Lords of the Atlas

Gavin Maxwell was a Scottish author, famed for his discovery of a previously unknown subspecies of otters whilst journeying through Iraq. His literary works ranged from the study of the natural world to documentation of human society. In 1966, Maxwell found himself touring Morocco, as he endeavoured to chronicle the El Glaoua clan. Through his own travels – as well as the accounts of writers such as Walter Harris – Maxwell creates a portrait of one of the oldest Berber tribes in Morocco; Lords of the Atlas exhibits the barbaric rule of a once untouchable family.


Lords of the Atlas, nomads of the impenetrable mountain range. The Berbers of Morocco are a diverse people. They are the original inhabitants of the country and for millennia faced persecution from the Arab-dominated regimes of North Africa. The El Glaoua family, a famed Berber tribe, were powerful land barons, reigning supreme over all southern Morocco. Head of the family, T’hami, was the Viceroy of the South, but colloquially referred to as ‘Lion of the Atlas’.

T’hami and his Glaoua brethren lived in the Kasbah de Telouet. A once magnificent, palatial structure, with a now dilapidated façade. It was built in 1860 by the El Glaoua family, next to an ancient Kasbah, the remains of which still stand today. The book brings perspective to the tumultuous and torturous recent history of Morocco. Though tyrannical, he shows the El Glaoui brothers as human, with the West often complicit in the barbarism on show. The likes of Winston Churchill frequented the Marrakech Royal Golf Club, a resource that was created at great cost and to the detriment of the general population. The undemocratic development rediverted water supplies from farmland in a country that suffers from sporadic droughts and perpetual dry weather. Democracy was not a concern for T‘hami, who was obsessed with Western Culture and wealth. He was present at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, as a guest of Churchill. His exuberant gifts of an ornate dagger and jewelled crown were rejected, on the grounds that it was not customary to receive gifts from those not representing their state.

His wealth was incomparable in a Moroccan context; T’hami el Glaoui was one of the richest men alive as he accumulated wealth from the harvest of almonds, olives and saffron, as well as owning significant stock in French-operated mines. With this wealth, he wielded great power and privilege. His endless quest for money made him into an astute businessman; the market was his in ‘hemp, olive oil, oranges and other valuable commodities’. It is oft remarked that his biggest business were the vices of sex and drugs. He displayed an uncompromising ruthlessness in business, as well as to his own family, imprisoning a son with nationalist alignments, all to ensure that his relationship with the French would not be disturbed. His approach, by any means necessary, was present from the beginning. In 1893, T’hami’s brother Madani saved the Sultan from a blizzard and starvation. His reward was a cannon. The clan utilised the weapon with brutal efficiency, sweeping aside those who stood in their way of claiming the region. The French took heed of this powerful clan and decided to align their forces, granting T’hami’s role as Viceroy of Marrakesh. This protected the imperialist’s interests and made T’hami his fortune.

To give context to the story of T’hami El Glaoui, it’s important to understand the turmoil rife throughout the Moroccan state, during the 19th and early 20th centuries. European countries, namely France, had sustained interest in Morocco from 1830. Instability in Morocco resulted in European intervention, protecting numerous regional interests. Throughout this period, the French attempted to openly infiltrate Moroccan society by controlling the Sultan. In the 20th century, opposition for foreign occupation arose, with the Istiqlal - the party for Moroccan Independence - forming in 1943. As Pasha of Marrakech, T’hami El Glaoui was an influential voice in French Morocco. His influence would contribute to the brief overthrowing of Sultan Mohammed V; the Ouelema (religious council of Fez) demanded T’hami be excommunicated for his bid against independence. These actions formed the French Protectorate, a state that echoed many of the characteristics of Nazi Germany. Secret Police, curfews, torture and interrogation, the murder of citizens fighting for an independent country were common. By 1956, unrest and strong nationalist sentiment ended the French occupation of Morocco. The El Glaoua found themselves in a bind, on the cusp of being ousted from their position of power. The previously deposed Sultan was reinstated leaving T’hami left to beg for forgiveness. He was spared, but his fortune was consumed by the new Moroccan state.

After decades of uncompromised influence, his voice waned. A self-made man from a remote Berber tribe, T’hami was chased away from this new society, reviled for decades of brutality against his people. With his demise, the house of El Glaoua began to weather. Forces were at work; upon the death of T’hami, his family was at risk. The remaining fortunes were stripped. By 1960 the Kasbah de Telouet was fragmenting into the soil of the High Atlas; few of the El Glaoua tribe remained in the castle which once homed hundreds.

Kasbah de Telouet, once home of T'hami El Glaoui

The Berbers of Morocco are significant in number; their languages vary between tribes though sharing similar idioms. Their villages in the High Atlas, clinging to the steep slopes of the Toubkal and surrounding mountain ranges, are a sight to behold. Experiences are passed from generation to next, preserving the environmental mastery that has ensured Berber people have thrived in the harshest of landscapes. Livelihoods continue to change with globalisation sweeping into the remotest of places. The hamlet of Imlil and neighbouring villages of Asni and Ikkiss rely upon tourism for their income, with Imlil particularly benefitting from years of western sightseeing. The wondrous natural beauty, welcoming local people and proximity to Toubkal, make it a popular destination. The government does little to develop the infrastructure here, with people reliant upon the community for significant change. 

The approach to Imlil illustrates the sustained, vital tourism that remains prevalent in the Toubkal National Park. The quality of the road becomes increasingly suspect, the concrete becomes dogged. Drivers negotiate the cavernous holes in the road with blind expertise. After Imlil, the roads are gravel, steep slopes and narrow turns, with nothing to hinder the perils of a plunge into the valley.

Imlil relied heavily upon the production of walnuts, apples and cherries before the advent of tourism. The proximity to Marrakech draws thousands of intrigued travellers who don’t anticipate the plummet in temperature, evidence of the different climates and cultures of Morocco. On the doorstep of Marrakech, it’s possible for the inquisitive tourist to experience a landscape of staggering natural beauty. Mountains, forged over millennia, were once a witness to the turbulent Morocco of the El Glaoua brothers.

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