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Reviving the last Pasha of Marrakech

Telouet castle, Morocco
The fortunes of the once glamorous Telouet castle may be turning

The castle of the last Pasha of Marrakech in the High Atlas mountains of Morocco is finally getting a face-lift after more than 50 years of neglect, as the BBC's Bojan Kveder discovered.

The Kasbah of Telouet, built not more than 100 years ago, has been crumbling into the reddish dust of the valley since 1956, the year Morocco won independence from France and T'hami el-Glaoui fell from grace with the king.

LORD OF THE CASTLE
T'hami el-Mezouari el-Glaoui
1893 - T'hami el-Glaoui rescues sultan, is rewarded with arms to consolidate local power
1912 - Helps French seize control, is appointed pasha, or local ruler
1930 - Independence movement is born
1953 - El-Glaoui and the French conspire to depose the sultan
1956 - Morocco gains independence, T'hami dies

He is considered a traitor to this day for siding with the French colonisers and helping to topple two sultans.

At the time of his death in 1956, the Lord of the Atlas was the most powerful man in Morocco and one of the wealthiest men in the world.

Now, the remote village of Telouet is only accessible by a side road branching off from the trans-Atlas highway running from Marrakech to Ouarzazate.

Getting there is a feat in itself. Before embarking on the journey from Marrakech, I combed the city for a travel agency organizing trips there, to no avail. Whoever I asked would respond with shrugging shoulders and a look of consternation mixed with embarrassment.

"Why Telouet? Tourists don't go there. You have so many attractive places to choose from," was the standard reaction.

Finally I managed to find a hole-in-the wall agency with two banged-up 4x4's through my hotel, but the bargaining went on for more than a day.

Telouet castle
This castle entrance has seen better days

The road from Marrakech snakes through lush green valleys interspersed with brown mud-brick Berber villages that look exactly as they did centuries ago, except for a few satellite dishes on their flat roofs.

But as the altitude changes, the landscape becomes barren and forbidding - green is replaced by a uniform ochre and red. The ascent culminates in the Tizi-n-Tichka mountain pass, the highest in the Atlas at 2,500 metres, where the air is thin and people are nervous.

When you finally rattle to a stop in Telouet after innumerable hairpin bends, enormous potholes, and a mouthful of dust, what strikes you is the eerie stillness of the place, occasionally interrupted by the flapping of a vulture's wings.

The Kasbah still stands proudly, perched on top of hill like a latter-day Dracula's castle, exuding an air of both dilapidated elegance and deathly hopelessness.

Unclaimed skeletons

Gone are the days when the severed heads of foes of the Glaoua clan were displayed on spikes on the ramparts, or when the dungeon was brimming with real or imagined criminals waiting to be ransomed on barely life-sustaining rations.

But an air of faded glory, conspicuous wealth and savage brutality permeates the Kasbah's quarters like the incessant hot breeze blowing through their empty corridors.

Restored interior of Telouet castle
Parts of the interior of the castle have already been restored

What I did not expect to find was a group of workmen renovating part of the interior that has miraculously survived the decades of decrepitude and disgrace.

The contrast between the near-rubble of one part of the castle and the elaborately renovated stucco pillars, mosaics, ceiling panels and Moorish doorways was stark. For the time-being only the central reception rooms have been refurbished, but the rest will soon follow.

I asked the guardian of the Kasbah who was footing the bill for the construction work. "T'hami's family", Hamid the guardian replied curtly, without wishing to delve into more detail.

I asked if I could visit the dungeon. "No, it's been filled with bricks and walled up," Hamid replied.

"Why? Too many unclaimed skeletons?"

"The ceiling might cave in," he answered dryly.

Others in the village outside were not willing to discuss the subject either.

"Oh yes, he was the great lord of this place," M'hamed the waiter at a nearby tea tent told me sarcastically. "Great lord of the south. But look at the place now, where's the great lord now? What's left?"

M'hamed, an indigo turban on his head, is dark skinned, like many people living in the little shanty town in the shadow of the Kasbah.

Telouet village
The Kasbah overlooks the village of Telouet

They are descendants of hundreds of el-Glaoui's slaves, who built their humble abodes around the castle after their master's fortunes declined.

I wondered what all this actually meant - is the Pasha of Marrakech being unofficially rehabilitated, more than 50 years since his demise and three kings later, by the grandson of the ruler he betrayed?

Because of T'hami el-Glaoui, French political jargon has become enriched by the verb glaouiser, which means "betray", and Moroccans know this all too well.

Red light district

Born in 1879 to the caid - or baron - of Telouet and his Ethiopian concubine, el-Glaoui's fortunes rose in 1893 when he and his brother saved the sultan from a blizzard and starvation after he got stuck in the mountains on a tax-gathering expedition.

As a token of appreciation the ruler presented the brothers with a 77-mm Krupp cannon, which was then used to subdue rival warlords in the area.

T'hami sided with the encroaching French at the start of the 20th Century, for which he was rewarded by being given a free hand in "pacifying" the south, as well as a sizable slice of the area's economic pie - the olive and saffron trade, salt and mineral mines.

He is also said to have had a cut in the income of Marrakech's "Quartier Reserve", or red light district.

El-Glaoui was Pasha of Marrakech from 1912, when the French protectorate was established, to 1956.

No Sir

He also had a sprawling palace in Marrakech, the Dar el-Glaoui, where he held lavish banquets and entertained the likes of Winston Churchill and Charlie Chaplin.

In 1953 he attended the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II at Churchill's invitation, hoping to be knighted. He presented the new queen with spectacular gifts, which were refused.

The knighthood never happened.

Telouet castle
The once impressive ramparts have fallen into disrepair

That year el-Glaoui turned his attentions closer to home - he conspired with the French to overthrow Sultan Muhammad V and install an alternative less receptive to the growing independence movement.

The move cost him and his family dearly, as the sultan returned in 1955, when the French realized that Morocco was descending into chaos and granted it independence the next year.

The same year el-Glaoui died a broken man, betrayed by the French whose rule he propped up so meticulously.

Because of his opposition to the independence movement and role in overthrowing the reigning monarch, his property was seized by the state and his Kasbah fell into disrepair.

More than half a century later, I was followed around the Kasbah's terracotta paradise by the guardian's son Ahmed and his moth-eaten dog.

"Why did you bring the dog in?" I asked.

"Why not?"

I reminded him of the local saying: "When a dog enters a Moroccan house, the angels fly away."

"No angels here," Ahmed replied. "If ever there were any, they're long gone now".



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SEE ALSO
Country profile: Morocco
02 Jul 11 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Morocco
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