Perched on the foothills of the High Atlas, along the former caravan stretched between Sahara and Marrakesh, is this ighrem named as Ait Benhaddou. This ancient dwelling was given the status of UNESCO World Heritage in the year 1987. While most families have migrated to the village on the other side of the river, the ighrem is still inhabited by four families.
Ait Benhaddou is not just a famous tourist spot for the history buffs, but also is a popular movie-making destination among producers and directors in Hollywood. The ksar has been a part of many blockbuster movies including The Mummy, Gladiator, The Last Temptation of Jesus, and Prince of Persia.
The cluster of earthen buildings in the walls create a photogenic scene that draws many travelers from different parts of the world. Visitors walk to the highest point of the ksar to watch the buildings change color under the light of the sun.
The cluster of clay brick buildings, which are now left abandoned, were once the houses of merchants that traded on the commercial route. The ighrem also includes public buildings including a mosque, a public square, grain threshing areas outside the ramparts, a fortification and a loft at the top of the village, a caravanserai, two cemeteries (Muslim and Jewish) and the sanctuary of the Saint Sidi Ali or Amer.
More Than Just a Film Set
While the maze and buildings standing today in the ksar are mainly from 17th century, the fortified dwelling is as old as a thousand years. Once a thriving town of thousands of merchants, the town saw caravans carrying gold, silver, and slaves and trading them for salt.
The population of Ait Benhaddou dwindled when the French built a new road over the now-popular Tizi n Tichka Pass and the caravan route of Ouarzazate turned obsolete. Neglected, the ksar is crumbling into the red earth from which it was built.
The families that remain in the ksar meet the cost of living by allowing tourists in their houses in exchange of a modest fee or by selling handcraft items such as Moroccan carpets and Berber belts. While, their small houses with uneven floors may seem incongruous against the wealthy past of the place, the place must have been quite modern and comfortable around four centuries ago.
The windows in the buildings have narrow slits to make way for arrows during invasion or attack. The upper sections of the kasbahs and high towers reveal ornate details, motifs, original colorful paintings, and ziggurat designs. Some doors still have the old Berber locks and metal studs. With these ancient decorations still intact, Ait Benhaddou is a treat for the eyes of a history enthusiast.
The Fortress of Ait Benhaddou
The fortress is the highest point of the ksar. Though seemingly a simple building from present-day standards, the fortress was a grand structure in those days. Long staircase takes visitors to the building.
The best time to visit the fortress is during sunrise. It serves as a view point to admire the landscape while it turns golden under the light of rising sun.
Kasbah Tamdaght – A Neighboring Site
Located at a distance of 6 km from Ait Benhaddou is another village named Tamdaght. The structure is dominated by old canyon walls of a Glaoui fortification. The place is a great spot to unwind, explore, and relax. With Atlas Mountains as the backdrop, the village is filled with almond tree groves, camel treks, 4×4 tours, and beautiful vistas.
The village does not see as many tourists as its neighbor Ait Benhaddou, therefore, it remains more authentic and untouched. Once inhabited by merchants, the village is now nested by storks. Cliffs around Tamdaght provide even more historical information, as cave dwellings still dot their sides.
Food in Ait Benhaddou
There is a lot more you can do besides exploring the pre-Saharan architecture. Ait Benhaddou is a home to some amazing cafes and restaurants that offer delicious Moroccan food.
The restaurant and hotel are famous for their lip-smacking tajine. But there is another and more important reason behind its popularity. The restaurant was once a host to Hillary Rodham Clinton, when she was the First Lady of America. The chef and owner of the restaurant still has the letter sent by former First Lady in which she had thanked him for the delicious meal she had been served.
The menu included salads, tajine, and dessert in a pisé-walled salon with ksar views.
The hotel offers 10 set of rooms with lovely views of ksar and its surroundings.
Located just before the footbridge across to the ksar, Amlalte is an easy-going eatery with a wide selection of soups, salads, and authentic Moroccan dishes including tajine and couscous.
The terrace of the restaurant offers panoramic view of ksar and High Atlas that stand behind them.
Auberge Cafe-Restaurant Bilal
Tourists seek this café for the spectacular views and refreshing tea. The eatery provides patio chairs to pull up and sit in the outdoor area and admire the landscape of Ait Benhaddou. It’s á la carte menu includes some delicious selections to choose from, including omelets, couscous, and kebabs. Head here to enjoy lunch while gazing at the ancient dwellings of the ksar and flanking High Atlas.
Destinations About Ait Benhaddou
Atlas Studios – The largest movie set in the world, the Atlas Studios is just another world in itself. From giant fighter planes to huge Egyptians statues, it has everything.
Sahara Desert – Probably the reason why most tourists visit Aït Benhaddou is its nearness to the great desert.
Telouet – 47 km from Aït Benhaddou is the Kasbah Telouet, which was built in 18th and 19th century and was the seat of the El Glaoui family’s power.
Marrakesh – Located just 185 km (three hours and a half minutes) away from Aït Benhaddou is this former imperial city and “Ochre City” of Morocco.
Aït Benhaddou is unlike other famous sites of the kingdom, which are comparatively far modern and urbanized. This fortified dwelling is a great place to go, especially in assistance of a guide. The site is full of artefacts, remnants, and relics that belong to a wealthier past. A trip to Aït Benhaddou is a fascinating experience that will leave you curious and amazed at the long history of the place.