The Hollywood of Morocco: Ouarzazate

Ait Ben Haddou is the site of numerous films, making it part of the Hollywood of Morocco.

Ait Ben Haddou is the site of numerous films, making it part of the Hollywood of Morocco.

Touring Morocco isn’t just seeing mosques in the cities and sand dunes in the Sahara.  A day spent in Ouarzazate, the gateway to the desert to the east of Marrakech, will have you walking where Lawrence of Arabia was filmed and wondering what else you’ve seen that was probably made in Morocco.  Even our hotel, Ksar Ighnda, offered Hollywood luxury at the edge of the desert.

Looking like a movie set on its own, our hotel Ksar Ighnda was an oasis in the Moroccan desert.

Looking like a movie set on its own, our hotel Ksar Ighnda was an oasis in the Moroccan desert.

For a first glimpse into movie making in Morocco, stop at the ksar (series of fortresses) of Ait Ben Haddou, not just for its role in cinema production but also to examine the unique mudbrick construction of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The mudbrick facade of Ait Ben Haddou has been used as a town backdrop for numerous movies.

The mudbrick facade of Ait Ben Haddou has been used as a town backdrop for numerous movies.

With the High Atlas Mountains in the background, this series of six kasbahs joined into one city-like structure has been standing since the 1600s as home to hundreds of residents and temporary lodging for travelers along the caravan road.

Although Ait Ben Haddou is crumbling now, its construction of mud, straw, and sticks has served it well through the ages.  And wandering its rooms and hallways is nothing less than a step back in time.

Today, Ait Ben Haddou is known as a set where movies like The Mummy, Prince of Persia, and Kingdom of Heaven have been filmed.

For the movie Gladiator, townspeople stood on multiple levels to cheer on Russell Crowe in the arena built into the sand below.

At the base of the hill, a round depression is all that's left of the arena used in Gladiator. Townspeople stood on the various levels of Ait Ben Haddou looking down at the action.

At the base of the hill, a round depression is all that’s left of the arena used in Gladiator. Townspeople stood on the various levels of Ait Ben Haddou looking down at the action.

Sometimes new structures are built at Ait Ben Haddou to blend in with the old — like this stately entryway seen in Jewel of the Nile. (True movie making artIt’s hard to distinguish what’s new from what’s not.)

Gateway to the city in Jewel of the Nile

Gateway to the city in Jewel of the Nile

But no trip to Ouarzazate would be complete without a trip to Atlas Film Studios.  Tour guides reveal movie magic like how “weighty” boulders are just made of Styrofoam, and town markets are mere walls held up by scaffolding. You’re free to roam and experience being a movie star or an extra on the set.  You can even pretend you’re witnessing daily life in Biblical times.

For King Tut, Cleopatra, and Exodus, the Atlas team created grandiose scenes worthy of the grandeur of wealth and power.

Movie set for Cleopatra at Atlas Film Studio, Ouarzazate.

Movie set for Cleopatra at Atlas Film Studio, Ouarzazate.

And, of course, some tourists wouldn’t be able to resist the opportunity to ride in a chariot or stand where Cleopatra waved to her subjects.

Feeling queenly in a chariot fit for Cleopatra!

Feeling queenly in a chariot fit for Cleopatra!

Cleopatra greets her subjects: Atlas Film Studio, Ouarzazate

Cleopatra (well, a wannabe) greets her subjects: Atlas Film Studio, Ouarzazate

We weren’t allowed to walk into the wide open spaces to view a set used in Game of Thrones, but we stopped to take a picture – just to say we’d been there, of course.

Game of Thrones movie set, Atlas Film Studio

Game of Thrones movie set, Atlas Film Studio

After a day touring movie sets, you can dine where producers, directors and actors have all been — in Hotel le Berbere Palace.  According to our waiter, producers of each major film have been asked to leave something from their movie — a prop, for example —  for tourists to admire.  And the grounds are littered with movie memorabilia like Ben Hur’s famous chariot.

Chariot used in Ben Hur on display at Hotel Le Berbere Palace

Chariot used in Ben Hur on display at Hotel Le Berbere Palace

If you’ve seen movies with a desert-like setting in a foreign place, you may have seen Ouarzazate from the comfort of your movie theater seat and not even knownBut if you’re visiting Morocco, it’s a place you’ll want to see for yourself.

For more posts from this fascinating county, check out Marvelous Morocco.

 

About Oh, the Places We See

Met at University of Tennessee, been married for 47 years, and still passionate about travel whether we're volunteering with Habitat Global Village, combining work at Discovery with pleasure, or just seeing the world. Hope you'll join us as we try to see it all while we can!
This entry was posted in Marvelous Morocco, Morocco, Travel and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to The Hollywood of Morocco: Ouarzazate

  1. roninjax says:

    Excellent post of information and images. The images seem to take one back in time. 🙂

  2. Valentina says:

    I went to Morocco a few years ago, I loved it. Morocco is slowly becoming a very modern nation with new manufactures in fashion industries, ecology technology and so much more. Great photos in your blog.

    • We were told by the chef during our cooking school in Marrakech that Morocco has changed considerably in the past decade. It’s obvious to me after only one visit that much of the old traditions are being challenged — dress of the women, food in the restaurants, upgrades in the hotels, etc. I’m not so sure I’m happy with all that since I love to see traditional customs and culture, but who am I to stand in the way of progress? Still a bit sad, though.

      • Valentina says:

        What I like of the new Morocco is the new economy they are creating, new jobs and new opportunities, so people don’t have to migrate. Of course they are not doing it totally on their own, there is a lot of money from the western world poured in the country…the rest becomes politics.
        Rusha, can you please check your Facebook page? I wrote you in messenger

      • Valentina says:

        Hi Rusha, pardon the message, you are featured in my blog, please grab the link from messager. Thank you.

  3. Bama says:

    I begin to wonder how many of those desert scenes in Hollywood movies that I’ve watched were actually filmed in Ouarzazate. They did a really great job in creating the set which definitely look as if they were built hundreds of years ago — if you didn’t say that the gateway to the city in Jewel of the Nile was a new construction, I would have thought otherwise!

    • I started wondering the same thing. As a young girl, we watched movies set in Biblical times at church. And I’m thinking some of them could have been filmed in Morocco! Moves have a way of blending old and new, real and unreal, and, while on tour, we had a hard time telling one from another. Thanks for your comment.

  4. It’s a smart area that captures and exploits the imagination of Hollywood. Both the movie making and the tourists forever after must boost the local economy. Indian Jones and Jewel of the Nile… how can you go wrong. 🙂 –Curt

    • You’re so right — we loved it, and they made money both on the making of films and now showing off the sets to tourists. Movie making is big business, and our guide said they’ve made movies based upon various religions and numerous producers. Who knew?

      • It’s always fascinating to visit the areas where our favorite films were made. I was talking today with a fellow blogger about how Death Valley was used in the first Star Wars movie. –Curt

  5. kzmcb says:

    Very entertaining and great shots.

  6. This was so much fun to see and read about. We have been to Morocco three times but have never been to Ourrzazate. I have to admit that on our second visit we narrowed it down to Marrakesh and Essaouira. And on our third we just zoomed off straight to our favorite spot ~ Essaouira. We were first there about twenty years ago! And yes, of course it has changed, but actually for twenty years, remarkably little and that’s one of the things we love about it.

    Love the pics of the mud brick construction and the chariot from Ben Hur. So cool.

    Peta

    • You’ve got to get to Ouarzazate — and not just for the movie sets. The landscape is different as well. Plenty of flat, barren areas leading to the Sahara but not there yet. But the two resorts we saw could definitely be classified as oases – lush, colorful places that contrast with what’s outside the walls.

  7. de Wets Wild says:

    Such an interesting “behind the scenes” look – thank you! I love how old and new blend together!

    • We love old and new as well. And these buildings and sets just lend themselves to movie making. It could be I’ve seen them several times in the movies but just didn’t realize it. Appreciate the comment!

  8. You are so right — desert landscapes are special, and ones that are used for movie sets are even more intriguing! We did star gaze a bit at the hotel, but not from the film studio, although we can see how that would be awesome. And you’re right — we should have begged to see the Game of Thrones location. It didn’t mean as much to us since we’ve never seen even one episode, but the guide wasn’t going to let us go there anyway. There are always drawbacks to tours: you have to go where they want you to go. If we’d had more time, I have a feeling there was a way to get down to that set!!! Thanks for taking a look!

  9. krithya G says:

    Thanks for sharing such lovely pictures and your adventures in Ouarzazate.
    I think desert landscapes are special, they are mysterious yet welcoming, barren yet interesting 😀
    Did you do any star gazing while you were there? From what I have read, deserts on clear nights seem to be the best places to see the milky way in its full glory. 🙂
    That Game of Thrones set is probably the city of Yunkai, If I were there I would have thrown a tantrum for not letting me see it up close 😀 (I recently binge watched all the seasons, hence the enthusiasm 🙂 )

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