On day 4 of our Moroccan road trip, we left the Sahara and made our way to the city of Ait Ben Haddou. This portion of the road trip we will call “Rock the Kasbah” or Famous Movie Sets of Morocco.

What is a Kasbah?

Ait Ben Haddou is the location of the largest Kasbah in Morroco. Kasbah means fortress and are for that purpose are typically built on high elevation to allow monitoring of invaders. They also function a bit like towns—they are larger than villages but still smaller than cities—and each one represented a mixture of community, culture, religion, and wealth. We saw the red mud walls of many kasbahs dotting the roads of Morrocco as we drove from the Sahara. Built around the 17th century and a former trading post along the ancient north African trade routes, Ait Ben Haddou was by the far the largest we had seen along the road. We based ourself here for the night as a pit stop to the Atlas Mountains.

Rock the Kasbah

On one of our first nights in Morocco we kicked off the trip with a dance party to the song “Rock the Kasbah.” As we approached our first Kasbah visit we decided to look up the actual lyrics (we were each butchering in our own way- in the same way that some people think “Tiny Dancer” is “Tony Danza”).

We were surprise to learn the interesting historical context of the song as well, here it is from Wikipedia:

The song gives a fabulist account of a ban on Western rock music by an Arab king.The lyrics describe the King’s efforts to stop his population from listening to this music, such as ordering his military’s jet fighters to bomb any people in violation of the ban. The pilots ignore the orders, and instead play rock music on their cockpit radios. The population then proceed to “rock the casbah” by dancing to the music. This scenario was inspired by the ban on Western music in Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Now we have a whole new appreciation when we sing:

Sharif don’t like it

Rockin’ the Casbah

Rock the Casbah

Sharif don’t like it

Rockin’ the Casbah

Ourzate: Famous Hollywood Sets of Morocco

Enroute to Ait Ben Haddou we passed a town called Ourzate, which is known as the Hollywood of Morocco. Known as the “door of the desert,” Ouarzazate is perched on the edge of the Sahara Desert just south of the High Atlas Mountains. Atlas Studio, named after the mountains, is located just outside of town, and is the home of the worlds largest outdoor studio. The landscape leading up to Ourzate is an interchange of the red rock canyons of southern Utah, wide open desert space, and the sporadic lush green of an oasis popping up. This backdrop has served as a shooting location for Alexander the Great, Black Hawk Down, Kingdom of Heaven, Babel, The Mummy, Star Wars, The Living Daylights, and many others, including the epic Gladiator. 

Over the years large scale sets have been built in the desert behind Atlas studio and then left in disrepair. We did not opt for a studio tour, but did get out at the entrance of Atlas studio to snap a photo of the city of Jerusalem built for the Kingdom of Heaven set. We had read that it’s possible to walk through the city during a studio tour.

Where to Stay in Ait Ben Haddou

Since it was late in the day we opted instead to continue our way to Ait Ben Haddou, which is about a half hour drive from Ourzate. Upon arrival the town at the base of the Kasbah has a variety of options for places to stay at eat. Most travel here with s tour group or by bus on a day trip from Marrakech. Since we had our own car we opted for an off the beaten track option Bed and Breakfast called Kasbah du Pientre run by the Bendra brothers. Azdine is a UNESCO sponsored artist and the home is decorated with his beautiful artwork in a quiet village ten minutes drive outside the tourist strip. We saw the sunset from our balcony, Helen and David got massages in the hammam on site and the brothers cooked a lovely tangine dinner for us. We can not recommend this place enough!  

Home of Game of Thrones and Gladiator

The next morning Helen set off on a horse trek- the brothers can help organize all sorts of day tours.  Her guide had a raised horses for the many movie productions that take place in the area. The horse that Helen rode specialized in galloping across a field and then feigning death. 

David, Jesse and I set off to see Ait Ben Haddou. The movie trivia for this UNESCO World Heritage site is that it’s the backdrop of the city behind the Coliseum in Gladiator. It is also the city Yunkai for all the Game of Thrones fans. 

We left early to make the climb to the citadel before the heat set in. We crossed a dry river bed to reach the entrance and made our up to the fortress. We learned first hand how effective the fortress was as we had difficulty making or way in. We tried to enter through a large main gate but that only led to a garden. We learned later from Helen that the gate was not part of the original structure but was built for the Laurence of Arabia movie set – no wonder it led to nowhere!  

There are still a few families that live inside and we actually spotted one hotel within the Kasbah walls. We climbed to the top of one of the first buildings (abandoned but in good condition) and got an amazing view of the city up ahead.

From there we got slightly lost navigating the alleyways to find the stairs up to the Fortress- we knew we were on the right track when we spotted the line of tourists. 

The view from the top was stunning. The other tourists were busy taking photos from on top the tower but we spotted a corner that provided an amazing view of the landscape and city below. 

Overall it was a great morning excursion exploring an ancient fortress!