Raise your hand if you ever walked into a new place and suddenly felt a sense of familiarity. I recall once walking along a certain footbridge in Paris while visiting for the first time and pausing with a strange, almost eery, feeling of déjà vu. I had been here before, I was sure of it. I knew where this path led, I knew the colour of the sidewalk, the existence of a small bike lane – I knew it all yet I'd never set foot in Paris before. Turns out, this was the location of a key scene in Inception, a film I've practically memorized line by line. While my moment happened in Paris, there are plenty of Hollywood films shot all over the Middle East and North Africa; these are just a few of the iconic ones that've been filmed in places that may hopefully point you to your next travel adventure – cinephile or not.
Hollywood filmmakers just love Morocco, particularly the village of Aït Benhaddou (which you find in several entries below). They have been flocking there since the 1950s when Orson Wells shot his Othello in 1951. Since then, a lot of other great directors have followed suit like Alfred Hitchcock with The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) and the great David Lean directed Lawrence of Arabia (1962, dir. David Lean) starring Peter O'Toole and Omar Sherif in the Moroccan desert. More recently, films Babel (2006, dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu) and American Sniper (2015, dir. Clint Eastwood) have used Morocco as their backdrop. Almost every inch of Morocco has been part of or planned for in a plethora of blockbusters starring our favourite heartthrobs, femme fatales, and action heroes.
Yet it's not just its beauty and diverse landscapes that have made filmmakers flock to Morocco; the country is famous for facilitating filmmaking process far more so than its regional counterparts, so much so that it will sometimes double as other countries like it did for Egypt in the Mummy franchise, or even Mombasa, Kenya in Inception. As we dive into our list of Morocco locations, it's worth mentioning a common thread among many of them is director extraordinaire Ridley Scott who seems to come back to Morocco time and time again – we think the reason might be the local Tajin plates that are unrivaled anywhere else, but we'll keep that as a close second for now.
Director: Ridley Scott
Release date: 2000
Location: Aït Benhaddou, near Ouarzazate
We all remember that gut-wrenching moment when our favorite Roman general was betrayed and sold into slavery (no, you're the one still tearing up 19 years later) only to arrive at an African village where he moonlights as a gladiator. That's the town of Aït Ben Haddou, which also happens to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A small village clad with sun-dried brick homes on the route between the Sahara and Marrakech, the production team used the village as is in the film, only adding the gladiatorial arena where Russel Crowe delivered his famous line: "Are you not entertained?" Since filming Gladiator, director Ridley Scott has returned to Morocco time and time again, filming the Black Hawk Down (2001) starring Matt Damon, Kingdom of Heaven (2004) starring Orlando Bloom, and Body of Lies (2008) starring Leonardo Di Caprio and Russel Crowe. This love even extended to his brother, the late Tony Scott, who filmed and directed Spy Game (2001) starring Robert Redford and Brad Pitt in Morocco as well.
GAME OF THRONESRelease date: April 2011 - May 2019
Chances are, if you're reading this, you may have tuned into the Internet sometime in the past decade and come across the world's favourite and most pirated TV show – that's right, Game of Thrones (GOT) spent some time in Morocco as well. Now, before you continue reading, take a second to jog your memory and see if you can guess which parts of the show could have been shot there; we'll wait. Essaouria which doubles as Astapor in the world Game of Thrones.
Essaouria, famously dubbed Windy City of Africa, doubled as Astapor where (spoiler alert!) our favorite dragon whisperer Daenerys Targaryen exchanges one of her dragons for 8,000 unsullied soldiers. One of the city's main attractions, the ramparts, served as the backdrop for Astapor's Walk of Punishment. If you're ever in town, you can swing by for a walk of punishment of your own with no entrance fees! However, for the best views of this majestic town, there is none other than the Sqala du Port – a tower located at the end of the famous rampart; for a small fee of 60 dirhams you get access the top of the tower – and the top of your Instagram game, because it's just #views from there. The rest of the town's beautiful architecture has much a European influence yet stays authentically Moroccan, with its souks bustling with merchants where your haggling skills will be put to the test.
Location: Aït Benhaddou
Aït Ben Haddou (minus a Roman gladiator arena) played the role of Yunkai, the same city that Daenerys besieged shortly after she acquired the 8,000 soldiers from Essaouria –– err, Astapor. You can definitely see that there was a lot of CGI work done to make the town a bit loftier, however, the city's surrounding walls, main gate, and inner streets served the production well as they were clearly seen all throughout. Did we already mention it was a UNESCO heritage site?Aït Benhaddou which doubles as Yunkai in the world of Game of Thrones. (via TablinumCarlson)
JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 - PARABELLUMDirector: Chad Stahelski
Release date: 2019
We could all relate and fell in love with John Wick as soon as (spoiler alert!) he started to avenge his puppy's murder. So it's no wonder that the film turned into a three-part franchise – so far. Parts of the third installment of the hit neo-noir action thriller John Wick were filmed on location in Morocco's Essaouria, where parts of the story also take place when Wick needs to escape some bad people in the aftermath of the second film.
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - ROGUE NATIONDirector: Christopher McQuarrie
Release date: 2015
The Mission Impossible franchise is well known for its incredibly intricate stunts, car chase scenes, explosive action, and – above all – Tom Cruise running towards the camera. For the fifth installment, the franchise took to the streets of Rabat and Casablanca to give us one of the most exhilarating chase scenes we've seen shot in the Arab world. Starting on the Casablanca-Marrakech Expressway, which was closed down for 14 days for filming, the car chase landed at the steps of the Kasbah of the Udayas in Rabat. The centuries-old Kasbah (or 'old city') is one of the staples of Rabat, with a 12th-century gate that serves as its entry point. A walk down its blue and white Rua Jammaa main street and you'll be left in awe at the colours, vibrance, and ambiance of the place. Declared a UNESCO heritage site in 2012, the Kasbah of Udayas houses museums, ancient alleyways, and terraces with some unparalleled views of the neighboring Bou Regreg river.
ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE
Director: Jim Jarmousch
Release date: 2013
This critical darling stars Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as centuries-old vampire lovers Adam and Eve who live in separate corners of the world – her in Tangier, him in Detroit – and reunite again when Adam is feeling melancholic and suicidal. The film was shot on location in the old fort of Casbah. What's notable here is that because the protagonists are vampires they only operate under the cloak of darkness, yet Jarmusch still finds a way to showcase the beauty of Tangier despite the lack of vibrant colours in each frame.via Project One Thousand
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
Over the past few years, the UAE has skyrocketed as a go-to destination for film directors. Its beautiful scenery and modern buildings serve as the perfect metropolitan city with all the bells and whistles but don't look like the kind of megacity audiences are accustomed to. The UAE is a recent attraction for Hollywood filmmakers, which started with Syriana, starring George Clooney, in which all of the desert shots were filmed in the Dubai desert, and Wall Street reboot Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps used the luxurious locations of Dubai as its backdrop.
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - GHOST PROTOCOLDirector: Brad Bird
Release date: 2011
An older entry in the Mission Impossible franchise featuring Tom Cruise running from sand storms, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol was one of the first Hollywood blockbuster films to be filmed in the UAE and garner much success.The very notorious (and very real) scene where Cruise climbs Burj Khalifa captured audiences from around the globe leaving them awestruck not only at the risky business happening with the actor but also at the Dubai landscape seen below. At the heart of Downtown Dubai, Burj Khalifa stands tall at 830 metres high and serves as the city's symbol and national pride. In the neighboring area, you'll find some of the best shopping destinations at Dubai Mall and the majestic Dubai Opera House with its incredibly modern architecture that will entice you to stare at it for a little bit longer than is socially acceptable, in a good way!
FAST AND FURIOUS 7Director: James Wan
Release date: 2015
Location: Abu Dhabi
The Fast and Furious franchise has been a major source of travel inspiration since its inception. From the very famous "tuna sandwich" in a small LA diner that kickstarted the events of the first film all the way to London and a supervillain looking for world domination, we've been riding shotgun and taking notes for our next cinema-inspired travel adventures. Shifting into its seventh gear, the franchise stopped by the shores of Abu Dhabi for some fun. Abu Dhabi lends itself well to a franchise like Fast and Furious, with its offering of all things luxury (cars, hotels, skyscrapers) in a manner not seen before on the big screen for the Arab World. The Etihad Towers on the corniche of Abu Dhabi beautifully accentuated by the golden sunset and sandy shoreline of the island (yes, Abu Dhabi is an island) were given just enough screentime for you to whip out your phone and book the next flight out. The infamous building-to-building car jump scene was written down in action movie history as one of the craziest ever done (at least in our books).via Cinewatt
Just down the street from Etihad Towers lives Emirates Palace, one of the world’s most luxurious hotels. Since this is a Hollywood blockbuster, we were able to suspend our disbelief as we watched our favourite stars stay in this Airbnb while on their mission to find the MacGuffin and blow something else up. Not seen in the movie was Marina Mall, one of the main shopping destinations in the area and just a few minutes away from the luxurious inn.
STAR TREK BEYONDDirector: Justin Lin
Release date: 2016
“We came looking for the future in Dubai, and we found it,” the film’s producer Jeffrey Chernov said in a press conference. The filmmakers went for Jumeirah Lakes Towers (JLT) as their prime spot, which goes to show how versatile Dubai is as a filming location for adrenaline-fueled action and Sci-Fi space operas. via James Edition
What's even more noteworthy is that the lake area in JLT is all man-made, which really highlights the lengths to which the UAE government has gone to make the city as diverse as possible.
STAR WARS EPISODE VII: THE FORCE AWAKENSDirector: JJ Abrams
Release date: 2015
Location: Rub’ al Khali desert in Abu Dhabi
In the return of the hit franchise by mastermind and visual effects wizard George Lucas, the desert of Abu Dhabi served as the desert planet of Jakku where the heroine of the franchise Rey hails from. This installment, which has also seen the return of fan favourite characters such as Han Solo and Princess Leia return, was filmed in part in Abu Dhabi, while the Star Wars franchise has often favoured the deserts of Jordan and Tunisia.
Cleopatra (1963) starring Elizabeth Taylor will go down in history as the most tumultuous film production of all time, and while it had many locations, among them, of course, was Egypt as the home of its titular character. Countless films have since been filmed in Egypt, including the Bond installment The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) with Roger Moore at the helm in Cairo and Luxor. However, unfortunately, the process has become far more difficult in recent years, leading producers to head to Morocco or Jordan to film scenes otherwise set in Egypt. More recently, Syriana (2005) was also partially filmed in Egypt.
JUMPERDirector: Doug Liman
Release date: 2008
Location: Giza, Egypt
A movie about a young man who discovers he can teleport? Well then, sign me up! That's basically the one superpower I've been wishing for every birthday. My unfulfilled wishes aside, this movie packs a punch as it was one of the very early contenders to showcase the Giza Pyramids front and centre, not only in its marketing but also in the story of the film. The scenes with the pyramids do a great job in capturing the larger than life feeling you get when visiting the ancient site and captured audience's imagination as we saw the hero standing atop the Sphinx staring into the distance with the pyramids behind him.
via Josh Edwards
For now – until I get that superpower – I'll settle for the view from the bottom. That's pretty okay, too.
MALCOLM XDirector: Spike Lee
Release date: 1992
Location: Mecca, Saudi Arabia, and Cairo, Egypt
A film following the life of African-American activist Malcolm X stayed true to his story and filmed on location in some of the historic moments of his life, namely his visit to the city of Mecca in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and his visit to Egypt where he famously prayed at the Mohammed Ali Mosque. via Michel Gaubil
Mohamed Ali Mosque is one of the most important landmarks of ancient Cairo; it was built by Mohammed Ali inside the Citadel of Salah Ed-Din. It’s surrounded by other historic mosques like al-Nasir Muhammad ibn Qala'un, Sultan Hassan, and Jawhar Al-Lala mosques. Just a visit to the area takes you back thousands of years.
Wadi Rum continues to be a draw for filmmakers who want to depict otherworldly planets, and for the Star Wars franchise it's been no different; the very acclaimed anthology film Rogue One: A Star Wars Story used Wadi Rum to represent the sacred planet of Jedha, and it was also used in the recently released Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker. Honourable mention outside the Star Wars universe goes to Prometheus (2012).
ALADDINDirector: Guy Ritchie
Release date: 2019
Location: Wadi Rum
The 2019 remake of the classic cartoon scored big numbers at the box office and took viewers on a magic carpet ride through the magical – also fictional – city of Agrabah, which was mostly created in studios in the UK. However, for the desert shots, they went out to the gorgeous Wadi Rum in Jordan to shoot some of its beautiful natural scenery for the film. via VFX Online
This scenery not only serves as the backdrop to Will Smith's blue genie, but also hosts a wide plethora of activities for the traveler and adventurer alike. Whether its hiking trails, camel rides, or any way you wish to roam around the vast landscape of Wadi Rum, it's there. Be sure to bring along a nice camera and a travel buddy because you'll be spending your nights stargazing (and possibly discussing existential life crisis with said friend).
INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADEDirector: Steven Spielberg
Most films shot in Jordan only used the desert – like Lawrence of Arabia, Prometheus, Queen of the Desert, and The Martian – but it was Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade that really showed the world how beautiful Jordan is by filming in Petra. In one of the most iconic film series in cinema history, Indiana Jones, the world witnessed (arguably for the first time on mainstream cinema) the majestic ancient city of Petra. Carved in rose stones –– hence the naming The Rose City, Petra is a natural destination for any cinephile, traveler and adventurer alike.via Eternal Lifestyle
Petra is far more than just the treasury; the places to see there are countless. You have Siq, the entrance to the city, which is a long street carved in stone; each age that passed has left its mark on this path. You also have the buildings by the Nabataeans, the Byzantine monastery, the amphitheatre, and the Girl Palace that was built to worship Isis – then there’s also the courthouse, the alter, and the temple. A walk in Petra feels like going through different ages in a time machine.
THE MARTIANDirector: Ridley Scott
Release date: 2015
Location: Petra and Wadi Rum
Shooting in Wadi Rum to mimic the landscape of Mars was done through some Hollywood post-production magic by changing the colour of the golden Wadi to that of a redder tint. One famous rumor from the film set was that the director wanted there to be no tire tracks in the vast desert area that's in the background. Rather than "fixing it with Photoshop" later, the solution they came up with was to close off the large area for two weeks before filming started and let the desert winds do all the clearing.
Tunisia is now basically synonymous with the home planet of Anakin Skywalker – Tatooine – so much so that a whole town economically depends on it. And while Tunisia is most popularly known as the real-life version of Tatooine, it has been home to other non-Star Wars movies like Monty Python's Life of Brian, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and The English Patient.
STAR WARS: EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE | STAR WARS: EPISODE II - ATTACK OF THE CLONES | STAR WARS EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPEDirector: George Lucas
Release dates: 1999 – 2002 – 1997
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...
Actually it was in a city far, far away by the name of Matmata. The city doubles as the planet of Tatooine in the prequel Star Wars universe and is the home planet of one very menacing Darth Vader when he was just an innocent little boy. Matmata was also seen in the first Star Wars film, A New Hope (1997) as Luke Skywalker's dwelling before the galactic soap opera gets into full swing.via Stockz
The city is a perfect place for a sci-fi flick, not just because of its beauty, but also because the houses are built in a strange way. They’re carved in the ground like Luke Skywalker’s house, which was turned into the famous Sidi Idriss Hotel despite its size.
The entire economy of Matmata is based on film crews, and most of its inhabitants work as craftsmen, stunt doubles, and extras in Hollywood productions. The local populace also has guided tours for visiting cinephiles that take them in 4x4s across the desert to the different locations where the iconic film sets still stand.
While Turkey isn't as much of a go-to name in the world of Hollywood production as, say, Morocco and Wadi Rum, the iconic Skyfall made up with that by featuring multiple locations across the country as the backdrop to yet another installment of the Bond saga.
SKYFALL Director: Sam Mendez
Release date: 2012
Location: Istanbul, Adana, Varda Viaduct
Another world-class film franchise that's known to tell stories that span the globe is Ian Flemming's James Bond. With 27 films under its belt, the franchise has left no stone unturned. In the 23rd installment, Skyfall, we saw James Bond take on a big threat that all started in Istanbul (spoiler alert: it doesn't end there). The film opens up with a chase scene, as is the Bond formula – this time through the crowded Eminonu Square, one of Istanbul’s oldest squares. The hot pursuit of the bad guy leads through the Grand Bazaar, which is one of the largest and oldest markets in the world. A few stunts, crashes, vehicle changes, and world-class punches later, we find ourselves on the edge of our seat as Bond and the bad guy fight it out caveman-style on top of a speedy train going over the Varda Viaduct, yet another iconic landmark of Turkey.via George Kordellas
Now, let's talk about these landmarks! Eminönü is basically the heart of the country – you’ll walk there whether you like it or not. It’s like an open museum: everything around you is ancient and every piece has its own history. Topkapı Palace, Sultan Ahmed Mosque, Hagia Sophia Museum, the Cathedral built by Constantine The Great, and Mohamed El Fate Mosque are some of the architectural wonders you’ll stumble upon. You'll want a fully charged phone with you on this one – oh, and don't forget to carry some extra change for the doner kebab you'll be getting on the go. Those things are delicious!
Varda Viaduct was built by the Germans over 100 years ago to join Turkey and Germany. It’s well known because it’s a stone bridge built on very high supports. It was built between two mountains, which was a massive obstacle.via Cengiz üsküplü
We have all kinds of associations with places that engage with our senses, and films go the extra mile and engage with our imagination – that's why film locations will always strike a chord and tug on our heartstrings. Dare we now say it's time for them to plot the course for our next adventure?