Inspired by Marrakesh’s distinctive and enduring vogue for riads ‒ traditional courtyard homes in the old quarter converted into luxurious boutique hotels ‒ it’s now virtually de rigueur for visitors to enjoy their sensuous, almost pasha-like, experience.

Yet the desert city’s best known – and ultimately infamous – ‘pasha’ was T’hami El Glaoui. Along with his elder brother Madani (who became the Sultan’s Grand Vizier), from the 1890s through to the 1950s they evolved from mere tribal leaders high in the Atlas to rulers of great swathes of southern Morocco. T’hami, so-called ‘Lion of the Atlas’, particularly charmed European high society with sophisticated banquets and lavish gifts. At home he proved a master of cunning and intrigue. He befriended Winston Churchill and attended the Queen’s coronation; yet back in Marrakesh, it was often said somewhat chillingly, he never forgave and never forgot.

The journey to their roots at Telouet, deep in the High Atlas Mountains, lends an evocative glimpse at the past and is just a short detour from the classic southern route to Ouarzazarte. Heading away from the city across the Haouz Plain, I turned towards the dark mauve-tinted peaks. Their muscular ramparts loomed through the haze forming a seemingly impenetrable barrier to the oases and sub-Saharan regions lying beyond.

Ascending gradually at first through rounded hills and scattered villages, the road climbed more sharply after Taddert into stark mountains riven by deep valleys. By almost every bend youths waved me down to hawk large ammonite fossils, amethyst and other assorted minerals neatly stacked at roadside stalls. Then, at nearly 2300m, I finally wound across the Tizi n’Tichka pass and promptly plunged towards Ouarzazate and the desert.

A few kilometres beyond it is the turn-off for Telouet where a thread of tarmac weaves for twenty kilometres through hills of juniper and holm oak towards the Glaoui brothers’ historic heartland. Already it feels like another, older Morocco far removed from swanky Marrakesh or frivolous Agadir.

Mud-brick village houses merged together with gleaming white minarets soaring above their flat roofs, while burnous-clad men rode stout mules and kohl-eyed women carried fodder – for many visitors this is their first experience of a far more rural and traditional Morocco. As Telouet came into view, my eyes were drawn to the striking bulk of the Glaoui’s crumbling edifice backed by the barren, faintly snow-capped peaks of the High Atlas.

Glaoui kasbah, Telouet

Glaoui kasbah, Telouet

Their story really begins in 1893 with Sultan Moulay Hassan’s shambolic return to Marrakesh from a raiding expedition far to the south. Things had not gone well: of an army of ten thousand, less than a third were now struggling back across the Atlas, weak and cannibalistically hungry. In the teeth of a particularly harsh winter, they trudged north up the Ounila Valley towards Telouet with the main mountain passes yet to come.

Madani, the local Berber chieftain, heard of their plight, sensed an opportunity and graciously welcomed the Sultan with a near miraculous feast. His hospitality continued for days. The profoundly grateful Sultan quickly made Madani caid, or governor, of a vast southern area and gave him a prized (and in Morocco virtually unique) Krupp canon. The Glaoui were on the rise and now had an impressive armament to prove it.

I set off with Ali, a local guide, next morning to visit their part-ruined palace, or kasbah. We walked down past village houses inhabited by haratin families ‒ descendants of negroid slaves that once served the Glaoui ‒ continued beneath the main walls and entered a gateway near a field once used for fantasias, exuberant displays of horsemanship. The kasbah’s guardian appeared with a huge fat key to unlock another gate. We entered an irregularly shaped sloping courtyard, ducked into a twisting passage and reached a gloomy, sinister-looking tunnel barred by crossed planks and ‘Stop’ painted on the wall. “That leads to the kitchens,” announced Ali, “but you can’t go there”.

Today one can see just a small part of this rambling complex: sections are clearly unsafe, or blocked or simply out of bounds. There’s little chance of following Gavin Maxwell who, in his marvellous 1966 Lords of the Atlas, recalls stumbling across white but manacled bones in the dungeon (“With the turbulent history of Telouet they could have been either a hundred or less than five years old”). I followed Ali upstairs to a series of salons and, allegedly, the harem. Most are well preserved with decorative yew-wood ceilings, elaborately incised stucco, geometrically-fluted doors and ceramic mosaic tile work known as zellij.

Yet the place retains a brooding atmosphere, its ambitious grandeur quite at odds with the harsh and remote setting. From the roof, you get the sharpest sense of its atmospheric decay: a warren of rubble-filled courtyards and collapsed towers, crumbling plaster and cracked pisé walls, and broken skylights. Dung-splattered storks’ nests, their occupants gliding about elegantly, add a surreal touch. The kasbah was never quite finished, its older, more traditional section of towers and courtyards blunted by a stark, vaguely European frontage of straight, stern walls.

What, I wondered, did locals now think of the Glaoui. Ali thought for a moment, “C’est difficile,” he began hesitantly. “As strong Berber tribal leaders they could be admired. But against that was their collaboration with the French….especially T’hami helping them exile the king.” The Independence-minded King Mohammed V – the present king’s grandfather – soon returned a hero to head Moroccan independence in 1956; the Glaoui were finished and dispossessed. Telouet’s fantastic decline might also be seen as official revenge against this controversial family – never quite forgiven or forgotten.

If you would like to explore this region of Morocco or the Atlas Mountains then look here.

About Amar Grover
Amar Grover is a freelance travel writer and photographer. He has travelled widely across the Indian subcontinent and China, Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. You can see some of his work at pictographical.co.uk, blogs at https://pictographical.wordpress.com/ and occasional tweets @samarkandHK