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Why Morocco went Hollywood

For decades, it's been a stand-in for Saudi Arabia, Tibet, Egypt, the American West – and now, Iraq.

A tourist at Atlas Studios in southern Morocco takes pictures of a set used in several Egypt-themed films, including the 1999 made-for-TV movie 'Cleopatra.'

Erik German

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In the deep south of a country where few locals drink, fewer speak English, and the metric system reigns supreme, you'll find a derelict gas station whose sign promises, "Cold beer. Last stop 200 miles."

It's one of several structures near this garrison town that may disrupt a visitor's expectations. Just to the north, a European-style medieval castle rises from the rocky plain. Closer to town, a pair of grimacing, gold-painted lions guard a Tibetan temple that's been slightly damaged by fire.

The buildings are all sets from American films – "The Hills Have Eyes 2," "Kingdom of Heaven," and "Kundun," respectively – and they represent traces of a multimillion-dollar industry that has bloomed in the Moroccan desert. Without realizing it, filmgoers worldwide have seen a remarkable number of this country's landscapes onscreen. The locations are sometimes unadorned, sometimes computer-enhanced, but they're nearly always standing in for somewhere else.

"I didn't have any clue about it," says Gonçalo Gomes, a Portuguese vacationer who spent a recent morning poking around Moroccan backdrops from "Gladiator," "The Mummy Returns," and "Jewel of the Nile."

"In Portugal, we don't have a big industry for films," he says. "We just assume that every single one of them is made in studios in Hollywood."


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