Ouarzazate (pronounced ‘war-za-zat’) is a Berber phrase meaning ‘without noise’ or ‘without confusion’ and it’s most famous for the location of the Kasbah-town of Aït Ben-Haddou, one of the world’s finest examples of North African pisé clay architecture dating back a thousand years.
History of Ouarzazate
Linking ancient Sudan with Marrakech, the town was a small but strategically important crossing point for traders from all over Africa looking to expand their markets into northern Africa and Europe. Ouarzazate expanded considerably during French colonial administration, turning into a larger garrison town and administrative centre as well as a customs and trading post. After the French protectorate left in the 1950s, the movie business took over and hasn’t looked back.
Ouarzazate is one of the most perfectly preserved examples of the Morocco we have all seen in a thousand movies. Notwithstanding the port of Pentos, one of the Free Cities in Game of Thrones, the Atlas Studios in Ouarzazate – the world’s largest film studio complex – has been used to depict places as diverse as ancient Rome, Tibet, Egypt, Somalia and dozens of Middle Eastern locations and is colloquially known as ‘Ouallywood’. The nearby Ait Ben-Haddou was used for the filming of Lawrence of Arabia in 1962, and since then, the world’s film location scouts are in Ouarzazate semi-permanently.
Boiling hot in the summer (36°C – 40°C) but thanks to the icy winds that shank off the High Atlas Mountains, the winters can get down as low as 1°C – 3°C. Since the film industry boom, the area has developed quickly and now includes hotels, restaurants, shops, apartments and public spaces and with plenty of small businesses offering the hire of cars, motorbikes and even camels, your trip into the heart of the Sahara is well taken care of. It may not be as atmospheric as other towns nearby, but it’s functional and a bit more swish, as well as being an excellent base.
Getting to Ouarzazate
Ouarzazate is known as the ‘door to the desert’, straddling the southern Atlas Mountains and the start of the Sahara Desert. It’s about 4 hours south east of Marrakech along the N9 if you’re driving – otherwise plenty of tour buses run excursions this way, although we wouldn’t recommend a day trip as the distances are too far to make it worthwhile. CTM buses run from Marrakech to Ouarzazarte – they cost around 100 MAD and take about 5 hours – you could also get a spot in a grand taxi for around the same price.
A country with traditions from sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, and the wider Middle East woven into its cultural fabric, Morocco is host to a number of historic sites which make for a fantastic visit.