Africa

Of Lost Glory and Sinister History: Kasbah Telouet – A Hidden Gem of Morocco

Would you believe it if I told you that this ruin of a Kasbah (a mud brick fortress) holds deep within it a magnificent surprise – one of the finest gems of Moroccan-Andalusian artistry and craftsmanship? This hidden gem however awaits discovery only by those few intrepid travelers driven by the insatiable urge for unknown adventures, ever willing to go off the beaten track in search of mysterious places.

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img_7160The Telouet Kasbah (also referred to as Glaoui Kasbah) is located in the remote village of Telouet at an elevation of 5,900 feet, in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. It stands on an ancient caravan trading route that once cut through the vast and desolate Sahara and crossed over the mighty Atlas Mountains, linking the legendary city of Timbuktu (and Sub Saharan Africa beyond) to Southern Europe.

We were heading towards Marrakech from the Sahara desert in the east, from Erg Cheebi near the Algerian border. Between Erg Cheebi and Marrakech we had four night halts spread over the spectacular Todra valley and the fabled pre-Saharan oases of Skoura and Ouarzazate.

From Ouarzazate we took the modern trans-Atlas highway that connects to Marrakech through the Mountain Pass of Tizi n’Tichka at 7,400 feet. Tizi n’Tichka is the highest Pass in North Africa. Before we reached the Pass, we made a 25 KM detour and headed towards the village of Telouet. img_7381

The bumpy ride to Telouet took us through a narrow, meandering unsurfaced road, deep into the countryside into the scenic Ounila valley, past swathes of rich agricultural fields dotted with ancient mud-brick villages (Ksar) with their prominent mosques, and groves of fig, cherry and olive.

At Telouet, on top of a hill stood the grand Kasbah, now reduced to a mere shadow of its former self. It was sprawling, desolate and mysterious – tantalizing, at the same time foreboding. For sure it had stories to tell from the past, we thought.

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At the Kasbah, we paid the nominal entry fee and went in with Mr. Ahmed, our driver cum guide. He was with us for the most part of our 24-day trip of Morocco.

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As we entered the Kasbah, we were struck by its atmosphere of forlorn stillness – a pregnant silence filled the deserted labyrinth of connecting corridors, passages, open spaces, alcoves and vaulted chambers, occasionally interrupted by the hollering wind.

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The oldest part of the Kasbah was built in 1860 and over the next century it was expanded significantly. The work was never completed though, and to know why, a brief history of the Kasbah and its builders, the Glaoui family, would be in order.

Under the feudal system in Morocco, a carryover from the medieval ages into the mid-20th century, at the top was the Sultan with his Prime Minister, the Grand Vizir. The tier below consisted of powerful warlords, the Pashas, equivalent of the Dukes or England. Pashas often had their personal armies and were responsible for maintaining law and order, and collecting taxes.

One such Pasha was the legendarily wealthy and dreaded warlord – T’hami El Glaoui. He was the head of the powerful and infamous Glaoui clan, with his headquarters at Telouet. Located close to the highly lucrative salt mines (including the prized pink salt once accepted as currency), the Telouet Kasbah occupied a preeminent and commanding position on the ancient (the original) trans-Saharan trading route.

The Glaoui clan controlled a part of the trading route going over the Atlas Mountains. They collected tolls from caravans, in addition to making money through various forms of extortion and capture.

The clan’s wealth was initially expanded as a result of a generous gift by the then ruling Sultan (Moulay Hassan, or Hassan I) of Morocco.

In 1893, the Sultan and his army were returning from a difficult tax collection expedition in the tribal areas of the Sahara. As they were crossing the Atlas Mountains, they got trapped in a severe snowstorm, and faced the threat of imminent death from severe cold and starvation.

El T’hami and his elder brother (Madani) somehow got the wind of it and reached the spot. Instead of cutting their heads off and looting them, as would normally be the case, the crafty Glaoui brothers rescued the aging Sultan and his tired army, and gave them shelter, food and drink in anticipation of an appropriate return favor.

Apart from territorial concessions, the grateful Sultan left behind a state of the art 77-mm Krupp cannon as a gift.

So long given to merely brutalizing and chopping off the heads of their enemies, the Glaoui brothers went on to use the powerful British-made canon to storm Kasbahs of rival warlords and unleash a reign of mass scale pillage, murder and subjugation in the region.

T’hami took over as the head of his clan after Madani died. In the years that followed he consolidated his position and went from strength to strength.

With the French increasing their colonial footprint in Northern Africa and gradually encroaching into Morocco, T’hami had begun to sense the changing winds. By the beginning of the 20th century he had shifted his allegiance to the French.

Morocco became a French Protectorate in 1912, after the Treaty of Fez. Although the Sultan was the de-jure head of a sovereign State, the country was practically ruled by the French colonial administration till independence in 1956. With the Treaty of Fez, T’hami El Glaoui was appointed by the French as the Pasha of Marrakech, a position he held till his dramatic fall in 1956.

With exclusive and unchallenged territorial rights over the trans-Saharan trade route, T’hami expanded his fortune based on a monopoly over local resources, his dubious dealings on salt, olive and saffron trade, tolls and taxes (including a percentage taken from sex workers of Marrakech) and a series of clever business strategies and investments, backed by unbridled brutality, terror and oppression. Thousands were taken as prisoners and thrown in the dungeons below the Kasbah, and it is said that the severed heads of foes were displayed on spikes on the ramparts as a warning.

During the period between 1912 and 1956, T’hami was the unchallenged ruler of the land south of Marrakech, between the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara Desert. He was considered one of the wealthiest men in the world, and his power rivaled that of the Sultan, if not surpassing it.

As the Pasha of Marrakech, T’hami had his palace in the city (Dar el-Glaoui), where he hosted lavish banquets and received the rich and famous from all over the world. His guests included Roosevelt and Churchill, the latter known to have had a peculiar predilection for tribal chieftains and warlords.

T’hami cultivated the French, and charmed and bribed his way through the elite circles in Europe – he was even nicknamed as the “Lord of Atlas” by Europeans.

Like in his palace in Marrakech, T’hami wanted to entertain international celebrities, royalty and film stars in the Telouet Kasbah too. Aspiring to make the latter his Pleasure Palace, he embarked on an enormously ambitious project of renovating the Kasbah in Telouet and redecorating its interiors.

Meanwhile political sands had started shifting in Morocco. From 1934, Morocco’s budding nationalist / freedom movement started building up, and the wise and highly respected Sultan Mohamed V (the Sultan from 1927) was sympathetic towards it. Around the end of World War II, the visionary Sultan began to aspire for Morocco’s independence, and from 1947 he gradually distanced himself from the French Protectorate. He began lending his support openly to the movement led by the Independence Party, and this was not liked by the French.

In 1953 T’hami helped the French overthrow Sultan Mohamed V. The Sultan was deposed and exiled first to Corsica and then to Madagascar. And in his place, his uncle (Mohammed Bin Aarafa) was hoisted as the new puppet Sultan. This time however, T’hami had not read the writing on the wall; his support of the French in ousting the popular Sultan was to cost him everything.

By mid-50s the independence movement had reached its peak and Morocco had descended into chaos. Unable to establish control, the French started the process of relinquishing its Protectorate. They brought Sultan Mohamed V back in 1955 (two years after he was exiled), and granted Morocco independence in 1956.

Abandoned by the French, overnight T’hami became an enemy of the State, from being a Pasha. T’hami’s grand palace in Marrakech was raided, ransacked and stripped of its fabulous wealth, by angry mobs.

Back in Telouet the imposing gates and doors of the Kasbah were unlocked and thrown open. It is said that as angry mobs stormed the building and looted and destroyed all that they could, thousands of dazed prisoners (who had mysteriously disappeared without trace from their villages years before), slaves and harem women stumbled out of the Kasbah through the open doors, to freedom.

The internal beautification work that was still ongoing inside the Telouet Kasbah ended abruptly, with the sudden demise of the old regime.

T’hami rendered a public apology to the Sultan and was forgiven by the latter. The Sultan however exiled him from Marrakech to Telouet where he died a year later, a totally broken man. After his death, T’hami’s property and assets were confiscated by the State.

Most Moroccans understandably consider T’hami to be a traitor, hence the Kasbah fell into total neglect and rapidly disintegrated. The new trans-Atlas highway (connecting Ouarzazate and Marrakech) was built intentionally bypassing Telouet, making what was once a center of power into a forgotten, ignored hinterland. The clock stopped in Telouet half a century back.

So much for the history of the Kasbah and its builder. Now about the hidden gem that lies within.

Gavin Mazwell, the biographer of T’hami El Glaoui had quite rightly described the Kasbah as “ill-ordered, ill-planned, but majestic in its proliferation and complete absence of symmetry”. With its stark and bare walls, exposed wooden ribs, caved in ceilings, locked rooms and blocked passages, rubble and the pervasive eerie silence, it felt like we had stepped into a scene from an Indiana Jones movie. img_7157

We took a flight of stairs to the first floor, from where a series of long passages and vaulted rooms led us towards a massive arched wooden door, done in the Moorish style. From afar, our first vision of what lay beyond the arched door was straight out of a Disney animation fairytale movie. It was of a distant glow – of rays beaming out of a brilliantly radiant jewel, partially concealed in an area of mysterious semi darkness.

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Entering through the large door, we found ourselves in the erstwhile reception area (Douiria), brilliantly decorated in elaborate Moroccan-Andalusian style. We were dazzled by the explosion of beauty all around us. As someone said, it was like falling the way Alice did into Wonderland – through a dark passage and a doorway, suddenly into a fascinating and mysterious new world.

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We explored the relatively well preserved rooms that included the reception area, and adjoining bedrooms and the dining area. There was no artificial lighting, only skylight streaming in from the open central atrium and windows. It felt surreal.

Floors were laid in a checkered pattern in marble. The lower part of the walls, columns and arches were decorated in brilliant starburst mosaics and the upper sections in astoundingly complex and intricate arabesque stucco work, followed by colorful honeycomb like Muqarnas / Mocárabe stalactites, below the wooden ceiling. In the main bedroom, there was a horizontal panel of rich silk brocade, each section of the panel with a unique design and color scheme.

We were also impressed by the beautiful Moorish wooden doorways and carved cedar-wood ceilings painted in green, blue, cyan, and magenta.

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Windows had delicate wrought iron grille. From the main reception room, through the window grille we caught a glimpse of the lofty Atlas Mountains at a distance and the ancient slave village. The descendants of Glaoui’s slaves still live in this tiny village, nested in the fertile and expansive valley.

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img_7215Even in its much reduced state, the artistic brilliance of the decorative work was apparent. The scale, aesthetic vision, planning and execution of details were unsurpassed. Although it was essentially a work of the mid-20th century, the artistry was ancient. It did stand up as sensitive and inspired imitation of a much older artistic heritage, as exemplified in the Bou Inania Madrasa in Fez and the Saadien tombs in Marrakech.

It is said that three hundred conscripted craftsmen and artists, the finest from Morocco had worked for three years to create this exquisite Moroccan-Andalusian architectural gem.

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By all means, the Telouet Kasbah is one of the most extraordinary places to visit in the High Atlas Mountains. Nestled in a remote and spectacular valley framed by mountains, it is desolate, eerie, bizarre and even sinister if you know the history. At the same time it is grand and spectacularly beautiful, providing a glimpse into a lost world of power and ambition, opulence and grandeur, political drama and intrigue.

We spent a few hours at the Kasbah and were transported into the past. The place reverberated with a sense of glory long lost, of a resplendence rapidly fading, of a dream left shattered.

To visit Kasbah Telout is to discover and behold one of Morocco’s hidden gems. It is a must see for adventure seekers and art lovers alike.

And it is fast melting down to the red earth, crumbling into dust….

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