Morocco 2017 – A race, a fortress, and a film studio

The Kingdom of Heaven set at the Atlas Film Studio

I wake up to catch the sunrise from my window at the Ait Ben Moro Kasbah, the golden sky reflecting in the skim of ice on the swimming pool. I’d give anything for a pair of wool socks.  Today we leave for Ouarzazate to see the Kasbah Taourirt and the Atlas Film Studio where Kingdom of Heaven was filmed.  We’ll log 200 miles today.

The roads leading in to Ouarzazate are lined with red flags. It turns out that we have arrived for the end of the Marathon des Sables, a seven-day footrace through the desert that starts here, and ends here with a festival.  We step out of our car just in time to see the last runner cross the finish line, a smiling, white bearded gentlemen preceded by a police escort and followed by an aid car, and met with applause from the jubilant crowd.  

Across the street is the Kasbah Taourirt, originally a cross-point for African trade caravans enroute to North Africa and Europe. It is said to be the most beautiful kasbah in the country, although it’s exterior doesn’t hold a candle to Kasbah Amridil in Skoura. Just outside the door sits a German Krupp cannon which belonged to the Pasha of Turkey during the French Occupation.

We enter to find interiors that are well restored and in some cases stunning. We are led through several of the 300 rooms, including the harem, kitchen, a reception room with French tile, and the royal apartments with their elaborately worked cedar ceilings and carved and painted plasterwork.

Among the interesting details was the room that had 3 holes in front of the window for ventilation. In the winter, warm air comes up from the kitchen. In the summer, cool air comes up. It’s pretty ingenious. Another room had a staircase with steep, irregular stairs – a defense against invaders who would lose speed trying to run up the uneven steps. Yet another room with bright red ceiling beams, which our guide told us had been painted that color for one of the many movies that had been filmed here. “Every film ever made in Morocco was filmed at this kasbah” our guide told us.  He then rattled off an extensive list of films, and told us which ones he had been an extra in, which seemed to be nearly every movie on the list…

There’s a gallery of local artists on one of the floors, where our tour stops for quite some time, to encourage us to buy the the paint and multi-media works that are for sale.  While Mark and Catherine select pieces to add to their collection, I step outside into the courtyard to take shots of the patterned glass that is behind the grillwork on the outer doors. The guide catches up with me and explains that the window grills, now metal, were originally made from wood. The ornately carved and painted doors are Moorish, not Berber.  He also said that many of the modern buildings in Morocco are built in the traditional style, or at least have some of the traditional elements like the little three or five brick pyramids at the corners of the roofs, because people prefer to keep the old styles.

I have posted additional photos of Kasbah Taourirt here.

Our next stop is the Atlas Film Studios. When Doug was drawing up our itinerary a few months ago, I asked if we could take this 45 minute detour, so I could wave at the area as we drove by.  I was both surprised and delighted when we pulled up to the gates, where we were met by a guide who gave us a tour of the studio.

Atlas Studios is the second largest film studio in the world, behind Hollywood.  Several films were made here or in the surrounding area, including Asterix, Kingdom of Heaven, Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Man Who Would Be King, Kundun, The Mummy Returns and Game of Thrones (Season 3).   The pink stucco front gate is flanked by Egyptian figures and Chinese Fu-dogs.  Just inside the gate, in the parking lot, were a pair of Roman chariots and a reed boat on a trailer. We are escorted past a set where filming is taking place (King Tut we think), and into a dark hall of columns where Cleopatra was filmed. We walk along the back of a set, supported by scaffolding, and into the courtyard where Moses was filmed.  I remarked on a flowering tree in the courtyard, which the guide said was ‘in bloom’ because paper flowers were taped onto it.

One of the sets for Cleopatra. Some of the images on the columns are NSFW.

More scaffolding, and then through a pair of very tall, very narrow doors, and onto the set for The Mummy Returns.  At this point the guides stopped to let people take photos on the steps of this set. Our guide takes my camera and I strike a pose, and wait, and strike the same pose again.  It takes him a minute to catch on, and then another minute before he stops laughing long enough to take this shot. By now, a sizable crowd has stopped to watch.  At the end of our ‘photo shoot’ he gives me the stage name of “Fatima Tagine” which I adopt for the rest of the day.

“Fatima Tagine” on the set of The Mummy Returns

Around the next corner is the set for King Tut and Asterix.  I can see the Kingdom of Heaven set in the distance, and plead with the guide to take us there. It’s not part of the tour and so he declines.  I’m simultaneously disappointed at not being able to touch the walls of Jerusalem,  and at the same time elated to see it in person, even from this distance.  I take as many zoom shots with my camera as time allows.

Past Cleopatra’s milk bath pool, and an ark, and a catapult, and into a Chinese themed building that turns out to be the set for Kundun.  I get separated from my group so I make the best use of my time with my camera, which you can view here. The tour guide is relieved to finally find his Fatima Tagine safe and sound on this movie set, after he had reportedly looked ‘everywhere else’…

I would later learn that Moroccan craftsmen built the sets, as well as props and costumes for Kundun. The King of Morocco is very supportive of the film industry and has several times lent the Moroccan Army as extras to epic films being produced here.  This link takes you to additional information about the film industry in Morocco.  

After lunch in the studio restaurant, we head to another UNESCO World Heritage site – the Ksar of Ait Ben Haddou This 17th century fortification is accessible via a wooden foot bridge which stretches over the Mellah River, surrounding a fortress built into the side of a mountain. This is another site made famous for films that were made here, including Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, and The Sheltering Sky. It’s narrow walkways and staircases can lead you into a number of places, including both shops and personal homes.  It is very easy to walk into someone’s personal space by mistake (which I did), but I was very kindly corrected and pointed back towards the direction of the market areas.  I did not make it all the way to the top of the hill at the center of this ksar, but even still, I was able to enjoy a beautiful view of the surrounding oasis. Additional photos are here.

Back on the road, I notice small square buildings every few miles, which Doug tells me are prayer rooms, and he points out other on the tops of gas stations.  The switchbacks here are remarkable and some of the hairpin curves are so tight I’m surprised we can’t see our own back license plate .

After what feels like a very long drive, we arrive in Taroudant, and a medina that would become a story of its very own … 

Ksar Ait Ben Haddou

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