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.
Built entirely from reddish-brown earth, the actual town is called Aït-Ben-Haddou, and 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. It opened in 1983 to host the Michael Douglas classic The Jewel of the Nile. Since then, around 200 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,’ as 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.
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, and 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, and she is stabled at Atlas’ animal training centre, with two dozen camels and donkeys who also hope one day to become stars.
The day I visited Aït-Ben-Haddou, I climbed to the kasbah overlooking the town while a local guide described all of this.
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. He told me 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.
Colin Falconer action-adventure books are available on AMAZON in e-book ($3.99 in USA and £2.99 in UK) and in paperback. Most are also in Kindle Unlimited.
EPIC ADVENTURE SERIES:
‘A fantastic read’. Wilbur Smith.
2000+ five-star reviews.
Translated into 25 languages.
This is adventure on a breath-taking scale, evoking the beautiful and the barbaric of nineteenth-century Morocco, and transporting the reader to a now-lost world.
What Amazon readers are saying:
”This would make a great movie.” ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
”Grips you from start to finish.” ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
“Wonderful book. This story is about two Englishmen who go to North Africa to work for a Sultan as the head of his artillery. They are thrust into the politics of the region and are captured by enemies of the Sultan. A fast paced book.” ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
”Intrigue, betrayal, brutality all pervade this well written novel. Forbidden love appears in a most surprising way, but remains unfulfilled. Very enjoyable read.” ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
”Mr Falconer keeps true to fans with a well written fiction of Moroccan life at the end of the 19th century. The story is fast paced and the characters believable (and some are ruthless). As I get older I find it harder to find a “couldn’t put is down” book but Lord of the Atlas was pretty close. Great story” ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
”A ripping yarn. A proper adventure. Brutal and captivating.” ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
“A grand adventure story of a man who has lost his way and found himself in of all places…Morocco. A painful journey with moments of humor, an old and faithful friend and a little wisdom. I highly recommend this book as a must read. Kudos to the writer.” ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
“Another Rip Roaring Historical Adventure from the Master. Once you start to read a Colin Falconer historical novel be prepared to give up whatever you planned for the next several days, as you will be enthralled and unable to put it down. This one is no exception. Exciting, interesting, set in an exotic location, wrapped in history, and a fast paced thrilling adventure, all result in high entertainment for the reader. Highly recommended and after you finish this one, keep going with others by Colin Falconer. None will disappoint.” ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️