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.
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.
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.
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 art: It’s hard to distinguish what’s new from what’s not.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 known. But 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.