From Gladiator to Game of Thrones

The Hollywood of Morocco

It’s one of the most iconic images from HBO’s Game of Thrones. Daenerys Targaryen, ‘Khaleesi’, being lauded by the slaves she has freed outside the gates of the fictional city of Yunkai. But after the production crew and digital enhancers went home, it remained a real place.

Game of Thrones
Photo: copyright HBO – claimed as fair use.

Built entirely from reddish-brown earth, the actual town is called Aït-Ben-Haddou. It dominates the Tizi n’Tichka pass, near the Atlas Mountains in southern Morocco.

It sits astride one of the ancient trans-Saharan trade routes between Marrakesh and the Dra’a valley on the edge of the Sahara.

It was chosen because the nearby town, Ouarzazate (pronounced Wa-za-zat), is home to Atlas Studios, one of the largest film studios in the world.

Atlas opened in 1983 to host the Michael Douglas classic The Jewel of the Nile. Since then, around two hundred TV shows and films have been shot there, including The Mummy and Babel.

Russell Crowe’s Maximus went through gladiator training school not far from where Khaleesi defeated the Second Sons and freed their slaves.


Atlas and another studio, CLA, are known as ‘Ouallywood,’ or the Hollywood of Morocco. All the major Hollywood and Bollywood studios come here to shoot their desert epics.

They come because Morocco is both safe and cheap.

The studios can provide everything from Styrofoam Egyptian temples to plaster-cast Tibetan Palaces, as well as naturally authentic locations such as Aït-Ben-Haddou.

Local crews

Filmmakers can also find experienced local crews, such as builders, painters and electricians at half the cost of Europe or the United States.

Ouarzazate is poor and many of the 100,000 residents rely on the cinema industry for employment. Eighty per cent of movie staff on location are Moroccan.

When NBC’s marathon A.D. The Bible Continues filmed here, it employed some 600 local artisans for six months.

Making stories of epic proportion requires hundreds of extras. Many locals have appeared in some of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters, moonlighting from their jobs for $25 a day plus meals.

Atlas Studios also holds a government license allowing them to draft in the Moroccan army. For Kingdom of Heaven, they equipped three thousand Moroccan regular army soldiers with spears and sandals for a running battle scene across an imaginary Palestine.

Need a horse? Khaleesi’s famous albino stallion is actually called Spirit. She is stabled at Atlas’ animal training centre with two dozen camels and donkeys who also hope one day to become stars.

Berber warlords

Atlas Mountains
Photo: Ksar of Aït-Ben-Haddou. I’m standing top left.

The day I visited Aït-Ben-Haddou, I climbed to the kasbah overlooking the town while a local guide described all of this to me.

Looking down at the famous gates from Game of Thrones, he reminded me that the town had seen enough drama of its own in its three-hundred-year history.

He pointed south to the Sahara and told me about the caravans that came from Timbuktu, loaded with gold, ivory and slaves. They sheltered overnight at Aït-Ben-Haddou as protection from bandits.

He described a time when Morocco had no hotels, no tourists, no spa resorts: when it was wild, dangerous and saw few foreign visitors.

Berber warlords controlled the trade routes from their mountain eyries. I heard about their intrigues, their wars with the Sultan and about the European mercenaries who came to fight.

When I finally walked back down through the ancient town, through Daenerys’ gate, and past Russel Crowe’s gladiator school, I had the entire plot and characters for Lord of the Atlas in my head.

It is an evocative place.

Who knows. Perhaps they’ll shoot some scenes for the film of my novel there one day.


Footnote: If you love epic adventure, you may be interested in the story of Harry Delhaze. He is offered a small fortune to help the Sultan of Morocco quell a rebel uprising.

He battles the wild bandit armies of ruthless prophet-warlord, Bou Hamra, through the snows of the Atlas Mountains and the baking deserts of the Sahara.

And he finds himself in the fight of his life.




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About Colin

Colin Falconer
Colin Falconer is a best-selling author known for historical thrillers such as Silk Road, Harem, Fury, and Feathered Serpent. He has published over 30 books, which have been translated into 25 languages, distinguishing him as a prominent figure in historical fiction.

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