Southeastern Morocco has an unusually dense concentration of ruins. As we drove through the Dadès and Draa valleys, we spotted countless crumbling rammed-earth buildings dotting the countryside. They ranged from lonely houses surrounded by nothing but rocky desert to complex ksour (fortified towns; “ksar” is the singular) with walls, gates and towers. Most were long since abandoned and slowly melting back into the earth, yielding to rare but damaging rains. I suspect that none but the most famous of these ruins will survive the next 50 years.
Climbing the side of a mesa along the Asif Ounila River, this magnificent ksar dating back some 400 years is in no danger of disappearing: it draws buses of tourists every day. It has also been preserved for posterity in numerous films, including “Gladiator,” “Alexander” and “Babel.” From afar, Ait Ben Haddou looks like an apparition from another era, a cluster of cubic mud-walled buildings above a valley verdant with olives, palms and cypresses. Terraces inside the ksar afford magnificent views of its towers — some restored, some collapsing — backdropped by the shimmering valley. The main route up to the mesa’s panoramic top is crowded with tourists, but even in busy Ait Ben Haddou, it’s possible to find quiet side streets.
The valley around this once-important caravan stop contains innumerable old kasbahs (fortified mud-walled structures), with towers in various states of disrepair rising above the palm groves. Our guide took us inside one of the abandoned buildings, which had a layout almost identical to the kasbah of Dar Ahlam. “People own this kasbah,” he explained, “but too many people own it, and no one wants to pay for repairs. Also, no one wants to live in a building like this anyway.” We also visited the restored Kasbah Amridil, large enough to rank as a small ksar, where we got a better sense of how kasbah interiors looked. Some of the reed ceilings were original, and some of the walls still bore black smoke stains.
This centuries-old ksar just southwest of Tassawant does not appear in any guidebooks — for the moment. A swath of gardens and palms separates the new town from the old, which has been mostly, but not entirely, abandoned. Past an algae-clogged reflecting pool by the mosque, we discovered multistory rammed-earth buildings lining narrow, silent alleyways. Some of their wood doors were locked, others were tantalizingly cracked open. As we wandered alone — our driver had stayed behind at the mosque — we noticed footprints in the dirt and wondered who might be looking down at us from the dark windows above.
Some alleys led straight inside ruined kasbah-style houses, allowing us to explore their interiors, and elsewhere, I worked up the courage to push open a door or two. Some of the houses had been abandoned relatively recently, judging by their good condition, but inside they showed no signs of modernity. Eventually we found the small main square, where one of the façades featured an enigmatic inscription in the ancient Berber alphabet. A haunting wind swirled the dust, and it occurred to me how very few places like this still exist in the world.