The harder a place is to get to, the more mesmerising it is. The remote a place is to get to, the more rewarding that experience is. Although most would go to Essaouira or Agadir as a day trip from Marrakech but on our day three in Marrakech , we drove for 5 and a half hours through nearly 100 kilometres of treacherous but picturesque curvy mountainous roads and headed to south-east towards Ourzazate to see a UNESCO World Heritage Site called Aït Benhaddou. This is where we saw and met people from original Berber tribes. Come, travel with us to find out why your Morocco trip will be left incomplete if you don’t explore this location at Ait Benhaddou.
So what is so special and historic about this place?
Recognized as a UNESCO site, the Ksar Aït Benhaddou in Ouarzazate is one of the most extraordinary Kasbahs in Morocco. This giant fortification, which is made up of six kasbahs and nearly fifty ksours (individual kasbahs), is a great example of pisé clay architecture. A Kasbah is an African castle or fort and its inception is fascinating. This fortified city, or ksar as they call it, is situated along the former caravan route between the Sahara and Marrakech. Historically, traders carrying spices, slaves, and gold on the Sahara Trade Route passed by Aït Benhaddou and its Ksours on their way to Timbuktu or the Western Sahara or beyond. Today, the usage of this old trade route is fading and as a result many Kasbahs along it have turned into relics. Most of the town’s inhabitants now live in a more modern village at the other side of the river; however, the Government has invited families to return to its occupation to maintain its structure, so now about eight families live within the ksar.
There is more to the interesting trivia about this place:
The mystic of this Kasbah has made it Hollywood’s favorite site for many shootings. Aït Benhaddou sits amidst a valley near the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, just thirty-two miles from Ouarzazate, the film capital of Morocco. Ouarzazate first came into the international spotlight with the Hollywood film Lawrence of Arabia; Aït Benhaddou made a feature appearance in this film. Orson Welles used it as a location for Sodome and Gomorrah; and for Jesus of Nazareth the whole lower part of the village was rebuilt. Since then many famous directors have followed in his footsteps to exploit the magnificent scenery of Ouarzazate. International blockbusters shot there in recent years include: the French version of Cleopatra, Bertolucci’s Sheltering Sky, Scorsese’s Kundun, Gillies MacKannon’s Hideous Kinky, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, Oliver Stone’s Alexander The Great, Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, and Penelope Cruz’s Sahara.
Aït Benhaddou has been well preserved and kept in supreme condition with the goal of bringing more tourists to the south to see this magnificent structure. There are several day trips arranged from Marrakech to this place almost every day. But we are kind of allergic to set-excursions that just waste time in picking up and dropping off tourists from one hotel to another and then rushing you into everything when you are actually in the place that you intended to visit in the first place. So, like always, we had rented a car as soon as we landed in Marrakech and the car was kind of the other woman/man in our relationship and journey for those 9 days of our stay in Morocco;) The road from Marrakech to Ouarzazate is doable in a small car (which we hired) and you do not need a 4WD unless you prefer the height, speed and power.
So how to actually get there? There are two routes to Ait Benhaddou:
1. Just after you pass the Col du Tichka (2260m/7414ft), you could take a left towards Telouet (an old Kasbah) and down the Ounila Valley towards Ait Benhaddou. This road is a bit rough after Telouet for a few miles and although we’ve driven it in a normal vehicle, a 4WD would make that bit of the road more comfortable. That route down to Aït Benhaddou (or up) is wonderful but going down in December would mean sun in your eyes depending on the time of the day of course. We had to stop the car in the middle of our journey so that I could literally take the back seat in order to protect my skin being damaged from the excessive UVA, leaving Shehzaad looking like my Chauffeur (literally) for the day;) Driving up is nicer with the sun on the mountains and villages in front of you as you continue the ascent.
2. If you just stick to the main road, then turn to Ait Benhaddou is about 24 miles (34km) before Ouarzazate and this road is fine although you may find yourself jousting for road space with taxis, 4WDs and tourist coaches not usually that many. Despite the GPS tracker, we had to stop couple of times to ask for the right direction as the road seems endless while going up there. There is a great (classic) view of the Ksar before you arrive at the village from where to take photos. The only thing to check is keep your eyes wide open when driving back to Marrakech especially at night (which we did) as it can get very risky with all that curves and blindspots given that you must be already exhausted driving in the morning and walking around the Ksar.
So once you are there, here is a quick narrative on what to expect:
The village of Aït Benhaddou sits on top of a hill and protects a series of Kasbahs and Ksour earth houses. Inside, the Aït Benhaddou village is decorated with a labyrinth like series of sandstone colored towers and walls. To one side of the village, a riverbed of the Mellah (old Jewish quarters) as well as several palm groves and trees can be spotted growing along the river bank. The village is particularly spectacular if you visit during the evening hours, at sunset, when the light and colors of remain transparent and glisten above Aït Benhaddou, making it glow. Here the only parts not well preserved are the badly damaged mud houses (ksours). Although most of them are now in ruins as a result of their former inhabitants moving closer to the modern road. The homes are interesting to explore because each one has a unique charm and tells its own story. There is currently a restoration program in place to keep these homes from further erosion; with a goal to eventually repopulate the village. You will find friendly women coming out of their homes and inviting you to enjoy a cup of Moroccan mint tea with them which we had to politely refuse due to lack of time.
Aït Benhaddou village is divided in two parts. The modern part is filled with tourist shops and parking spaces. Upon crossing the Oued (dry riverbed), you will enter into the Ksar, the real highlight. But while returning, we crossed the walking bridge from the town, then took an immediate U-turn right down a path going back toward the river, which will then follow the river. After enjoying the views from there you can enter a sort of “back door” into the ksar and explore around inside. To prepare for the best photo opportunity, keep in mind that sunrise is the best time to discover the golden rays that jet across the Aït Benhaddou village. The view across the river is stunning and when you climb to the top of the hill and look down over Ait Ben Haddou it is even more breathtaking. Must watch Gladiator again now! Be warned that the wind at the top could be very strong; hang on to your phones and cameras!
Tips for photographers:
The most popular things to photograph here include the Kasbahs within the village, palm trees, decorative motifs, charming small streets filled with donkeys, or storks making a home on top of a mud house. To get an overall picture of Aït Benhaddou, you can climb to the top of one of the neighboring hills, only if you are up for some more walking and adventure. Afternoon or sunset shots can also be impressive, yet, they are more difficult to capture. We waited for the Sun to set and then headed to the cafe-restaurant near the parking area and where most hotels/riads are located with a panoramic view of the Ksar to enjoy a cup of Moroccan mint tea followed by an early supper just before setting off to drive back to Marrakech.
Now what was so unique about this trip to Ait Benhaddou?
Surprisingly it has got nothing to do much with history of this place or Morocco in general. But something more at a global level making you ponder how strangely people can connect with you on shared interests. I had this heart-warming encounter with a man who was a Greek God lookalike who owned one of the many shops inside the Kasbah selling arts and crafts made by Berber tribes. Hold on, you don’t need to run your wild imagination already as I was still with my partner;). While wandering around aimlessly with my camera in hand, this man asked me, ‘‘Where from? Indien (French for Indian)? From Shah Rukh Khan‘s (Shah Rukh Khan) country?” Now it was needless to say that during our entire stay in Morocco, I was stopped on the street, at souks, in medinas and asked everytime whether I was from India? How they ‘‘love SRK and Amitabh and all the oh-so-romantic Bollywood movies!” Worth pointing out here that SRK is the cultural brand ambassador in Morocco. But how this man who was selling handicrafts in the Kasbah, sitting in the middle of nowhere, away from what we call human civilization, identified India – as SRK’s country? Honestly this gave me goose bumps. Not because I LOVE Shahrukh – the biggets ever and the most popular Indian actor outside of (probably inside too) India but because what a life to lead in which you are loved by people who do not understand your language, who lives in a remote corner near somewhere in the Atlas mountains in Morocco, away from any modern living but who still knows you and loves you. This is what I call a LIFE- to be able to touch hearts of millions across the world with your art and talent especially when they have no valid reason to like you but THEY still DO! The self-proclaimed biggest ever Shah Rukh Khan fan confirmed that he had 7 DVDs at home and all those 7 are of SRK’s most popular films. When asked which one is his most favourite, he couldn’t tell as they don’t understand the language much. But do you know how I found out which one it was? Its because the man preferred to hum the anthem tune of ”Tujhe dekha toh yeh jana sanam” from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge – as ”ta ta ta ta ta”. It was understandably difficult for him to remember words from a language he doesn’t understand at all. He also sounded very sad when he told me ”they shot many films in this location but why doesn’t SRK come here to shoot his films as we love him so much?”. I hopelessly hope that an agent or a friend from Bollywood or someone close to the actor reading this post can convey it to Shahrukh Khan. What better way to live in this world when you are loved and appreciated this way to spread happiness, smile…and love! So this was the unexpected encounter which made the experience at Ait Benhaddou even more memorable.
Nestled against the hill yet still close to the river, the ancient city of Aït Benhaddou fascinates wanderlusters and how! Even better when a Bollywood link is being discovered like the way we did.