Ait ben Haddou is more than just a film set, though; it is a ksar, a fortified village whose history goes back almost a thousand years, although the maze of narrow and crenulated towers you see these days are mainly from the 17th century. As a strategic stop for caravans of camels, often numbering hundreds, on the trans-Saharan trade route from the Sudan to Marrakech carrying gold, silver and slaves and returning with salt, it would have been a thriving town, home to thousands. As well a private homes – everything from small palaces to modest one-room dwellings – there were communal areas including a public square, a mosque, a caravanserai to house those travelling with the caravans, grain threshing areas outside the ramparts, a fortified granary (agadir) at the top of the village, the last redoubt in time of invasion, and two cemeteries, Muslim and Jewish.
When the French built a new road over the Tizi n Tichka Pass, a stunning piece of engineering that zigzags its way up to 2260 metres from Marrakech before descending to the pre-Sahara flatlands, the Marrakech to Ouarzazate caravan route ceased to be. The population of Ait Benhaddou quickly dwindled and today only a handful of families live in the walled village. While some of the larger and more important buildings have been maintained, many of the traditional mud and straw dwellings are returning to the red earth from which they were built.From across the dry river bed of the Oued Ounila, Ait ben Haddou looks magical, with its olive groves and date palms, and patchwork fields of vivid green. You can make out the kasbahs, the homes of the rich folk, built around a central courtyard and guarded over by a tower at each corner. A family of storks are perched on one of the lower towers, a sign of good luck. The village layers its way up the hillside, stopping just short of the wall that safeguards the granary, perched on the very top, like a nipple on a recumbent breast. But it’s only as you get closer that you see that so many of the roofs have collapsed, walls are crumbling, arches fallen in, as the buildings degrade past the point of no return.
Life in the Ksar
To help maintenance costs, some of the kasbahs allow visitors (for a modest fee of ten dirhams). The small dark rooms with uneven floors and tiny windows may seem incongruous when you recall that wealthy families would have lived here. But go back four centuries and think how your ancestors might have lived, using the traditional building methods of the area. In Ait ben Haddou, as in many regions of Morocco, buildings had been constructed (and still are being) of hand-made bricks, with rooms the maximum size of the nearest indigenous tree that provided the ceiling beams, narrow external slits as windows so archers could lose arrows during an attack (and these were perilous times of regular and vicious tribal wars). And bear in mind the soaring summer temperatures, where external windows guarded by ornate metal grills and open internal-facing window apertures allowed any passing breeze to cool the house, and flat roofs became open-air bedrooms to avoid the claustrophobic heat of a crowded bedroom. And as the traditional Moroccan way of life is to live with extended families, these rooms could get pretty sticky – and probably pretty smelly as well.As you climb the narrow, higgledy-piggledy streets and get to eye-level with the decaying walls that stand in rows like a mouthful of broken and rotted teeth, you get a close up view of the basic traditional building materials, the compacted bricks, called pisé, laid over footings of stone harvested from the harsh terrain outside the town, and covered with a thick layer of adobe. But ‘basic’ doesn’t mean ‘plain’; the tops of the high angle towers and upper sections of the kasbahs are decorated with motifs, ziggurat designs created by careful spacing between the clay bricks, rows of blank fenestration, looking as if they are waiting for windows to be fitted, and the ancient design of the horseshoe arch used as door and window openings. (And the holes in the walls aren’t the aftermath of tribal warfare, they are there to ventilate the walls, which would dry out and disintegrate much quicker without them, and are found throughout Morocco where this construction material is used.)The inclination to use cement for speedy and more lasting restoration, and metal door and window frames to replace the original wood has so far been controlled, although a few reinforced cement lintels have slipped through the net, which, fortunately have been covered by adobe rendering. But one of the beauties of Ait ben Haddou, whether in its restoration or return to its prime constituents, is that everything is in harmony with both its natural surroundings and the culture of its inhabitants.Simply talking of Ait ben Haddou’s buildings or role as a movie backdrop overlooks the fact that it is still home to a number of resilient families. As I climb the streets to the granary a young man suddenly pops he head out of a door to offer me small paintings of the town. I thank him and move on, but shortly after, I see an old lady working a loom in what looks like a dark alleyway but is probably part of her home. I suspect that had she seen me first she’d also have jumped out to accost me, but she hadn’t so I ask if I can watch her work. Helped by the fact that I had crossed her palm with a twenty dirham note, she allows me to sit beside her as her nimble fingers work the pattern in a brightly coloured rug. A point to be aware of with the making of these rugs is that no design is ever written down, and while the basic layout of the pattern may come from the traditional designs of her tribe, the rug is the story of the weaver’s life as she experiences at that moment; her joys and sadness, trials and tribulations, which is why every true hand-woven rug is completely unique. And rugs arealways woven by women.
The climb to the agadir is strenuous in the heat but immensely worth it, with glorious views of the palmeraie at the foot of the village and the stony desert that stretches almost into infinity. The afternoon is slowly settling and the warm light of the desert sun casts a glowing sheen over the russet pink of the village below. As shadows stretch in the narrow alleyways I make my way down the hill and out of a small arched side entrance. For a few minutes I watch a man weeding a patch of garden.