The Route of a Thousand Kasbahs

TH 01There is a section in Morocco that stretches from the mountains to the desert, following the course of the rivers through oasis after oasis that is both incredibly beautiful and depressing, this is famed trade route: The Route of a Thousand Kasbahs.

The Mountain roads that lead there weave around mountain tops and through valleys, some fertile and populated and others desolate and barren. Descending from the snow-capped mountains of the high atlas your eyes widen at the vast plain stretching to the horizon. Quickly you encounter a small village and have the first Kasbah pointed out to you - a crumbling wall and a partially collapsed tower.

A Kasbah is a fortified house and were important waypoints between the desert and Marrakech, owned by wealthy land owning families that offered protection to passing caravans. In the 21st century, a great many of the Kasbahs have been left to ruin with the families either moving on or building modern houses nearby. This is what make the route so depressing to view, once grand structures crumble neglected by the present one after the other.

What makes the route so incredibly beautiful are the rare Kasbahs that have been maintained, the stark simplicity of their design casting a foreboding shadow over any who approach. It is easy to imagine in centuries past a trader having some trepidation at approaching a Kasbah looking for protection or trade on the long journey, even more so to a bandit looking for a prize to steal.

TH 02One of the most famous of these Kasbahs that almost every tourist is taken to is Ait Benhadou located around 25 kilometres from Moroccco’s Hollywood, Ouzerzate. It is an intimidating fortified town built next to a river and onto a hill. It has an impressive field of view that would have been easily defended. It has also been used in several films including as a backdrop for Gladiator and Prince of Persia. The interior of Ait Benhadou is a series of alleys between buildings that have been co-opted as souvenir shops.

Ourzezate is the middle of the Route and is actually several towns that have been joined together to become a desert metropolis. It has numerous old sections linked by an array of new buildings designed to look old and new roads lined with stylistic artistic light poles. Ourzezate is a prized city for the current king, and has been the recipient of a massive amount of investment. The first decade of the 21st century saw numerous films made here, and in the last few years has become the site of a 500MW solar power plant.

40 Kilometres from Ourzezate in Skoura is a Kasbah truly worth visiting. Kasbah Amradil is well maintained and while not an operating Kasbah does operate as a museum offering informative tours, and a new hotel next to it. Our guide was enthusiastic taking us through the many rooms informing us of their design and historical functions. A part that I very much enjoyed was when we were guided to a tower and shown how to defend a Kasbah. The towers jut one metre out from the walls with a series of windows overlooking the wall and surrounding areas, maybe 10cms wide by 20cms high, while the interior of the window is much larger. It allows for a person in the tower to have an incredible field of view while placing themselves in very little danger of being seen. The windows are placed at distance to allow a person to move quickly between them, unseen from the outside. It is an elegant and efficient design. I heartily recommend that when you come to Moroccco, you take the time visit Kasbah Amradil and gain an appreciation for why the Kasbah was such an important part of Morocco’s history.

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From Ourzezate, we continue our way toward the desert passing through the Dades and Todra Gorges, incredibly beautiful valleys that were very important to the caravan trade.

The Route continues several hundred kilometres further to Rissani, the gateway to the desert, past more Kasbahs and towns. Along the highway mounds of dirt begin to appear, a few metres high and ten metres between, and then you notice that there are several rows of these mounds on each side of the highway. Ibrahim pulls over to a hut on the side of the road and we are introduced to the purpose of the mounds. Centuries ago, the locals dug an underground river stretching from the mountains to the oasis to ensure fresh water throughout the year and the mounds are the surface access points used in the creation. Each tunnel was dug by hand, and stretch for at around 20 kilometres. At first there was only one tunnel but then each family dug their own. The tunnels are now dry and make for an interesting historical footnote.

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A little later, Ibrahim stopped off at a Ksar to show us one of the great beauties and tragedies of modern Moroccan life. A Ksar is a fortified town that is still home for many families. Ksars are majestic structures, centuries old, traditionally built of quality mud and palm thatch, they are warm in the winter and cool in the summer, with many covered streets to protect from the elements, and slowly falling to ruin. As it is, parts of the city are in a state of collapse and when a section of the town collapses, the families in the affected area move from the Ksar to a nearby modern town. Each time a family moves, a part of this history is lost and within a generation or two they will be forgotten. Tourists do not visit these places which is a great shame as this is how many people still live, and if they were visited they could possibly earn enough money to repair and maintain the town.

Rissani is an old town, older than Fes, in centuries past caravans would converge from the desert and trade before taking the Route to Marrakech. When we visit, the markets are open. These markets operate three days a week and are still hugely popular for the remaining nomads as well as the surrounding villages. Much like those at Ida Ougourd you can get everything here, the biggest difference though is the size. Rissanni’s markets cover whole blocks and was once the largest market in North Africa. The blocks are divided by product: fresh vegetables, livestock (sheep and donkeys), textiles and homewares, there is even a block solely dedicated to dates. As with all good markets, there are small tents that offer lunch. We stopped at one and had Duez, a stew of vegetables and meat, which aside from being incredibly tasty, fed the three of us for 40MAD.

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From Rissani, we head out to Erg Chebbi, to experience the edge of the Sahara.

Other Experiences in Morocco:
Marrakech to Imil
A Walk in the Dades Gorge
A Night at Erg Chebbi, the Sahara 
The Middle Atlas
Northern Morocco and Gouffre du Friouato


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