Ouarzazate is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Morocco, not only for its historical landmarks but also for its famous film studio.
Ouarzazate is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Morocco, not only for its historical landmarks but also for its famous film studio. The studio boasts an impressive record of Hollywood and international films that were shot there, earning it the name Africa’s Hollywood and making it a top film destination in the Middle East and North Africa region.
The city of Ouarzazate lies in the Draa-Tafilalet region, south of the High Atlas Mountains. The caramel-colored oasis’s name comes from the Amazigh (Berber) words “ouar,” which means without, and “zazate,” meaning noise, resulting in the meaning, “without noise.” Ouarzazate is also nicknamed “the door of the desert” or “the gateway to the Sahara.”
Ouarzazate continues to be one of the biggest tourist attractions in Morocco, with its attractive elements such as large mountains, oases, dunes, deserts, and alluring Kasbahs and ksours that astonish visitors with their historic designs.
Also known as “the valley of thousands of Kasbahs,” Ouarzazate is home to the Kasbah Taourirt and the UNESCO World Heritage site Ait Ben-Haddou.
Kasbahs are emblems of Morocco’s cultural heritage. Seven Kasbahs in Ouarzazate have been restored and are now listed as tourist attractions.
Kasbah Taourirt was built in the 17th century for Pasha El Glaoui, in1912, Pasha El Glaoui was the governor of Marrakech, Ouarzazate and most of the south during the time Morocco was under French rule. The Kasbah is considered the heart of Ouarzazate and an important historical monument.
The Kasbah was a sign of wealth of the Pasha El Glaoui but also served as a fort to defend the city from attackers.
The kasbah is built on a rock base, with high thick walls and very narrow windows to protect against arrow attacks.
The palace has 300 rooms, with many towers and turrets rising out. Within the Kasbah, are more than 20 riads, or traditional Moroccan houses built around a central courtyard.
Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou
The Ksar of Ait Ben-Haddou is located in the foothills on the southern slopes of the High Atlas Mountains in the Ouarzazate province, Morocco.
The Ksar consists of a group of earthen dwellings protected by high walls, a traditional pre-Saharan habitat.
The Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou has preserved its earthen construction, which made it perfectly adaptable to the shifting climate and environmental conditions.
In 1987, the Ksar was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list for its impressive history and photogenic
southern Moroccan architecture, gaining the status of the most famous Ksar in the Ounila Valley.
Atlas Film Studios
Just five kilometers west of Ouarzazate stands Morocco’s Atlas Film Studios. Moroccan entrepreneur Mohamed Belghmi established the film making destination in 1983 after seeing the potential of the area.
The 322,000-square-feet filming location is filled with old movie sets ranging from the giant prop jet plane that was used in “Jewel of The Nile” to massive Egyptian tomb statues around the entrance and exit. These are five of the most famous movies and TV shows shot at Ouarzazate, Africa’s Hollywood:
Lawrence of Arabia
The classic film “Lawrence of Arabia” tells the story of a British lieutenant T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), who was ordered to retrieve a British ally, Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness), and serve as a liaison with the Arabs against the Turks. Lawrence ends up rebelling against his superior’s orders and attacks a well-guarded Turkish port with the help of Prince Faisal,.
In 1962, even before the creation of the Atlas Film Studios, Ouarzazate was a filming site for the Oscar-winning movie. British director David Lean chose Ksar Ait Ben-Haddou, for its authentic natural environment that perfectly fit the vision for his desert-based film.
The fortified palace served as the perfect site for filming, with its strong sunlight evoking the Arabian Peninsula, while the quiet surroundings were crew-friendly.
Game of Thrones
The critically-acclaimed HBO series “Game of Thrones” tells the story of a medieval country’s civil war. Winter comes as characters battle to claim the “Iron Throne” and rule the seven kingdoms.
The directors decided to film several scenes in Morocco, specifically in the city of Ouarzazate for its cinematic beauty and eye-catching sites.
One of the show’s iconic fictional cities “Yunkai” was backdropped by Ksar Ait Ben-Haddou. The show also used Ouarzazate city as the Port of Pentos, where Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) lived in exile.
Ksar Ait Ben-Haddou provided the ideal dramatic setting for Daenerys Targaryen’s scenes in Yunkai.
The coastal city of Essaouira also featured in the final episode of the third season, as the ancient city of Astapor.
One of the most influential and popular smash-hit movies of the 21st century is “Gladiator.” The movie is about Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) who takes power and demotes Maximus (Russel Crowe), one of his father’s favorite generals. Maximus is forced to fight as a common gladiator until death.
Twenty years later, “Gladiator” remains a classic, having won best picture at the Oscars for its scenes shot in Ouarzazate, along with other awards.
“Gladiator” was shot for three weeks in Ouarzazate, using the Atlas Film Studios and Ksar Ait-Ben-Haddou as filming locations for their historical elements that embodied the producer’s vision.
The 1997 movie “Kundun” is a biographical film by Melissa Mathison and directed by Martin Scorsese. The film tells the life of the 14th Dalai Lama, through the eyes of the exiled political and spiritual leader of Tibet.
“Kundun” was shot at the Atlas Film Studios, where the producers tried to make it as accurate and authentic as possible to Tibet.
The project lasted fifteen weeks in Ouarzazate, where the crew and many Moroccan workers tried to recreate an authentic Tibet. They built the streets of the Tibetan capital Lhasa, the entrance of the Dalai Lama’s residences, the Potala Palace, and the Norbulingka.
The Mummy is a thrilling and suspenseful movie about the adventurer Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) and Egyptologist Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) in the ancient city of Hamunaptra, where they stumble upon a 3,000-year-old tomb. Rick and Evelyn, along with other archaeologists, end up setting loose an evil mummy.
Although “The Mummy” is an Egyptian story, due to the political climate in Egypt at the time, the producers decided Morocco, Ouarzazate was the next best option for filming.
The pure beauty of the Ait Ben-Haddou fortress and the surrounding mountains, cliffs, and huge sand dunes made Ouarzazate the perfect filming location.
Ouarzazate has become one of the most prominent and important shooting locations in Morocco and the world, with several blockbuster movies under its belt making it a globally-recognized cinematic site.