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Sahara

Day 12: Marrakesh to Ouarzazate

Michael Palin - SaharaAlmost the only time I went to the cinema with both my parents was to see biblical epics. The last one I remember us enjoying was called Sodom and Gomorrah, which, with lines like 'Beware the Sodomite patrols', was perfect for a young adolescent about to go away to an all-male boarding school. Only today do I find out that the Sodom that so impressed me in Sheffield forty-five years ago is the village I'm in today.

Like so many settlements on the old trade routes south, Aït Benhaddou was fortified by the warlords who controlled the High Atlas, the most famous of whom was T'hami El Glaoui, who ran southern Morocco as his own fiefdom right up until independence from the French in 1956. A multitude of picturesque towers rises from a rocky bluff overlooking a wide dry riverbed, at the top of which are the prominent ruins of an agadir, a fortified granary, its bastions now so eroded by the rain they look like melted candles.

This was a wealthy town, renowned for the beauty of its women as well as the splendour of its buildings, and when the clear sunlight catches the elegant tapered towers with the richly decorated patterns on their upper walls and archways I can understand why the tourists, and the film-makers, keep coming back.

I enter past the recently demolished arena from Gladiator and up into the streets, tapping walls every now and then to make sure they're real. The hardened clay pathways are narrow and picturesque and eerily tidy. There are no motor vehicles and, it seems, very few residents. The only shops are selling souvenirs and gifts for tourists. Aït Benhaddou is a sort of Sleeping Beauty - pretty, well preserved and oddly sterile, waiting for the next movie to bring it back to life.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 12
  • Country/sea: Morocco
  • Place: Aït Benhaddou
  • Book page no: 54

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