Africa

The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ait Benhaddou, Morrocco

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Till I visited Morocco, I had no idea that ‘The Man Who Would Be King’ (1975), ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ (1977), ‘Time Bandits’ (1981), ‘Marco Polo’ (1982), ‘The Jewel of the Nile’ (1985), ‘The Living Daylights’ (1987), ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ (1988), ‘Kundun’ (1997), ‘The Mummy’ (1999), ‘Gladiator’ (2000), ‘Alexander’ (2004), ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ (2005), ‘Babel’ (2006) and ‘Prince of Persia’ (2010) had something in common. All these movies (rather parts thereof) were shot in location, at the UNESCO world heritage site of Ait Benhaddou.

Generally, one would visit Ait Benhaddou either as a day trip from Marrakesh or briefly on the way to the Moroccan desert, from Marrakesh. However, we came from the reverse direction because we were approaching Marrakesh from the south-east, i.e. from the desert of Erg Cheebi, via the Dades and Todra valleys and the Palm Oasis of Skoura. And because I wanted to photograph this site at different times of the day and from different locations, including from within, we halted for a night at a hotel, around 5 kms from Ait Benhaddou. This wasn’t a place that I would touch and go. It deserved more than that.

Built on a rocky hill by the shallow Ounila River, the Ait Benhaddou site is located in an erstwhile strategic position – with the southern slopes of the High Atlas Mountains on one side and the stony, desolate desert on the other. Situated along a historical caravan route between the Sahara (ancient Sudan) and Marrakesh, Ait Benhaddou is referred to as a ‘Ksar’, or fortified settlement.

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While the original site built by the Almoravid rulers dates back to the 11th century CE (Common Era), the oldest extant buildings today are from the 17th century. The houses, being made of clay, have been rebuilt again and again, over the centuries.

Built entirely of compacted earthen clay, wood and straw, a ‘Ksar’ is pre-saharan settlement, with houses crowded together, enclosed within a defensive high wall with corner towers. A ‘Ksar’ may include one or more ‘Kasbahs’ (‘Tighremt’ in the Berber language) belonging to the wealthy merchant or ruling class families.

‘Kasbahs’ are fortified large houses, again built entirely of clay, wood and straw. The three to four storied ‘Kasbahs’ are often distinguished by their high angle towers, with the upper sections beautifully decorated with geometric motifs in sun-dried clay bricks. In terms of its layout, a ‘Kasbah’ is built around a central courtyard along four fortified wings, with four tall angle towers in the four corners. The ground floor is generally used as a cattle shed and to store fodder and firewood. The upper floors have the living quarters.

The Ait Benhaddou site, which is a quintessential example of southern Moroccan architecture, is made of a cluster of six ‘Kasbahs’ and a sprawling ‘Ksar’, the latter including the ‘Mella’, or the Jewish quarters. Needless to say, the Jews left many years back.

Because of the extraordinary cluster of earthen buildings along with as many as six restored ‘Kasbahs’, the Ait Benhaddou site offers a complete panorama of pre-Saharan earthen architecture, construction technique and decorative style. The ‘Kasbahs’, along with its decorative motifs have been restored and are fairly well maintained, mainly because this site has been extensively used as a location for shooting period films and documentaries and also for the fact that it is a UNESCO world heritage site requiring preservation and maintenance.

In addition to the buildings, there are community areas that include a mosque, a public square, a caravanserai (place for caravans gather and rest), two cemeteries (Muslim and Jewish), a shrine for a local saint and the system of fortification/ramparts. There are also areas for grain threshing, outside the ramparts.

Not satisfied with viewing this fascinating site from outside, we went inside the ‘Ksar’ to see how it looked from within. To our surprise, we found it to be largely abandoned, like a ghost town or a deserted movie set. We learnt that almost all residents have since long abandoned the place and moved to a newer settlement nearby. The old earthen buildings are extremely vulnerable and are very difficult to maintain. Moreover, lifestyles have changed over the years, rendering this site largely unsuitable for modern day living. Just four families remain within this vast site, earning their meager livelihood from tourism.

Once inside the boundary walls of the ‘Ksar’, we steadily climbed along the incline of the hill, walking through narrow lanes, flights of stone steps, dark passages and corridors, negotiating our path through old and crumbling, albeit magnificent earthen buildings. We were left totally spell bound by this place, by the exquisite beauty and grandeur of these magnificent sun-dried earthen buildings.

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At the upper edge of the ‘Ksar’, Nina decided to take it easy. Leaving her to rest for a while, Minnie (ever ready for an adventure) and I climbed up further to the ruined ‘Agadir’ (defensive loft linked to the fortification system), at the highest point on the hill. From there, we got spectacular views of the lush green palmarie on one side and the desolate, unforgiving stony desert (the ‘Hammada’) on the other. Also, at a distance, we could see the lofty High Atlas Mountains.

In the setting sun of the late afternoon, the expansive landscape presented a stunning study in hues of brown, ochre, golden yellow, pink, red and purple. The dynamic interplay of colors appears because of the special mineral content of the soil and the reflection of changing sunlight.

At the top, we were almost blown off our feet because of strong winds blowing down from the Atlas Mountains. As late afternoon passed into the evening and the wind got colder and stronger, Minnie and I made our retreat from the top. By then, the earthen buildings of the ‘Ksar’ had turned from golden yellow to deep pink and purple, taking on colors from the setting sun.

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We joined Nina on our way down and then rested for a while on a tiny, projecting roof-top tea stall, looking over vast expanses of spectacular vistas. In silence, occasionally interrupted by the hollering winds, we had some refreshing mint tea, recharging our tired limbs.

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I have photographed this outstanding location from as many as eight different vantage points and during different times of the day. I hope you will enjoy this rather big album, my labor of love, as much as I have enjoyed taking the photographs.

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On our way towards Marrakesh, we passed by another Kasbah, whose dilapidated condition spoke of its bygone glory. We did not get inside this Kasbah and I am enclosing a few photos I took of this place from far.
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