Ait Benhaddou: Morocco’s Finest Kasbah

When it comes to Kasbahs, Ait Benhaddou is one of the most exotic and best preserved in the entire Atlas region. Although towered red pisé is a feature of much of the south of Morocco, Ait Benhaddou has a definite edge over the competition. It comes as no surprise that among all other crenulated offerings, Ait Benhaddou became the favourite filming location of many Hollywood directors. Lawrence of Arabia was filmed here, Orson Welles used it as a location for Sodom and Gomorrah and for the epic Jesus of Nazareth, the whole lower part of the village had to be rebuilt.

A good consequence of the film industry’s fascination with Ait Benhaddou is that good restoration work has been undertaken. First, UNESCO placed it under its auspices as a World Heritage Site and then the Moroccan Government itself jumped on the bandwagon in 1994 to rehabilitate the Kasbah in order to preserve the cultural and national heritage. The result of all this work is Ait Benhaddou back to its former glory – a magical ad fascinating place worth exploring for hours or even a few days.

Some History of Ait Benhaddou

It’s impossible to determine exactly how old the Kasbahs are, though the first buildings at Ait Benhaddou are believed to have been built since the 11th century. The area was a strategic position on the route from Marrakech, through Telouet, to Ouarzazate and the south. Appearing from the barren desert landscape, the Kasbahs were a major stop for camel caravans carrying salt through the Sahara and returning with gold, silver and slaves.

In its heyday, Ait Benhaddou was a busy teeming Ksar with fortified towers and reinforced walls. Guards would watch at the top of watchtowers, peering through small windows to keep an eye for invaders. Inside the Ksar, there was a central mosque surrounded by family homes, communal areas and small palaces. In its earlier history, Ait Benhaddou is believed to have housed thousands of people.

At the fall of the twentieth century, the French built a new road over the Tichka pass thus diminishing the importance of the Marrakech – Ouarzazate caravan route. As a consequence, the population of Ait Benhaddou quickly dwindled and today only half a dozen families live in the Kasbah.

The Kasbah Ait Benhaddou

Ait Ben Haddou is a Ksar, a fortified city composed of six Kasbahs and nearly fifty houses. The structure is piled upon a low hillock, above the shallow, reed-strewn river Oued Ounila. The Kasbahs are towered and crenulated and with high walls made with red, dark pisé and connected through an elaborate maze of narrow routes.

At the “new village” on the west bank of the river Oued Ounila, the road passes the Hotel La Kasbah. Head down past the souvenir stalls and you will see the Kasbah on the other side of the dried up river. Entry to the Kasbah is free although you’ll need to pay the locals around 15 dh if you want to see the inside of their houses.

Follow the network of lanes uphill until your reach the upper of the Kasbah, where the ruins of large fortified granary stand. From here, you can enjoy great views over the palmeraie and the surrouding stony desert.