As we emerged from the Atlas Mountains and approached the ancient kasbahs of Aït Benhaddou, we had the immediate sensation of stepping into a scene from a movie. Morocco’s ancient fortified city once formed the gateway to the Sahara, an important stop along the caravan route between the desert and Marrakesh. In more recent times the fortification and its surrounds have provided the backdrop for countless films such as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Gladiator.
We were greeted at the gates to the Ksar (a fortified collection of kasbahs) by a young man dressed in traditional Berber clothing. Our guide -one of the city’s few remaining residents – led us upward through the vast labyrinth of passageways and stairwells to the top of the city and out to a spectacular view of the surrounding valley. Along the way, we were kindly invited into his own household, where he showed us pictures of himself posing with Russell Crowe and Brad Pitt. I thought it must be strange having your home as something of a living museum come film set; one that over the years the area has clearly seen its share of celebrities. Recently, he told us, he’d been an extra on Game of Thrones. Viewers will recognize the city forms part of the location for the Yunkai, the city of slaves.
All the evidence of Hollywood glamour was something of a contrast to the kasbahs themselves, which are now largely deserted. Apparently, only a small handful of Berber families still live in the Aït Benhaddou, so the city remains largely fixed in the past. A recently installed refrigerator in our host’s house one of the few apparent concessions to modernity.
The drive through the Atlas Mountains was in itself beautiful. Along the course driving a couple hundred miles, we passed through a range of contrasting geographic regions, from lush tropical oasis to iron-rich arid desserts which could easily pass for Martian landscapes.
During a stop to stretch our legs we were greeted by one of the local Berber farmers, emerging from the hills, to sell me a painted amethyst stone. I bought one from him – at a price well above the odds according to our guide – but well worth the cost of a few photos.