The first thing you hear from the guides on arrival at Aït Benhaddou, 190km from Marrakesh and just 34km from Ouarzazate, is a list of its film credits. Though this is a feature of much of the Moroccan south, the Benhaddou ksar has a definite edge over the competition. Lawrence of Arabia was filmed here, of course; Orson Welles used it as a location for Sodom and Gomorrah; and for Jesus of Nazareth the whole lower part of the village was rebuilt. In recent years, more controlled restoration has been carried out under UNESCO auspices, while film crews have been involved in some “re-modelling”.
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With its souvenir shops and constant stream of tour groups, Aït Benhaddou is not really the place to catch a glimpse of fading ksar life, but it is one of the most spectacular sights of the Atlas, piled upon a low hillock above a shallow, reed-strewn river. Its buildings are among the most elaborately decorated and best preserved in the south; they are less fortified than is usually the case along the Drâa or the Dadès, but, towered and crenellated, and with high, sheer walls of dark red pisé, they must have been near impregnable in this remote, hillside site.
As ever, it’s impossible to determine exactly how old the ksar of Aït Benhaddou is, though there seem to have been buildings here since at least the eleventh century. The importance of the site, which commands the area for miles around, was its position on the trans-Saharan trade route from Marrakesh to Ouarzazate and the south. In the twentieth century, the significance of this route disappeared with the creation of the Tizi n’Tichka, which has led to severe depopulation – there are now only half a dozen families inhabiting the kasbahs, earning a sparse living from the valley’s agriculture and rather more from the tourists who pass through.
Follow the network of lanes uphill and you’ll eventually arrive at the ruins of a vast and imposing agadir, or fortified granary, from where there are great views over the surrounding desert.