Sandcastle of Dreams

A Picture-perfect Fortress in the Moroccan Desert
Aït-Ben-Haddou at a Glance
Name: Aït-Ben-Haddou
Date of Inscription: 1987
Why you should go: Aït-Ben-Haddou seems more like a castle in the clouds than a medieval pit stop for traveling salesmen.

The fortified village of Aït-Ben-Haddou is a colossal sandcastle come to life. The village clings to a barren hilltop in the High Atlas Mountains, with its stacked buildings and crenelated towers cascading down to arid flats. No one knows exactly when the red earthen fortress was built. In medieval times, it was used by Moroccan Berbers to safeguard the strategic trading route between the Sahara Desert and Timbuktu. Now, the walled citadel overlooks a road traveled more by tour buses than camel-riding merchants. A restoration project is currently underway to repair homes damaged by erosion and to attract residents to the village, whose population has dwindled to just five families. Yet Aït-Ben-Haddou's star power has barely dimmed. Hollywood, for one, is a big fan, having cast the site in dozens of films, including Lawrence of Arabia, The Jewel of the Nile, and Jesus of Nazareth.

Practically speaking:

Aït-Ben-Haddou lies about 100 miles (160 km) southeast of Marrakesh, along a road well-traveled by tour operators. The nearest sizable town is Ouarzazate, about 18 miles (30 km) away. For panoramic views of the mountains and valleys, the best time to scale the site is sunrise or sunset. Two small establishments below the village offer various accommodations, from dorm-style rooms to a front-yard tent.

Published: 11 Apr 2000 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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