TELOUET, Morocco—Not so long ago, Morocco was all about sex, drugs and jazz. And the man in charge, T’hami El Glaoui, the pasha of Marrakesh from 1912 to 1956 and rumored to be the richest man in the world, ran a prostitution racket so large that the 27,000 hookers operating in Marrakesh represented a reported 10 percent of the population. “Putting them (this clan) in charge was like letting the Mafia run Las Vegas,” Vanity Fair said in a 2015 article—although he did, apparently, love jazz.
That was then. This is now.
It took me a good dozen trips to Morocco to finally reach the fabled Kasbah of Telouet, the Glaoui family residence that was designed to be the most beautiful palace in the world. It was said to boast the finest Islamic architecture in Morocco. El Glaoui apparently decorated it using some of his pimping cash.
Not everyone makes it to the kasbah but anyone in Morocco should try before it crumbles to dust.
The kasbah is hidden inside the high Atlas Mountains of Morocco. It presided over the old caravan route to the Sahara that the Glaoui clan oversaw. Along this route, precious goods like gold and ivory were transported from the south to the rulers in the north. It was big money for El Glaoui who leveraged his position here and the fact that he was in charge of the Berbers in the local mountains that the French could not control to become the Pasha of Marrakesh under French rule during that period. He was both loathed for betraying his people and for the lavish parties entertaining important out-of-towners in style here in the palace. As a result, his palace has largely been left to rot.
It was for no reason, other than the fact that I had given up California for Europe and was looking for a place to stay warm in winter that I found myself in Morocco, repeatedly, writing a book about his people, the Berbers—some of whom El Glaoui famously shopped in exchange for the Pasha title, bestowed upon him by the French.
Starting a few years ago now, I found myself traversing the old caravan route, over which his clan presided, regularly, before I finally reached the crumbling Kasbah. It is said 1,000 workers and 300 artisans worked on it, no less. But it’s a case of catch it while you can. And it is quite a trip to get there along the old caravan route which cuts through the majestic peaks of the Atlas Mountains, winding its way from the inviting red walls that surround Morocco’s beating heart—Marrakesh—through to the glistening sand dunes of the Sahara in the south. Its now-paved road cuts through rippling hills and mountain peaks dotted in intermittent green foliage.
The French stamped out the caravan routes when they ruled Morocco, in the first half of the 20th century. It is no longer as charming, as it sounded back then. But not everything has changed. On the day that I went there, donkeys trotted along shabby tracks by the roadside. Washing fluttered outside half-built houses, selling terracotta pots and hand woven carpets imbued with local symbolism, woven in wool and silk. Men in traditional djellaba robes board battered buses that ferried workers back and forth.
One passes pit stops featuring makeshift stands, placed outside barren cafes, grilling shavings of raw meat cut from the carcasses dangling in the wind. It is a far cry from the El Glaoui glory days here.
The site of legendary soirées, attended by the global glitterati, and the closest thing Morocco has ever had to Hearst Castle, the OTT California residence of the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, the Kasbah beckoned from its perch on a hilltop hidden between those shivering mountains. From there, its owners, the El Glaoui warlords, had ruled over this important trading route.
The current kasbah was built in the 1860s, on the site of an existing one. It was lavishly re-decorated in the early 20th century when 300 workers spent three years on the ceilings and walls. Some of this was recently restored.
On several of those trips, I had passed by North Africa’s highest peak, Mount Toubkal, in complete ignorance of the Kasbah’s existence. But sitting a couple of years ago, in Dar Khalifa, the Casablanca mansion made famous by owner Tahir Shah’s best-selling book, The Caliph’s House, it was drawn to my attention.
“Haven’t you seen it?” he asked.
Soon it grabbed my imagination, and in a novel that I subsequently wrote in his garden, a plot unfolded in my mind which reached its climax at this legendary Kasbah that I had yet to see.
It was clear I had to go there before it crumbled into the dust. Shah had mentioned to me that, slowly, it had been falling into the ground. It’s myriad of rooms were disappearing as time went on.
The Kasbah was one of several hang-outs where El Glaoui liked to entertain important visitors. But it was very much an upstairs, downstairs kind of place. While guests partied upstairs, its dungeons were filled with traitors whose heads were often hung from the doors, as legend has it. Some of which still stand.
El Glaoui was so reviled by the people that, upon his death, his associates were hunted and burned. His property was confiscated and given to the government. That government has left his most fabled Kasbah to rot.
From the outside today, the Kasbah looks like a haunted house from a Disney film. Room upon room has fallen away, since it was all but abandoned in 1956. Jagged walls and piles of rubble, now roamed upon by donkeys and local children, stand in stark contrast to a half-dozen rooms that stand in their original splendor, at the heart of this eerie complex.
I had finally determined to see it and driven from Marrakech in a taxi. What was a $100 fare for a day’s drive? Two guards stood outside and levied a small fee when I arrived, but I was otherwise alone. I paid next to nothing for the privilege of venturing beyond the intricately woven doors to have what remains of the Kasbah to myself, for several hours that afternoon.
Hardly anyone, these days, ventures beyond the main caravan route to drive out to the ruins. It takes about an hour from the main road along a bumpy track. I was scared, as I clambered up broken staircases, and passed through long, empty corridors, before I reached this inner sanctum.
A bird darted from the roof. It flew out through a half-broken window that revealed a scene of pastoral bliss basked in sunshine.
I inspected the former harem, a long, dark subdued space next to the master bedroom. I marveled at the intricacy of the woodwork, the rippling arches in marble, the heavily carved doors that lead through this series of inner chambers. The fabled tiles. I spent time inspecting the deep colors of the walls, before settling on the window ledge, with the sun warming my back, as I wrote. I tried to imagine what had gone on in here back in the day.
My driver wandered in a couple of hours later, and broke the silence. The spell of being alone inside this ominous space. It was a slice of his history that he was discovering for the first time. The lair of a man that had betrayed his people. It wasn’t a memory that he or the government was keen to preserve.
But now I carried it forward, as the setting for a fictitious scene in a novel in which a French reporter is murdered uncovering the ancient lore of the Berbers, some of whom El Glaoui helped bury in history from this very spot.
But it’s a case of catch it while you can.