to tourism have been developed: hotels, riads, cafeterias, restaurants, shops with offers of fossils, minerals and crafts, etc.
From the new villa, the Berber town of Aït Ben Haddou is presented to us on a hill about 100 metres high, on the right bank of the Ounila River, surrounded by crops, palm trees and fruit trees, which provide a greenery that contrasts with the arid and rocky landscape of the road. From here there is a spectacular view of the ksar, with different shades of red depending on the time of day. It is a good place to take photographs.
To cross the Ounila river that separates the fortress from the new part there are two alternatives: a bridge, built not many years ago, or, the most amusing, crossing over sacks of earth. In the rainy season the river suffers strong floods and, before the construction of the bridge, the inhabitants of the ksar were left incommunicado having to cross with donkeys or dromedaries.
The visit to the interior of Aït Ben Haddou is free, no guide is required, although they are probably offered at the entrance (it is recommended not to pay more than 50 dirhams per head). What is worthwhile is to enter their houses to see the way of life and the curiosities of construction and decoration; with a tip to the owner it is possible to be shown them to you.
This fortress is surrounded by a wall, reinforced by angular towers that served as protection and only two gates controlling the entrances and exits. Inside we find labyrinthine streets, houses and very old and well-decorated buildings on the outside. There are only about ten families living here, so inside you can breathe in peace and quiet. There are some antique shops and some artists also work there.
The ksar has a popular neighborhood with one or two-story houses (being here where the public square, the mosque and the Koranic school are located). An aristocratic neighborhood, located in the lower part and with richly decorated houses of up to five floors and finally a Jewish neighborhood, located in the upper part on the right and visibly more deteriorated.
The best views are from the top of the hill, with the palm grove, the High Atlas and the desert at our feet. To get there you have to climb a staircase that is between the alleys of the ksar; the sunset from this point is a delight. This is where the barn is located, a place for storing food and the most precious and inaccessible space in case of being robbed.
Ait Ben Haddou and Hollywood
Film lovers will surely know that this fortress has been immortalized in many films, being one of the most cinematographic places in Morocco. Its exotic aspect and the weather conditions make this ksar a great place for the shooting of films. This has been very well accepted by the locals as an incentive for the economy of the place, as well as providing work for extras to the locals.
Scenes from a long list of films have been shot here since the 1960s, including Lawrence of Arabia, Jesus of Nazareth, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Mummy, Gladiator, Alexander the Great and most recently the Game of Thrones series.
One of the monumental doors of the ksar is not original, since it was built in concrete so that Michael Douglas could crash the plane into the Jewel of the Nile.
How to get to Ait Ben Haddou
There are many ways to get to Ait Ben Haddou, thanks to the popularity of this place. In case you are looking for something organized, starting from Marrakech there are several organized routes, from those that go specifically to those that visit places like Ouarzazate or even further away like Zagora or Merzouga, and that inevitably end up going through this ksar.
In case of opting for a taxi we should not pay more than 200 dirhams (full taxi and route) if we start from Ouarzazate and 600 in the case of Marrakech. In any case, money more than well invested to contemplate one of the most iconic and impressive landscapes of all Morocco.