Traversing the old caravan route between Marrakech and Timbuktu, what appears to be a massive sand castle suddenly comes in to view as though it were a mirage appearing on the horizon. But this is no mirage – it’s the ancient ksar Aït Benhaddou. A collection of half a dozen mud brick kasbahs that blend in with the surrounding red-orange sand and High Atlas Mountains, it’s one of the most striking and best preserved ksars in Morocco. It’s also a UNESCO world heritage site and well-worth making the day trip to Aït-Ben-Haddou from Marrakech.
It’s present day Morocco, though it feels like we’ve stepped back in time. Or maybe even in to the set of movies like The Mummy.
Traders carrying gold, spices and slaves between Marrakech and Timbuktu passed right by Aït-Ben-Haddou. Aït-Ben-Haddou and kasbahs like it were strategic stops for the traders traveling along the old caravan route. There were so many kasbahs that the traders could stop at along their treacherous journey, the route became known as the Road of a Thousand Kasbahs. Though many of the kasbahs lay in ruins today.
It’s thought that the current settlement at Aït-Ben-Haddou has existed since the 11th century and was built by the Almoravids. Though the history stretches back much further to when the very first settlement was founded in 757 by Ben-Haddou, and it’s believed that his tomb lay somewhere behind the city. But nothing remains of the 11th century structures. The earthen materials covered in red mud plaster erode with time and weather. And so Aït-Ben-Haddou has been rebuilt many times, with what we see today dating back to the 17th century.
In its heyday Aït-Ben-Haddou was likely home to thousands of people and teeming with life. The residents would have had a delicate balance between being hospitable to the passersby to earn a living by providing food, water and shelter, and protecting their ksar from opportunistic invaders.
It might look like sand castle that could topple over at any moment, but this ksar was built to defend. Wandering through the narrow streets, you see just how the compact structures within were a line of defense. The maze winds constantly upward toward the fortress at the top, where the residents could escape to in case of an invasion.
Today, all but a few families have moved across the river to newer homes in the modern town. Aït-Ben-Haddou is largely abandoned, with the exception of day trippers like ourselves.
Aït-Ben-Haddou became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 and the organization works tirelessly to persevere this example of traditional pre-Saharan habitat from further deterioration.
We mentioned that Aït-Ben-Haddou feels like a movie set, and that’s because it has served as the backdrop for an impressive list of Hollywood hits from Lawrence of Arabia in 1962 to Gladiator, The Mummy, The Hills Have Eyes and even the popular Game of Thrones tv series.
There’s not much to do in Aït-Ben-Haddou itself, other than wander around and soak up the spectacular setting. From the modern town, cross over the stepping stones in the river. If you let some of the children help you across, be prepared to tip them a dollar or two.
Make your way back to the modern town, where there’s some tourist shops, a carpet seller and a restaurant, by way of the bridge for a different perspective of the ksar.
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