Morocco Travel The Road to One Thousand Kasbahs
Kasbahs (Kasbah or Ksar in the singular) are mesmerizing and beautiful crenulated castles that can be found throughout the Draa Valley, in the Atlas Mountains and when traveling in Morocco to the Sahara Desert. Morocco’s Kasbahs are fortified tribal villages that were built hundreds of years ago out of the mud- clay pisé of the riverbanks by the Berbers of Morocco. An indigenous development of the Berber populations, Moroccan Kasbahs are monumental in design and decorated, with bold geometric patterns incised or painted on the exterior walls and slanted towers.
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In the 1800’s wealthy families and warlords had individual Morocco Kasbahs built. Like the fortress itself, a private Kasbah, Ksar, was windowless yet had towers and pillboxes used to escape enemies or fight off attacks. Unlike Kasbahs, ksars housed single families versus a whole village. Before the 1920’s, many Kasbah homes were located less than 300 meters away from one other.
For strategic purposes, many Morocco Kasbahs were placed near harbor entrances or built on top of hills. Even though Kasbahs are built out of sun dried pisé bricks (mud, palm bark, waste, water, or any other discarded materials available), many of the Kasbahs in southern Morocco have lasted longer than a hundred years.
Kasbahs have an inevitable fate of crumbling to destruction, particularly in the South, as Kasbahs are dry and the South often experiences droughts. While many Kasbahs in Morocco are currently being restored by the government and often purchased by foreigners and made into hotels, time and nature are sure to get the best of these crenulated dwellings. Kasbahs are fascinating and offer not only a look at Morocco’s historical past but make up and earthy vacation experience as they sit just below the blue sky’s so make it a point to tour Southern Morocco where you can visit some of these captivating, honey colored fortresses.
A Morocco Travel Guide: Unravel the Mysteries of Morocco’s Kasbahs in the Southern Oases
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“See Ouarzazate and die” is how many urban Moroccans respond to any mention of this pre-Saharan destination. Ouarzazate is also referred to as the door to the Sahara Desert was initially a garrison town. Its strategic position at the crossroads of the roads of Marrakesh and Agadir, of the South and the East, decided its creation in 1928.Ouarzazate has become the center of Sahara tourism and has many luxury hotels. Ouarzazate has also served as the centre of international film makers, when shooting desert and semi desert scenes. Among famous films shot around Ouarzazate are The Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia and The Sheltering Sky. Ouarzazate has an international airport and is town of 45,000 people nestled near the DrâaValley. Primarily inhabited by Berbers this quiet and mystical place is only several hours from the Sahara and offers some of the best site seeing opportunities within Morocco. Within the town itself, you can visit the local Kasbah Taourirt built by the Glaoui. In the 1930’s, it was the largest Kasbah providing protection for members of the royal family.Kasbah Taourirt is one of the most impressive of its kind in Morocco. Its tightly packed houses and stately towers, made of a mixture of chalk and sand, melt almost imperceptibly into the surrounding red and ochre-coloured landscape. Like cubes of clay, the dwellings hide away from the unrelenting sun-a narrow doorway being the only connection with the outside world. Light and air come in through the central courtyard.
When traveling northeast in Morocco from Ouarzazate to Erfoud, you will eventually enter the Dadèsand be captured by some of Morocco’s southern beauty. Flanked alongside the High Atlas backdrops where snow tends to stay many a season, you will find black-red volcanic and limestone pinnacles. In the Dadès Valley and the Todra Gorge, you will find stunningly beautiful rock formations that are likely to steal your attention. Traveling in Southern Morocco is an alluring and unbelievably charming experience. There are historically important Kasbahs along the famous road called “The Road of One Thousand Kasbahs” that make a Saharan Moroccan vacation worth the long trek from abroad.
Thirty two kilometers from Ouarzazate, is the allegedly 16th century old Kasbah, Aït Benhaddou.The elaborate Kasbah is a UNESCO protected fortress, and was given Hollywood qualities when it made an appearance in the film Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence of Arabia was filmed here and Orson Welles used it as a location for Sodom and Gomorrah and for Jesus of Nazareth the whole lower part of the village was rebuilt.
The Kasbah is more elaborate and better preserved of all the Kasbahs. Although it is not the best place to see traditional Kasbah life, as it less fortified than other Kasbahs in the Drâa and Dades, it is one of the most spectacular sights of the Atlas, piled upon a low hillock above a shallow, reed-strewn river. Its collections of Kasbahs are among the most elaborate and best preserved. The area that surrounds Aït Benhaddou(Marrakesh through Telouet to Ouarzazate) was originally a route for caravans carrying salt across the Sahara and those who travelled it often returned with gold, ivory and slaves from the coast of West Africa. Today many agrarian Moroccan families have made homes in Aït Benhaddou.
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South to Zagora: Drâa Kasbahs
Within the Drâa oasis there are Kasbahs well over a hundred years old that are typically single family homes (ksour). While Kasbah viewing in the Drâa Valley is a wonderful sight, half the experience is being in this spacious landscape that is sure to compete for your attention.
Drâa ksours are characteristic of being stronger, higher, flatter and outlasting more attacks than other Kasbahs. Ksours are unique as they are often decorated with gold geometric patterns painted on the exterior walls and towers. Ksours are typically located in groves of palms and several hours away from the roads. The first DrâaKasbahs were located four kilometers past Aït Saoun.
Along the route to Zagora, a main destination for many, there is many opportunities to spend the night in a Kasbah hotel. Many of these Kasbahs have beautiful gardens overlooking sunsets and pools. Kasbah hotels are found everywhere along the “Road of One Thousand Kasbahs” and are the perfect place to stay that will enhance your Kasbah adventure.
Zagora To M’hamid
About thirty kilometers south of Zagora, the Drâa turns into a fertile area. At seventy-five kilometers, you will have a chance to see ksours wrapped in a greenery of palms in Oulad Driss, an area of M’hamid el Gouzlane (plains of the Gazelle). In Zagora, you catch the sunset falling over the sand dunes of Tinfou and even request that your guide bury you within these sacred sands that have been known to ward of rheumatism and prevent ailments. This is the last stop before entering the Sahara desert.
Skoura and Tinerhir are the two of the most beautiful oases in Morocco and are both situated on the “Road of One Thousand Kasbahs”. After exploring the Todra Gorge, be sure to experience any of the dozens of Dades Kasbahs.
The Kasbahs within the Dades oasis lay claim to the harshest terrain of the southern valleys and are considered modern because the first ones were destroyed in the 1920’s and 1930’s during France’s pacification attempts.
In the Skoura oasis, the largest, most renowned Kasbah is the 17th century Kasbah Amerhidl. Kasbah Amerhidl is one of the grandest and most extravagantly decorated. The owners’ family lives there from time to time so it is well maintained. It is a photographers dream shot and has been featured in books, travel brochures and is also on the Moroccan fifty dirham note.
Groves of almond, olive, and fig trees surround the magnificent structure. If you continue southwest, Kasbah viewing opportunities include the 17th -18th century Kasbahs:Aït Sisi el Mati, Kasbah el Kabbaba and the isolated Kasbah Ben Amar. If you head northwest you will be captured by the beauty of Kasbah Aït Ben Abou, the second most impressive Kasbah of the Skoura oasis.
The “Road of A Thousand Kasbahs” is a long and incredible route; there are many Kasbahs and ksours to choose from during your journey to the Sahara.
When choosing travel dates, consider spring or autumn. Summer temperatures, particularly around Zagora or Rissani- Merzouga can be intolerable as they can easily go over 122 degrees.
Camel Trekking in Morocco (Méharrées)
Moroccan Camel treks offer a unique way to travel the south as you explore nomadic villages and Kasbahs situated in palm groves, surrounding valleys, mountainous landscapes, gorges and sandy Saharan dunes. The charm of camel trekking is that it will help you to gain insight into how Moroccans traveled through the desert for decades and centuries before. This requires much time so if time is of an essence opt for a 4×4 land cruiser and a guide.
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Camels can be rented anywhere from an hour to a few weeks and you have the choice of trekking in a group, with a private guide or on your own. The best time to trek is September to February.
Although camel trekking is not the most luxurious way to travel, the experience is one of a kind as it guarantees an adventurous way to see the south and the Sahara. While camel trekking is available in Northern Morocco, the South is the most popular. Some of the best places to travel by camel are the Zagora, M’hamid and Merzouga.
Zagora, known for its sunsets and breathtaking valleys, is a common place to begin a camel trek. Zagora is also famous for being a base to travel to Timbuktu; on one of Zagora’s streets, is a famous sign stating “52 days to Timbuktu”.
In the 9th century, traders went back and forth on this Saharan Caravan Route, which went from Zagora to Timbuktu in fifty-two days. Traders carried salt, gold, slaves and spices. Its main destination point was Sijiilmassa, present day Rissani (Merzouga).
If you are feeling especially adventurous, follow in their 9th century footsteps and make the journey. Don’t forget to stop at one of the Berber villages along the way and try some fresh baked wheat bread or couscous.
M’hamid El Djedid, now referred to as M’hamid was once an important market place for nomadic and trans-Saharan trade. M’hamid has one of the two sand seas in Morocco where you can camel trek. The most easily accessible dunes are those at Erg Lehoudi (Dunes of the Jews) which can be reached by camel or piste with a 4×4. There are also the Erg Chegaga sand dunes which are remote and more difficult to reach than the Erg Chebbi dunes of Merzouga. While the journey to the dunes takes about two days, it is a true reward to arrive and see this protected area inhabited by the traditional semi-nomadic Aït Atta Berbers. For an authentic Sahara experience Erg Chegaga’s dunes are worth the visit. This area also offers a café-lined square in the center of the town and a Monday souk to explore.
The Erg Chebbi dunes at Merzouga are indisputably one of the greatest sights of Morocco. These giant hills of smooth sand line the Algerian border and are a must see for everyone. Camel trekking at sunrise or an overnight adventure to an oasis in Merzouga is one of the most enchanting and memorable experience one can have in the Sahara. An overnight trip to sleep in a bivouac (Berber tent) by an oasis will give you the true feeling as to how the Berbers have lived and still live today nomadically.
Merzouga also offers several local small auberges (hotels) where you can stay the night or several if you are spellbound by the mystical golden dunes of Chebbi that rise dramatically fifty meters from the desert floor. All of the auberges offer local Moroccan fare and mint tea – dining at sunset or in the pitch dark by the dunes is a peaceful experience. The sand dunes of Erg Chebbi at thirty miles seem endless, so if you are in the Sahara during spring, autumn or winter try camel trekking for a few days and live the life of a desert dweller.