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Ait-Ben-Haddou : ksar and kasbah in Morocco

10 Jan

Ait-Ben-Haddou is located in the foothills on the southern slopes of the High Atlas (in the province of Ouarzazate). It is the most famous ksar in the Ounila Valley (Unesco heritage). It gathers an extraordinary ensemble of buildings, which offer a synthesis of the main types of pre-Saharan earthen construction techniques dating from the 17th century in the valleys of Dra, Todgha, Dadès, and Souss.

The site of Ait-Ben-Haddou was also one of the many trading posts on the commercial route linking ancient Sudan to Marrakesh by the Draa Valley and the Tizi-n’Telouet Pass. The family unit of the ksar (plural ksour) is a mainly collective grouping of earthen dwellings. The houses crowd together inside the high defensive walls and the community areas. The high walls are reinforced by angle towers each with a zigzag-shaped gate and pierced with a baffle gate. The community areas include the mosque, the medersa, the square, the grain threshing areas outside the ramparts, the collective sheep pens and stables, a loft-fortress up the hill and a silos, the market-place, caravanserai, and cemeteries (a Muslim one and a Jewish one).

Inside the ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou are modest houses, but appear also small urban castles (tighremt in Berber, or kasbah in Arabic). The kasbah of southern Morocco is the family unit of the wealthy classes. It has varied forms and multiple functions in relation to the context. It could be a palace-fortress as the seat of a local power. It could be a country house as well. For the country house, the ground floor is for agricultural purposes; the upper floors serve as living quarters (winter – upper portion, summer – lower portion). The kasbah develops around a central rectangular courtyard; it brings together four tall-fortified wings, topped by high angle towers and upper sections with decorative motifs in clay brick.

The earthen constructions have ramming mass worked into panel brick and bull header, ordinary moulded earth, clay brick, etc. They are perfectly adapted to the climatic conditions and in harmony with the natural and social environment. This habitat represents the culture of southern Morocco and a particular family of the pre-Saharan architecture. This culture is common to all countries of the Great Maghreb, Mauritania, and Libya. Unfortunately, this habitat becomes vulnerable due to the irreversible socio-economic and cultural changes.

In Ait-Ben-Haddou, I felt like 500 years ago. The streets with dust made me feel free of any time-passing boundaries. The moulded earth buildings and the oven built directly on the ground confirmed me that some traditions never die if people respect and keep them alive. Moroccans still live like this today and they are proud of their lifestyle. This was a cultural lesson for me when I saw people sleeping or cooking on the earthen pavement in a kasbah. They do it because they want to, not because they have no choice. They keep and respect their traditions, even if this means that maybe their progress is slow. Maybe, but their progress will be enriched with strong meanings and powerful roots.

Ait-Ben-Haddou: the ksar with the loft-fortress overlooking the mountain

Ait Ben Haddou: view from the loft-fortress (green fields and mountain background)

Ait Ben Haddou: traditional kasbah with high walls and angle towers

Ait Ben Haddou: old kasbah with high walls, corner towers, and decorative motifs in clay brick

Ait Ben Haddou: old kasbah – the kitchen

Ait Ben Haddou: traditional kasbah with high walls and angle towers

Ait-ben-Haddou: the old kasbah within the ksar

Ait-Ben-Haddou: traditional loom for making Berber carpets

Some more photos from Ait-Ben-Haddou:

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