I like dramatic arid landscapes, I like sprawling fortresses built atop rocky knolls, I like decaying mud brick cities, and I like Game of Thrones; no wonder then that I took such a liking to Aït Benhaddou in the deserts of Morocco.
Aït Benhaddou is a ksar: an Arabic word meaning castle or palace. But a ksar is not a castle or palace in the traditional sense, and as such it is more commonly described as a fortified village.
Aït Benhaddou is situated in the foothills of the High Atlas mountains in Ouarzazate Province in south-central Morocco, on an ancient trade route that ran from Sudan to Marrakech.
Behind the fortified walls and towers of the ksar lies a tightly-packed complex of merchant’s residences; there’s also a mosque, a caravanserai (accommodation for travelling merchants and stables for their beasts of burden), and a cemetery.
At the top of the rocky knoll is an inner fortress – where the residences could retreat to should the outer city fall to attackers. In the middle of the inner fortress is the town’s granary.
The oldest structures within the clay-brick city of Aït Benhaddou date to the 17th Century, but the architecture of the city speaks of an older era; namely: the 11th Century CE, when the settlement functioned as a thriving caravanserai during the reign of the mighty Almoravid dynasty.
Aït Benhaddou’s days as a caravanserai are long gone. Now the city keeps itself afloat through tourism (the city was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 1987).
From time to time the ksar also offers its services as a backdrop in blockbuster movies – often standing in for Jerusalem or other desert-bound cities of antiquity.
Its movie career started with a cameo in Laurence of Arabia in 1962. Then there were larger parts in Sodom and Gomorrah (1963), Oedipus Rex (1967), and Jesus of Nazareth (1975).
Other movies the ksar has starred in over the years include: Time Bandits (1981), Marco Polo (1982), the Jewel of the Nile starring Michael Douglas (1987), the Last Temptation of Christ by Martin Scorsese (1988), Kundun, which is supposed to be set in Tibet (1997), the Mummy starring Brendan Fraser (1999), Gladiator starring Russell Crowe (2000), Alexander starring Colin Farrell (2004), Kingdom of Heaven starring Orlando Bloom (2005), Prince of Persia starring Jake Gyllenhal (2010) and many more.
And, most exciting of all, Aït Benhaddou was transformed – via CGI – into the slaving city of Yunkai, one of the three great Ghiscari city-states of Slaver’s Bay, in the TV adaptation of Game of Thrones.
Daenerys Targaryen and her army of Unsullied liberated the slaves of Yunkai from their masters. When the fighting was over the Mother of Dragons and her advisers stood outside the city gates (you can see the city gates in the picture above).
‘People learn to love their chains’, Daenerys whispers nervously, before swarms of freed slaves flood out of the city to thank her for their freedom.
Practical information and more on Aït Benhaddou:
Aït Benhaddou is 32 km from the city of Ourzazate, and 185 km from Marrakesh (about a 4 hour drive). There are no public transport options so you’ll need to join a tour or hire a car and drive yourself. More transport info here.