Morocco fortress village hopes to draw ‘Game of Thrones’ fans

The city of Essaouira also formed the backdrop to scenes from the series but there, too, Moroccan tourism promoters are yet to capitalise on the connection.
Sunday 23/02/2020
A man sits atop the ancient fortress of Ait-Ben-Haddou where scenes from the HBO series "Game of Thrones" were filmed, south of Morocco's Atlas Mountains. (AFP)
A man sits atop the ancient fortress of Ait-Ben-Haddou where scenes from the HBO series "Game of Thrones" were filmed, south of Morocco's Atlas Mountains. (AFP)

Ait-Ben-Haddou- Millions of people worldwide may have seen the desert fortress in the fantasy series “Game of Thrones” but few know they can visit the Moroccan village of Ait-Ben-Haddou.

The fortified old settlement at the foot of the majestic Atlas Mountains enchanted audiences in the HBO series and served as a dusty backdrop in Ridley Scott’s epic swords-and-sandals film “Gladiator.”

However, unlike other famous locations from movie and television history, this UNESCO World Heritage Site has missed out on a mass influx of tourism, something some of its inhabitants are eager to change.

A tourist walks past the ancient fortress of Ait-Ben-Haddou. (AFP)
A tourist walks past the ancient fortress of Ait-Ben-Haddou. (AFP)

“Several people have told me that they came here to see the filming location of ‘Game of Thrones’,” said Ahmed Baabouz, a local tour guide. “There is tourism linked to cinema here but frankly we have not developed it to the extent it could be.”

Ait-Ben-Haddou is southern Morocco’s most famous fortress. Time seems to have stopped at the site overlooking a valley 30km from the town of Ouarzazate.

After passing through the imposing entrance, visitors navigate a labyrinth of winding alleys that lead to a public square where the settlement’s inhabitants once gathered.

There is a mosque and two cemeteries — one for Muslims and one for Jews. Most inhabitants have long since departed though, with a few homes converted into stalls selling handicrafts.

The fortress is an ideal film setting, located a short distance from the studios of Ouarzazate, the “Mecca” of Moroccan cinema. Productions ranging from “Lawrence of Arabia” to “The Mummy” have been filmed there.

More recently, scenes from “Game of Thrones” were shot at Ait-Ben-Haddou, with the site standing in for the fictional Yellow City of Yunkai, which is conquered by Daenerys Targaryen, a key character in the “Game of Thrones” universe.

Hammadi, 61, is a privileged witness to the location’s cinematic history.

“All of these productions have contributed to the reputation of the region,” he said, grinning widely.

Hammadi himself has appeared as an extra in several films. Like most people, he lives in a more modern home in a village on the other side of the valley but he returns to Ait-Ben-Haddou to welcome tourists.

On a wall at the entrance to Hammadi’s former home, photos bear witness to the projects he has worked on. One shows him dressed as an ancient Roman with director Ridley Scott on the set of “Gladiator.”

“We have a very rich cinematic heritage that we hope to use to attract tourists,” said tour guide Baabouz, who is 29.

However, “nothing indicates that ‘Game of Thrones’ was shot here,” he added.

A man stands overlooking the ancient fortress of Ait-Ben-Haddou. (AFP)
A man stands overlooking the ancient fortress of Ait-Ben-Haddou.(AFP)

On Morocco’s Atlantic coast, the city of Essaouira also formed the backdrop to scenes from the series but there, too, Moroccan tourism promoters are yet to capitalise on the connection.

In comparison, Northern Ireland, Malta and Dubrovnik in Croatia have attracted hordes of fans from around the world, drawn by their links to the “Game of Thrones” franchise.

To remedy this, Baabouz and other young people in the village are pooling their limited resources towards an ambitious project: a museum in the fortress, gathering photography from the productions filmed here.

US channel HBO has commissioned a prequel to “Game of Thrones,” called “House of the Dragon.” George R.R. Martin, the author of the books on which the series is based, wrote on his blog that filming would take place in Morocco.

(Agence France-Presse)

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