Few experiences are better than seeing the sets of your favourite films firsthand. Here’s how to live out your Hollywood dreams without traveling too far from home.
Words: Sam Begley
From North Africa to the Middle East, Hollywood can’t get enough of the Arab world’s landmarks and topography when it comes to shooting films and shows.
Going from epic classics like Lawrence of Arabia, to modern war thrillers and action-dramas that fill cinemas and TV screens today, the region is brimming with film heritage.
One of the best things about so many films being shot in the Middle East and the surrounding areas is that people living in the region have easy access to some of the most recognisable and interesting movie locations on the planet.
Whether you’re tempted by the swooping valleys and carvings of Petra, the grand red kasbahs of Morocco or the narrow streets of Istanbul, your next travel destination could be inspired by one of these movie locations.
Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade
The ancient city of Petra is a beautiful place in itself. But knowing that the carved rock walls were visited by everyone’s favourite adventurer in 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade makes a visit to Petra even more awe-inspiring.
Although you’re unlikely to find the Holy Grail or meet any ancient knights in Al-Khazneh – Petra’s treasury that acted as the Canyon of the Crescent Moon in the film – you’ll almost feel like you’ve stepped back in time. The red rock canyons, within which the city is built, are like nowhere else on the planet.
A three-hour drive from Amman, it’s not the easiest place to get to from the capital, but if you’re a lover of 80s action or just jaw-dropping historic beauty, it’s certainly a place worth making a trip to.
Gulf Air flies direct from Abu Dhabi to Amman from around AED 1,670 return. Visit: gulfair.com, visitpetra.jo
The Hurt Locker
Also filmed in Jordan, 2008’s The Hurt Locker is a far cry from Indy’s quest to find the Holy Grail. Instead, the gritty Academy Award winning historical drama, set during the height of the Iraq War, sees an American bomb disposal team dealing with the horrors of modern combat.
Although an amazing film, the streets of Amman, made to look like war-torn Baghdad, may not conjure up photo-worthy memories of your next holiday.
However, the Jordanian capital is actually a beautiful cultural hub, with a history spanning thousands of years. So, once you’ve had your fill of following the trail of Sgt. Will James’ EOD unit, you can take in some of the world class culture, food and historic sites that the city has to offer.
Gulf Air flies direct from Abu Dhabi to Amman from around AED 1,670 return. Visit: gulfair.com, visitjordan.com
Steam Ship Sudan, Egypt
Death On The Nile
Hercule Poirot is one of those legendary characters that has become synonymous with mystery and adventure. With Peter Ustinov playing the legendary detective for the first time, 1978’s Death on the Nile sees Poirot board the SS Karnak to solve a classic Christie murder-mystery. The traditional paddle steamer makes its way from Luxor down the Nile past some of Egypt’s greatest sites, making for perhaps the most amazing location of any Agatha Christie story – apologies to the Orient Express.
The ship used as the Karnak, the Steam Ship Sudan, still makes its leisurely cruise down the Nile from Luxor to Aswan, allowing visitors to relive the classic journey shown onscreen, stopping at some of the best Ancient Egyptian sites along the way.
Starting at €900 (approximately AED 3,950). Departing from Luxor. Etihad flies non-stop from Abu Dhabi to Cairo from around AED 1,360 return. Visit: steam-ship-sudan.com, etihad.com
The ancient city of Istanbul has been at the top of many travellers’ bucket lists for years. As a continually important location throughout history, there are more than enough historical sites in Turkey’s largest city to keep any visitor busy. Combined with great food, a vibrant culture and a flourishing arts scene, Istanbul is well worth a visit.
On film however, the street-level magic of modern day Istanbul has been unlocked. The 2012 Ben Affleck movie Argo decided not to focus on the iconic Blue Mosque or Hagia Sophia, but instead to use the city as a placeholder for Tehran during the American hostage crisis of 1979 to 1981.
The crowded city streets and magical bazaars served as the escape routes for the hostages, while the city’s grander buildings acted as locations for the undercover meetings attended by Affleck’s protagonist.
As a tourist, winding through these same streets in the bazaar is equally as thrilling but for different reasons. Breathe in the various scents like spices, sit down in the bustling market for a cup of Turkish coffee and buy unique gifts like handmade soap.
Turkish Airlines flies direct from around AED 4,400 return. Visit: visitistanbul.org, p.turkishairlines.com
Morocco’s largest city has provided stunning scenes for a variety of high-octane action films and TV productions. From James Bond to The Mummy Returns, Casablanca is instantly recognisable to film buffs.
More recently, however, Casablanca has found itself as the shooting location for television spy-thriller, Homeland. With the streets of the city serving as a prime location for the show’s gun battles, nail-biting chase and acts of espionage that have made the show so popular.
Despite much of Casablanca’s appearance in Homeland — where it stands in for a number of cities across the Middle East, including Abu Dhabi — as an action-packed city of spies and violence, the luxury hotels and restaurants visible in certain episodes give viewers a glimpse of the Moroccan high-life.
A visit to Casablanca will let you trace the footsteps of CIA agent Carrie Mathison, but don’t worry, it’s not all action. In this modern metropolis, you certainly won’t be short of beautiful spas for some relaxation and restaurants where you can sample authentic Moroccan cuisine.
Etihad flies non-stop from Abu Dhabi to Casablanca from around AED 3,670. Visit: visitmorocco.com/en/casablanca, etihad.com
Gladiator, Lawrence Of Arabia and Game Of Thrones
Although relatively small and quiet by Moroccan standards, the ancient fort city of Ouarzazate has an incredible on-screen history. From Lawrence of Arabia in 1962, all the way up to recent episodes of Game of Thrones, it seems that any epic arabesque production has to shoot scenes in and around the city’s incredible red kasbahs these days.
These fortresses, as well as the city itself, provide more than enough wonderment for those with even a passing interest in history, but if you’re a lover of film, Ouarzazate is the place to visit in Morocco.
Aside from the actual locations that provided the backdrop for scenes in Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven, the nearby Atlas Studios provides visitors a backstage look at the props and productions made at the city for only 50 Moroccan Dirhams (approximately AED 20) for an adult ticket.
Outside of this, Ouarzazate is a great place to explore with its condo-hotel complexes, pedestrian plaza and outdoor activities such as mountainbiking and camel rides.
Etihad flies to Marrakesh via Casablanca from around AED 4,500. Visit: studiosatlas.com, etihad.com