Named after the Caliph Benhaddou, a royal delegate sent from Marrakech to subdue the southern Berber tribes, Aït Benhaddou (which I began to write about in my previous post), was fortified by the warlords who held sway over the High Atlas.
Until a century ago, this area was part of the lucrative trans-Saharan trade route. Thousands of camels made the hazardous two-month journey across the Sahara to the great market towns of the Niger River -- Timbuktu and Gao -- carrying salt, dates, barley and goatskins. On return, they brought the gold dust, slaves, ivory and ostrich feathers that made North Africa wealthy. With the arrival of coastal shipping in the late nineteenth century, this overland route went into decline.
Now, the only reminder of these ancient caravans is a lonely road to the desert south from Ouarzazate, which snakes through the Drâa Valley oasis, then through a dramatic, desolate landscape to M'Hamid, where it ends, literally disappearing into the sands of the Sahara.
Fatiah and I had no plans to traverse the Sahara this time, and, rather than loneliness, the Kasbah exuded serenity. We crossed the shallow, reed-strewn river on stepping stones, then walked through orchards of almond trees, entering the ancient village through a gate that still sports the gash made by the airplane Michael Douglas snatched in the movie The Jewel of the Nile.
Despite the occasional presence of Hollywood filmmakers, life still moves to an ancient beat here, where sheep and goats are kept in indoor pens. Only ten families still live in the old village. Most have left or moved across the river to the more accessible modern town.
We climbed the Kasbah's steeply ascending maze of alleyways, our feet raising little whirls of soft red dust. A young djellaba-clad Berber, face shrouded in a blue veil, offered to guide us through a local home for a few dirhams, and we entered the dwelling's thick pisé walls, made of mud, mashed palm trunk and water -- the only materials at hand. The walls rose from the earth to protect us, keeping the dwelling cool in the afternoon's blazing sun.
We followed the guide through the kitchen and then a living space lined with mats where the men sit and talk and drink tea. In a bedroom, photos of the late Moroccan king hung on mud walls beside a "Cinéma Sahara" poster of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet from the movie Titanic...
Read the last part of my visit to Aït Benhaddou...