Exploring Ait Benhaddou and Nearby Wonders in Morocco’s Dramatic Atlas Landscapes
Rising majestically from a rocky outcropping along a remote bend of the Ounila River, the ancient fortified Kasbah of Ait Benhaddou stands sentinel over the southern foothills of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco after over 11 centuries guarding this once vital pre-Saharan trade artery. Designated a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987, this scenic clay structure village, known as a “ksar collective” in Arabic, provided cinematic backdrops for over 20 blockbuster Hollywood productions from Lawrence of Arabia and Jesus of Nazareth to The Mummy and most recently the 2022 remake of Dune owing to its splendid desert fortress aesthetic frozen in time. Beyond just this splendid site, the surrounding Ouarzazate region tempts history buffs and adventurers alike to lose themselves wandering through tranquil valleys dotted by crumbling Glaoui feudal palaces, vibrant Berber market towns bustling beneath sun-cracked canyons and the mind-boggling Atlas Film Studios complex where fictitious desert planets and ancient Egyptian worlds materialize.
About Ait Benhaddou Kasbah
The Kasbah of Ait Benhaddou first originated in the early 11th century as a modest pitstop stationed along the profit-rich Saharan Pashas trading route linking salt laden camel caravans trekking upwards from West Africa’s Mali and Niger through the Telouet region’s bandit ridden High Atlas mountain passes towards the northern cities of Fes and Tangier bursting with European exports hungry for salt, ivory and gold. Growing significantly over subsequent centuries into a thriving fortified settlement, many wealthy merchant families and powerful warlords constructed upwards of 75 closely packed six story tall towers and elaborate mansions decorated in stunning geometric patterns and textures made from precisely pressed mud brick reinforced with wood alongside curtain walls ringing this “medina of clay” as an oasis arose.
Several remarkably preserved historic sites like intact sentry post outlooks with zig-zagging steps leading to staggering valley vistas, the communal village bakery and council chambers, centuries old olive press, neighborhood masjid mosque and the home of the hereditary Caid chief’s family replete with salons for receiving travelers can still be explored on self-guided walking tours today even after most inhabitants wisely relocated to a nearby village for access to modern plumbing and electricity conveniences in the late 1960s once transcontinental trade dissolved. Since extensive restoration efforts require constant conservation to maintain integrity against erosion, only a handful of buildings function as boutique guest houses.
Ouarzazate Area Day Trips
Just 33 kilometers west of Ait Benhaddou along the Ouarzazate River, the fast growing urban hub nicknamed “The Door of the Desert” provides handfuls of attractions worth dedicating at least a full day exploring via private tour or rental car such as:
Atlas Film Studios – One of the world’s largest movie production studios at over 1.2 million square feet in size has hosted scenes from Oscar caliber works like Gladiator, Game of Thrones, Kingdom of Heaven and most recently Dune. Book tickets for behind-the-scenes walking tours revealing how directors leverage the massive Egyptian temple sets, medieval advancing armies on horseback, starship interiors, torture dungeons and withering Saharan encampments to bring scripts to life in this harsh, remote climate.
Kasbah Taourirt – Constructed in the 1700s overlooking Ouarzazate as the ambitious paramount Glaoui tribe chieftain’s royal palace stronghold, this striking pisé structure housed over 300 lavishly decorated rooms all linked by winding staircases and twisting nearly incomprehensible corridors. Wander the maze of courtyards, painted ceilings, extravagant salons and the hushed quiet inner sanctum known as the “Paradise Room” understanding how generations of overlords projected extreme power over subdued nomadic subjects from this now abandoned towering fortress.
Fint Oasis & Tagdilt Village – Located just 15 minutes outside Ouarzazate off the Zagora road lays a lush palm and rose garden sanctuary dubbed “La Petit Maroc” fed by dozens of freshwater springs emerging from the hillside that have flowed continuously for thousands of years amidst the otherwise stark arid desert landscapes. Relax streamside soaking in the serenity or browse abundant fossils, minerals and handmade crafts proffered by local Tuareg tribespeople happy to share tea while conveying cultural insights before venturing up the sandy path to the fortified ancient red clay outpost of Tagdilt for panoramic views atop the original kasbah towers.
Scenic Atlas Mountain Valleys Nearby
Beyond Ouarzazate town itself, gorgeous valleys tucked between the soaring High Atlas mountains and the Southern Frontier Provinces tempt scenic excursions across unique terrain where visitors can admire abundant crumbling Glaoui era splendor blending with red rock vistas, sample hearty mountain village tagines mounded with locally grown saffron while trekking riverbanks towards cascading waterfalls. Top regional hidden gems include:
Telouet Valley – Ramble down the scenic P1707 single lane roadway made famous in the 1990 musical documentary “The Sheltering Sky” which weaves through tiny Amazigh hamlets revealing crumbling golden mustard-hued pise architecture fast fading back into the valley’s cliffs. Rustic family-run Arhiba and Dar Rocmarra guesthouses offer splendid Atlas views beyond just providing truly authentic glimpses into rural life.
Tizi n’Tichka Pass – Connecting Marrakesh to Ouarzazate since 1936, this snaking route scales the peaks as one of Morocco’s highest drivable roads at 7,415 feet where visitors trundle past volcanically forced pointy grey and red mineral formations revealing staggering Saharan panoramas at every hairpin lookout eventually leading to three cozy cafes like Chez Michelle which has perfected the secret spice ratio behind their signature butter cookies over 30 generations.
Ouirgane Mountains – Just an hour drive crossing the Tizi n’ Tichka summit outside Marrakesh delivers colorful hand woven rugs laid out across soft grass while oblong clay tagines bake over fragrant cedar kindling under the generous shade of walnut trees dotting this lush pine valley as trout streams meander by small Amazigh communities who happily host guests in peaceful getaways clustered with flower gardens. Follow river paths towards the cascading Setti Fatma waterfalls.
Ourika Valley Day Tour From Marrakesh
Beyond rural bliss, the vibrant Ourika valley located only 45 minutes drive south from the Djemma el-Fna square in Marrakesh provides a refreshing glimpse into indigenous Atlas culture beyond the typical imperial city glimpses. Berber hillside towns overlooking the lush Ourika river basin like Setti Fatma and Imlil deliver abundant opportunities to browse roadside fossils and minerals for sale everywhere, enjoy savory meat broth tagines with saffron-scented rice baked in earthenware jars pulled directly from local tajine pottery workshops or trek the valley’s riverbanks uphill towards tumbling cool mountain waterfalls flowing between the vibrant spring wildflowers and fragrant fruit orchards lining the seven brothers snow capped peaks ringing the horizon as friendly locals offer snapshots with their docile yet ornately dressed camels.
Essentials For Visiting Ait Benhaddou & Surrounds
Since the wonders of Ouarzazate province will captivate active travelers for days on end, keeping these travel considerations in mind helps ensure smoothly navigating between architectural gems, isolated valleys and bustling urban studios:
Transportation – Arrange roundtrip private 4×4 transfer from Marrakesh or Fes to permit stopping anywhere enroute unless debarking directly at Ouarzazate’s small airport. Renting a car locally allows looping at one’s own pace. Regional buses run but limit exploration. Consider multi-day desert tours incorporating the region.
Guides – Hire an accredited guide like Mohamed Taboubi to fully unlock history and culture.cautioned about independents without credentials inventing commentary. Request stovecooked meals in Berber family homes through village stays.
Lodging – Over a dozen traditional guest houses operate right inside the Kasbah quarter itself including the Ksar Ighnda, Auberge La Glaoui and defenses oriented Le Temple offering sublime mountain vista sunrise views across pink hued adobe towers seemingly extending into sand seas at dawn.
Attire – Dress conservatively in loose lightweight layers covering knees and shoulders. Ladies receive warm welcomes wearing brightly patterned scarves and hats. Protective sunblock, caps and trekking footwear strongly advised.
Now persevered digitally too, the millennium old Kasbah of Ait Benhaddou scarcely appears altered from antiquity with its clay toned ramparts and towers organically fused against the landscape…no different than when lavish caravans returning from Timbuktu laden with elephant tusk, gold dust and salt slabs once swayed through the original grand gates heralded by criers announcing merchant princes followed by extravagantly adorned Tuareg musicians,actuating the entire community to stiffly render honors while masked African servants bore overflowing trays displaying the exotic riches just back from beyond the dunes, generating immense power for their leaders. This vestige still proudly conveys the intricate backbone supporting immense Saharan trade inspiring fantastic wealth and influence for centuries across former Trans-Atlas kingdoms into Europe.