Strategically located Ouarzazate (war-zazat) has gotten by largely on its wits instead of its looks. For centuries, people from the Atlas, Drâa and Dadès Valleys converged to do business at Ouarzazate’s sprawling Taourirt Kasbah, and a modern garrison town was established here in the 1920s to oversee France’s colonial interests. The movie business gradually took off in Ouarzazate after the French protectorate left in the 1950s, and ‘Ouallywood’ movie studios have built quite a resume providing convincingly exotic backdrops for movies supposedly set in Tibet, ancient Rome, Somalia and Egypt. Since King Mohammed VI started visiting here and fixing up the roads, Ouarzazate has been developing quickly with vast new residential areas marked out to the south of town along with new condo-hotel complexes, a spacious pedestrian plaza and well-stocked supermarkets. With scores of agencies offering bikes, motorbikes and camels, this is an ideal launching pad for mountains, desert and gorges.
Ouarzazate is the largest city in south east Morocco. Previously, several other cities were its provincial subordinates, now it is known as the Big Ouarzazate. Located 540 kilometers from the capital, Rabat, and 205 kilometers from Marrakech, the region was comprised of about 56.000 habitants (2004 census). Aside from its demographics, Ouarzazate has many fascinating features that are of interest to tourists and aficionados of Morocco including city’s historic and economic composition as well as landmark sites such as cinema studios, Kasbahs and oases.
Etymologically, Ouarzazate is derived from the Amazigh words for ‘without’ (ouar), and ‘noise’ (zazt); essentially meaning a city without noise. Historically speaking, Ouarzazate is known for its role as a strategic and commercial junction between the south and the north. It is a site where different cultures and peoples meet. Ouarzazate has assumed a crucial strategic position since the French colonization (1956) when French powers chose it as a military base controlling the whole southeast region of Morocco.
Economically, Ouarzazate depends on simple agriculture and tourism. In terms of tourism, many sites including Kasbahs attract tourists thereby contributing to the development of the region’s economy. Interestingly, in the last few decades, Ouarzazate became a center for film production where many famous films such as Gladiator took place. The result of this relatively recent phenomenon is that Ouarzazate has become even more globally recognized and has drawn the attention of investors in tourism and cinema. To encourage and enhance this domain two studios were established for the sake of professional production of films.
Besides Kasbah Taourirt, Ksar ait Benhdou “Ait Benhadou Palace” is a popular must-see sight when visiting Ouarzazate. It is situated 30 km away from the center of Ouarzazate, it is a collection of adobe Kasbahs surrounded by a tall fortified wall. It is worth mentioning that Ait Benhdou Palace was considered a world heritage by UNESCO since 1987. Shots of the palace can be viewed in famous films such as Lawrence of Arabia, The Sheltering Sky, The rules of Engagement and the 2000 award winning “Gladiator”.
As a result of the growth of cinema in the region, two film studios were founded in Ouarzazate: the CLA and Atlas. The latter, located 5 kilometers (3.1 mi) west of the city of Ouarzazate, is the larger, better equipped and the most important of the two. It was founded in 1983 by entrepreneur Mohamed Belghmi who capitalized on the beauty of Ouarzazate landscapes. This studio is responsible for making the historic city ‘the Hollywood’ of Africa, producing famous films.