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  • Brian Johnson

Morocco Journal: Kasbah Telouet and Ait-Ben-Haddou, March 20, 2024

Updated: Apr 30

Our driver picked us up promptly at 9 a.m. outside the closest gate of the medina and we set off for our journey across the Atlas Mountains. The foothills begin just a few miles from Marrakech, and within 30 miles or so you are snaking your way up a zigzag road to one of the main passes. The drive up was gray and overcast, but once in the heart of the mountains the weather cleared a little and our driver pulled off the road a couple of times so we could stretch our legs and take some pictures. Eventually we detoured off the main road to see a place that for me was one of the highlights of our trip: the Kasbah Telouet.


 

Once a mountain stronghold of the powerful Glaoui family, Telouet has a fascinating history. Building began on the current Kasbah in 1860, and work continued for almost 100 years until it was ordered abandoned by the Sultan in 1956. In 1893 Modani el Glaoui saved the then sultan and the remnants of his army from a series of snowstorms that struck as they attempted to cross the mountains after a failed expedition to subdue rebellious tribes on the Sahara side of the mountains. The grateful sultan bestowed on Modani titles and nominal sovereignty over a part of southern Morocco. More importantly, he gave Modani a quantity of arms and a Krupp cannon, which he leveraged to transform nominal sovereignty into actual control of the area. The family acquired great wealth and power before the French occupation began in 1912. Modani died suddenly in 1918 and his wealth and influence passed to his younger brother, Thami, with the connivance of the French, who then acquired even greater wealth and power by steadfastly supporting French interests. Besides controlling one of the main caravan routes through the mountains, and owning valuable salt mines, Thami conquered, and plundered, most of the tribes in much of southern Morocco, eventually controlling, and ruling on behalf of the French, a vast area on both sides of the Atlas Mountains, from Marrakech to the Sahara. He also secured the brothel contract with the French army and at one point was thought to employ as many as 16,000 prostitutes in Marrakech.


After Modani’s death the Kasbah Telouet was possessed for a number of years by his  son-in-law, who perpetrated all manner of cruelty within its walls before dying and leaving Thami in full possession. He greatly expanded the Kasbah and spent vast sums decorating it with marble, porcelain tiles, valuable tapestries, and expensive furnishings. Thami became something of a Great Gadsby playboy figure, and hosted dignitaries and celebrities from all over the world at his now palatial kasbah. At its height the Kasbah Telouet was home to over 1,000 people, above ground, and countless others in the dungeons below ground. Some of his enemies remained chained there for years. Many others were tortured and beheaded. Thami seemed to live with a foot in two worlds; a modern, “civilized” world, and an ancient feudal world little changed for a thousand years. He became friends with Winston Churchill - “one old brigand knows another”, as a contemporary wryly commented - and even attended the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II as Churchill’s guest. Upon his return to Telouet he promptly beheaded a number of rivals and hung their heads on the gates of the kasbah. But all good things must come to an end.


After the second world war independence movements intensified across European colonial holdings around the globe, and Morocco was no exception. The Sultan, who retained some influence, aligned himself with the pro independence and pro democratic reform movement, while Thami el Glaoui sided with the French and helped depose the sultan and install a figurehead. Mass riots broke out, thousands were killed, and the costs of occupation became too high. The French brought the former sultan out of exile in Madagascar to Paris. Thami saw the writing on the wall and went to Paris and bent the knee to the Sultan. He died of cancer a couple of months later, while the Sultan returned to Morocco and, upon independence in 1956, assumed the title of king, to reflect a new era for the country, with a constitutional monarchy replacing the feudal system. The Glaoui family property and possessions throughout the country were seized, and the family name became synonymous with treason. The Kasbah Telouet was looted and plundered, and the dungeons were opened. One man, now broken and shriveled, had been chained below for 14 years. The kasbah was abandoned, other than several former slaves who stayed on until 1960, eking out a meager existence.


A new road through the mountains was built some years ago, and today the kasbah lies off the beaten path. The nearby little village of Telouet, home of the Glaoui tribe from which sprang the brothers Modani and Thami, still remains, but not much else. Few visitors make the journey. The oldest parts of the kasbah have started to crumble, while the more recent additions have held their structure a little better. A few of the grander reception rooms had once been preserved, giving a hint of former opulence, but even these can no longer be viewed. The earthquake in November of 2023 caused some damage, and cracks developed in some of the walls, so the government has padlocked the gates and entry into the interior is forbidden. Today the Kasbah Telouet sits locked and abandoned, a crumbling monument to the ambition of man, and a silent reminder of how quickly it can all turn to dust.


 

Our driver, Hyder, let us off near the kasbah and indicated he would drive on up the road, which curves around the kasbah, and meet us on the other side, so we could walk all the way around it. The older part was turning to rubble but the newer parts, built with stone rather than mud brick, retained some of their former grandeur. The whole thing presented as a rather rambling, haphazard structure that simply expanded into the valley as it needed more space, like a living creature. I scampered around and took a lot of pictures. I don’t think Lynn understood my fascination with the crumbling old heap; in fact, I’m sure she thought I was nuts, but I’m used to it. I like a good story, so I pressed on, hoping I could at least see the gates where they used to hang the salted human heads. Since I was to be thwarted in my desire to get a peak at the dungeons by the interior being locked up, I had to take what I could get.


Back in the car, our driver took us up the road to a small Berber mountain village, where we had a tasty lunch in a unique setting, as we sat on the terrace of a private home and were served by the host. Even though it’s Ramadan, and the Berber family were fasting, we were assured they were happy to host guests and appreciated the revenue. The area had never been on a major tourist route anyway, and since the earthquake has seen even fewer visitors. The lunch stop also gave Hyder a chance to take a nap. He also observes Ramadan, and like many who do finds that a little nap helps him get through the fasting period.


After lunch our next stop was the famous Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou, an ancient little walled town on the former caravan route . A ksar refers to a fortified village, usually with a community granary at its center, and Ait-Ben-Haddou is one of the best preserved examples, and certainly the most famous, having been the filming scene for a number of movies and, most recently, Game of Thrones. The site was founded as early as the 13th century, although the current fortifications date from the 17th century. We rock hopped across a barely flowering river and entered one of the gates, after having been thwarted at another gate by a feisty Berber woman who was intent on extracting a toll. We climbed up through the compact little town, which is built on a hill, until we reached the ruins of the granary at the top. The views down into town and out across the desert are tremendous, and the town built of pink mud brick is certainly very atmospheric, but it has become one of the top tourist attractions in Morocco so we were far from alone, as there were a couple of tour groups there. It’s easy to see why the site is such a tourist magnet, but I think it will be lonely, lovely Telouet that will linger the longest at the edge of my thoughts.


From Ait-Ben-Haddou it was maybe an hour’s drive to our lodge in the Skoura oasis. We drove through the town of Ouarzazate, home to to two large movie studios, and somehow incongruously, the movie capital of Morocco, out in the middle of the desert. From there the road to Skoura winds through some barren and desolate countryside before eventually reaching the large palm oasis. We turned down a dirt road and it truly felt like we were at the ends of the earth, until we pulled up at our lodge surrounded by palm trees and lush gardens. We were greeted warmly and shown to our room in the nearby riad, where we enjoyed the sunset over the oasis from our terrace before dinner in the main lodge. There are only seven rooms in the entire place, making for a very intimate experience in the middle of one of the most romantic settings imaginable. I think we’re going to like it here.




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