On the Trail of ‘Game of Thrones’ (or, My Adventures in Astapor and Slaver’s Bay)

Michael O. Varhola

For a couple of years a good friend of mine has been telling me about sites in Morocco that have been used as sites for shooting scenes for the HBO fantasy series “Game of Thrones,” particularly ones in desert or exotic settings. It was thus a pleasure for me not just to recently visit the sprawling North African nation and spend 10 days there but to visit the seaside city of Essaouira, which has served as the real-world basis for Slaver’s Bay and the city of Astapor.

Like most ancient or medieval cities in Morocco, Essaouira has a medina, or old city, and like many of them in this country it is surrounded by centuries-old walls and towers. It was fascinating to discover when I was able to personally explore this community not just that the ramparts were used to film some key scenes from a couple of episodes, but that the layout and appearance of Essaouira were also adopted for the look of Astapor.

In Season 3, Episode 1 of “Game Of Thrones,” titled “Valar Dohaeris,” the dragon queen Daenerys arrives at Astapor on Slaver’s Bay in search of an army and is told that the Unsullied slave soldiers are the best fighters in the world. To anyone familiar with the sheltered natural harbor where Essaouira is located or the way the city is situated and configured, it is obvious when watching the episode that these have been adapted for the appearance of Astapor and Slaver’s Bay.

In Season 3, Episode 4 of “Game Of Thrones,” titled “And Now His Watch is Ended,” Daenerys inspects and then acquired the Unsullied on the ramparts of Astapor, and those who know where to look can not just see but actually walk through and explore the actual spots in Essaouira where these scenes were filmed (cannons that were moved for the filming have been returned to their original places on the ramparts). Two of my friends who live in the city briefly turn up as extras in this episode, one as one of the infamous slavers that are the namesake of this place in the fantasy series.

It is, in fact, amazing how many things might have been filmed in places that the vast majority of people watching them have never heard of, and Essaouira, site of scenes from many other films and television shows, certainly qualifies. There is, in fact, a spot in the city known as “Orson Welles Square,” because scenes from the 1951 adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Othello” were filmed here. Other movies filmed partly or largely in or around Essaouira include the 2004 “Alexander,” 2007 “Rendition,” and 2011 “Hannah” — all of which I had seen and which then took on deeper personal significance once I was able to personally explore the real-world places associated with them! 

Be sure to also check out my "On the Trail of 'The Lord of the Rings'" and adventures in New Zealand!