The mountain stronghold of Telouet

Telouet, stronghold of the Lords of the Atlas

It was time to leave the desert behind. We followed the route of camel caravans as they made their way from palm groves to mountain passes, up the winding valley of the Ounila, past Ait Benhaddou and a string of ruined casbahs, and into the foothills of the Atlas. 

Our destination was Telouet, the birthplace of the Glaoui and their base of power. 

Shutter in the restored apartments

The late 19th century English traveler and journalist Walter Harris lived in Morocco for more than thirty-five years, and explored more of the country than arguably any other outsider, capturing a vanished age in his book Morocco That Was.

He visited T’hami el Glaoui in his mountain stronghold, and described the world of the Berber chieftains: “The whole life in those great Atlas fortified Kasbas was one of warfare and gloom. Every tribe had its enemies, every family had its blood feuds, and every man his would be murderer.”

Inside the stronghold of the Lords of the Atlas

A few rooms had been restored to something resembling their former glory by volunteers who collected a small entry fee from visitors who made their way off the main cross-Atlas highway to this now disused mountain pass. 

But the external buildings were melting away, and many had vanished entirely.

The Glaoui family rose and fell in little more than a generation

The carved wooden ceilings of the Glaoui’s personal living quarters were faded and covered in dust. Elegant tile work, carved wooden doors, and a skylight window of dusty glass gave a sense of what this vast fortress must have been like in its heyday, but closer inspection revealed tile work patched with clumsy plaster, and holes in the ceiling exposing the lathe. 

T’hami el Glaoui’s ancestral domain

My shoes crunched over pigeon shit as I made my way to a massive window with cast iron scroll work that commanded a view of the valley. 

I had to remind myself that those cultivated fields and snow capped peaks were once the domain of the man who ruled from these rooms.

The Glaoui’s personal living quarters have been restored

The restored apartments were dwarfed by the much larger ruins that lay roofless all around them, heaped with litter and human excrement. 

I picked my way through those half-melted mud walls, trying to find a way inside, but the entrances had been blocked by rubble, and the inner walls were too tall and too sheer for me to scale. 

I picked my way through half-melted mud brick walls

Beyond the garbage dump, the other outbuildings had been occupied by squatters. Several housed chickens that fought stray cats for scraps.

“It’ll all be gone in a couple more years if they don’t do something to preserve it,” Juan had told me. “One or two good rains will finish it off.” 

But the Glaoui family didn’t want to pay for it, and the government was reluctant to fund the conservation of a historic building whose previous inhabitant they saw as a traitor, the Quisling who helped the French overthrow Sultan Mohammed V. 

And so Telouet fades into history’s abyss, and T’hami el Glaoui fades into old photographs.

A couple more rains will wash it away

Photos ©Tomoko Goto, 2019

About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of A Sunny Place for Shady People and Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Writer at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

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