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Trip to Ait Ben Haddou and Ouarzazate

The Game of Thrones is known for its fabulous sets and locations.  When I discovered that the scene below was shot in a real place, I knew that a trip to Ait Ben Haddou was a must for our Moroccan itinerary. Also, I always enjoy visiting Unesco World Heritage Sites – and a trip to Ait Ben Haddou ticks that box too.  

Daenerys Targaryen is about to meet the slaves of Yunkai from Game of Thrones Series 3 episode 10

A Trip to Ait Ben Haddou and Ouarzazate

After we explored Marrakesh, Nick had to get back for some business in the UK, and the girls and I headed out into the foothills of the Atlas Mountains.

The Ksar of Ait Ben Haddou

Ksar is a term we had often heard or read and it seemed to have a range of meanings, so I asked around and it can mean either a Berber castle or more often a fortified village.  Berbers (or Amazigh) are the ethnic group native to North Africa before Arabs came here from the Middle East. About 70% of the population of Morocco has Berber roots.

ait-beh-haddou- view from the topAit Ben Haddou Ksar  – which in this case means a fortified village – dates from the XVII century and is a labyrinth of connected dwellings surrounded by high ramparts and towers. Small steep streets run and twist between the houses. According to Unesco, Ait Ben Haddou is an outstanding example of pre-Saharan earth construction.

Pre-Saharan Earth Construction

Earth building in the pre-Saharan region is characterised by rammed earth and adobe (mud) techniques for the walls.  Roofs and upper floors are made from palm wood beams, covered with canes and compacted earth.  As the Ksar is under Unesco protection, all repairs are made using original materials.

Ait ben Haddou section through KasbahInside the Ksar, as well as dwelling houses there is a Kasbah (a multi-storey multi-purpose defensive building) a mosque, a public square, and the sanctuary of Saint Sidi Ali.  There are also two cemeteries – Muslim and Jewish. We were surprised and fascinated to find so many Jewish symbols in this Islamic region. We found stars of David on doors, kettles etc. Some of the houses – especially the towers are decorated with wall paintings outside and inside.  

The Siting of Ait Ben Haddou

Ait Ben Haddou is way off the beaten track, in the foothills of the southern slopes of the High Atlas so it’s quite a trek to get there.  

In ancient times this site was a strategic point on the commercial route between Sudan and Marrakesh, and then on to the port of Essaouira and the World. Its rocky elevation provides a strategic view of approaching caravans or threats. It seems to take its water from the nearby river valley from which channels are diverted into the town.

Ait Ben Haddou – First Impression

For us, there was literally a breathtaking “wow” moment when we saw the scene for the first time.   This is one place that really does seem to spring from fantasy.  The whole ksar is like an intricate full-sized sandcastle. It is hard to believe that people lived here.  But they did, and they still do.

The first view of the ksar at the point of arrival is across the wadi.  The new town and all the things of the modern age are on one side of the valley, the fabulous scene on the other.  To get there, we had to cross a small river – in the summer, the wadi is dry.

 

Exploring the Ksar

There are still a few families living in the ksar as we discovered by accident when we wandered into what turned out to be a private house.   Other houses are open to visitors for a small fee, including the one which was used as a location for the Gladiator.

After that, I had to show my girls Gladiator as well as carefully selected extracts from Game of Thrones!

Ait Ben Haddou as a Shooting Location in Movies

We discovered that Ait Ben Haddou has been used for a number of movies – see the list below. 

For me, the biggest discovery was that my favourite childhood movie – Jewel of the Nile was shot here.   Interestingly, the main gate is not a part of the ancient work at all but was actually constructed for the film. So, sure enough, I let the girls see this one too.  Their verdict – a good movie but it has too much kissing. 

A scene from Jewel of the Nile (1985) in which Michael Douglas blasts a hole through the main gate of Ait Ben Haddou and then drives through it in a jet fighter plane.

List of movies which used Aid Ben Haddou as a shooting location

  • Sodom And Gomorrah
  • Oedipus Rex
  • The Man Who Would Be King
  • The Message
  • Jesus of Nazareth
  • Time Bandits
  • Marco Polo
  • The Jewel of the Nile
  • The Living Daylights
  • The Last Temptation of Christ
  • The Sheltering Sky
  • Kundun
  • The Mummy
  • Gladiator 
  • Alexander
  • Kingdom of Heaven
  • Babel
  • One Night with the King
  • Prince of Persia
  • Son of God
  • Game of Thrones

Ait Ben Haddou Opening Hours

Entrance to the Ksar is free.  Entrance to the Kasbah is 10 dhs (5 for children) ($1 or $0.50). It is open every day from 9:00 to -16:00 and the entrance fees are used for maintenance and repairs.

How to Get to Ait Ben Haddou

We took a CTM coach from Marrakesh, but there are also Day Tours, Desert Tours or you can take a hire car and drive yourself.

You can read about how to travel in Morocco  here 

Day Tour from Marrakech

The road trip is four or five hours each way, so I believe a day trip would be too hectic, There are also Desert Tours from Marrakesh to the Sahara over a few days and taking in Ait Ben Haddou and Ouarzazate.

By Hire Car

Driving from Marrakech yourself would be an attractive option if you are in a larger group, to save money and the hassle of haggling with taxi drivers. Having your own car would also give you the flexibility to take in Sokura too, in case your appetite for Ksars is not satisfied by Ait Ben Haddou.  

By Coach from Marrakech

This is what we chose, so I will give you full detail.  CTM is one of the better and more comfortable Moroccan bus companies (see about Moroccan Coach Travel here)

There are six buses a day from Marrakech to Ouarzazate. To get to Ait Ben Haddou, ask the bus driver to stop at the crossroads in Taborah. From there it is 16 km to Ait Ben Haddou village. There are always a few taxis around waiting for passengers – a collective taxi should cost between 5 dhs (for locals) to 10 dhs (for foreigners). A private taxi shouldn’t cost more than 50 dhs ($5) though we were asked to pay 100 dhs so I decided on a collective taxi. The drive takes about 10 minutes.

The coach trip should have taken four and a half hours but it was longer for us owing to a road blockage because of some fallen rocks. This road is partly under construction so in a few years you will be able to expect a  more comfortable drive. Meantime, be aware that the route is through the mountains. The roads are very twisty – so if you have any problems with car sickness take a pill before you travel. Another thing is how the driver drives the bus.  This trip had me wondering more than once whether I had enough insurance.

How Long to Stay in Ait Ben Haddou

People come here on a day trip for 2 hours.  We stayed here for 3 days, and I’m still not sure if we saw everything. What I would advise for sure is, spend at least one night here and see the magic of the Ksar both at sunset and sunrise.

Where to Stay in Ait Ben Haddou

There are a few small hotels in the new part of the town on the other side of the wadi (valley) from the old. We stayed in La Baraka. It was a small hotel with a lovely terrace overlooking the Ksar. I chose it because of good reviews, heating and family bedrooms.

We were here in winter and be aware it is cold: it was around 12º C (54º F) in the day, compared with Marrakesh at 26ºC (80º F). So when choosing a place to stay make sure it has heating.  In our case, the air-conditioner also functioned as a heater.

If we were coming here in the summer we would consider choosing a hotel with a pool.  Hotel La Kasbah and Hotel Dar Mouna tick that box. However, that wasn’t a consideration for us in February – even wrapped up in everything I had brought with me, I still was feeling the chill.  

You can also stay inside the old Ksar at Kasbah Tebi – a great place, very romantic, and candle-lit  – it doesn’t have electricity. So with my need for winter heat, it wasn’t an option for us.

Where to Eat in Ait Ben Haddou

There are several places, all ready for the tourist and all mediocre. We had our breakfasts in the hotel, but other meals there were not so good.  Our favourite place to eat was Auberge Azaddou Tamlalte. We loved sitting out on the terrace in the sun and watching the changing light on the old town – Tagines and Couscous were very good and their Moroccan Salad was delicious. 

around Ait Ben Haddou - view at Ksar
View from our favourite restaurant on a gloomy cold day

What to do around Ait Ben Haddou

  • Of course: visit the Ksar Ait Ben Haddou
  • Visit the Kasbah
  • Run around the small alleys,
  • Climb the hills to see the town from different perspectives
  • Build a little tower from the stones
  • Visit the house where Gladiator was shot
  • Take a camel ride
  • Go for a walk along the wadi
  • Paddle in the river
  • Look for fossils in the rocks (there are lots)
  • Figure out how the wooden locks work.
  • Marvel at beautiful of wooden decorative work
  • Go for a day trip to Ouarzazate and visit a film studio or two.

Ait Ben haddou - insode Ksar

Ouarzazate

The Town of Ouarzazate (pronounced Wa-za-zat) is about 30 kilometres from Ait Ben Haddou and is known as Morocco’s “Little Hollywood”. This small town is totally dependent on the film industry and is home to two film studios, Atlas and CLA. If you look at their websites they both lay claim to the same movies, but CLA is the newer studio and was responsible for the Game of Thrones sequence described above.

Atlas Studio – Ouarzazate

I hadn’t told my girls that we would visit Film studios as I just didn’t know if we would find the time to get there.  But I had told them that we might visit Egypt. And we did.  Atlas Studio was mostly used for movies set in ancient Egypt like “Cleopatra”, “Asterix and Obelix – Mission Cleopatra” and religious movies like “The Last Temptation of Christ”

Atlas Studio Tour

The studio tour started with watching trailers of the movies which were shot there.  When they finished our private guide appeared, and we started a tour around the studio.

We wandered about from set to set listening to our guide’s stories about the movies that had been shot there, taking photos and being encouraged to explore.

We learnt some tricks for building film sets. For example, stone wall scenery may be cast in gypsum plaster from real stonework, so we then spent some time looking for repeating patterns on the walls.

Ouarzazate movie set for Kundan

Most of the decorations stand in the open and get damaged by the rain.  Then one day they are renovated when needed for another movie. For all of us, a visit to the studio was a great eye-opener to see how “fake” movies are. All the holy books in Tibetan scenery for the movie Kundan, for example, were just painted concrete blocks.

Atlas Studio – stables

Ouarzazate stables

The studio has its own stables with horses, donkeys, camels and dogs to be used in the movies. All the animals are very friendly being used to working with people. The girls spent ages talking to them and offering them cuddles.

The bonus was seeing the white horse ridden by Daenerys Targaryen.  Unfortunately, this one wasn’t so friendly!.

How Long to Spend in Atlas Studio

The Atlas Studio tour takes around one hour, the time to visit the stables depends on you – we were there for around 20 mintues. Overall spent about 2 hours there.

Atlas Studio – opening hours and price

The Studio is open for visitors from   08:15am and 18:45. Tickets cost 80 dhs for adults and children above 5 years old. Price includes the guided tour around the studio

Where to stay in Ouarzazate

There are plenty of hotels in Ouarzazate as they are there to serve the film industry, however, unless you have some special reason to stay there, I would suggest that you just treat Ouarzazate as half-day or one-day tour place.

Just to give an idea of why I don’t recommend staying there.  Have you seen the latest season of “Prison Break” set in a Yemen prison?  It was shot in one of the local schools in Ouarzazate. But joking apart – Ouarzazate for me is a just a transportation hub with a CTM bus station and airport.

We left Ouarzazate heading to Zagora – hoping to see the Sahara desert – which finally we didn’t.

Trip to Ait Ben Haddou and Ouarzazate  – Conclusion

I have seen other writers describe Ait Ben Haddou as a good day trip from Ouarzazate.  For me, it is the other way around.  Stay in Ait Ben Haddou for a few days and take a day trip for the interest of the film studio visit.

Ait Ben Haddou Ksar is a uniquely fabulous trip back in time and is one of the few places on earth that has had me gasping out loud with wonder.  For the kids, it was fun to explore and those magical images will surely stay with us all for a long time.

Read more about Morocco
Marrakech with Kids
Things to do in Essaouira
Morocco Travel Tips

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ait benhaddou - unesco heritage site and famouse place from movies like Gladiator

Disclaimer

We have researched facts stated here as far as practicable, but please check anything critical before committing your time and money. We do not claim any special knowledge or expertise, and we are not consultants for our readers.

 

Ania James

photographer, traveller, mother of twin girls, wife, worldschooler, rulebreaker

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