We were reunited with Sayeed and Ahmed, herded into our 4X4 and hurtled towards the mountains. We were on a tight schedule. We had ~500 Ks to cover in 8 hours unless we were willing to miss Ait Benhaddou again. Sayeed had accepted the challenge to get us to Ait Benhaddou “with a sunset to spare” and he was heads-down at it. For the most time, we were speeding down a black strip of tarmac that glinted like a mirror and disappeared into a mist of heat eddies.
We only stopped twice. First, at a curious little antique shop, which at the time, felt like a museum having a garage sale. It had a huge dim-lit rooms with dusty shelves loaded with colorful artifacts. We graciously accepted their mint tea, greedily filled an entire table with the choicest “loot” and negotiated hard until the boss had to come down from his office upstairs to accept out “last and final” offer. Then we took a quick pit-stop for an austere and a lightening quick lunch and for the rest of the day, we were zooming towards the famed ancient city.
It was close to 5:00pm by the time we reached Ait benhaddou. Big tufts of clouds laced the sky all but covering the sun leaving a patch. A patch large enough for the golden rays to refract through the humidity spreading an orange haze over the “ksar”. The place looked absolutely magical!
“Yallah!” Sayeed said, “There is a chance of a thunderstorm.” I wonder how he reached at that conclusion. The scene looked serene to my eyes.
We raced down the narrow alley, tiled with stone and mud and lined with souvenir shops. Ait Benhaddou is on the other side of river Ounila that was gurgling muddy dark brown water. I tied my shoes around my neck and waded in. The women and kids rented horse-rides led by Berbers in full Djellaba regalia. The river bed was full of sharp and slippery stones and the water was almost up to the knees. Once or twice slimy weeds wrapped themselves around my ankles and startled me enough to make drop my camera. Almost.
Eventually, we made it across, sound in mind, body and electronic equipment.
Ksar Ait benhaddou
The honey colored “fortified city” city nesting against the mountain looked straight out of the famous video game, the Prince of Persia. The wall surrounding the city has lost its plaster in many places giving a glimpse of the clay bricks used in the construction. The kasbahs, houses and the watch towers of the city have been built using the local available sticky clay mixed with palm leaves and stones. The trapezoidal watchtowers with typical Berber designs hints at the strategic importance of the place. After all, the city is situated on the ancient Sahara trade route that ferried salt, dates and gold and was an important rest stop.
A watch tower in Ait Benhaddou
Surprisingly, we were the only tourists in the city. Probably there was some truth to the thunderstorm prediction. Nevertheless, we walked through the adobe gate, passing through narrow streets that graded upwards. As we walked up narrow twisting pathways and stairs. we passed 6-7 kasbahs – “villages” - to our right and left and counted about 4 dozen houses in total. From across the river, the structure had looked rock solid. At close quarters, it was apparent that the severe heat, cold, sandstorms and rain was literally peeling the walls one layer at a time. Had UNESCO not taken the site under its wings in 1989, the damage would have been much more severe. Sayeed told us that restoration is a full time activity here, though it is difficult to keep ahead of the vagaries of the mother nature.
A peep into a kasbah
Locals whisper that the oldest house in the city is said to be build in the 11th century, where as UNESCO puts the oldest construction “to be no earlier than the 17th century”. There is no documented proof to prove or disprove either. Regardless, the authentic desert dwelling atmosphere has been so well preserved that it has captured the imagination of Hollywood. Many sweeping epics – Lawrence of Arabia, Mummy and Gladiator, to name a few – have all been filmed here. Remember the heart pounding chase in the motion picture Jewel of the NIle where Michael Douglas crashes a MIG into an Arabic village? The ugly scar is visible Ait Benhaddou. They actually filmed it in situ at a historic site!
the gash left by Michael Douglas' MIG in The Jewel of the Nile
Most of the original families of the city have chosen to give up the legacy and move to “modern” houses across the river. A dozen families have stayed put at this heritage site. I could understand the plight of the ones who stayed behind in their heirlooms. I equally well realize the need for them to move out and hand over the site over for preservation.
But then, I have always wanted to eat my cake and have it. There are certain advantages to being a tourist. You get to walk away.
A resident of Ait Benhaddou
We finally reached as high as roads and stairs would take us. Below us stood myriads of little terraces and courtyards, balconies and roof tops. The city was finally framed by the flat desert landscape that surrounds it. The thunderclouds were brewing above us. Besides us, Sayeed was positively fretting, his face as dark as the clouds in the sheltering sky.
“If it rains, there will be a flashflood and we will not be able to cross the Ounila,” he muttered as politely as an angry berber can mutter.
I did not get it. If there was a storm, and the Ounila flooded, I was at home!
Rooftop view of Ait Benhaddou
Common sense prevailed, and we heeded. We raced down, crossed the river, ran back to our car.
Just as we settled down, huge drops of rain splattered on the windscreen.