Rock the Kasbah at Ait Ben Haddou, Morocco

Ksar Ait Ben Haddou, near Ouarzazate, Morocco

Ksar Ait Ben Haddou, near Ouarzazate, Morocco

Click to see tours that include visits to Ait Ben Haddou.

About a 30-minute drive from Ouarzazate, Morocco, or a long day-trip from Marrakech, Ait Ben Haddou is a fortified village (ksar) in south-central Morocco. It’s only one of many ksars built by the indigenous Amazighen (Berbers) in the area, but, thanks to its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a setting for a long list of Hollywood films, this ksar, unlike its fellows, is well preserved. It sits in the southern foothills of the High Atlas Mountains on the old trade route between the Sahara desert and Marrakech. Continue reading

Jemaa el Fna Square, Marrakech

Jemaa el Fna Square, Marrakech, Morocco

Jemaa el Fna Square, Marrakech, Morocco

Jemaa el Fna square on the edge of the souk of Marrakech is short-attention-span theater en plein air. Early in the day, it can be almost sleepy, with scattered peddlers and juice venders, but as the sun drops in the sky the place begins to sizzle and pop. If there was a lid, it would blow right off. A throbbing mass of humanity swims around the food stalls, story tellers, musicians, acrobats, sellers of potions, magicians, tooth-pullers, henna artists, snake charmers, monkey guys, and vendors of all sorts. A good share of the throbbing mass is tourists, either intoxicated by the surging energy or dazed and confused by it, but the square really belongs to the people of Marrakech. While there’s no shortage of really tiresome and pushy peddling, taken as a whole, Jemaa el Fna is a sanctuary of authentic culture, and has, in fact, been declared so by UNESCO. Continue reading

Gnawa: Sacred Music of Morocco


Historically, the term Gnawa (Gnaoua in French) refers to the descendants of black slaves in Morocco, the mystical Islam they practice, and the music used in their religious ritual.

Slaves were brought into Morocco from Sub-Saharan West Africa beginning around the end of the 16th century. Enormous gold-wealth and thriving trade networks fueled two great empires, first Ghana (parts of modern Mauritania and Mali), from around the 8th century to the 11th century, and then the Empire of Mali, from the 11th century to the end of the 16th century. In 1591, Timbuktu, a major city of the Mali Empire and a center of Islamic scholarship, was conquered by mercenary armies for Morocco. Mali declined steadily from there and Morocco began to import its people to work as soldiers and imperial domestic slaves. Continue reading

Ecomusée Berbere, Ourika Valley, Morocco

photo credit Ecomusee Berbere, museeberbere.com

photo credit: Ecomusee Berbere, museeberbere.com

Visitors to Marrakech often take a day to venture into the High Atlas Mountains, which dominate the eastern horizon, less than an hour’s drive away. Besides mountain air and gorgeous scenery, they find many villages of the indigenous Amazigh people. (The Amazighen are better known as the Berbers, a name which derives from the ancient Greek or Roman for barbarian.)  Tafza is one such village, about 37km from Marrakech, on the edge of the Ourika Valley. It’s a typical Atlas village, friendly and scenic, with at least one notable distinction – the Ecomusée Berbere (Berber Ecomuseum).

This exceptional little cultural museum is housed in the restored ksar of a former caïd (castle of the tribal chief). The collection is well curated and includes rugs, tools, musical instruments, pottery, jewelry and fascinating antique photographs of Atlas village life in the early decades of the last century. The local hosts are knowledgeable and amiable guides and proud representatives of their heritage.

photo credit Ecomusee Berbere, museeberbere.com

photo credit: Ecomusee Berbere, museeberbere.com

photo credit Ecomusee Berbere, museeberbere.com

photo credit: Ecomusee Berbere, museeberbere.com

With advance reservation, guests can have a meal on the ksar’s large terrace, with broad mountain-valley views. Also with advance notice, more extensive experiences are available, such as traditional pottery workshops and walking tours of the village and environs.

photo credit Ecomusee Berbere, museeberbere.com

photo credit: Ecomusee Berbere, museeberbere.com

The Ecomusée Berbere is partnered with another fine museum, Maison de la Photographie in Marrakech, which we wrote about here.

What is a Riad?

A riad is a particular type of boutique hotel housed in a renovated, grand, old house in Morocco, mainly Marrakech and Fez. I’ll speak in general terms; with riads opening almost weekly now, there will certainly be some exceptions to this description. For a couple of decades now it has been quite trendy for Europeans to buy old riads and renovate them as vacation homes or guest houses. Now there are hundreds in Marrakech alone.

Continue reading