Citadel in the Sand

I stared dreamily out of the bus window, my head resting against its cool glass. Rugged scenery whizzed passed my eyes in a blur as I drifted in and out of a light nap, existing somewhere in an in-between space, not quite awake, but also not sleeping. It felt like we’d been driving like this for hours, and it slowly occurred to me that it felt like that because we had been driving for hours. Our entire group of twenty some people had met in our hotel lobby early that morning to embark on a journey through the Atlas Mountains to an ancient city on the opposite side of the range. Ostensibly, the drive could take as little as three and a half hours, but the lumbering, fifty passenger bus was not able to go very fast on the tight, winding roads of the mountains.

Glimpses of trickling rivers, hillsides dotted with sheep and goats, and villages nestled into the rocky terrain all flashed before my eyes as the large bus barreled around curves. Each sight disappeared behind us, only to be replaced just as quickly by another picturesque scene. Periodically, our driver would pull off into small parking lots to allow us to stretch our legs and use the bathroom, which offered opportunities to get a better look at the beautiful landscape. Marrakech had already been hot by the time we left that morning, but the temperature was much cooler up at elevation, and a strong breeze raised goosebumps all over my arms as I snapped some pictures of a particularly rugged looking viewpoint.

But for once, we weren’t actually here for the mountain views. This day trip was all about history and culture, so we didn’t linger at the rest stops for long because we still had quite a drive ahead of us before we reached our destination, which was the ancient city of Aït Benhaddou. We got back in the bus and resumed our twisting ride.

Another couple of hours passed before the bus pulled over again and our tour guide announced that we would be making an impromptu visit to Telouet Kasbah. A Kasbah is a fortress, or citadel, and there are many kasbahs tucked away in the Atlas Mountains. Some are inhabited to this day, and some have been abandoned. The remains of Telouet Kasbah stand crumbling on the outskirts of the Berber village of Télouet, which is situated along what was once a major caravan route from the Sahara desert to Marrakech.

We got out of the bus and took a short walk to a crumbling structure made of rammed earth, which stood in front of a backdrop of red mountains that perfectly matched its color.

Continuing downhill, we passed by some shops containing beautiful hand woven rugs, and then found a guarded entryway to a museum. It only cost about twenty dirham per person to enter, and Jared graciously paid for the whole group. Our guide led us into a courtyard that was surrounded by tall, red walls. The architecture here was better preserved, and we entered the largest building, ascending a winding staircase until we emerged in a room that couldn’t have looked any less like the exterior of the building would suggest.

We found ourselves in an ornately decorated palace that was adorned with colorful tile work and intricate carvings that covered the majority of the walls.

Télouet was a beautiful surprise, and we ended the unplanned tour with a trip onto the palace’s roof, where we enjoyed a nice view of a nearby town and the surrounding mountains.

Once we were back on the road, it didn’t take long to finally reach Aït Benhaddou, where our first order of business was to stop for a much appreciated lunch, after which I was so full I thought I probably wouldn’t have to eat for the rest of the day.

We left the restaurant and immediately started walking towards the ancient city that we’d come all this way to visit. The high Atlas Mountains were behind us now, and we were back down at a lower elevation where the atmosphere was much hotter. The higher temperatures seemed appropriately paired with the dusty, desert surroundings. A dry riverbed separated the current-day city from the old kasbah, which has been fortified since the 11th century, and in more recent years has been used as a filming location in many movies, and a handful of television shows, including Game of Thrones.

Although the river was gone for the season, its banks were lined with leafy palms, and we got out first good look at the ancient citadel as we crossed a bridge that led into the old city.

Only a few families still live in the kasbah, but many of the buildings have been converted into souvenir shops where you could easily spend hours shopping and wandering through narrow passages. Of particular interest to me were a handful of artists who painted lovely desert scenes using only saffron, green tea, and indigo. The saffron produced a rich yellow hue, and the indigo a vibrant blue, but the green tea appeared invisible on the page. That is until the paper was exposed to heat, which turned the tea into a dark, warm brown color. One of the artists showed us a demonstration, holding a painting over a heat source. After a few moments the darker shades appeared, completing an image of the iconic buildings of Aït Benhaddou. I recommend watching my vlog, which is linked at the end of this post, to see this in action.

We didn’t have much time for shopping (although I did manage to find an opportunity to buy one of the paintings on our way out of the city) because we had a hill to climb. We ascended up stone stairways through various levels of rosey-red structures until we reached the very top of the hill that the city is built around. From there, we had an incredible view of Aït Benhaddou along with the surrounding desert.

When we’d all regrouped at the bottom of the hill at our agreed upon time, we drove a little ways out of town to get one last look at the kasbah, and this may have been the most spectacular view of all. I could certainly see why this would be such a sought-after filming location.

After Aït Benhaddou, we still had one more stop to make at nearby Ourzazate, where I really had no idea what to expect. Rachel and Jared went to Ourzazate a few years ago, but they didn’t have much to say about it other than that it is home to a large film studio. Indeed, it didn’t look like there would be much to see when we first drove into town. The flat landscape was interrupted by a smattering of buildings, including a couple of upscale hotels that no doubt had played host to many famous actors over the years. When we made it to the town center, we found ourselves surrounded by buildings that were built in the traditional Moroccan style, but clearly much more recently than the ones in Aït Benhaddou. By all metrics it seemed like a run-of-the-mill, if somewhat small, modern city.

We disembarked from the bus one last time, and followed out guide to the entrance of the Cinema Museum. To be perfectly honest, I did not think that I cared about going into the museum, but I followed the group inside where Jared let us all loose to explore on our own for the next hour or so. Almost immediately, my misgivings were proved wrong.

The museum was essentially a maze of chambers that had been constructed out of set pieces from various movies that had been filmed in Ourzazate. Everything was made to look expensive and ornate on camera, but in reality it was all just painted plaster. There were throne rooms, dungeons, courtyards, and much more. All of these chambers were full of props, many of which we were allowed to interact with. We had a great time goofing off by sitting on thrones, and pretending to be locked away in the dungeon, which made our hour pass by very quickly.

Jared had saved a little time for souvenir shopping at a nearby souk, and then we had to start the long journey back to Marrakech. I slept most of the way back, and when we finally arrived, several of us went into the Medina for a late dinner. Afterwards, we walked around taking in the sights. The Medina was even livelier at night than it had been the previous day. Circles of people gathered around several different musicians, and as you walked along you could hear their music changing as you left one circle behind and approached a new one. There were games being played, and glowing orbs launched into the air. Incense burned in market stalls, shrouding the atmosphere in a fog of spicy smelling smoke. It was overwhelming in the best way possible, and I wished that I could spend several more evenings there. But that wasn’t possible because the next day was our flight home. I savored the last hours we had in Morocco, all while hoping to return someday and spend much more time exploring everything it has to offer.

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