Why is that so hard to say? Why can’t we stand together now, more than ever?
From the Marrakesh to the Sahara: A Desert Journey, Spanish Travelers, and Tracing Jewish History in the Ancient Hills 🐪
A road trip from Marrakesh to the Sahara: Camels, COVID, new friends—and History
The road from Marrakesh to the Sahara was long, hot, and winding.
I found myself first thing on a Monday morning—having not been able to sleep past 4:45—in a cab to the main square where I boarded one of several tour vans to head east, toward the Algerian border.
I quickly discovered I was the only American; it was almost all young travelers from Spain, a couple from Italy, sisters from Germany, and another couple folks from Chile (who weren’t together, one of them was with a man from Spain and they live near Barcelona). So my Spanish quickly had to come out again during this weird, wild, 3-day, 2-night caravan adventure.
This is what I live for: Being the only American, in new places, in new environments. Learning history, language, and culture. And in this case, thinking I’d left the Jewish history behind in the cities: Discovering Jewish sights and peoples.
Hop on this camel with me for more!
One of our first stops was Ksar Ait Ben Haddou, a village and kasbah southeast of Marrakesh. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is fantastic, and the site of numerous movie sets; you may recognize this seasonly dry riverbed as the location at the end of season 3 of Game of Thrones, where liberator Khalesi is held aloft by grateful brown people (oy). Gladiator shot here, and it’s an impressive view and structure.
You climb up the hill through the main gate and meet a winding, small city, and here I had my first surprise: more Jewish art, and most of it much more impressive and larger than in the Medina of Marrakesh.
I had seem similar finds north of the Medina when visiting the Jardin Majorelle-Yves Saint Laurent Mansion in Marrakesh, things taken from smaller villages and marked way up on a trendy-ass street:
This desert site felt old, isolated, and I recognized it from Thrones. And to my surprise there was the site of an old synagogue, our guide made sure to show me; long since closed, there were bottled drinks for sale on its steps.
What surprised me here (above) is the sheer amount of Jewish finds in a small village in the middle of nowhere. It’s a big tourist stop, to be sure, but it was like this all over Morocco (see: Marrakesh, and Morocco’s long Jewish history at my last post).
We trekked on, sweaty and tired, seeing a strange filming location in the desert—Cinema Studio Atlas studios—before settling into the Dadès Gorges for the night, a small stop in the winding hills with lots of greenery and a small river.
The stars were incredible that night; probably the most awe-inspiring thing I saw in Morocco. I peaked out my wooden window in the dead of the night, the furthest from light pollution I’d been in the better part of a decade, and impressively darker than I’d seen in a long dead while.
That night was filled with a quick rest before dinner at our hostel: The standard mint tea, meat in a clay pot, and salads, followed by live music and dancing.
I was the first to bed—not only the only American, but also the oldest—and soon to catch COVID. The entire time on the tour van I thought, Great, here’s where I finally get COVID. It was the most people I had been around and in the smallest space and for the longest amounts of time, and unmasked after we’d all traveled all over to be here.
The next morning, Tuesday, we set out for Tinghir, a picturesque valley where we toured the fields of wheat and fruit before exploring the old Kasbah and Medina. The hillside views and river valley we saw beyond the city were splendid.
Finally, after a long push, we made it to the resort town of Merzouga, where the sand really began, to head out into the dunes of the Sahara. As we made the last winding turns through town, I caught a quick glimpse of two Jewish men outside: tzitzit hanging from under their shirts, curly payot from their ears, kippot on their heads, and smoking.
Even after all this time and out in the middle of nowhere, hanging on the sandy edge of the desert: Jewish community and life.
We repacked what we needed just for one night in a tent and I quickly found myself on the front camel. There were three women from Spain from another tour van with me, the camels tied in groups of four.
And what a view it was. It was also an epic pain in my ass; seriously, I was sore to the touch for a week. I kept needing to stretch my hips while balancing on Camal (Camal al-Hariz, I named her; say it aloud).
Here, on the 3-hour journey, the sand started whipping up and my allergies began and still haven’t quit. Mercifully, we set out around 6pm and clouds came in, so even though it was 43 C (110 F) it was dry and not bad.
There are no real words for the ride out, leaving behind any trace of buildings, steering up and over the first big san dunes, golden and rippled, until that’s all you can see in every direction.
I was stunned by it, and how ancient it all is, and wondered about the ancestors—the Jews who came before me—heading east to west and back again across this stretch, even if only from the port cities.
Next up: Fes, my favorite stop in Morocco, and braving having COVID (and not knowing it). Shabbat Shalom. Photo galleries below.