From Sahara to Marrakesh, with a stop in Ait Benhaddou – Morocco

17 Apr

A long day from M’Hammid to Marrakesh, with a stop in Ksar Ait Benhaddou. A private taxi took us from M’Hammid to Ammzerou (near Zagora), where I had left my rented car. From there we headed toward Ait Benhaddou, where we stopped for a couple of hours. In the evening, we crossed the High Atlas Mountains via the Tizi N’Tikka Pass. We arrived at Naima’s home in Marrakesh around midnight.

Meriem had had an early morning flight from Zagora to Casablanca. When I woke up, Mohammed talked with a private taxi to take us along the Draa Valley: from M’Hammid (where the camel trek through the Sahara Desert ended) to Zagora (where the trek had started a few days before). The Draa Valley appeared very dry on this section. Low-altitude reddish mountains and the typical mud-brick kasbahs dominated the valley. We stopped in the little town of Tamegrouteknown for its desert pottery of colored plates and tajine cookware. After that, we went directly to the campsite Oasis les Palmier in Ammzerou, where I had parked my rented car for four days during our trek in the Sahara Desert.

The road to Ait Benhaddou

The road to Ait Benhaddou

The road from Zagora to Ksar Ait Benhaddou

The endless road along the Draa Valley awaited us from Zagora to Ouarzazate (the same road I drove a week before when I came from the Dades Gorges). Palm-tree oases abundantly grew along the 200-km Draa Valley. Whereas ksars with mud-brick houses appeared here and there at the boundary between vegetation and the rocky desert (hammada). When we reached the Oued Ounilla (a valley with little vegetation), the iconic ksar Ait Benhaddou appeared at the horizon.

Ait Benhaddou - location on the Ounilla Valley

Ait Benhaddou – location on the Ounilla Valley

We parked in Issiwid (a village built along the same river, just opposite to Ait Benhaddou). Then we quickly ate sheep skewers with vegetables-rice and a tajine at a Moroccan riad. After lunch, we wandered the traditional streets with earth houses. Piles of rubbish, hay, and mud-brick dwellings adorned with geometric Berber decorations flanked the dusty streets. Colorful stalls selling Berber shawls, jewels, and knives, as well as djellabas and masks flanked the narrow alleys. From Issiwid we crossed the Ounilla River and arrived in the lower part of ksar Ait Benhaddou.

Ait Benhaddou - streets with shops

Ait Benhaddou – streets with shops

Ksar Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou was an important outpost on the caravan route that connected former Sudan with the imperial cities of Morrocco. Listed as a UNESCO world heritage site, the ksar was a typical example of a compact fortified habitat of the pre-Saharan regions in southern Morocco. The settlement featured simple mud-brick buildings built in the 17th-18th centuries. The reddish dwellings crowded at the foot of a rocky slope. While a collective granary (igrhem n’iqadarne) surrounded by a fortification wall dominated the settlement from the hilltop.

Ait Benhaddou - the collective granary

Ait Benhaddou – the collective granary

We explored the narrow, winding streets of the ksar, then passed the main mosque. After that, we climbed to the fortification from the top of the village. The abrupt streets passed through vaulted corridors built at the ground floor of some dwellings. Not many people lived in the village and only few buildings seemed entirely restored. Most of them collapsed or seemed abandoned while their inner courtyards looked more like a residual space. But on the walls of some houses, signs with the inscription ‘Gladiator pointed toward the place where scenes from the famous movie had been cast.

Ait Benhaddou - view from the hilltop

Ait Benhaddou – view from the hilltop

Noble families built approximately eight kasbahs in the ksar’s neighborhood near the river. Their volumes featured defensive corner towers with richly decorated cornice. The imposing kasbahs could be easily distinguished with their mighty walls on the backdrop of the built dwellings mass. We entered Kasbah Ait Ougrem – a large fortified mud-brick fortress, developed on several levels, around an inner courtyard and four defense corner towers. The kasbah had minimal spaces with little basic furniture. At the ground floor, it featured a kitchen with an earth oven built directly on the ground. Next to the kitchen, it had a meeting area with colored bedspreads and Berber carpets. In the kasbah’s courtyard, a donkey reminded of the traditional ‘Berber car’ (the most encountered mean of locomotion in Morocco).

Ait Benhaddou - Kasbah Ait Ougrem

Ait Benhaddou – Kasbah Ait Ougrem

The road from Ait Benhaddou to Marrakesh

We left Ait Benhaddou late in the afternoon (around 6 p.m). When I called her, Naima assured me that I could arrive at her house in Marrakesh even late at night. I bought a Coca Cola, then set off to Marrakesh. During the whole road trip, Mohammed was my co-driver and helped me whenever needed. The winding road first climbed toward the High Atlas Mountains, then snaked down to Marrakesh. We reached the Tizi N’Tikka mountain pass right before dusk. After we passed it, the sun disappeared behind the serrated ridges of the mountains.

The road from Ait Benhaddou to Tizi n'Tikka Pass

The road from Ait Benhaddou to Tizi n’Tikka Pass

The Tizi N’Tikka pass (2260m of altitude) marked the highest spot where cars could cross the High Atlas Mountains. The current road connected Marrakesh to the oases in southern Morocco. It actually bypassed the old caravan route that once connected the imperial cities with the Draa Valley. I drove the only 200 kilometers from Ait Benhaddou to Marrakesh slower than I had expected. The traffic conditions featured a dreadful combination of pitch-darkness, a drizzle, and the dazzling headlights of the cars coming from the opposite direction. Mohammed soon became a specialist in turning on and off the high beams. Finally, at midnight, I enjoyed driving on the streets of Marrakesh when the traffic had already reduced to the minimum and was less terrifying.

From Erg Chigaga to Marrakesh with a stop in Ait Benhaddou is my diary about the road from Zagora to Marrakesh – with a stop in Ait Benhaddou. My previous memoir about the camel trek in the desert can be found in the following travel journal – Camel Desert Trek from Zagora to M’Hamid. And here are all my Travel Diaries from Morocco (x …..).

Have you been to Morocco or plan to go there? Leave a comment below this post and tell me what you liked about Morocco or what you’re interested to see there.

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18 Responses to “From Sahara to Marrakesh, with a stop in Ait Benhaddou – Morocco”

  1. Elizabeth June 30, 2019 at 8:00 am #

    I usually only hear about the bigger cities in Morocco. It was interesting to read about your journey visiting some smaller villages. Those driving conditions before you got back to Marrakesh sound rough!

    • Iuliana June 30, 2019 at 8:59 am #

      Well, we left Ait Benhaddou late in the afternoon so at night it wasn’t so pleasant to drive.

  2. Lisa June 30, 2019 at 1:50 pm #

    Reading this brought back great memories for me of Morocco and of Ait Benhaddou. You’re so right about the roads, they seemed to be endless! Still, it’s a wonderful place to explore and a must-see for anyone planning on visiting the country soon.

    • Iuliana June 30, 2019 at 2:50 pm #

      All of the mudbrick ksars of Morocco are so beautiful. Ait Benhaddou is only one of them.

  3. Namita Kulkarni June 30, 2019 at 9:32 pm #

    Morocco I’ve been feeling called to for a while now and this post really fuels my desire to experience it. Love that pic of the kitchen in the kasbah, so earthy and atmospheric. Will hopefully manage to visit it when I’m there. Thank you for sharing!

  4. Nicole July 1, 2019 at 2:52 am #

    Wow! I had never heard of the places that you went to. I love travelling off the beaten path and this looks like the perfect way to spend my time exploring Morocco. I love that you found and explored the World Unesco Site in such an isolated part of the world.

    • Iuliana July 1, 2019 at 10:14 am #

      Well, Ait Benhaddou is not really of the beaten path. It is pretty touristy for Morocco (all tour agencies include it in their program). However, it is still very well preserved and doesn’t have tourist crowds (at least when I was there).

  5. Shreya Saha July 6, 2019 at 9:52 am #

    Marakkesh is definitely on my list, but I wasn’t aware of Ksar Ait Benhaddou. It looks so awesome. I loved the history and the journey through the mountain pass. Thanks for bringing up these new places.

  6. Sara July 18, 2019 at 3:33 am #

    I’ve wanted to visit Morocco for so long – especially Casablanca. This post really inspires my wanderlust to plan a trip to Morocco! Do you suggest a minimum amount of time to really see the highlights?

    • Iuliana July 18, 2019 at 11:06 am #

      Well, I stayed for 6 weeks and I still didn’t have enough time to see everything I wanted. Whereas for highlights, you can rush from one place to another within a week … but you will stay more on the road as Morocco is a big country.

  7. Eric Gamble July 18, 2019 at 9:04 pm #

    You stinker! haha, just kidding of course, I am just very jealous. Darcee & I spent a month roaming around Morocco but spent a wee bit too much time in the east. So we made it as far as the Agafay Dessert but just ran out of time and had to fly out of Marrakesh before heading down to the south west to explore the Sarah, Ait Benhaddou, & Tarfaya for some Kiteboarding! I love all the pics of the 4 kasbahs you took in or around Ait Benhaddou. Obviously we would get our movie geek on there but I would just love to learn more about that whole desert culture. So beautiful there!

    • Iuliana July 19, 2019 at 7:46 am #

      I loved that part of the desert too. It is so so different than everything I know.

  8. Medha July 19, 2019 at 8:28 pm #

    Issiwid village along the river looks pretty cool! Not sure I love the views of the Draa Valley much, though I have to say, it is quite unique. I would like to visit the ksar as well, given that it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

    • Iuliana July 19, 2019 at 8:57 pm #

      I usually go to whatever is Unesco under the sun – they are unique and valuable for good reason.

  9. Lisa July 19, 2019 at 9:27 pm #

    This brings back great memories of our time in Morocco. I think we also passed the highest spot by car in the Atlas Mountains. Your photos capture the trip well!

    • Iuliana July 19, 2019 at 9:35 pm #

      Except the highest spot – Tizzi Pass, because it was dark.

  10. Brian July 20, 2019 at 8:47 pm #

    How did you like driving in Morocco? Haven’t driven much outside of North America. Nor have I been to Morocco.

    • Iuliana July 20, 2019 at 8:54 pm #

      Except Casablanca and Marrakesh where traffic is terrible at the rush hours, the rest of Morocco was ok – lots of donkeys though …

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