[Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs]
A high-pitched Amazigh love song is playing on a loop in the car stereo. Abdul, my cab driver decides to give it company with deft dance moves from behind the steering wheel even as he swings the car around hairpin bends. He does not speak English. I don’t speak Arabic, Amazigh or French. We are high up in the High Atlas Mountains in Southern Morocco.
Should we crash down the rock face would anyone be able to trace us, I ask him with hand signs. He signals I should not worry, and grins. These mountains are his home. I tell myself I should be afraid. Instead, I have a huge smile plastered on my face as well.
Oh, how I love these blood-red, barren mountains spread all around us, till as far as the eye can see! Majestic, mysterious, and millions of years old. There is no other sign of life under the ultramarine blue sky, except for our car and glimpses of a green oasis which ribbons its way in the plunging valley below.
I am on my way to Telouet, a crumbling mud-brick Kasbah [palace] 5,900 feet high up in the mountains. I had chanced upon the name when reading up for my Morocco trip and though outside the tourist circuit, I just knew I had to visit it.
Telouet was the seat of the El Glaoui family in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Located next to a salt mine and plonk in the middle of the trans-Saharan caravan route along which gold and ivory made its way to the markets in Marrakesh, there was enough opportunity for the El Glaouis to wield hefty taxes.
The most famous, or perhaps infamous member of this family was Thami El Glaoui (1879 – 1956)—the Lord of the Atlas, Pasha of Marrakesh, and son of Telouet’s baron and his Ethiopian mistress. One of the richest men in the world, Thami conspired with Morocco’s French Protectorate forces to overthrow Sultan Mohammed V. But the tables turned in 1956. The French were ousted. The Sultan made King. And the Lord of the Atlas, stripped of all powers, wealth and friends, died whilst saying his prayers aged 77 that same year, with no love lost on any side.
His extravagant home in the mountains which took 300 craftsmen three years to decorate was filled with Morocco’s finest zellige, stucco, and painted cedar roofs. In contrast, its dark dungeons were packed with slaves and its spikes decorated with his enemies’ heads. The now-in-ruins Kasbah is being restored by his descendants, one room at a time. But how much will they be able to do, and for how long, is hard to say as the edifice turns slowly back into the same red dust from which it rose.
Kasbahs like Telouet, along with Ksars [fortified villages], form the crux of Morocco’s traditional architecture since medieval times. The former were designed as homes for the wealthy and filled with exuberant beauty. The latter, evocative of frugality and community.
But as more and more Amazigh people move to the cities for a “better” life or into concrete homes for a “sturdier” structure, these adobe buildings are being abandoned to collapse into shells, or morphed to serve other purposes.
Take for instance my base for tonight. It faces the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the 17th Century Ait-Ben-Haddou Ksar—a popular film location since 1963 and tourist spot with only four resident families. The Taourirt Kasbah in Ouarzazate is a museum. The Kasbahs dotting the Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs, which at one time numbered in their hundreds, are mostly gone. You are lucky if you can come across a handful of intact ones. Imagine, at one time they were all homes, high-walled with slit windows on the outside for protection, glistening with beauty on their insides: just like Telouet.
My smile is peppered with wistfulness as we drive back. In the space of one afternoon, it is as if I’d had a peak into a sliver of the mountains’ soul. Abdul meanwhile, continues to dance behind the wheel, albeit at a more languid pace now.
This blog post is the story of Morocco’s High Atlas
where the mountains are untamed and free
and crumbling Kasbahs and Ksars of a bygone era stand sentinel.
In a village called Telouet there is a Kasbah which used to be the home of the Lord of the Atlas, the Pasha of Marrakesh.
Its rooms to-date, hold within their walls, all that is beautiful of Moroccan art whilst its dungeons once held countless slaves.
The finest zellige in the whole country,
exquisite stucco and painted cedar ceilings,
a vision of beauty carefully crafted by 300 craftsmen over three years,
created a home perched atop the mountain peaks for one of the wealthiest, yet most ruthless, men in the world.
Another morning. This time a Ksar, a 17th Century fortified village, at Ait-Ben-Haddou across the Asif Ounila river [which I fell into when crossing],
is packed with earthen buildings surrounded by high walls,
and has the most perfect spot for a sunrise across the High Atlas Mountains.
While Ait-Ben-Haddou has been given UNESCO World Heritage Site status and earns its keep as a film location for various Hollywood blockbusters, as well as the famed Game of Thrones, the Akhnouse Ksar in Rissani lives in anonymity,
with deserted lanes, locked homes, and 200-or-so villagers.
The Taourirt Kasbah in Ouarzazate is presently a ticketed museum,
while the one at Tinghir, outside my hotel window, lies in fragments.
Plush merchant homes and thriving communities in the past, the forgotten Kasbahs and Ksars of the mighty High Atlas Mountains used to be once filled with sparkling zellige and homely laughter. No trip to Morocco is complete without a visit to them. I made my journey. When are you making yours? ❤
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[Note: This blog post is part of a series from my travels to Morocco for 3 weeks in November-December 2018. To read more posts in my Morocco series, click here.]