The bizarre Kasbah Telouet is one of the most extraordinary sights of the Atlas – fast crumbling into the dark red earth, but still offering, in parts, a peculiar glimpse of the style and melodrama of Moroccan political government and power still within living memory. There’s little of aesthetic value – many of the rooms have fallen into complete ruin – but nevertheless, even after over a half-century of decay, there’s still vast drama in this weird and remote site, and in the decorated salon walls, often roofless and open to the wind.
The main halls and reception rooms
The kasbah is an unbelievable labyrinth of locked doors and connecting passages – it is said that no single person ever fully knew their way around the entire complex – though these days you can only access the main halls and reception rooms.The latter, remarkably intact, given the crumbling exterior, at least give a sense of the quantity and style of the decoration, still in progress when the pasha died and the old regime came to a sudden halt. “The outward and visible signs of ultimate physical ambition”, as Gavin Maxwell put it in Lords of the Atlas, they have delicate iron window grilles and fine carved ceilings, though the overall result is once again the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century combination of sensitive imitation of the past and out-and-out vulgarity.
There is a tremendous scale of affectation, too, perfectly demonstrated by the use of green Salé tiles for the roof – usually reserved for mosques and royal palaces. From up here, you can look down upon some of the courts and chambers, the bright zellij and stucco enclosing great gaping holes in the stone and plaster. The really enduring impression, though, is the wonder of how and why it ever came to be built at all.
The extent and speed of Madani (1866–1918) and T’hami el Glaoui’s (1879–1956) rise to power is remarkable. In the mid-nineteenth century, their family were simply local clan leaders, controlling an important Atlas pass between Marrakesh and the south but lacking influence beyond it. Their entrance into national politics began dramatically in 1893. In that year’s terrible winter, Sultan Moulay Hassan, on returning from a disastrous harka (subjugation or burning raid) of the Tafilalt, found himself at the mercy of the brothers for food, shelter and safe passage. With shrewd political judgement, they rode out to meet the sultan, feting him with every detail of protocol and, miraculously, producing enough food to feed the entire three-thousand-strong force for the duration of their stay.
The extravagance was well rewarded. By the time Moulay Hassan began his return to Marrakesh, he had given caid-ship of all the lands between the High Atlas and the Sahara to the Glaoui and, most important of all, was forced to abandon vast amounts of the royal armoury (including the first cannon to be seen in the Atlas) in Telouet. By 1901, the brothers had eliminated all opposition in the region, and when the French arrived in Morocco in 1912, the Glaoui were able to dictate the form of government for virtually all the south, putting down the attempted nationalist rebellion of El Hiba, pledging loyalty throughout World War I and having themselves appointed pashas of Marrakesh, with their family becoming caids in all the main Atlas and desert cities. The French were content to concur, arming them, as Gavin Maxwell wrote, “to rule as despots, [and] perpetuating the corruption and oppression that the Europeans had nominally come to purge”.
The Glaoui’s controversial alliance with the Protectorate continued over the next few decades, and in 1953 T’hami again played an influential part in the dethroning of a sultan, conspiring with the French to overthrow Mohammed V. It was his last act of betrayal. Within a few months of Mohammed V’s return to Morocco in 1955, T’hami was dead, his properties seized by the state and ultimately abandoned to the ravages of time.