The Ancient, Fortified Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou Awaits the Return of Desert Traders
UNESCO World Heritage sites are not only renowned for their cultural and natural importance, but are often used in the film industry. Who can forget the scene at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade , when the heroes leave the Al Khazneh, a World Heritage site in Petra, Jordan, and gallop off into the sunset? Perhaps less dramatic, but equally impressive are the scenes shot at the Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou, located in the North African country of Morocco. Scenes from numerous films have been shot at the Ksar of Ain-Ben-Haddou, including Oliver Stone’s 2004 film, Alexander (specifically used as the back plate of the Hindu Kush), Stephen Sommer’s The Mummy (1999) and John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King (1975).
The Ksar of Ain-Ben-Haddou is a fortified city (the word ‘ksar’ probably being derived from the Latin castrum) made up of six kasbahs (the family unit of the southern Moroccan wealthy classes) and almost 50 smaller ksour. The Ksar is located in the Ouarzazate province along the old caravan trade route between Marrakech and the Sahara. The Ksar consists of a group of buildings built entirely of local organic material, and covered by a rich red mud plaster. These buildings, which were mostly houses, were surrounded by high walls. The defensive function of the walls was reinforced by the construction of corner towers. Apart from the domestic buildings, there were also public structures, including a mosque, a caravanserai, a sanctuary of a local saint, and a public square. Thus, the collection of buildings in the Ksar is a unique showcase of the various pre-Saharan earthen construction techniques. According to local belief, the Ksar was founded in 757 A.D. by Ben-Haddou, whose tomb is said to lie somewhere behind the city. None of the structures in the Ksar, however, date to earlier than 17 th century A.D. Nevertheless, the building techniques employed in their construction can be traced to a very early period in the valleys of southern Morocco.
The Ksar and other fortified towns in the area may owe their existence to the presence of the Trans-Saharan Trade Route. This route connected the North African coast, Europe, and the Levant to sub-Saharan Africa. Trade goods, including gold, salt, and African slaves passed through these routes beginning in ancient times, and reaching a peak between the 8 th century A.D. and the late 16 th century A.D. With such traffic along the trade route, it would be reasonable for locals to take advantage of the situation and earn a living by providing shelter, food and drink to the travelling merchants. The presence of such valuable trade goods in their towns, however, would have attracted bandits or raiding nomads. Therefore, defensive walls were necessary to ensure the safety of both the inhabitants of the city and their wealthy customers.
Bird’s eye view of the Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou. Wikipedia, CC
With the decline of the Trans-Saharan trade by the 16 th century, fortified cities began to lose their importance. This resulted in the slow decay of many other fortified cities in the area. Curiously, the buildings of the Ksar seem to belong to the period in which the Trans-Saharan trade was in decline. Perhaps the Ksar was not only important as a stop on the Trans-Saharan Trade Route, but also as a center of local power, hence its relatively slower decline.
Young girl working on a loom in Ait-Ben-Haddou (Aït Benhaddou) May 2008. Wikipedia, CC
Today the Ksar stands abandoned, as its inhabitants have moved to the modern village on the opposite side of the river, which is closer to the modern road. It has been claimed, however, that there are still eight families living within the Ksar. This may be a positive sign, as the absence of inhabitants has resulted in the decay of the buildings. In addition, there is currently a restoration program aimed at preventing further erosion of the Kasr, with the ultimate goal being the repopulation of the city. Perhaps the Kasr will one day be teeming with life again, rather than just existing as a pretty relic of a bygone age.
Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou in the evening light. Wikipedia, CC
Featured image: The ancient fortified Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou. Wikimedia, CC
Morocco.com, 2014. Ksar of Ait Ben-Haddou - UNESCO World Heritage Site. [Online]
Available at: http://www.morocco.com/heritage-sites/ait-ben-haddou/
UNESCO, 2014. Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou. [Online]
Available at: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/444
www.africanworldheritagesites.org, 2011. Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou - Morocco. [Online]
Available at: http://www.africanworldheritagesites.org/cultural-places/trans-sahara-trading-routes/ksar-of-ait-ben-haddou.html
www.travel-exploration.com, 2014. Benhaddou Kasbah, Ouarzazate. [Online]
Available at: http://www.travel-exploration.com/subpage.cfm/Ait_Benhaddou