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Published: April 21st 2020
We had arrived in the city of Ouarzazate, the name meaning "without noise,” in late afternoon the previous day. We spent our one and only night here at the lovely Ksar Ighnda which had been a memorable experience for me – the beautiful architecture of the ksar, the lush gardens surrounding the beautiful pool, the exceptionally good dinner, and the small though very comfortable room. It was yet another in the mix of interesting accommodation types chosen by our tour company and the Ksar Ighnda was one of my favorites.
We’d had a relatively late wakeup call at 7:30 am on this sunny morning followed by breakfast in the larger dining room which was positioned to have a lovely view to the gardens and pool. After our meal we used the remaining free time to take more photos and collect a business card from the reception desk; we do this to add to our collection of business cards from travels for their uniqueness and the information they provide; for example, Ksar Ighnda is listed as being in the Province of Ouarzazate, but the business card also lists its location as Douar Asfalu – Aït Ben Haddou. A bit confusing, but
there it is.
There was no time to explore the immediate area here, but promptly at 9 am we set off for the short 1 mile ride to the much-photographed historic site of Aït Ben Haddou --ⵜⴱⴻⵏⵃⴰⴷⴷⵓ
in the Berber language . Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987, it is cited as “The Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou is an eminent example of a ksar in southern Morocco illustrating the main types of earthen constructions that may be observed dating from the 17th century in the valleys of Dra, Todgha, Dadès and Souss.”
In addition to its historic importance, cinema and film enthusiasts may recognize its unique architecture as many movies have been filmed here including Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, Game of Thrones, Lawrence of Arabia, Alexander, Kundun, The Last Temptation of Christ
, and The Mummy
to name a few.
Originally founded in 757 AD, the historically fascinating ksar of Aït Ben Haddou is a fortified walled city with a number of defensive towers essentially comprising a fortress. Ksars were located for strategic advantage and proximity to a water supply. Built on the southern slope of a hill using the natural elements of red clay or
mud and stone, Aït Ben Haddou's elevated position also gave it a defensive advantage. While many families once lived inside the ksar walls, now only a few families are left with the majority having by now moved to the opposite side of the river to more modern dwellings.
Aït Ben Haddou was an important stop and trading post on the ancient Sahara Trade Routes. Ait Ben Haddou provided the enormous camel caravans, carrying cargos of slaves, gold, silver, spices, cloth and other goods, a respite and source of water during their journey to Timbuktu or the Western Sahara before returning to their native land with salt. Aït Ben Haddou was also at the intersection of Maghreb trade routes linking ancient Sudan to Marrakesh by way of the Drâa Valley and the Tizi-n'Telouet Pass.
Driving through a busy area of shops, hotels, and restaurants on the main road, we were let off in front of the Hotel Restaurant L’ Oasis dor Aït Ben Haddou in town where other small groups of tourists waited and this would be where we would all meet again after our visit. Following our guide, Larbi, we walked along the main road before turning left
toward the river to reach the modern concrete pedestrian bridge spanning the river and from which we would gain access to Aït Ben Haddou. All along this route, there was no lack of souvenir stores vying for the coveted tourist trade though none of the shopkeepers aggressively tried to make sales.
Larbi gave us a helpful introduction to this historic site to enhance our understanding of what we would be seeing while we were climbing the winding pathways and short stairs spiraling up to the top of Aït Ben Haddou. Our main objective was to end at the top of the hill where the old granary, or agadir, still stands and from which we would have a panoramic view of all below us. I looked forward to reaching the granary, but I wanted to enjoy the smaller details of this place.
The climb was often steep, sometimes easy, though occasionally difficult due to uneven surfaces composed of loose stone, or pebbles which made for unstable footing in a few spots. A few members of our group had trouble climbing and lagged behind.
As we made our way through the maze of tiny shops and buildings lining the
narrow pathways, it became clear that the grand view of Aït Ben Haddou that you see from a moderate distance is not necessarily what you see from inside the ksar itself – the unique architecture and profile that is Aït Ben Haddou in photos was somehow lost to me as we climbed. Though our pace seemed unnecessarily fast, I grabbed photos here and there hoping to capture small surprising bits of architecture or people. I took photos where possible of some of the smaller details of the buildings which sometimes were quite unexpected - a pair of rough wooden entry doors, an ornate window grill, beautiful designs carved into the sides of buildings and even a cute cat sunning himself on red rocks overlooking the river. At one point I was surprised to see an elderly man, his face full of character, standing in a niche where bales of straw were being kept. Tiny shops tucked in together lined a few of the little pathways adding a bit of color through their displayed local handicrafts such as leather bags, clothes, rugs, scarves, adorned walking sticks or staffs, and on the side of a path lay a few unique pieces that
looked very much like antique painted wooden shutters. Oddly enough, one of these had a Star of David and 2 menorahs painted on the panels -- something I would not have expected to see here but simple and beautiful.
Always open to the possibility of finding a unique souvenir from countries we visit, a local Aït Ben Haddou artist's work was a special find. At one of the larger, flat terraces on the mountain we came to his work space and shop. His art was creating paintings in a very unique way. We all watched as he demonstrated his art painting desert scenes of ksars, camels, herders, and palm trees using a mostly clear mixture of water and dissolved sugar on heavy paper stock.
He demonstrated his painting technique using images which at first were nearly invisible and when finished were still pale yellow and mostly monotone. He then ignited a larger than usual Bunsen burner-like apparatus over which he held the back of his painting. Swiftly moving the painting back and forth over the sharp blue flame, the scenes he had just painted began to appear more vividly in varying shades of yellow, gold and brown on
the front. He finished off the painting by adding a bit of watercolor blue sky or a dab of darker blue here and there to bring even more interest to the scenes.
This was a totally original and unique art that I’d never seen anywhere before; however, I’ve since learned that other artists in Morocco make similar paintings, some using tea or saffron. This artist had a tiny shop where he displayed and sold his various-sized “sugar paintings” unframed for USD $3 to $4 (30 to 40 dirhams), larger ones for a bit more. We purchased 2 of his works and I was very happy with them for souvenirs.
Finally arriving at the relatively flat apex of the hill of Aït Ben Haddou, we were rewarded with the panoramic view of the surrounding High Atlas mountains and plateaus, the lower surrounding landscape including the newer section of the town and pedestrian bridge, and the meandering river. The granary itself was not open. It was a tall but rather plain structure made of mud and straw bricks and rock with a few small open ventilating windows. I could see the ceiling inside was made of either bamboo or reed
stalks. I’ll say the climb to the top was worth the effort but I probably would have enjoyed more time just wandering through the maze of tiny niches and narrow pathways in this special place just as much.
Going down the hill was not especially easy for the same reasons as when going up, but it did feel like an accomplishment to have climbed this hill. Back in town at our meeting place in front of the Hotel Restaurant L’ Oasis dor Aït Ben Haddou, we’d hoped to buy a coffee, tea or cold beverage mostly just to enjoy the atmosphere here but we could find no one to help us, so we waited for Larbi and the rest of the group. One person was quite late but most members in our group were familiar with this particular person whose ease of mobility was hampered. All in all our visit here was quite special and we were able to check off yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site in Morocco.
Before long we were on our bus and headed for an entirely different type of adventure in the form of driving through the High Atlas Mountains leading to the
Tizi-n-Tichka Pass (roughly at 7,400 ft.) which links Ouarzazate with Marrakesh. Tizi-n-Tichka pass is not to be confused with the Tizi-n-Test. The Tizi-n-Tichka is supposedly a bit wider, but I was glad I was not at the wheel of our bus when we navigated its tricky switchbacks and hairpin turns which were a little hair-raising to me! From above, the road looked like a gargantuan gray snake slithering through the valleys twisting and turning in these largely denuded mountains.
Larbi mentioned that Mt. Toubkal, north Africa’s tallest peak soaring skyward to 13,671 ft., was south and slightly to the west of us at one point. Located in the Toubkal National Park, the name Toubkal is said to come from the Berber Amazigh words “Toug Akal,” meaning “the highest point on earth.” This area is known for outdoor adventurist activities such as hiking, trekking, camping and more. It is also known for being the location of some very ancient petroglyphs, and one in particularly called ‘the plaque of the sun’
is thought to be about 8,000 years old. Unfortunately, there is some question as to whether ‘the plaque of the sun’ was destroyed by a militant religious group in 2012
as has happened to historical treasures in Syria, Iraq, and Libya.
Also, this area is more recently known for being the scene of the vicious murders of 2 Scandinavian women who had been camping at nearby Imlil in December, 2018. Our guide, Larbi, addressed this subject with our group. Having since been labeled as premeditated terroristic murders, a published account mentioned there is a circulated video by the perpetrating terrorists pledging allegiance to ISIS as one of the women was decapitated. Apparently 3 or 4 men were directly involved with the murders; a total of approximately 20 – 24 men were arrested and put on trial for being connected with (as part of a jihadist cell), or directly committing the murders.
About halfway through the pass we stopped at a Café Restaurant for a pleasant break with a nice meal for lunch. Next door was the shop called Palais-n-Tichka selling quartz, crystal geodes, and other souvenirs. The Atlas are quite famous in the geological world for finds of many types of agates, crystals, hematite, etc., and people sometimes come to this area specifically in search of these.
In front of the Café and shop in the parking
area was a relatively tall monument with a plaque embedded between 2 tower gate structures – the gate openings now closed -- marking the accomplishment of building the Tizi-n-Tichka Pass. Written in French, as nearly as I can interpret the plaque says the "Col du Tichka" was built for the Moroccan Public Works Department by the French 4th
Regiment of Etranger D’Infanterie (possibly part of the French Foreign Legion) between 1925 – 1939 and the names of several officers are listed as having command over the project. Over this plaque is a sign “Col du Tichka Alt. 2260.” This complex of sorts is the only building with a place to eat and good facilities that I remember on the long pass road and as such is a popular stop and good place for photos.
The drive from Ouarzazate to Marrakesh which should have taken 3 ½ to 5 hours, +/- with stops, to Marrakesh actually became a much longer proposition! We had seen signs of some ongoing roadwork, but we soon got into the thick of it. Not only did we encounter many trucks transporting everything under the sun, but either there had been a gigantic rock slide or
some enormous roadwork and earth-moving equipment was blocking our way -- or both!
We spent an hour and a half at a complete stop, and even this did not prevent other buses, cars, trucks, etc., from gaining a slight positioning advantage in front of our bus. Some of our group members actually got off the bus to create a makeshift “technical stop.” I wasn’t one of them as I can’t imagine where there was any privacy to be found with the long line of traffic also stopped behind us.
I thought the scenery had been mostly dull to this point – gray brown mountains, little vegetation and no wildlife that I could easily see. Sitting on the bus without moving for so long wasn’t exactly fun either but at least the sun was shining brightly and the bus was comfortable. This road was once nothing more than a caravan trail; I can’t imagine what transit through this pass must have been like before this road was built. In winter snow can close this pass, and in some places I remember seeing snow barriers which I assume are to stop snow from drifting onto the road.
in this somewhat inhospitable environment, a closer look did reveal some signs of life -- plant life clinging to life from this rocky mountainside and desiccated earth. A good-sized prickly pear cactus with pink buds was managing to survive even though it was covered in a thick coat of dirt and dust, as was a slightly green bush with a large portion of its roots exposed and hanging in mid-air with nothing to grasp on to.
Once the blockage through the pass was cleared, we were able to continue on the RN9 road and a bit later we made a much needed true technical stop at the Café Restaurant Tagdalt in Toufliht in the Marrakech-Safi region. Just before we entered the café I noticed embedded in the sidewalk a group of colorful Moroccan-style tiles forming the Berber Amazigh/Yaz symbol ⵣ
meaning “Free Man.” The symbol represents how the Berbers identify themselves. The written Berber alphabet, called Tifinagh, is very unique. As mentioned in a previous blog, I saw the Yaz symbol in several places in eastern Morocco.
Built on the side of the mountain, the Café Restaurant Tagdalt had lots of greenery surrounding the entrance and from
the rear window there was an excellent view to the lower foothills of the Atlas that here were covered by forests, and agricultural terraces – a much different side of the Atlas Mountains than what we had seen in the morning. There appeared to be a rooftop terrace for even better viewing. The facilities here were adequate and it was a decent place to take advantage of having a meal, coffee, cold drink, ice cream, or snack.
I think all of our group was by now very eager to finally arrive in Marrakesh where we would stay for 3 nights. While our bus purred along the road for our final approach into the city, Larbi surprised us all by playing some music on the bus’s intercom system for the first time – "Wouldn't you know we're riding on the Marrakesh Express. They're taking me to Marrakesh. All aboard the train -- All aboard the train," taken from “Marrakesh Express
” by Crosby, Stills & Nash!
Only a bit further on and flat land seemed to appear all at once as we found ourselves in the outskirts of Marrakesh in Ville Nouvelle. Then, as a nice introduction we were driven
by some of the more famous landmarks in the heart of the city before heading to our hotel. By now it was late afternoon and we were ready to relax and decompress. It had been a long but very interesting day and we looked forward to the evening and what lay ahead. Thankfully, our included dinner would be at the hotel tonight and the remainder of the evening was our own and it was exciting to think of what surprises the next day in Marrakesh would hold for us.
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