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Famous Cities in Morocco Series (Episode 11 of 13): Ouarzazate

posted on: Sep 22, 2021

Famous Cities in Morocco (Episode 11 of 13): Ouarzazate
The magnificent Moroccan desert architecture of kasbahs in Ouarzazate. Photo: Agoda

By: Claire Boyle / Arab America Contributing Writer


The country of Morocco has so many interesting towns and cities as well as beautiful landmarks. From the astonishing city of Casablanca to Marrakech, Fes, and Rabat; Morocco has everything one might hope to experience. These places boast historical monuments, such as the Hassan II Mosque, the Jemaa el-Fnaa, and many others. In this article series, we will be featuring cities and landmarks in Morocco that are historically and culturally significant. In this eleventh installment, we will be traveling to Ouarzazate. We will learn about a magnificent kasbah town and a movie studio. These landmarks include the Kasbah Ait Ben Haddou, one of Morocco’s most famous kasbah towns. The Atlas Corporation Studios is also located there, where numerous exciting movies have been filmed. Finally, we will learn about the history of the cities as well as some of their famous and associated landmarks.

Historical Synopsis and Background of Ouarzazate:

Famous Cities in Morocco (Episode 11 of 13): Ouarzazate
The Riad Ouarzazate, a guest house in the city. Photo: Riad Ouarzazate

Ouarzazate, Morocco has a very exciting history. The landscape is packed with desert scenes, beautiful architecture, tourist attractions, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ouarzazate is also famous for two things; its close location to the Sahara desert and the myriad of movies that have been shot in the city. In fact, Ouarzazate is sort of like a mini-Hollywood with all the movies that have been filmed there.

Ouarzazate traces its historical roots to before the 16th century, yes, that is right, the 1500s! For most of its history, Ouarzazate served as a trading post for “African traders who were going to northern Morocco and Europe,”. Morocco was later occupied by the Spanish and the French. It was under France’s rule that Ouarzazate expanded again to become a “garrison town, administrative center, and a customs post,”. During this time period, the “Kasbah Taourirt became very famous as the home of Thami El Glaoui”. The man was known as the ‘Lord of the Atlas’. Glaoui was also very famous because his family was high-ranking within the Moroccan government since he was a tribal leader. He sort of became like a local governmental and administrative figure. Glaoui was also responsible for writing some of the history in another Moroccan town, Taliouine, where he established yet another kasbah.

Historical Landmarks—Kasbah Ait Ben Haddou and the Atlas Corporation Studios:

Kasbah Ait Ben Haddou:

Famous Cities in Morocco (Episode 11 of 13): Ouarzazate
The stunning desert fortress scenes of the Kasbah Ait Ben Haddou. Photo: Viator

Kasbah Ait Ben Haddou is a “fortified village or ksar which was on the former caravan route between the Sahara Desert and Marrakech,”. Since 1987, the United Nations has declared it to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today, it is an exciting place for tourists to come to visit! Both the village and the “kasbah itself are considered to be amazing examples of Moroccan earthen clay architecture,”. It dates to the 11th century under the Almoravid period. Historically, the site was a stopping point on sub-Saharan transportation routes. In the modern-day, Ait Ben Haddou’s population has significantly decreased, since it is no longer needed as a resting place for travelers and traders going to the Sahara Desert.

Nevertheless, Ait Ben Haddou has been restored. And it is sometimes used as a filming location for various Hollywood movies. It is furthermore maintained for its distinguished status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As one can see, the buildings are beautifully constructed, and many are still standing to this day. The building is made out of the following materials: “rammed earth, adobe, clay bricks, and wood,”. Finally, Ait Ben Haddou is a complex that boasts a village, the kasbah itself, a bridge, granary, and numerous houses. It is truly a sight to behold and an extravagant piece of Moroccan history!

Atlas Corporation Studios:

Famous Cities in Morocco (Episode 11 of 13): Ouarzazate
The Atlas Corporation Studios, a famous filming location in Ouarzazate, Morocco. Photo: The Studio Tour

Atlas Corporation Studios was started as a film studio in Ouarzazate, Morocco in 1983 by entrepreneur Mohamed Belghami. The city of Ouarzazate has for the longest time been recognized as a prime filming location. Numerous movies have benefited from the beautiful desert architecture, kasbahs, and its exquisite natural features. In fact, one could argue that Ouarzazate could be called ‘Little Hollywood’. Many famous films have been filmed in this amazing city, and the Atlas Corporation Studios continues to flow with business.

The concept of Atlas Corporation Studios originally came from the “British movie director, David Lean. He chose Ouarzazate as Lawrence of Arabia’s filming site in 1962,” and the idea stuck. The Atlas Corporation Studio officially became a filming studio in 1983. It also now serves as a museum which you can tour if you are ever in Ouarzazate. You are probably wondering, “what movies were filmed here?” Let me tell you, there were a lot! These movies include: “The Jewel of the Nile, the 2019 remake of Aladdin, The Mummy, Gladiator, Babel, Atlantis, and even famous television shows such as Game of Thrones and Prison Break”! Talk about amazing!

To see a tour of the Atlas Corporation Studios:

A walking tour of the Atlas Corporation Studios in Ouarzazate, Morocco. Video: YouTube


Famous Cities in Morocco (Episode 11 of 13): Ouarzazate
A beautiful gate or ‘bab’ in Arabic in Ouarzazate, Morocco. Photo: TripAdvisor

In conclusion, thank you for joining me on this eleventh episode of the series “Famous Cities in Morocco”. This time, we journeyed to the wondrous city of Ouarzazate. In my opinion, it is one of the most stunning places on earth due to its amazing architectural style and because of the numerous famous movies that have been filmed there! Stay tuned for the next installment featuring the amazing snowy city of Ifrane! I hope you got to learn a little bit more about the majestic landscapes and landmarks that Morocco has to offer. If you are ever in Ouarzazate, I highly recommend you visit the city, the exquisite village of Ait Ben Haddou, and finally, take a walk around the Atlas Corporation Studios. I promise you will not be disappointed!

This is the eleventh installment in a series of thirteen focusing on cities in Morocco with an emphasis on its history and famous landmarks. Each article will feature a(n) historical synopsis about the city and 2 to 3 significant landmarks. Keep an eye out for the next article about Ifrane coming soon. Thank you for reading!

To read episode 10 which features the city of Chefchaouen, the Grand Mosque, and the Medina of Chefchaouen, please click here!

Check out Arab America’s blog here!