ADDRESSAït Benhaddou, Morocco
Drive out of Marrakesh heading southeast through winding mountain passes and barren desert landscapes, and in just under four hours, you will arrive at the famous fortified village of Aït Benhaddou. Known to the region’s native Berbers as a ksar, the village lies on the former caravan route between Marrakesh and the Sahara Desert. It is renowned for the fabulous earthen clay architecture that makes it one of the most photogenic and historically fascinating sites in Morocco. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a must-visit destination for film buffs.
History of Aït Benhaddou
Although the oldest of Aït Benhaddou’s existing buildings dates back to the 17th century, the site has been fortified since the Almoravids, who ruled Morocco throughout the 11th century. The current structures are likely a replica of the buildings that came before, making the ksar one of the country’s finest examples of adobe architecture. It is made entirely out of rammed earth mixed with straw, clay bricks, and wood. While cost-effective and aesthetically pleasing, this building style requires constant maintenance to withstand annual rains and desert winds.
It is common to ksars and kasbahs throughout this region of Morocco and allows the settlement to blend seamlessly with the arid environment. Like the desert itself, it is rendered in hues of tan and beige during the heat of the day and then painted with rose and ocher by the soft light of dawn and dusk. Aït Benhaddou grew up as a waypoint for travelers transporting salt, spices, gold, and slaves along the major trans-Saharan trade route that leads through the Tizi n’Tichka pass to the Imperial City of Marrakesh.
The Ksar Today
Today, the historic village of Aït Benhaddou is still inhabited, but only by a few remnant Berber families (between five and 10 of them, depending on who you ask). As the ksar waned in importance with the disappearance of the trans-Saharan caravans, its maintenance was neglected, and it began to suffer at the hands of the harsh desert weather. The majority of its inhabitants moved into more modern and easily cared for homes on the opposite side of the Ounila River, where they continue to live, relying on tourism and agriculture for their incomes.
Despite its near-complete abandonment, Aït Benhaddou remained an important site for Moroccan culture and tourism and was saved from falling into disrepair by its establishment as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. Since then, it has been painstakingly restored using traditional methods and building materials to preserve its architectural integrity. Much of the ksar’s relative intactness is also thanks to its popularity as a filming location. It has appeared as a backdrop for many international movies and series, including “The Mummy,” “Gladiator,” “Kingdom of Heaven,” “Prince of Persia,” and “Game of Thrones” (where it served as the slavers’ city of Yunkai).
Top Things to See
The journey to reach Aït Benhaddou is an impressive one. Visitors must use stepping stones to cross from the modern town over the Ounila River, with its fringing thickets of date and palm trees. On the opposite bank, the historic ksar rises majestically on the hillside, its buildings within their defensive wall and shrouded in mystery. The battlements are studded with corner towers, while the buildings inside range from modest private homes to public facilities, including a mosque, the kasbah, a granary, a public square, and the stables where camels and donkeys would once have bedded down for the night.
Perhaps most interesting is the caravanserai, a kind of roadside inn where the old traders would have enjoyed sustenance while swapping information along with tales of their journeys across the Sahara. Many of the buildings inside Aït Benhaddou are adorned on their upper levels with intricate geometric reliefs. Keep an eye out for the cemeteries (one for Muslims, one for Jews) and the grain threshing areas marked out beyond the village walls. You will explore the settlement’s twisting alleys and staircases on foot, pausing whenever you need to admire the view of the river and desert landscape from the top of the battlements.
Along the way, you will likely meet some of the ksar’s residents, who make their living by selling souvenirs (think traditional Berber fabrics and jewelry) or playing music for tourists. If you’re lucky, you may even be invited into one of their earthen homes for a cup of mint tea. If you have time, consider combining your visit to Aït Benhaddou with a trip to another fortified ksar known as Tamdaght. Located just over three miles north of Aït Benhaddou, this village was home to the family of Thami El Glaoui, Lord of the Atlas, and Pasha of Marrakesh from 1912 to 1956. It has not been as extensively restored and is slowly crumbling back into the desert.
How to Visit
Aït Benhaddou is situated 112 miles southeast of Marrakesh and 18 miles northwest of Ouarzazate. The latter is a well-known gateway to the Sahara Desert, known as the Hollywood of North Africa, because of its close ties to the film industry. Although there’s nothing to stop you from visiting independently, many people visit Aït Benhaddou on a guided day trip from Marrakesh. Options include private tours, tours that combine the trip with a visit to Ouarzazate, and multi-day tours that take you deep into the Sahara Desert. Viator is a good place to start if you want to browse the different choices available to you.
Aït Benhaddou is a year-round destination. For the most pleasant weather, i.e., long, sunny days that aren’t too sweltering, consider visiting in spring (March to May) or fall (September to November).
Where to Stay
If you would like to stay longer in the area, there are plenty of atmospheric guesthouses and riads to choose from both in Aït Benhaddou itself and in nearby Tamdaght. Top choices in Aït Benhaddou include Kasbah Tebi and Riad Caravane. The former stands out for its location within the historic ksar and the fact that it has been owned and run by the same family for more than 400 years. It specializes in authentic Moroccan cuisine and cooking classes and is beautifully decorated with traditional Berber furnishings. Riad Caravane offers eight rooms and suites, terraces with beautiful Aït Benhaddou views, a patio garden, and a heated pool.
In Tamdaght, the top choice for accommodation is Kasbah Ellouze. Nestled amidst gardens filled with almond, olive, fig, and pomegranate trees, it boasts traditional Berber architecture and hospitality in addition to a Moroccan restaurant and an inviting swimming pool.