Ouarzazate & Ksar Aït Ben Hadou

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We left at about dawn for the four-hour drive across the Atlas Mountains to Ksar Aït Ben Hadou and Ouarzazate. You’ll soon see why we wanted to visit these places…

Today’s route started just as the drive to the Atlas Mountains had two days previously, across the dry agricultural plain between Marrakech and the mountain foothills. Then we turned further south, skirting the High Atlas Mountains. Many very windy roads squeezed into the mountains.

Clay villages growing out of the desert mountains…

…and river oases.

Our young driver thankfully insisted on a collective selfie. 

Our only other companion on this day trip was Samuel, a young German traveler. He had expected to go on a two-day excursion further into the desert. When he arrived at the collection point for our tour, his tour and a three-day tour, the tour people told him that the two-day tour had been cancelled. He was welcome to join the three-day tour that was just about to depart; no extra charge. With disappointment, he had to decline because he needed to return to Germany the day after tomorrow. He adjusted well to our shorter tour, but, like us, finding a way out of Morocco back to Europe was on his mind. Frequently during the day, he checked an app that showed the departure board in the Marrakech airport. We watched flight after flight get cancelled during the day. Such a curious contrast: Being out in the (relatively) wild desert while staying connected to upheavals in the world via good cell coverage. His exit story ended as well as ours: He found the flight he needed. A couple days later, he sent a message: “I’m in Germany now. Best day ever 🥳”

And then Ksar Aït Ben Hadou!

Ksar Aït Ben Hadou is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From the UNESCO web site:

Located in the foothills on the southern slopes of the High Atlas in the Province of Ouarzazate, the site of Ait-Ben-Haddou is the most famous ksar in the Ounila Valley. The Ksar of Aït-Ben-Haddou is a striking example of southern Moroccan architecture. The ksar is a mainly collective grouping of dwellings. Inside the defensive walls which are reinforced by angle towers and pierced with a baffle gate, houses crowd together – some modest, others resembling small urban castles with their high angle towers and upper sections decorated with motifs in clay brick – but there are also buildings and community areas. It is an extraordinary ensemble of buildings offering a complete panorama of pre-Saharan earthen construction techniques. The oldest constructions do not appear to be earlier than the 17th century, although their structure and technique were propagated from a very early period in the valleys of southern Morocco. The site was also one of the many trading posts on the commercial route linking ancient Sudan to Marrakesh by the Dra Valley and the Tizi-n’Telouet Pass. Architecturally, the living quarters form a compact grouping, closed and suspended. The community areas of the ksar include a mosque, a public square, grain threshing areas outside the ramparts, a fortification and a loft at the top of the village, an caravanserai, two cemeteries (Muslim and Jewish) and the Sanctuary of the Saint Sidi Ali or Amer. The Ksar of Ait- Ben-Haddou is a perfect synthesis of earthen architecture of the pre-Saharan regions of Morocco.

Our driver handed us over to a local guide.

He immediately announced that movie makers from around the world have been coming to Aït Ben Hadou and the region of Ouarzazate for over sixty years. You need a desert setting? Come to Ouarzazate! He happily told us that he had been an extra for Gladiator and Game of Thrones.

We walked across the dry river bed. Our guide explained that the water in the river is briny. This means that the local people cannot grow vegetables for themselves. However, olives, pomegranates and alfalfa are happy here.
While the buildings and walls that we saw were built in the past few centuries, this trading and defensive village has been a refuge since at least the 11th century.

We walked with our guide through the quiet winding paths within the city. Lots of shops of local crafts, without the usual visitors.

From the top of the hill above the Ksar, we looked far to the southeast. We were standing 52 caravan-days from Timbuktu, and 25 from Marrakech. Imagine the trading caravans braving this landscape a thousand years ago.

In the 1940s, about 98 families lived in the Ksar. Today, only five families call this village home. In the 1960s, almost all the families moved across the river to the new town.

Keeping up with maintenance of this adobe village is a big challenge. The construction of mud, dung, straw and water requires continual reworking, especially in the wake of seasonal rain storms.

We turned a corner on the way back down through the Ksar, ducked through a wood doorway, and found ourselves once again amid locally crafted rugs. After a few cups of mint tea, expressions of polite interest, and many apologies for not wanting to buy a rug today, we were were able to continue on our way.

Our next stop was Ouarzazate, the seat of this region of Morocco. To our surprise, we found a fairly large modern town. But it too has its traditional Ksar.

A new guide led us through its quiet streets. He commented on the fact that a few Europeans and Americans had in recent years bought some of the old houses in the Ksar. They have transformed them into boutique hotels and restaurants. If you’d like a quiet remote holiday, this is the place for you. 

In Marrakech and in the mountains, we often saw storks and their nests atop minarets and other towers. Traditionally, storks have summered in Europe, and then migrated far into Africa during the winter. Many of the storks of Western Europe migrate via Spain, Gibralter and Morocco on their way to Mauritania or Senegal. However, in recent years, in response to the changing climate, more and more storks are content to settle in in Morocco, and even Spain and France. Many people in Morocco consider the stork to be sacred; hunting them is forbidden. They do look confident atop their nests, peering down at us humans. (Sources 1 2 3)

As we were finishing our stroll through the Ksar of Ouarzazate, the sky in the west had darkened. We heard distant rumbles of thunder. We hurried up the hill to the waiting van, and fat rain drops started to assault us. Out in the desert during a rare downpour

As we crossed a mountain pass, the rain turned to snow. All in the tourists’ day’s work! 

PS. This was the first time we had seen the alphabet of the Berber language. Fascinating.

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