Lords of the Atlas

Gavin Maxwell


Lords of the Atlas

Gavin Maxwell


Set in the medieval city of Marrakesh and the majestic kasbahs of the High Atlas mountains, Lords of the Atlas tells the extraordinary story of Madani and T’hami el Glaoui, warlord brothers who carved out a feudal fiefdom in southern Morocco in the early twentieth-century.

Quislings of the French colonial administration, they combined the aggression of gangland mobsters with the opulence of hereditary Indian princes, and ruled with a mixture of flamboyance and terror. On returning from the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, T’hami ordered the severed heads of his enemies to be mounted on his gates. Yet in 1956, when the French left Morocco, the Glaoua regime toppled like a pack of cards.

‘... one of the great adventure stories of the twentieth century.’ - Richard Ford
‘His best book.’ - Sunday Telegraph
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Lords of the Atlas: The Rise and Fall of the House of Glaoua 1893-1956
ISBN: 978-0907871-14-9
Format: 320pp demi pb
Place: Morocco

Author Biography

Maxwell's schooling, a succession of disasters all the way up to his time at Oxford, gave him a lifelong sympathy for the despised and oppressed. Having already proved himself a loner and a hardy traveller in the Arctic with Peter Scott, he was ideal material for covert operations in the Second World War. He served in the Special Operations Executive, charged with training operatives who would be sent behind enemy lines on missions of sabotage. It was in this capacity that he spent some time on the west coast of Scotland, where he returned after the war to buy Soay, a small island off Skye and the setting for his first business, a shark fishery, which in turn formed the basis for his first book Harpoon at a Venture (1952). He tried his hand at freelance journalism and painting, and wrote two books about Sicily, God Protect Me from My Friends (1956) and The Ten Pains of Death (1959). In between these projects he took the journey to the Middle East with his friend, the veteran traveller Wilfred Thesiger, which would result in A Reed Shaken by the Wind (1957). Here his exceptional talent was revealed for the first time.

On his return from Iraq he moved into his new Scottish home at Camusfearna, and began to study the otters he had acquired on his journey through the marshes, which culminated in the publication of Ring of Bright Water (1960). With the worldwide success of this tale, and the subsequent film, Camusfearna became a wildlife preserve with a collection of otters at its heart. The Otters Tale (1962), and The Rocks Remain (1963) continue the narrative of a passionate but accident-prone naturalist on the west coast of Scotland. Maxwell travelled to Morocco several times over the course of the 1960s, researching his history, Lords of the Atlas, which appeared in 1966. This travel book – part history, part investigative journalism, part romance – studied the Berber dynasty, the Glaoui, that acted as regents of southern Morocco for the French colonial power. It became one of the bibles of British orientalism in the late twentieth century and a fitting swan-song to Maxwell's oeuvre. Douglas Botting's definitive 1993 biography, Gavin Maxwell, A Life tells of the ups and downs of Maxwell's emotional life – possibly affected by an inherited form of manic-depression. While Gavin loved and even married women (the poet Kathleen Raine and Lavinia Renton) he was primarily homosexual.

Extract from Chapter One

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, illplanned, 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.

 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 reorientate 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’.

 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.

I have various images of Telouet. The last and most enduring is after a great snowfall when more than four thousand sheep and goats in the surrounding mountains were buried and killed by suffocation. When the snows thawed and the carcases were exposed every vulture, kite and raven congregated on Telouet. As the sun went down the air was dark with them as with a swarm of locusts; they homed for Telouet in their thousands, like starlings to Trafalgar Square, till the branches of the trees broke under them, till the battlements of the castle were foul with their excreta, and still, as the last of the light went, the black wings were thronging in to alight and jostle their neighbours. It was on that night that, listening to the jackals howling, I became lost in the castle, and found my torch shining upon white but manacled bones in a dungeon. With the turbulent history of Telouet they could have been either a hundred or less than five years old.

 ‘In every governor’s Kasbah, deep in damp dungeous – as often as not holes scooped in the earth for storing grain – there lay and pined those who had committed, or not committed, as the case might be, some crime; and still more often, those who were rich enough to be squeezed. In such suffering, and in darkness, receiving just sufficient nourishment to support life, men were known to have existed for years, to emerge again long after their relations had given up all hope of seeing them. But there was always a chance – a chance that the Governor might die or fall into disgrace; and then the dungeons in his castle would be opened and the wrecks of his prisoners be released. And what prisons! what horrors of prisons they were, even those above ground and reserved for the ordinary class of criminal. Chained neck to neck, with heavy shackles on their legs, they sat or lay in filth, and often the cruel iron collars were only undone to take away a corpse.’ ‘The whole life in those great Atlas fortified Kasbahs was one of warfare and of gloom. Every tribe had its enemies, every family had its bloodfeuds, and every man his would-be murderer.’

Work on Telouet was still in progress when the régime fell ten years ago, the only event that could logically bring it to a halt. The plasterers and tilers and mosaic-workers had a programme lasting for years ahead. There are windows still unglazed, others awaiting the addition of the elaborate wrought iron work with which they were all to be embellished. Many walls carry the bold charcoal outlines for an ambitious mosaic that was never begun, for the whole vast palace and all its uncountable rooms were to have been decorated with the same disregard for time or money. Builders were at work on further extensions to the castle itself, here a new wing, here a lofty gallery from which guests might watch feats of horsemanship on the green sward below.

 Telouet presented, in fact, a picture that was almost unique, for it was not a mediaeval survival, as are the few European castles still occupied by the descendants of feudal barons, but a deliberate re-creation of the Middle Ages, with all their blatant extremes of beauty and ugliness, good and evil, elegance and violence, power and fear – by those who had full access to the inventions of contemporary science. No part of the kasbah is more than a hundred years old; no part of its ruined predecessors goes back further than another fifty. Part of the castle is built of stone, distinguishing it sharply from the other kasbahs that are made of pisé, or sun-dried mud, for no matter to what heights of beauty or fantasy these may aspire they are all, in the final analysis, soluble in water.

 From this desolate group of ruins in the High Atlas, so far from the seat of government at Fez, there arose by a strange chain of coincidence a generation of kingmakers. They were two brothers, chiefs of an insignificant mountain tribe, and they rose in that one generation to depose two Sultans, to become the true rulers of Morocco, to shake the whole French political structure; and, with their downfall, to add a new and uncomfortable word to the French language. The name of the tribe was Glaoua, and glaouisé now means, in French political jargon, betrayed. Neither France nor Morocco is over-anxious to recall the tale behind the word; and for this reason, if for no other, a true reconstruction presents the historian with formidable difficulties.

A hundred years ago very few contemporary Europeans had ever visited Morocco. There were no more than a handful resident in the country, and fewer still had ever penetrated into the savage territories of the High Atlas, where wild tribes skirmished amid the barren peaks, or into the palm oases of the Pre-Sahara beyond them. The country, despite its geographical position as a neighbour to Europe, remained as unknown as Tibet, xenophobe and mysterious, guarding splendours and horrors that the wildest travellers’ tales could not exaggerate. The Corsair pirates still patrolled the coasts; in the greater towns the Jews salted for public display the heads of the innumerable executed; every sizeable city held its slave market three times a week, on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays; there was neither a railway nor a true road in all the land. Yet the splendour of its palaces, the majesty of its mosques, rivalled anything in all Islam.

 In fact, Morocco at the end of the last century was little different in any external respect from what it had been at the end of the century before – or, indeed, the end of any other century for a thousand years or more. Since the seventh century, when the Arabs conquered and Islamized the country from the indigenous white Berbers, it had remained an independent state for thirteen hundred years, ruled over from the sixteenth century onward by Sultans who combined both temporal and spiritual power – each was both king and imam. The Sultans were Chereefs; that is to say that they were or claimed to be direct descendants of the Prophet Mohammed.

 The historical development of the whole country parallels and underlines the paradox of Telouet; Fez had achieved a mediaeval richness of culture and scholarship long before northern Europe reached the same point, but there she had remained. The reasons were numerous and complex, but the most easily understood was the influence of successive assaults of Portuguese, Spaniards and Turks in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, disrupting through dislocation of trade routes a merchant economy which had promised stability. In any country a characteristic of absolute monarchy was an almost unbelievable disparity between the cultural standards of the court and of the general life of the people, and in Morocco this was to the last degree accentuated by the character of the terrain.

 There have been many attempts to divide Morocco into convenient sections for discussion, but most of them appear unnecessarily complex; it is easier to consider an inner Morocco and an outer Morocco, the two being divided by the whole mass of the Atlas mountains running from the south-west to the north-east of the country, and the Rif mountains which turn at right angles to these and form the Mediterranean wall. From the point of view of a central government, or mahkzen, at Fez the governable territory of inner Morocco reached barely to the foothills of the mountain ranges; beyond this line wild tribes acknowledged no allegiance to the throne. The same rough geographical division into an inner and outer Morocco covered the terms bled el mahkzen – country under government control – and bled es siba – literally the ‘lawless country’, where force was the only criterion – of the infinitely greater territories of unsubdued tribes. It was from the bled es siba, and more especially the land of desert and palm oasis lying to the east of the Atlas, that almost every new dynasty of Sultans rose to conquer and replace the last.

 The pomp and pageantry of the Sultans was unequalled anywhere in the world, but their hour was often proportionately brief; at one point there had been six Sultans in ten years. At best, the geographical extent of their rule embraced little more than half the land nominally enclosed by the frontiers of Morocco. Much of the unconquered territory was unworthy of a Sultan’s attention except as a possible cradle for a new pretender to the throne, but the vast white ramparts of the High Atlas contained a greater challenge, for they guarded the rich and fertile oases that lay between them and the Sahara Desert. Sultan after Sultan led punitive forces against the unconquered tribes of the south; but, no matter what the fortunes of war, there could be no final decisive battle, for once the imperial army had withdrawn the tribes settled back into their old insolent disregard of central authority.

The present ruling dynasty, the Alaouites, have occupied the throne of Morocco for an uninterrupted three hundred years. They celebrated their tricentenary in 1964; and King Hassan II, who succeeded his father Mohammed V in 1960, is the twenty-second rightful Alaouite Sultan.

 The second Sultan of the dynasty, who reigned for no less than fifty-five years (1672–1727) remained until recently the only one whose name – Moulay Ismael – was familiar to many Europeans, and familiar in a most unsavoury context, a name to be bracketed with those of Gilles de Rais or de Sade. Moulay Ismael was, in what may be described as his personal life, an ogre for whom there can be few parallels in the history of any country. Like a fox in a hen-run, he killed for sport, not occasionally, but as a matter of personal and daily satisfaction like the pleasures of the table or of the harem. There was no pretence at pretext; with his own sword he would strike off the head of the slave who held his stirrup as he mounted his horse, or several heads of his own Black Guards as he rode down their ranks; he disembowelled the living and organized displays of torture for the titillation of his senses; there was, in fact, no imaginable atrocity of cruelty and bloodlust in which he did not habitually indulge. Yet as a ruler he was one of the great figures of Moroccan history. By the maintenance of a permanent army of black slaves he did much to unify and extend the bled el mahkzen (though he was at civil war throughout almost his whole reign, and latterly with his own sons). He eliminated many of the foreign enclaves in his country, ejecting the British from Tangier in 1684 and the Spanish from Larache; he forced the attention of France by demanding in marriage a natural daughter of Louis XIV, the young widowed Princesse de Conti; he built with the labour of thousands of Christian captives, whose bodies were simply built into the walls as they died, his new capital of Meknès. He left, however, the greatest of Morocco’s internal problems untouched, for he made no attempt to integrate temporarily defeated Berber tribes into an Arabized Morocco.

 After the death of Moulay Ismael in 1727 the whole of Morocco fell into total anarchy, while for a full thirty years his sons struggled for the throne. It was like a game of musical chairs, but a singularly bloody and noisy one. One of the sons reigned twice, another achieved four times; in between, five other Sultans scrambled briefly on to the throne before being pushed off again. Deserters from the armies of all factions formed roving brigand bands, and no life nor property was safe anywhere in the country; the bled es siba crept back from the mountains on to the plains.

 The period ended with the exhaustion that characterizes the close of an hysterical attack. Both the country and the imperial palace were utterly impoverished. Every subsequent Sultan was faced with the necessity of leading tax-collecting punitive armies against the numerous rebellious tribes of a now established bled es siba, tribes who preferred the chances of war to the certainty of destitution. It was to one of these repressive sorties, more than a century and a quarter later, that the House of Glaoua owed its sudden but vertiginous rise.