The history that is not consigned to the past

There are historic sites that, time has ensured, are no more than ruins – for example, the Roman forum, Machu Picchu, and Acropolis. Then, there are historic sites that are still physically intact eliciting grandeur – the pyramids of Giza, Chichen Itza, the many castles of Europe – but have lost their vitality and their intended purpose. Finally, in my mind, there is the third kind – heritage sites that still live today and retain their authenticity; the historic sites that take you back hundreds of years but refuse to consign themselves to history. Ait Benhaddou is one such place.

Our road trip started in Casablanca. We were on our way to Merzouga to celebrate the New Year in the middle of the Sahara desert. We spent two days in the beautiful Marrakesh and the night before at Ouarzazate. The next morning instead of driving east our friend, Hakim, took the road back to Marrakech. After driving for about 15 mins, he took the detour north. The air got thinner as we got higher. He said he had a surprise in store for us.

We parked our car on the western bank of Asif Ounila. After walking for a few paces, we had the first glimpse of Ait Benhaddou on the other side of the river. Hakim was right. This place is magical. Ksar of Ait Benhaddou is a fortified city along the former caravan route between Marrakech and the Sahara. Ksar, a traditional pre-Saharan habitat, is a group of earthen clay buildings surrounded by high walls. As per Unesco, “The houses crowd together within the defensive walls, which are reinforced by corner towers. Ait-Ben-Haddou, in Ouarzazate province, is a striking example of the architecture of southern Morocco.”

Water was so low in the river and we waded through it with ease. We entered Ait Benhaddou through its massive entrance gate. Although most people living in the area live in more modern villages across the river, there are a few families that still live in the ancient walled city. Their way of life has not changed much over centuries. As we walked through the city, we slowly gained elevation, and walked past a mosque, a public square, a grain threshing area all the way to the massive loft at the top of the fortification.

The view from the loft is breathtaking. You can see the river and the villages to the near west, and the earthen red plains to the immediate east. Further north are the big mountains of the High Atlas. Everything that one can see was in earthen red color. Ait Benhaddou was nicely camouflaged into the surroundings. From a distance, one can barely make out the city. It reveals itself only to the ones who get closer. The whole setting immediately takes one back a few centuries.

If a mere mortal like me can realize there are only a few parallels in the world for the place of this stature and allure, the value of Ait Benhaddou has not escaped the demi Gods that roam the world today – the filmmakers. Several films have been shot here, most notably, Gladiator (2000), The Mummy (1999), and Kingdom of Heaven (2005). On the way back from the loft, we met an old gentleman who is one of the very few permanent dwellers of the city. He was gracious enough to invite us to his home which turned out to be the setting for one of the scenes from Gladiator. The photos of the greatest gladiator of all time, ahem, Russel Crowe, adorned the walls of the room.

We exited the house, detached ourselves from the commercialization of heritage sites, immersed ourselves in the history of the place, and walked through the same streets that numerous travelers had taken hundreds of years ago on their perilous journey to the Sahara. Did Ibn Battuta stay here on his way to the Sahara and Mali? We will never know!


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