At some stage, you’re almost bound to spend a night in Ouarzazate, the main access point and crossroads of the south, and it can be a useful if functional base from which to visit the ksour and kasbahs of Aït Benhaddou or Skoura. Although lacking the architectural charm of other settlements down here, the town nevertheless has a buzzy, almost cosmopolitan feel, which contrasts sharply with the sleepier places found elsewhere in the region.
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Like most of the new Saharan towns, Ouarzazate was created as a Foreign Legion garrison and administrative centre by the French in the late 1920s. During the 1980s, it became something of a boom town, as the tourist industry embarked on a wildly optimistic building programme of luxury hotels, based on Ouarzazate’s marketability as a staging point for the “Saharan Adventure”, and the town was given an additional boost from the attentions of filmmakers.
Ouarzazate holds a mystic attraction for Moroccans, too – similar to the resonance of Timbuktu for Europeans – and recent years have seen renewed expansion. Vast residential complexes are springing up in response to the growing demand from young people unwilling to live with their parents, as well as an influx from rural areas. An ill-fated golf course development to the north of the city was, unsurprisingly, abandoned, but there are plans to build yet more five-star hotels and a slew of casinos. Whether the region will attract enough visitors in the future to sustain all this development remains to be seen.
Lights, Camera, Action! Ouarzazate on the silver screen
Ever since David Lean shot Lawrence of Arabia at nearby Aït Benhaddou in 1962, film directors have been drawn to Ouarzazate, and the area has, over the years, stood in for Jerusalem, Persia, Somalia, Ancient Egypt and even Tibet. Bernardo Bertolucci came here in 1990 to film Paul Bowles’s novel, The Sheltering Sky, while Martin Scorsese based much of The Last Temptation of Christ (1998) and Kundun (1996) in the surrounding hammada – as a tottering Tibetan temple at the Atlas Corporation Studios just outside of town can testify to. Oliver Stone shot Alexander here in 2004, while Ridley Scott can’t seem to get enough of the place, choosing the region for Gladiator (1999), Black Hawk Down (2001), Kingdom of Heaven (2005) and – proving that Ouarzazate has still got what it takes – Prometheus (2012).