Nothing beside remainsOzymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelley
The crumbling red stone ruins of the Kasbah of Telouet hide a secret; within their walls lie the remains of a glorious and self-indulgent palace, where Pasha Thami El Glaoui asserted his power and wealth.
These atmospheric ruins are relatively off the tourist trail, although they are easily visited on a day trip from Marrakesh, as we did. When we were here we had them to ourselves.
The Ounila valley
Telouet lies in the Ounila valley, on a fairly rough road that turns off the N9 just south of the Tiz n’Tichka Pass. The road follows the river as it winds between the mountains. Either side of the river bed the valley is green and cultivated, and several villages dot the route. On the hillsides I spotted several ruins, testament to the importance of this as a caravan route in the past. There was a time when this valley was part of the main caravan trade route to Marrakech from sub-Saharan Africa; the High Atlas were crossed at the Telouet Pass north of Telouet, long before the French constructed the road used today, the Tiz n’Tichka Pass.
For most of its length the valley seems pretty wild and remote; although nearer Aït Ben Haddou there are more tourist-focused services: places to stay, carpet sellers, galleries and camel rides. But no amount of human activity can compete with the spectacular scenery. It is the sight of the rocky red mountains contrasting with that narrow green strip along the river that will be my abiding memory of this beautiful valley.
The first and second kasbahs
This site was first fortified in the 1800s by the local landowning family, the Glaoua, to protect this strategic position on the trans-Saharan trading route. This route is sometimes referred to as the Salt Route, echoing the more famous Silk Route. Like that one it saw trade in a multitude of goods, not just the one it was named for. Salt however was the most highly prized commodity; our guide told us that salt was brought to Telouet from the mines a few kilometres away to be traded here for gold, sold on a par in terms of weight. That is, a kilo of salt was worth the same as a kilo of gold; it was that highly prized.
There were three successive kasbahs built here by the Glaoua. The latest was started in 1860 and only finished in the early 20th century. Only that last one is still in a sufficiently robust state to be safe to enter; the others are mere ruins.
We would have liked to have explored the ruins of the first and second kasbahs more thoroughly as they looked very photogenic. But we were warned by our guide that it was not safe to do so. It certainly looked quite hazardous underfoot, not to mention the dangers of crumbling walls above!
However, at this point in our tour we weren’t totally confident of anything our guide told us. Our relationship with him had not started well. The entrance fees for the kasbah are supposed to be clearly displayed on a board. It’s entirely possible that our somewhat incompetent driver failed to bring us to the proper entrance; but certainly we saw no such board on arriving at the site.
What we did see was a group of three locals sat in the shade nearby who, as we passed on our way to the ruins, demanded 90 euros for the two of us. Not knowing at that point what the correct fee should be, but sure that this was a rip-off, we refused to pay, despite their insistence. Our driver meanwhile had completely disappeared so we couldn’t check the correct fee with him. So I called Magnificent Morocco, the tour company with whom we had booked our day trip; and with their help we were able to avoid paying what these guys were demanding. It was only later that I learned that these fees were the correct figures but for dirhams not euros; clearly the guys there were trying to scam us.
Despite this, we eventually secured the service of one of them as guide, at the correct price. And I have to say that he proved to be very good, telling us a lot about the history of the kasbah and waiting patiently as we took photos in each room.
The stone used for all the kasbahs was very soft and has crumbled over the centuries until relatively little remains. Indeed, while the second kasbah still at least looks like a recognisable building, parts of the first looked to me more like termite mounds than human-built structures. And yet it is only a couple of hundred years old. Compare this with the great stone-built castles of Europe, or with Egypt’s far more ancient pyramids and temples! But people here built with what they had, and what they had was porous and friable, vulnerable to the elements; so the structures have not stood the test of time at all well.
The story of Thami El Glaoui
Until the mid 20th century Morocco was ruled by a sultan, who was both constitutional and spiritual leader. Under him was a government led by the Grand Vizier and beneath him a group of regional rulers known as pashas who were responsible for keeping order and raising taxes. They often commanded their own armies and the most powerful of them were very powerful indeed.
At the turn of the 20th century Thami El Glaoui was Pasha of Marrakesh, having risen to this position by supporting the sultan Mulai Abdelhafid in his battle to overthrow his brother Abdelaziz, the previous sultan of Morocco. One justification for that overthrow was Abdelaziz’s close links with European powers; yet on becoming sultan himself Abdelhafid further strengthened those links, especially with the French. In 1912 he signed the Treaty of Fez, handing Morocco over to the French to be ruled as a protectorate. During this period Thami had lost his post and his power; but by aiding the French army he found himself back in favour and restored as Pasha.
From this point his influence and wealth grew, not always through the most honourable means. He was resented by ordinary Moroccans; seen as a collaborator with the French; but welcomed in the highest circles across Europe. At the height of his power, nicknamed Lord of the Atlas, he was one of the richest men in the world. And the third kasbah at Telouet was a potent symbol of that power.
The third kasbah
As you enter the third kasbah it is hard at first to believe that it is only just over a hundred years old, or that it is in significantly better condition than the earlier buildings nearby.
But after passing through an entrance area, its floor littered with the rubble of partly collapsed walls and its wooden ceiling caving under the weight of the structure above, you find yourself in a series of rooms whose decoration will take your breath away.
Stunning zellige mosaic tiles adorn the walls; columns and arches are draped with intricate white plaster stucco; wooden doors and shutters are painted with vibrant flowers and entwined vines. In one room the upper part of the walls is lined with lengths of Chinese silk; and in all of them the wooden ceilings are carved and richly painted.
The windows have delicate iron grilles and look out on to the wonderful surrounding landscape (‘Pasha TV’, said our guide). No expense was spared by Thami El Glaoui in reinforcing the impression of wealth and power; it is said that 300 workers worked for three years to decorate these ceilings and walls. Ostentatious and a little vulgar? Maybe – but glorious nevertheless!
Spare a thought though for the less fortunate former inhabitants of this place – the slaves and local villagers whom he ruled over as a feudal lord. When he died in 1956 the kasbah became the property of the government and was left to crumble; but legend has it that when its doors were thrown open at last, locals who had mysteriously disappeared from their villages years before stumbled out into the light, dazed and blinking, after years locked in the Pasha’s basement.
On the roof
No such fate awaits today’s visitor, thankfully! So when you have seen it all and taken loads of photos, as you will, it is time to go up to the roof. You will have had glimpses of the surrounding countryside through the lacy iron grilles of the windows of the rooms below; but a climb to the roof to see it properly is well worth the effort.
What surprised me was how green the immediate area around the kasbah looked, its vivid shades standing out against the dusty red of the kasbah’s walls and of the mountains beyond. The locals grow cereals such as wheat, barley, maize and rice, as well as vegetables and pulses (broad beans, peas, chickpeas and lentils). There are olive trees and some citrus fruits. It is not a rich soil, but with irrigation, and the use of tried and tested traditional farming methods, it produces good crops it seems.
You can also look down on the roof of the kasbah where, in places, you can still see the bright green Salé tiles used by El Glaoui. This is yet another sign of his ostentation, as these were usually reserved for mosques and royal palaces.
The end of an era
Thami El Glaoui had led a wonderful life. He was friends with the rich and powerful all over the world, including Winston Churchill; and at the latter’s invitation had even attended the coronation of Elizabeth II. But it wasn’t to last.
In 1953 El Glaoui had collaborated with the French in ousting the then-Sultan, Mohammed V, who was exiled. The French replaced him with an elderly member of the royal family named Ben Arafa. But two years later in 1955, active opposition to the French Protectorate swelled. Mohammed Ben Aarafa fled to Tangier and abdicated. The French conceded and Mohammed V was returned from exile on November 16, 1955. He declared Thami El Glaoui to be a traitor, but El Glaoui knelt in submission before the sultan, who forgave him his past mistakes.
However, he was to die just a few months later, while at his evening prayers. The Moroccan state seized all his wealth and property as punishment for his treachery, ensuring that the surviving El Glaoui family would never be the cause of another coup d’état. Their kasbah at Telouet was left to fall into ruin and was looted many times over the years. Its remains are perhaps a fitting memorial to the transient power of the family that built them, the Glaoui.
I visited Morocco in 2016