“Ait Ben Haddou Kasbah” is an ancient fortified town in Ouarzazate Province, Souss-Massa Region of Morocco. It is located just south of the city of Ouarzazate, between the Draa River and the high Atlas Mountains. The kasbah has been occupied since antiquity by Berbers, Romans, Arabs, and French alike. Throughout its history, it has changed hands many times from different nations and governments.
History of Ait Ben Haddou Kasbah:
For several centuries Ait Ben Haddou was a stronghold for pirates which affected trans-Saharan trade; indeed, in 1471 AD there was a battle in which Mansa Abū Bekr (father or predecessor of Mohammad I) captured Ait Benhaddou from the Wattasid sultan.
It is still inhabited by a small number of people. Since 1975, many of the houses have been abandoned or used only as hotels for tourists visiting these Kasbahs. Most of the population in the village now live elsewhere and the remaining buildings are largely occupied by tenant farmers or caretakers.
Ait Ben Haddou has been designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, along with nearby Telouet and Tamdilt which form part of this ksar group. The entire site was added to the list in 1988, with reference number 1002. Ait Ben Haddou was featured in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977). It can be seen in an establishing shot of the fictional town Mos Eisley.
The films Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and The Man Who Would Be King (1975) also used Ait Ben Haddou as a location, although it is not showcased in the film itself.
Many films have been shot at this location together with television series such as Game of Thrones and Star Wars: A New Hope. Notable examples include:
The kasbah has many rooms which are often rented to tourists, providing an opportunity for visitors to stay overnight within one of its walls. It is possible to climb atop the high building and view the countryside from there. There is a small Berber mosque just outside the entrance that dates back several hundred years.
Nearby is a kasbah occupied by an old woman and her children, and further down the road is the Ait Ben Haddou cemetery. The village itself has two parts. The newest part of the city is called Aït Benhaddou el Haj Moussa, which was founded in 1740, while the older one is called Aït Benhaddou Chorfa, which was built earlier than 1740, as mentioned in Ahmad al-Bakri’s description of this city dating from 1668 AD.
Activities to do in Ait Ben Haddou:
Go on a guided tour of the kasbah:
You can book a tour with one of the locals or go on your own. There are no official tour guides but you can join the small groups of tourists that gather around by asking them for their guide’s name.
Go on a walk to Ait Ben Haddou cemetery:
The cemetery is located outside (a few hundred meters) on the north side of the ksar. It is easy to find as there are signs on all tourist paths that lead to it.
The market inside the kasbah will charge you 50 dirham per person for entry and another 200 dirham per person for access to the pool.
Ait Ben Haddou is full of narrow streets which are not accessible for cars. Walking through its alleys, you will find many locals who are happy to see tourists in their village and they are always ready to have a chat with you. Some kids might even befriend you, follow you around and demand some money.
Crawl through the kasbah’s narrow alleys:
Some of the alleys are just big enough for one person to pass through. This is a great way to explore Ait Ben Haddou without wasting too much time with large crowds of people.
This is not the usual washing service where they just hose down your vehicle. Here, you can watch how it’s done with buckets. They use a mixture of water and detergent to clean it up. This takes about 30 minutes per vehicle so you might want to bring some extra cash for this activity as you might need to pay more than one person’s service fee.
Sunset is a great time for photography and Ait Ben Haddou offers some of the best views in Morocco. The orange light from the sun perfectly contrasts with dark shadows cast by ksar’s walls and that makes for excellent photos.
Have a hot chocolate at The Mochachino Cafe:
The cafe is just across the main entrance to Ait Ben Haddou kasbah, next to where you park your car. You can have a quick snack there or simply order a cup of Moroccan chocolate and enjoy it while looking out over the city from their rooftop. The cafe also offers tourist information.
There is a gift shop (Maison de Tourisme) in the village beside the kasbah that sells local craft items and other gift items. They are expensive though, so if you want to give them as gifts, it might be better to bring something with you from back home.
The village houses a small library which is run by UNESCO. It’s not too much to look at but it offers great views of the city and you can’t leave this kasbah without seeing it.
You can see this process on the edge of the village, next to the car wash area. Some of the locals might even offer you some of their freshly baked bread so it’s a nice gesture to buy something from them.
This museum is located in the village and offers a nice introduction to traditional nomadic life. It costs about 3 dirham to enter and it’s probably not worth the few minutes you’ll spend inside, but sometimes they host cultural events there which make it an interesting place for photos.
At sunset, when most of the tourists have gone home, you can walk over to where the camels are kept and negotiate with their owners about taking a trip on one of them after dark. A small tip will ensure that you get to ride by yourself without sharing your space with too many other people (if there even is any other tourist at this time). The price for this activity varies from 50-100 dirham per person.
Relax at a cafe:
There is a nice little cafe in town with an awesome view of the kasbah and you’ll probably find it if you just follow the main street and keep walking until you see one or two cafes with tables on their terraces. The prices range from 15-25 dirham for most drinks and snacks so it’s definitely worth hanging around here for a while with your friends after spending all day amongst tourists.
The village offers great accommodation options including hotels, hostels, and inns where they only charge 50 dirhams per night (that includes breakfast too). There are also campsites further away from the city center but that will cost you a bit more.
The city walls offer a great view over the village and surrounding areas so it’s worth walking them in the morning before most tourists arrive from Ouarzazate. They also make for an excellent spot to take some long-exposure photos at night when there are no people around and you get to play with different light sources, such as cars passing by on the main road.
Around noon, when most of the bus tours have arrived from Ouarzazate, they hold a couple of matches in front of the kasbah that are very entertaining and worth watching. The locals who participate in these matches even offer to let you hold their wrestling sticks and take photos with them after the match. It’s a great opportunity for good photos as long as there aren’t too many tourists around (watch out for selfie sticks).
The main road from Ouarzazate leads straight into Ait Ben Haddou but it also connects to another city such as Ouarzazate, Errachidia, or Erfoud so if you don’t feel like going back the same way that you came by bus or car, just hop off at one of those cities and find your own way home.
Several times a day, the locals will perform traditional songs and dances for anyone who is interested in watching (you can even join them if you want to). These events are often followed by wrestling matches which are also worth watching.
Sleep under the stars:
If you make friends with some of the locals they might offer to let you sleep on their rooftop terrace or somewhere else on top of their house (it’s not legal but it happens sometimes) so take this opportunity if your accommodation options aren’t very good or if you don’t feel like spending any money during your stay, just be careful not to get caught because that would definitely ruin your visit.
Learn about Berber tradition and pottery making at the Crafts Village :
For those who are interested in learning about the Berber tradition, there is a place called Crafts Village where you can master some skills yourself and take home your own souvenirs. They offer pottery classes for 25 dirham per hour or 10 dirham per clay pot which you make on your own. You can also purchase various trinkets made out of copper, silver, leather, etc. at fairly low prices here.
The surrounding area offers many opportunities to explore nearby caves but if you’re not into that kind of stuff then just stay in Ait Ben Haddou because this city itself has enough to offer without having to go off exploring somewhere else during your visit.
Take a hike up to Aït Benhaddou Kasbah hill:
Another great way to experience the city is by hiking up the hill behind or alongside the kasbah (it’s about a 30-minute hike) where you can get some spectacular views over the entire village for only 10 dirhams. Just make sure that you’re well equipped with sunscreen, sunglasses, and water if you choose this option because it gets very hot out in the desert. There are also ice cold fountains along the way which makes it all that much more worth it.
Visit nomad families:
If you want to have an authentic Berber oasis experience then visit one of the nearby nomad families for lunch or dinner at one of their homes where they will offer to let you stay over for the night for about 15 dirhams. It’s a great way to truly experience how the locals live and learn some interesting stories while you’re at it.
The omnipresent souvenir shops are always looking to boost their sales so they offer plenty of discounts if you go directly to them instead of buying from other people on the street who might be selling things at inflated prices because they think that tourists will fall for it. Just make sure that you really like whatever item(s) you decide to buy before shelling out any money because once you leave this place, there are no guarantees that someone else won’t have purchased an item similar to yours which makes it impossible to return your purchase in case something goes wrong with it.
Ait Ben Haddou is definitely worth visiting because it offers some interesting things to do and see which you can’t find anywhere else. To make the most out of your time, make sure that you bring all of the necessary equipment required for activities or any other type of adventure that you want to go on.
Also, try to book your tickets in advance (several weeks before) because this place tends to get very crowded during the tourist season (November until April). Overall, Ait Ben Haddou is a great place to visit especially if you are traveling with kids because they are guaranteed to have an enjoyable experience as well. And don’t forget to try out the local food too.
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