Aït Benhaddou: Morocco’s Timeless Desert Citadel

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Aït Benhaddou

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Ait Benhaddou, a picturesque mud-brick city on the edge of the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco, is a destination that promises adventure, history, and unparalleled beauty.

Whether you’re a history buff, a nature lover, or someone looking for a unique travel experience, Ait Benhaddou (or ait ben haddou) has something for everyone. This guide will delve deep into the heart of this ancient city, offering insights, tips, and the best things to do in Ait Benhaddou.

What is Ait Ben haddou?

The Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou is a traditional pre-Saharan habitat consisting of a group of earthen buildings surrounded by high walls. These houses are densely packed within the defensive walls, which are further strengthened by corner towers. Located in the Ouarzazate province, Ait-Ben-Haddou stands as a remarkable representation of southern Moroccan architecture.

The site is situated in the foothills on the southern slopes of the High Atlas in the Province of Ouarzazate and is the most renowned ksar in the Ounila Valley. The ksar is primarily a collective grouping of dwellings. Within its defensive walls, which are fortified by angle towers and have a baffle gate, houses of varying sizes and designs are clustered together.

Some of these houses are modest, while others resemble small urban castles adorned with decorative motifs made of clay brick. The community areas within the ksar encompass a mosque, a public square, grain threshing areas outside the walls, a fortification, a loft, a caravanserai, two cemeteries (one Muslim and one Jewish), and the Sanctuary of the Saint Sidi Ali or Amer.

The Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou offers a comprehensive view of pre-Saharan earthen construction techniques. Most of the structures seem to date back to the 17th century, but their design and construction methods have ancient origins in the southern Moroccan valleys.

Attractions in Ait Benhaddou

If you’re planning a trip to Ait Benhaddou, you’re in for a treat. This UNESCO World Heritage site is home to many attractions that are sure to delight any traveler. Here are some of the must-see attractions in Ait Benhaddou.

Ounila Valley

One of the most beautiful attractions in Ait Benhaddou is the Ounila Valley. This valley is home to stunning natural beauty, including lush greenery, towering cliffs, and a meandering river. Visitors can take a leisurely stroll through the valley and take in the sights and sounds of this beautiful place.

The Ounila River is another natural wonder that is not to be missed. This river winds its way through the valley, providing stunning views and plenty of opportunities for outdoor recreation. Visitors can take a boat ride down the river or simply relax on the banks and take in the scenery.

Visit the Atlas Film Studios

Located nearby, the Atlas Film Studios is often dubbed the “Hollywood of Africa”. It’s been the filming location for many famous movies and TV shows and so many famous movies have been filmed here. A tour here offers a behind-the-scenes look at the world of cinema.

Fans of these popular franchises will love visiting the sites where some of their favorite scenes were filmed. You can even take a guided tour of the filming locations and learn more about the behind-the-scenes action.

Mosque and Public Square

The mosque and public square in Ait Benhaddou are two of the most important cultural landmarks in the city. The mosque is a beautiful example of traditional Moroccan architecture, and the public square is a bustling hub of activity where locals and visitors alike gather to socialize and shop

Historical Exploration of the Ksar of Ait Ben

The ancient ksar, a group of earthen buildings surrounded by high walls, is a striking example of southern Moroccan architecture and is a traditional pre saharan habitat. Walking through its narrow lanes, you’ll feel transported back in time, witnessing the grandeur of a bygone era.

Sunset Views from the Granary

The granary at the top offers panoramic views of the surrounding area. As the sun sets, the city bathes in a golden hue, making it a photographer’s dream.

Shopping in the Local Souks

Experience the vibrant local culture by shopping in the souks. From handcrafted jewelry to traditional Moroccan rugs, there’s a myriad of treasures to discover.

Camel Rides Across the Desert

Experience the desert like the nomads. Camel rides offer a unique perspective of the vast landscapes and are a must-do activity.

Stay in a Traditional Riad

For a truly authentic experience, stay in a traditional riad. These are traditional Moroccan houses with an interior garden or courtyard.

Explore Nearby Villages

Venture out of Ait Benhaddou to explore the neighboring villages. Each has its own charm and history, offering a deeper understanding of the region and there are many about an hour away.

Multi-Day Tours

If you want to make the most of your time in Ait Benhaddou, consider taking a multi-day tour. These tours often include stops at other nearby attractions, such as the Sahara Desert or the city of Marrakech. They can also provide a more in-depth look at the history and culture of the area. Some popular tour operators include Morocco Tours Agency and Desert Majesty.

Nearby Attractions

Ouarzazate

Just 30 minutes away from Ait Benhaddou is the city of Ouarzazate. This city is famous for its movie studios, which have been used in many famous films, including Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator. Visitors can take a tour of the studios and see the sets used in these movies. Ouarzazate also has a beautiful kasbah, which is worth a visit.

Sahara Desert

The Sahara Desert is one of the most iconic landscapes in the world, and it is just a few hours away from Ait Benhaddou. Visitors can take a camel trek into the desert and spend a night under the stars in a traditional Berber camp. The desert is a truly unforgettable experience.

Atlas Mountains

The Atlas Mountains are a stunning range that runs through Morocco. Visitors can take a day trip from Ait Benhaddou to explore the mountains and see the beautiful scenery. There are also many small Berber villages in the mountains that are worth a visit.

Marrakech

Marrakech is one of the most famous cities in Morocco, and it is just a few hours away from Ait Benhaddou. Visitors can explore the city’s famous medina, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are also many beautiful gardens and palaces in Marrakech that are worth a visit.

Caravan Route

The Caravan Route is an ancient trade route that runs through Morocco. Visitors can take a tour of the route and see the many kasbahs and other historic sites along the way. This is a great way to learn about the history of Morocco and see some of its most beautiful landscapes.

Experiencing Ait Benhaddou through Tours

  1. Day Trip to Ait Benhaddou: This is the most popular tour option, and for good reason. It’s a full-day tour that takes you to Ait Benhaddou and Ouarzazate, with stops at various scenic spots along the way. You’ll have plenty of time to explore the kasbah, learn about its history, and take beautiful photos.
  2. 2-Day Desert Tour: This tour takes you to Ait Benhaddou, Ouarzazate, and the Sahara Desert. You’ll spend a night in a traditional Berber tent, ride camels, and witness a stunning desert sunset and sunrise.
  3. Private Tour: If you prefer a more personalized experience, a private tour is a great option. You can customize the itinerary to your liking and have a guide all to yourself.

Off-the-Beaten-Path Alternative Tours

If you’re looking for a more unique experience, there are some off-the-beaten-path tours available as well. These tours may not be as popular, but they offer a chance to see a different side of Ait Benhaddou. Here are a few options:

  1. Hiking Tour: If you’re up for a bit of exercise, a hiking tour is a great way to see the area. You’ll hike through the Atlas Mountains and visit remote Berber villages, with Ait Benhaddou as the final destination.
  2. Film Tour: Ait Benhaddou has been used as a filming location for many movies and shows. A film tour will take you to the locations used in these productions and give you a behind-the-scenes look at how they were made, including Gladiator and Game of Thrones.
  3. Cooking Class Tour: For foodies, a cooking class tour is a great way to experience Moroccan cuisine. You’ll visit a local market to buy ingredients, then learn how to cook traditional Moroccan dishes in a local home.

History of Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou is a historic fortified village in Morocco that dates back to the 11th century. Its origins are rooted in the trans-Saharan trade route, which linked ancient Sudan with Marrakech.

11th Century Origins

It is believed that Ait Benhaddou was first fortified in the 11th century, during the Almoravid dynasty. The Almoravids were a Berber dynasty that ruled over a vast empire in North Africa and Spain. They were known for their military prowess and their efforts to spread Islam throughout the region.

Trans-Saharan Trade Route

Ait Benhaddou was strategically located on the trans-Saharan trade route, which was one of the most important trade routes in the world during the medieval period. The route linked sub-Saharan Africa with North Africa and Europe, and it was used to transport goods such as gold, salt, ivory, and slaves.

Fortified Village

Ait Benhaddou was an important stopover for caravans traveling along the trans-Saharan trade route. The village was fortified with walls and towers to protect it from raiders and other threats. The walls were built using traditional Moroccan earthen clay architecture, which is characterized by its use of mud bricks and plaster.

Ksar

Ait Benhaddou is also known as a ksar, which is a type of fortified village found in southern Morocco. Ksars were typically built by Berber tribes as a way to protect themselves from raiders and other threats. Ait Benhaddou is considered to be one of the best-preserved ksars in Morocco, and it has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Architecture of Ait Benhaddou

As I explored Ait Benhaddou, I was struck by the unique and impressive architecture of this historic site. The earthen clay architecture, defensive walls, and use of local materials all contribute to the beauty and functionality of the structures in Ait Benhaddou.

Earthen Clay Architecture

The earthen clay architecture of aït benhaddou is a striking example of traditional Moroccan building techniques. The use of locally sourced materials, such as clay and straw, allows for buildings that blend seamlessly into the surrounding landscape. The use of these materials also provides natural insulation, keeping the interiors cool in the hot desert climate.

Defensive Wall

The defensive wall surrounding Ait Benhaddou is a testament to the strategic importance of this site. The wall was built to protect the inhabitants from raiding parties and other threats. The wall is made of rammed earth, a technique where layers of earth are compacted to create a solid structure. The wall is punctuated by towers and gates, which allowed for controlled access to the site.

Rammed Earth

Rammed earth is a technique used throughout Ait Benhaddou to create solid, durable structures. The technique involves layering soil, sand, and other materials, and then using a rammer to compress the layers into a solid mass. The resulting walls are strong, fire-resistant, and provide excellent insulation.

Clay Bricks

Clay bricks are another common building material in Ait Benhaddou. The bricks are made by mixing clay and water, and then shaping the mixture into bricks. The bricks are then dried in the sun, providing a durable and long-lasting building material.

Adobe Architecture

Adobe architecture is a traditional building technique used throughout Morocco. Adobe bricks are made by mixing clay, sand, and straw, and then shaping the mixture into bricks. The bricks are then dried in the sun, creating a durable and insulating building material. Many of the buildings in Ait Benhaddou are constructed using adobe bricks.

Berber Architecture

Berber architecture is a style of building that is unique to the Berber people of North Africa. The style is characterized by the use of locally sourced materials, such as earthen clay, stone, and wood. The buildings are often decorated with intricate carvings and geometric patterns. Many of the buildings in Ait Benhaddou exhibit elements of Berber architecture.

FAQS

What is the best time to visit Ait Benhaddou?
The most favorable weather conditions are during the spring (March to May) and fall (September to November). During these times, the temperatures are moderate, and the landscape is particularly beautiful. The spring sees the surrounding area in full bloom, while the fall offers a pleasant climate without the intense heat of the summer.

How do I get to Ait Benhaddou?
Ait Benhaddou is accessible by road. You can hire a taxi, rental car along the tizi n tichka pass, or even take a bus from major Moroccan cities.

Is it safe for solo travelers?
Yes, Ait Benhaddou is generally safe for solo travelers. However, it’s always advisable to take standard precautions. If you are taking a taxi, ensure you have negotiated with the taxi driver in advance.

Are there guided tours available?
Yes, there are several guided tours available that offer insights into the history, culture, and earthen architecture of Ait Benhaddou. Remember there is no entrance fee and the site is reknowned for its architectural authenticity.

What should I wear during my visit?
It’s recommended to wear modest clothing respecting the local culture. Comfortable shoes are a must due to the uneven terrains.

Can I stay overnight in Ait Benhaddou?
Absolutely! There are several accommodations ranging from luxury hotels to traditional riads.