There’s one place in Morocco where you can follow in the footsteps of Jesus and Alexander the Great, Marco Polo and the Prince of Persia. Well, kind of….. It’s doubled as Sodom, Gomorrah and the Nile and, as you might have guessed, it still ‒ despite CGI ‒ draws film crews in need of a vaguely biblical-looking and exotic location.
South of Marrakech across the High Atlas, Ait Benhaddou is one of sub-Saharan Morocco’s great sights. Here just across a shallow river in the Ounila Valley rise a cluster of toffee-coloured fortified houses, or ksour, with gently tapering towers. Backed by a rugged hill, the often snow-tipped High Atlas fills the wider horizon. Quite simply, it’s a gorgeous spot which also happens to be on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
This old ‒ probably 17th-century ‒ fortified village used to be an important halt on a caravan route linking Marrakech with the Sahara and beyond. Today, despite the art galleries and curio stalls, it’s a fascinating place to explore and especially at dawn when, largely tourist-free, its walls of rammed earth and dried-mud bricks are bathed in beautiful salmon-pink light. You’ll see plenty of similar buildings across Morocco’s south but this ensemble is striking for its size and relatively good state of preservation.
Most of its little narrow lanes are now paved but seasonal rains are a regular threat to its walls and foundations which normally require constant maintenance. The few remaining families (most have moved to the new village across the river where most tourists also stay) generally live off tourism, beckoning visitors for a look around their homes. Most have a central shaft or courtyard, even a private well, and three floors of simple rooms and corner towers, many still incised with decorative geometric patterns.
I visited one where various implements and utensils were displayed on the ground floor almost like a museum. Climbing one of its four slender towers past various living and sleeping quarters, a cheerful young lad followed close behind. “The great thing about pisé…,” he said in French referring to the traditional use of mud-bricks and earth, “is how it’s cool in summer and warm in winter.”
From its upper terrace I gazed for a while across the valley. Ait Benhaddou bristles with towers and walls, and it’s sometimes hard to distinguish the inhabited from the abandoned. Down below stretched the lazy river with fields gleaming a brilliant green in dazzling spring sunshine. Traditional life ‒ and generally a hard life ‒ has largely faded here but at least some of its traditions haven’t been entirely forgotten.