Three more palaces


The sixty-year history of the rise and fall of the house of El Glaoui in Morocco, of course, affected not only the five palaces (or six along with the bonus one in Tinghir) mentioned in the previous post. After all, during these sixty years, bot the El Glaouis and their opponents built, occupied or defended many more palaces and kasbahs. Below I will tell about three (or even six) of these.


The huge kasbah of Tamdaght or Tamdakht stands at the southern end of the Ounila Valley – almost as a counterpoint to Telouet, the nest of the El Glaouis, in the northern head of it –, where the Ounila and Mellah rivers converge. At this point, the valley already opens up to the southern plain, and its inhabitants are no lonber the Berbers of the Atlas, but the Arab tribe Ait Haddou who moved here from the south. The El Glaouis had to start the conquest of southern Morocco with this kasbah. As Gavin Maxwell writes in The Lords of the Atlas:

“Squarely on this route, on the lip of the river gorge, stood the gigantic fortress of Tamdacht, as imposing in its grandeur and the desolation of its surroundings as Telouet itself, and an infinitely more beautiful structure. Dissident tribes from all the region had united at this fortress under the leadership of one Ali n Ait Haddou, and their numbers were so great that they invited open war with the Glaoui. Ali closed the caravan route from the south, pillaging and murdering those who would not turn and go back the way they had come.

‘Dues’ from the caravans formed an important part of Madani El Glaoui’s revenue, and he sent his young brother T’hami to take the fortress by storm. T’hami rode from Telouet at the head of a harka two thousand strong. His progress down the valley of salt was slow; three times the carriage of the Krupp cannon broke as it lumbered through the loose boulders behind the struggling mules, but on the afternoon of the second day it stood on a commanding eminence three hundred yards from the castle, and beyond the range of the defenders’ flintlocks.

T’hami opened with a bombardment of thirty rounds on the outer walls, built of pisé, some fifteen feet high and six feet thick. These had something of the effect that a sandbag has upon a rifle bullet; but the cannon did breach the wall in three places. However, the rifle fire from the castle – and from thousands of natural caves that honeycombed the high mud cliffs flanking the river – was so intense, and the breaches so narrow, that the besiegers lost many lives without ever reaching the main walls of the castle.

Tamdacht might have withstood the siege had it not been for the presence of a traitor in the camp. During a lull in the attack Ali made a gesture of defiance by opening the great door of the castle and showing himself to the enemy. It was a fine gesture, but inadvisable, for when he turned to re-enter he found the door closed and bolted behind him. Alone and without protection he tried to flee, but T’hami’s men rode him down, hacked his head from his body and carried it back upon the point of a lance, while his mutilated body trailed at rope’s end behind another horseman. At the sight of these things the garrison of Tamdacht surrendered, but many of them suffered the same fate as Ali, for T’hami had become annoyed by their prolonged resistance and the loss of Glaoua lives. For some years after this all resistance in the South disappeared.”



Tamdaght Castle, since the El Glaouis made it their regional headquarters, is now desolate, as are the other about thirty former El Glaoui fortresses. Yet it could be a tourist magnet for the area here, just six kilometers north of the world heritage site Ait Ben Haddou, the only ksar still reached by tourism. Especially because it has a fame, as the North African scenes of Gladiator were shot in front of it. Its huge ironed wooden gate is opened by a single old guard at nine in the morning and closed at four in the afternoon. The halls still show traces of the former decoration that follow those of the palaces seen earlier. The clay walls are decaying in many places, but could still be restored.

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Behind the kasbah is a huge garden all the way to the river, with palms and almond trees. The pattern of planting and the remains of the canals suggest how gorgeous this garden could have been when it was still in care. Across the river rises a huge loess wall with a multitude of natural and man-carved caves. According to the local tour guide, Ahmed – who has a small café next to the kasbah, under the marabout, the tomb of the local Muslim saint – this loess wall was the Jewish quarter of Tamdaght. These caves were inhabited by the few dozen Jewish families who went to Israel in the 1960s, but many of them still return every year, or send here the younger generation on vacation to get to know the old homeland.



Returning from the garden along another way, we reach an adjacent kasbah. This is Kasbah Ellouze, built by a branch of the lords of the ancient Tamdaght kasbah. This building shows what one can do with a kasbah with due care and of course investment. The clay palace was acquired a few decades ago by a French family who, keeping the original elements as faithfully as possible, turned it into a four-star hotel with a swimming pool and an excellent restaurant. There is a demand for this so close to Ait Ben Haddou. In addition to Ahmed’s café, a camel stable and an antique shop also stand in the service of tourism.

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The other story involves at least four kasbahs. It begins in Tamnougalt, which was the administrative center of the Draa river valley. Thead of the region was Caid (provincial governor) Bu Beker until 1924, when he resigned because he did not feel strong enough against the expansion of the El Glaoui brothers. He was replaced by his younger brother Caid Ali, who managed to gain the patronage of the then sultan Yusef (1912-1927) and then of his son Mohammed V, so it would have been risky for even an El Glaoui to openly challenge him. Pasha T’hami El Glaoui therefore tried to neutralize him in many ways: he built his own kasbahs right next to those of Caid Ali, gave him one of his daughters in marriage (which remained childless), and finally in 1947, when Mohammed V openly sided with the party of independence, and thus T’hami El Glaoui, trusting in the support of the French, felt he could finish with his supporters, marched in Tamnougalt, and put his own man in the place of the provincial governor. Later in 1951, when T’hami El Glaoui began to organize the resignation of the sultan, and Caid Ali refused to sign the demand of resignation submitted to every caid by the pasha, this latter forced him into exile, or in another version, made him imprisoned, where Caid Ali died the following year.

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The road from Ouarzazate to Tamnougalt in the Draa valley

This story is quoted by Astrid and Erika Därr in their excellent guide to southern Morocco from an elderly member of the family in Tamnougalt:

“An old man in a dignified blue robe, with a cigarette in the corner of his toothless mouth, tells the story of his family. He is over eighty years; he is the nephew of the penultimate caid of Tamnougalt. He is glad that a European woman wants to know something about his family. He begins the story.

Do you know what a long story this is? he asks. Do you remember Moulay Rachid? I ask if he thinks of the founder of the Alavite dynasty, the ancestor of the current king, who came to power in the middle of the 17th century. Of course, who else? After a short pause, as he significantly looks at me, as if ponderating whether I am worthy of hearing this story, he picks up the thread again. Moulay Rachid had been watching the decline of the then ruling dynasty for years, and it was clear to him that it was doomed to fall. Therefore he decided to take the fate of the country into his own hands and become a sultan. There was one great obstacle: Ben Michaʿil, the Jew, who always stood by the Sultan and protected him. Whoever wanted to come to power had to set aside Ben Michaʿil first – but how? He shared his dilemma with his closest confidant, Ali Ben Mansur, a sharp-witted Berber from the Rif Mountains, who devised the following diabolical plan. Michaʿil was famous for his greed for gold. So a large chest of gold was made for him, which accommodated Ali and two other Berber warriors. It was sent to Michaʿil. He opened it, the warriors jumped out, and killed him. The new dynasty thus came to power through an assassination that followed the well-known scheme of the Trojan horse.


The old man asks me whether this story sheds a bad light on his family, because, as you might guess, the reckless Ali Mansur was none other than the ancestor of the Adt al-Qaïd family, who still live in the kasbah. I point out that this was not the only case of a violent takeover, and that he personally no longer has to make a question of conscience out of it. He calms down.

In return for the service Ali Mansur and his two brothers performed for him, Moulay Rachid appointed him the caid (governor) of the Draa valley. He raised the first kasbah in Tamnougalt, which still stands today. Jalil, the old man’s second-nephew guides me through the castle. With a torch in his hand, he leads me from courtyard to courtyard, explaining the secrets of clay architecture, and telling a lot of stories about the building. From one kasbah we get to the top of the other, because after the first kasbah many others were raised, two in the same ksar, and some nearby, each in the sight of the others: a long chain of kasbahs that follow the river all the way to Zagora. All of this remained in the hands of Ali Mansur and his descendants for centuries, until the mid-1940s, when the family was deprived of its title. And not only of the title, but of their possessions, lands and kasbah, in short, of their honor. The culprit in this was the French colonial system, or rather the Berber tribal chief who collaborated with them, T’hami ibn Mohammed al-Masouari al-Glaoui.

As I ask about this man, silence sets in, and anger sits on the face of the old man, who until then was so peacefully and beautifully telling me the story of his family. “A traitor”, he hisses, “not worth to mention”. Of course, I start to be interested in this man who was sentenced to oblivion by the Moroccan authorities. All that can be learned from the Southerners is that the El Glaouis were traitors. The mention of their name is followed by an outburst of rage. However, if you search the literature a bit, it turns out that such beautiful kasbahs like Telouet or Taourirt in Ouarzazate are due to them.

T’hami El Glaoui fought for the supremacy over the Draa valley with the support of the French. The caids held themselves with the support of the sultan and the local population until the mid-1940s, but then their resistance was broken. Si Ali, the last caid of Tamnougalt was forced into exile, his family memebers were driven out of the country, and some of them imprisoned. Even today you can see the witnesses of the rivalry between the caids loyal to the sultan and the El Glaouis, supporters of the French: the kasbahs built in the region from the early 20th century. Both families tried to overcome the other by building a new kasbah. Wherever there was a caid’s kasbah, the El Glaouis built their own in its immediate vicinity. Eminent points, such as the hill before Tamnougalt, were “occupied” by the construction of a kasbah. The El Glaoui kasbahs are becoming increasingly desolate these days, only one or two being reluctantly restored in the sign of the increasing tourism. Of course, the old man does not speak about this.


However, the rule of the El Glaouis did not last forever. In 1956, T’hami ibn Mohammed had to humble himself before sultan Mohammed V. He soon died, his estates were confiscated, and his family emigrated to France. His defeat brought victory to the other family. The Adt al-Qaïd family regained their estates for their unbroken allegiance to the sultan. The caid system was no longer restored, but the family’s honor yes, and Si Ali could die in peace. He left ten kasbahs for his descendants. Most of them are still inhabited by the family, two of them can be visited. One is the ancient kasbah in Tamnougalt, and the other the Qaid Ali kasbah in Asslim ksar near Agdz.


The old man smiles and instructs his grandson to bring me another tea. He asks me if I want to hear another story about the fearsome Abd El Krim, who fought against the French. I nod enthusiastically. He lights a cigarette, sips from his gorgeous tea, and begins to tell the story…”


The Glaoui kasbah, built against the caid’s kasbah in Tamnougalt, still rises there on the hilltop before the entrance to the ksar. Seen from the road, it seems intact, only when you turn up the hill and enter it, you can see how badly it was treated by time. Next to it lies the large cemetery of the Jewish quarter of Tamnougalt, surrounded by a new wall at the expense of the descendants living in Israel.

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The other kasbah mentioned by the Därrs stands ten kilometers further west, next to Asslim ksar above the town of Agdz. In fact, the century-old Asslim ksar was the ancestor of the town of Agdz: the latter was born only in the 1930s, when the French established a military airport on the open field south of Asslim, along the Draa. Next to the airport, a market has developed for the supply of the military, and this became the seed of the market town of Agdz, with its beautiful arcaded market square. The inhabitants of Asslim moved to the town: the ksar is now uninhabited and desolate. Only the three kasbahs next to it are still alive today: Caid Ali’s ancient kasbah, next to it the representative kasbah built by him in the 1920s, and further south, next to the cemetery, the impressive Kasbah des Sables, built by T’hami El Glaoui to block the road to Agdz.

The Kasbah des Sables

The ancient kasbah is inhabited and restored by one of the descendants of the family. He also runs a guest house in it, called Kasbah des Arts. The towers of the kasbah offer magnificent views around the landscape, the Draa valley, the palm groves that mean the richness of the region, the decaying Asslim ksar, and, to the east, the pagoda-like Mount Kisen, below which lays Tamnougalt. Caid Ali may have often watched it from here, thinking with nostalgia and anger of his ancient lot, honestly acquired by his family and dishonestly snatched away by the traitor.

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The Glaoui and other palaces mentioned above and in the previous post

Five palaces. A royal drama in Morocco


“The castle stands at an altitude of more than 8,000 feet in the High Atlas mountains of Morocco. It and its scattered rookery of crumbling predecessors occupy the corner of a desert plateau, circled by the giant peaks of the Central Massif, all of them rising to more than 10,000 feet, and some, such as the great Jebel Ghat to the eastward, reaching 12,500.


When in the spring the snows begin to thaw and the river below the castle, the Oued Mellah, becomes a torrent of ice-grey and white, the mountains reveal their fantastic colours, each distinct and contrasting with its neighbour. The hues are for the most part the range of colours to be found upon fan shells – reds, vivid pinks, violets, yellows, but among these are peaks of cold mineral green or of dull blue. Nearer at hand, where the Oued Mellah turns to flow through the valley of salt, a cluster of ghostly spires, hundreds of feet high and needle-pointed at their summits, cluster before the face of a precipice; vultures wheel and turn upon the air currents between them.



Apart from a sprinkling of evergreen shrubs upon the lower slopes, the mountains are bare of vegetation, for only close round the castle walls are there real trees; the tenderness of new leaf and the glory of blossoming almond intensified by the mighty desolation of the backcloth.



Even in this setting the castle does not seem insignificant. It is neither beautiful nor gracious, but its sheer size, as if in competition with the scale of the mountains, compels attention as much as the fact that its pretension somehow falls short of the ridiculous. The castle, or kasbah, of Telouet is a tower of tragedy that leaves no room for laughter. The double doors to the forecourt are twenty feet high. A giant Negro slave opens the lock with a key a foot long and sets his shoulder to the iron-bossed wood; the door gives way reluctantly, inch by inch, creaking and rasping upon rusty hinges. A kestrel hawk, disturbed from its nest in the wall above, flies out scolding with sharp staccato cries. The surface of the courtyard is an uneven rubble, sloping sharply to the left, down to the curtain wall, where row upon row of dark doorways lead to the stable quarters. Above them are castellated look-out posts facing the Jebel Ghat. There is sheep-dung scattered among the rubble, and the reddish curling horn of a Moroccan ram. To the right rises the whole mass of the kasbah, tower and rooftop: ill-ordered, ill-planned, but majestic in its proliferation and complete absence of symmetry. There are three colours only – whitewash, red stone or clay, and brilliant green roof tiles. Above these the ever-present birds of prey, the vultures, ravens and kites, weave slow and intricate patterns upon the hard blue sky. There is no sound but their calling, and the clacking bills of the storks which nest on every tower.


The slave unlocks an intricately carved door in the white wall to the right of the forecourt. The number and weight of keys that he carries is so great that in order to support them he wears a heavy silk rope about his shoulders, concealed by his djellabah, an ankle-length white woollen garment with a hood, and further hidden by his selham, a black woollen cloak, also with a hood, which envelops all.

The black gatekeeper in the picture, Mohammed, is certainly not the one the 1966 quote writes about, but his grandson. For three generations, the family has overseen the kasbah of Telouet, and guided guests.

He carries sixty-seven keys. He has been in sole charge of Telouet for three years, but even now he does not know his way through the labyrinth that was constructed intentionally as such. He can find his way to the kitchens (I counted two hundred and thirty-eight paces and twenty-two doors unlocked), but he cannot find his way from these to the harem without going back to the main reception quarters and looking out of the windows to re-orientate himself. It was to these reception rooms that he wanted always to return; they were the outward and visible sign of ultimate physical ambition. They were all on one floor, but three hundred men had worked on them for three years, plasterworkers, carvers, and one painter, who covered inches rather than feet daily. This man had been paid, by Moroccan standards, an enormous wage – about £22 a week. The owner of the castle had intended that it should become the most fabulous palace in the world, a Château de Coucy, an Xanadu. It had already been called ‘The Palace of a Thousand and One Nights’.

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The décor was in the main based upon the stalagmite theme of the Saadien tombs (the Saadiens were an earlier dynasty of Moroccan sultans who reigned from 1554 to 1659), but it embraced, also, every style that was luxurious, however debased, and made use of every traditional motif. A (comparatively) small salon in which the occupant     entertained intimate guests incorporated continuous three-foot-high panels of silks and brocades from Lyons, rugs from Rabat, Persia, Turkestan and the High Atlas, comparatively crude work and bastard design alternating with high craftsmanship of all nations.

The harem is paved and walled with painted tiles that seem, for the most part, to be of modern Italian origin, though some have the detailed beauty of the ancient Hispano-Mauresque. The carved and painted yew wood ceilings of the reception rooms are Moorish in concept, as is the Saadien plasterwork of the noble alcoves. But deep invading cracks cut crudely through the intricate elaboration of years of work, for Telouet is empty now; only the Negro slaves, almost destitute, linger on to tend the relics of a dead dynasty.”

Gavin Maxwell: Lords of the Atlas. The Rise and Fall of the House of Glaoua, 1893-1956, 1966


Telouet Castle on the backbone of the High Atlas is the document of a unique and tragic story which, in its intensity and political weight, can be compared to Shakespeare’s royal dramas. This story, which lasted sixty years from 1893 to 1956, begins here, but then extends to the whole of the Atlas region, Marrakesh, all of Morocco, and in some respects even the whole world, to finally end here in 1956. It is known to all Moroccans, but they are reluctant to tell it, and although it has defined the country’s history for half a century, it is not taught in school either – the above book of Gavin Maxwell, which first narrated it, was banned in Morocco after its publication. At the same time, many extraordinary and important palaces in Marrakesh and the Atlas valleys, which tour guides show simply as magnificent monuments, recall this story, and must be interpreted in its context. Below I tell this story, also presenting five palaces that were created in the course of it, and still bear witness to it.

The kasbah of Telouet – as the Berber clay forts of the Atlas are called – stands under Tizi n’Tichka, the middle of the three great passes of the Atlas, in the center of the settlement area of the Glaoua or Glawa Berber tribe. It was built in the 1860s by the chief of the tribe, Mohammed El Glaoui, on the foundations of earlier fortifications, the ruins of which can still be seen around the castle. The castle is strategically located on the millennial caravan route from Marrakesh to the Atlas and further south through the Sahara to Timbuktu and old Ghana’s gold mines. To understand the importance of this, we need to turn away from the story for a moment, and summarize the role this caravan route played in the history of Morocco, and indeed of North Africa and the Mediterranean as a whole.


The camel, first brought to Egypt by the Persians, reached the Berbers around the 3rd c. AD. From then on it became possible for North African traders to cross the hitherto impenetrable Sahara and reach the rich gold deposits of West Africa. Here was established in the 7th century the empire of Ghana or Wagadou, which built close ties with the Atlas region. Salt was mined in the Atlas, which was much needed in Ghana for humans and animals to be able to retain water in the hot climate. Gold, abundantly mined in Ghana, had no value there, because they used cowrie shell as means of payment. Berber merchants from the oases south of the Atlas – especially the legendary Sijilmasa, today’s Todra area – therefore exchanged salt for gold in Ghana in equal weight, bringing back also black slaves, for whom there was a huge demand throughout the Mediterranean. In the 13th century, Ghana was occupied by the neighboring Mali Empire, with which the “gold and slave for salt” trade continued until the early 20th century.

The commercial routes between the Atlas and Ghana from Roger Mimó’s Fortalezas de barro en el sur de Marruecos (1996)

West African trade routes from Wikipedia. The large gold deposits are marked in gold.

Representation of Ghana’s empire in the famous Catalan Atlas (1375) by the Mallorcan Jewish cartographer Abraham Cresques – about whose house in Palma de Mallorca we have already written. Although this territory was already Empire of Mali at that time, nevertheless it still bears the name of Ginuia. Its ruler holds a large nugget of gold in his hand, for which a Berber merchant arrives on camelback from the left. At his feet to the left lays the city of Tenbuch (Timbuktu), the largest local commercial center, and to the right is an inscription: “Aquest senyor negre és appellat Musse Melly senyor dels negres de Gineua. Aquest rey est lo pus rich et pus noble senyor de tota esta partida per l’abondançia de l’or lo qual se recull en la seva terra.” – “This black lord is Musse Melli, the ruler of the black people of Ghana. He is the richest and noblest lord of this region, due to the gold that is found in his land.” Above them, and under the Atlas Mountains marked with yellow scales, there is the oasis of Sijilmasa, surrounded by rivers. To the left of it, another inscription: “Per aquest loch pasen los merchaders que entren en la terra dels negres de Gineua, allo qual pases appellat vall de Darcha.” – “In this place, called the Draa Valley, the merchants cross over to the land of the black people of Ghana.” – Click on the image for a much larger resolution.

Fresco in Zagora in the Draa Valley, at the southernmost point of the sub-Atlas Berber region: Timbuktu 52 days

The above maps and information help us to correctly interpret the following map which shows the extent of the Almoravid empire. This Berber dynasty, established in the 11th century, ruled over an empire which, in its heyday, stretched from the northern borders of Ghana to the middle of the Hispanic Peninsula. They also founded the city of Marrakesh in 1062 as the capital of their empire. To conquer and maintain an empire of this size, 3000 kilometers from north to south, they needed those three things like any war: money, money and money. And this amount of money came from the trade between the Atlas and Ghana.


As to the importance of Telouet, it is enough to say that it lay on the northernmost point of this trade route, at the pass where the goods brought from the south passed through to their most important northern market, the city of Marrakesh. This road went in the valley of the river Ounila, and at the head of the valley, under the pass, stands the castle of Telouet, which controlled and taxed all this trade.

Pre-war postcards: Telouet in its heyday


This millennial past has left its mark on the Ounila Valley. From Telouet down to Ouarzazate, where the river flows into the Draa River, every second or third kilometer there are centuries-old kasbahs, forts, and ksars, fortified towns (the latter name comes from Latin caesar and the related Arab qasar, like Alcazár). These castles and towns tapped the benefit of the large distance trade as merchants, salt miners or simple highwaymen. The architecturally unparalleled valley – apart from its southernmost ksar, the world heritage site Ait Ben Haddou – is still undiscovered by tourism, because in the 1930s the French built the large road through the Atlas not in the valley, but west of it. The valley has remained a kind of untouched, archaic open air museum. It is a beautiful all day trip to cover it by rental car, stopping here and there.

A poster promoting tourism in the Ounila Valley, from the time of the French Protectorate (1912-1956), designed by the orientalizing Art Nouveau painter Jacques Majorelle, whose garden and house in Marrakesh are among the most popular tourist attractions in Marocco

Kasbahs and ksars along the Ounila River

But let us now get back to our story. In 1893, Hassan I, Sultan of Morocco decided to launch a punitive campaign, harka, against the Berbers in the Tafilalet oasis south of the Atlas, because they had rebelled against him, and paid no taxes. Such punitive campaigns accompany the history of Morocco almost rhytmically. The country’s geopolitical structure is fundamentally determined by the Atlas Mountains, which sharply divide Morocco into a northern and a southern part. The northern part, with its large cities and majority Arab population, has always been the bled el mahkzen, the territory ruled by the government, while the southern part, far from the government, with its unbridled Berber tribes, the bled es-siba, “the land of lawlessness”. The history of the Moroccan dynasties can be described by the formula that the South, from time to time, rebels against the sultan in the North, and, led by a charismatic leader, defeat him. Then the new leader establishes a new dynasty, swept away by another rebellion from the South a few generations later.

Hassan I, whose dynasty, the Alawites, which still rules today, came to power in the same way in 1666, set out to curb such a rebellion. Starting from the then capital, Fez, the shortest route through the Atlas run in the valley of the Ziz river. However, this is also one of the most difficult routes, crossing several mountain ranges and passes, on difficult, snowy paths. The logistics of the crossing exceeded the capabilities of the army. A large portion of the soldiers and of the transport was lost along the way, and most of the survivors, including the sultan, had reached Tafilalet sick. There they put an end to rebellion with a great effort, and then – since it was late autumn – they set out in a forced march to return across the Atlas to Fez before the onset of winter. For the way back, they choose a more comfortable road, the one running in the Ounila Valley, to the west.

Pre-war postcard: Telouet in its heyday

It was a march like Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. It was November by the time they reached the Ounila Valley, and winter was extremely hard in that year. The road was covered in snow, the transport animals fell into the abyss, people froze, and the survivors ate the corpses of their own dead comrades in lack of other food.

“The main arsenal, however,” writes Gavin Maxwell, “which included a ponderous Krupp assault cannon and a quantity of its weighty ammunition, was never abandoned. The continued existence of this cannon changed the whole history of Morocco. This particular cannon happened to be functional, a fact noteworthy enough by itself to distinguish it from a number of collaterals whose role was purely ritual. Sultans were always buying cannon, often accompanied by a temporary instructor, but when the instructor had gone and the few instructed had been killed, the artillery inflicted more casualties upon its masters than upon its enemies. But to the people the cannons had become symbols of the Sultan’s army; more, they had become symbols of the Sultan in his capacity of imam or spiritual leader, for it was one of the decrepit but still vocal guns called El Nouba, that announced the hour of prayer at dawn and dusk. A whole rigmarole of ritual and belief grew around the cannons. They became, in effect, ambulant representatives of His Chereefian Majesty’s person, possessing his power of baraka or blessing, his power to cure diseases, to receive petitions and offerings, and to grant asylum. Any malefactor who sat himself upon the shaft between the cannon’s wheels acquired automatically the right of direct appeal to the Sultan, an appeal which no Sultan would refuse. ‘I swear by the cannon of the Sultan’ was a frequent and binding oath, and the cannons also received direct prayer, addressed customarily to their muzzles. They also received offerings, in the form of the heads of the enemy, and after a victory the cannons were completely hidden by the bloody heads piled on and around them. More bizarre still, during a temporary truce or parley in rebel territory, women of the Berber tribes could be seen kissing the big bronze gun barrels and praying to them for the defeat of the Sultan. The paradox was not apparent to them, for they venerated the Sultan as the khalifa, or representative, of God, and abhorred him as an oppressive tyrant of their people.”

This is how they reached the Tizi n’Tichka pass, in a blizzard, with a dwindling army, without food. It was here that the Glawa tribal chief, Madani El Glaoui hurried to their aid, commanding their Berber subjects to bring together enough sheep and firewood to host the sultan and his army for weeks in Telouet Castle, thereby saving their lives.

Pre-war postcard: Welcoming a distinguished guest in Telouet

Pre-war postcard: “Couscous and bread taken to Telouet Castle for a diffa (festive dinner)”

When the sultan finally set out to cross the pass to return to Fez, he returned the life-saving service with two donations. On the one hand, he appointed Madani to be the caliph, that is, royal governor of the region south of the Atlas. This, of course, would have been a gratuitous title in itself, since even the sultan himself could not control the bled es-siba. But it was facilitated by another gift, the 77-mm Krupp cannon, which  the sultan left in Telouet. With the help of this cannon, Madani and his younger brother, T’hami El Glaoui will actually take control of the whole of southern Morocco in the following two decades.

The Krupp cannon today in the center of the El Glaouis’ former South Moroccan empire, the courtyard of Taourirt kasbah in Ouarzazate

However, the sultan returned home from the campaign as a sick man, and died in May of the following year. As he died during a journey, only one man stood at his bed, his chamberlain Ahmed ben Moussa or Ba Ahmed, son of a liberated black slave and of a Jewish mother. He took the opportunity to gain power. He persuaded the sultan to leave the throne to his minor son Abd el Aziz, instead of his eldest son Mohammed, and then, in alliance with the young sultan’s mother, they ousted the traditional Fez aristocracy from power. In this they relied on the El Glaoui brothers, who were gradually conquering southern Morocco, and who were ready at any time to deploy a large Berber army in defense of their allies.

From 1894 until his death in 1900, Ba Ahmed became virtually the ruler of Morocco. A most obvious sign of this is the magnificent palace built for himself in Marrakesh at the expense of the state, which is still visited as one of the city’s landmark under the name of Bahia Palace (named after his favorite concubine).

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So far, we have seen two palaces from the planned five: the Bahia, built between 1894 and 1900, and the Telouet kasbah, whose reception halls were decorated with princely splendor by T’hami El Glaoui only from the late 1930s. The decoration of both were inspired by the same ancient and highly revered model: the so-called Saʿadian Tombs, which are today one of, if not the main attractions of Marrakesh.

The Saʿadi dynasty (1549-1629), like all their predecessors and descendants, originated from south of the Atlas as a Berber tribe. They were large landowners in the valley of the river Draa, from where they were raised to the forefront by the outrage of the Moroccan people against the ruling Wattasid sultans, who idly tolerated the expansion of the Portuguese infidels in the coastal region of the country. The Saʿadis had to fight a two-fronted war. On the one hand, they successfully pushed the Portuguese back into their coastal forts, and on the other hand, they had to stand in the way of the expansion of the Ottoman Empire, which wanted to annex Morocco. Against the Ottomans, armed defense was not enough: since the Ottoman Sultan was the Caliph, the Saʿadis had to display adequate authority against him. One element of this was the building of the capital, Marrakesh, into a “second Constantinople”, in a luxurious “Islamic Renaissance” style. The most important part of the program was the royal seat of the Saʿadis, the Badi Palace, which, however, was deprived of all its interior decoration by the subsequent Alawite dynasty, to be transferred to their own new palace in Meknes. From the architectural program of the Saʿadis, only the noble palaces of the Mouassine Quarter they have built have survived to this day, and their main work, the burial place of the dynasty, the Saʿadian Tombs in the courtyard of the Kasbah Mosque.

The Saʿadis were very fortunate that not long before their ascension to the throne, in 1492, the last bastion of the Arab-Berber rule in Andalusia, the Emirate of Granada collapsed, and the Muslim builders, who had worked on the Alhambra, or at least closely studied it, came as refugees to Morocco. The architectural program of the Saʿadis, especially the surviving royal tombs, thus carried on the tradition of Andalusian Muslim architecture, and passed it on to the representative palaces of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

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The tragedy of our story also includes what happened to the Bahia Palace after the death of Ba Ahmad. At the same time, it predicts the tragedy of how the story of the El Glaouis will end. The scene was described in Morocco That Was (1921) by Walter Burton Harris, who lived in Morocco since the age of 19 as a correspondent for The Times:

“The death of a great personage in Morocco is terrible, and for several days as the Vizier lay expiring, guards were stationed outside his palace waiting in silence for the end. And then one morning the wail of the women within the house told that death had come. Every gateway of the great building was seized, and no one was allowed to enter or come out, while within there was pandemonium. His slaves pillaged wherever they could lay their hands. His women fought and stole to get possession of the jewels. Safes were broken open, documents and title-deeds were extracted, precious stones were torn from their settings the more easily to be concealed, and even murder took place.

While all this was proceeding within the strictly guarded walls, Bou Ahmed’s body was borne out and buried. The Sultan, weeping, followed the bier of the man who had put him on his throne and kept him there through those difficult years of his youth. He must, indeed, have felt himself alone as he stood beside the grave of his Vizier, who, whatever may have been his faults, however great may have been his extortions, had been loyal throughout. When Moulay Abd El Aziz, still weeping, had returned to his palace, his first act was to sign the decree for the confiscation of all Bou Ahmed’s property. It was now organised loot, for officials and slaves were turned loose to carry out the royal commands. For days laden baggage animals, half-concealed under great masses of furniture, heaped with carpets and bedding, or staggering under safes, bore Bou Ahmed’s property into the Sultan’s palace. His women and his slaves were made to give up their loot, and the house was left empty and its owners penniless. A few days later nothing remained but the great building – all the rest had disappeared into space.”



But the El Glaouis continued to become stronger even after the death of Ba Ahmed. As before the Grand Vizier, now the Sultan counted on them as a strong ally against the rebellious tribes of the South. This eventually led to a decisive conflict between them, which became the reason of one of the two king coups of the El Glaouis. In 1902, a claimant to the throne appeared among the Berbers, Bou Hamara, originally known as Omar Ez Zarhouni, a magician and miracle worker who claimed to be the sultan’s dispossessed brother Moulay Mohammed, the rightful successor to Hassan I. He had plenty of followers among the tribes dissatisfied with the incapable government, and the sultan launched a campaign against him. Of course, Madani and T’hami El Glaoui also joined the campaign, but the decisive battle, poorly led by the sultan’s generals, was lost, and the sultan himself could barely escape. At the suggestion of his generals, he made the El Glaouis a scapegoat. Madani wanted to clear himself in the sultan’s court, but he was so humiliated there that he decided: Abd el-Aziz must go. He visited one of the sultan’s brothers, Hafid, the governor of Marrakesh, and convinced him to take over the reign.

They were helped by the fact that at that time, in 1906 and 1907, the French began their slow infiltration into Morocco. The French army from Algeria was occupying more and more key positions; the Moroccan people started lynching in response, and several European people – retailers and workers – were killed. The army avenged the killings with arms. In this situation, Madani and Hafid accused the sultan of doing nothing against the expansion of the infidels, and launched an armed uprising against him. The uprising won, and in 1908, Hafid took the place of his brother who went in exile.

Soon after, however, the El Glaouis changed their position. Sultan Hafid wanted to free himself from the grip of th tribal chiefs who brought him to the throne, and, ignoring them, offered an alliance to the French. They marched in, and on 30 March 1912 caused him to sign the Treaty of Fez, by which Morocco became a French protectorate. When this was revealed, a general uprising erupted all over the country, accompanied by the slaughter of Europeans. The nomadic Tuareg tribal chief and claimant to the throne, Ahmed El Hiba took siege of Marrakesh and demanded that the pasha of Marrakesh delivered him the Frenchmen living in the city. The clueless pasha was eventually helped by T’hami El Glaoui, who was currently in Marrakesh, and offered him to take over the Frenchmen collected by him, while Madani was already negotiating with the French army about their marching into Marrakesh. Finally the army arrived, quickly defeating the troops of El Hiba, entered the city, and found the rescued hostages in T’hami’s palace. General Lyautey immediately appointed T’hami El Glaoui Pasha of Marrakesh. This was the beginning of the true heyday of the El Glaouis.

After the march into Marrakesh, General Lyautey honors the El Glaoui brothers with the French Order of Honor

From 1912 to 1956, the El Glaouis (until 1918, Madani El Glaoui, and after his death his younger brother, T’hami El Glaoui) became the de facto lords of Morocco. In view of the actual power relations, they favored the French occupiers, so much so that Lyautey’s Moroccan policy was based on the principle that the French army should only control the region north of the Atlas, and leave the pacification of the South to the El Glaouis, whom he could trust, at most supporting them with financial resources and arms. And the El Glaouis faithfully did what they were required to.

Two further palaces bear witness to this period, both of which are among the most visited sights in Morocco. One is the palace of the pasha of Morocco, Dar El Bacha, rebuilt in a luxurious way by T’hami El Glaoui in the 1910s, in the style of the Bahia Palace and the Saʿadian Tombs. After the fall of the El Glaouis in 1956, this palace was inherited by the king: it is today the Marrakesh palace of the King of Morocco. However, the personal suite of T’hami El Glaoui was detached from the grand palace, and opened to the public as an independent museum of Islamic art called Dar El Bacha (The Pasha’s Court) or Musée des Confluences.

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The other palace, Taourirt kasbah stands at the southern foot of the Atlas, in Ouarzazate, from where the El Glaouis ruled their South Moroccan empire. It is no coincidence that the Krupp cannon was – and still is – guarded in its courtyard for a quick mobilization. The palace is in fact a rural garrison center, and accordingly, the decoration of its ceremonial halls is a more rustic edition of that of the Marrakesh palaces, but essentially following the same motifs and structures.

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The El Glaoui and other palaces mentioned in this post

The El Glaouis, who tied their cart closely to the French, watched in shock the Moroccan independence movement that unfolded since the 1930s, and even more so that the young Sultan Mohammed V, who came to power in 1927, also increasingly sided the independence party Istiqlal. In World War II, he still supported the French, but in his 1947 speech in Tangier he was already openly in favor of Istiqlal’s demands. Pasha T’hami el Glaoui, who feared not only the loss of his French supporters, but also the modernization and the end of the old traditional order that were to come with independence, in August 1953, with the support of the Berber chieftains and the Sufi orders opposing the sultan, and with the approval of the French military leadership, led his Berber warriors to Fez, and overthrew the sultan, who was then transported to Corsica by the French.

However, the fall of the sultan was followed by uprisings and anti-French lynchings across the country. Under pressure from this, in the fall of 1955 the French finally brought Mohammed V back to Morocco, and on 2 March 1956 they recognized the country’s independence. T’hami El Glaoui came before the sultan, threw himself on the ground, and pleaded for his forgiveness. The sultan forgave. The pasha retired to the kasbah of Telouet, where he died a month later.

Most of the El Glaoui descendants live in France today: artists, scientists, entrepreneurs. And the Moroccan state deliberately lets the memory of the El Glaoui era fade away. They do not teach it in the schools, they do not write about it in the (otherwise excellent) Moroccan historical journals. Although the kasbahs and ksars are sought to be renovated or at least maintained all over southern Morocco, the El Glaoui kasbahs somehow do not receive funds. Their majority are abandoned and derelict. Just like the following Glaoui kasbah in Tinghir oasis on the eastern edge of southern Morocco, from where the El Glaouis used to control the eastern part of their empire, and which will be discussed in a later post.

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Tinghir’s Glaoui kasbah in 1919. Across the Todra River, in the upper part of the photo, a detail of the ancient Afanour ksar.