Now, we are on the route of a thousand Kasbahs, one of the most unusual and charming landscapes in Morocco. This interesting tour of the southern part of the country runs through the Great Atlas mountain range along the Dades and Todra river valleys.
Although sometimes identified as a kasbah, Aït Ben Haddou is actually a ksar. In other words, it’s a fortified town with several kasbahs made of an adobe mixture (sand, clay, water and, sometimes, organic material such as straw or manure). Once this mixture is molded it’s left to dry in the sun. This is a very special way of building which uses local materials. Because it’s made from the soil, the structure itself appears to emerge from the landscape. Of course, it requires continuous maintenance and restoration.
About 100 miles (190 kilometers) from the city of Marrakech and about 20 miles (30 km) from Ouarzazate, this majestic place overlooks the Ounila river valley and is one of the many magical places in Morocco. This set of kasbahs has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987, and is one of the best preserved, oldest and most splendid ksars in the country.
A bit of History
The construction date of Aït Ben Haddou is not known exactly, although it’s believed to date from the 11th century. Like other Ksars, it was originally a Berber tribe settlement (tribe in Amazigh Berber is “Aït”) later surrounded by defensive walls crowned with towers and located near wadis and fertile fields.
There are two reasons for the location of this ksar. It’s located both in the heart of the Ounila Valley and along one of the most important trans-Saharan trade routes. It was one of the greatest strategic points controlling the route between old Sudan and the imperial cities of Marrakech, Fez and Meknes. Caravans of merchants would purchase supplies here and it consequently acquired great importance.
In time, many people left and the adobe buildings gradually plunged it into a state of semi-abandonment. The funds contributed by UNESCO, by some public and private initiatives and the filming of numerous movies have slowed down the process of deterioration and led to some restoration work.
The inhabitants of the Ksar moved to the other side of the river looking for better living conditions, creating the so-called new town where the majority reside today. Due to the influx of visitors, different services for travelers have developed in recent years: hotels, riads, cafes, restaurants, shops that offer fossils, minerals and handicrafts, etc.
The Berber city of Aït Ben Haddou is on a hill about 300 feet (100 meters) above the new town on the right bank of the Ounila river, surrounded by crops, palm trees and fruit trees, which provide a greenness that contrasts with the arid landscape and rocky road. From here there is a spectacular view of the ksar, with different shades of red depending on the time of day. This is a wonderful place to take pictures.
There are two ways to cross the Ounila river that separates the fortress from the new area: the conventional way, a bridge, built not many years ago and the fun way, a crossing made of sandbags. In the rainy season the river is subject to major swells and before the bridge was built, people who lived in the Ksar had to cross the river on donkeys or camels.
Visiting the inner section of Aït Ben Haddou is free and you won’t need a guide. There are plenty of guides, however, offering their services at the entrance (we don’t recommend paying more than 50 dirhams per person). For the very curious, it’s worth it to sneak a peek into a home. Tipping the homeowner can get you in to see what a real home is like and it’s a wonderful way to see the construction and decor.
Layout of the Ksar (click to enlarge)
The fortress is surrounded by a wall, reinforced by angular towers that served as protection and only two points of entry. Inside there’s a maze of alleys, houses and very old buildings with well-decorated façades. There are only about ten families that still live here, so it’s a very calm space. There are some antique shops as well as some artist workshops.
The ksar has a working-class neighborhood with one- or two-floors houses which is 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 quarter, located in the upper part to 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 stairway between the alleys of the ksar. The sunset from this point is a delight. The grain silo is located in this most protected spot in the event of an assault.
Aït Ben Haddou and the Big Screen
Movie lovers surely know that this fortress has been immortalized in many films, being one of the most cinematographic places in Morocco. Its exotic appearance and weather conditions make this ksar a great place for shooting movies. This has been very well accepted by its inhabitants as an incentive for the local economy and provides extra work to the locals.
Scenes from a long list of movies from the 1960s have been shot here, 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. As a curiosity, one of the monumental doors of the ksar is not original. It was built from concrete for Michael Douglas to crash his plane into in The Jewel of the Nile.
How to Get Here
There are multiple ways to get to Aït Ben Haddou, thanks to the popularity of this place. If you’re looking for something more organized, there are several organized tours from Marrakech, from those that come here specifically, to those that visit places like Ouarzazate or even further afield like Zagora or Merzouga, and that inevitably end up passing through this ksar.
If you opt for a taxi we don’t recommend paying more than 200 dirhams (one way) from Ouarzazate and 600 dirhams from Marrakech. In any case, this is money well spent because you’ll get to see one of the most iconic and impressive landscapes in all of Morocco.
Coordinates: 31°03′N 7°08′W (see location)
Size: 28,000 m2 (7 acres) approx.
Construction date: Unknown (probably 11th century)
Hours: Open 24 hours (Mon-Sun)
Entrance fee: Free
If you want to know more, visit our page on the Sahara.