The tale of two kasbahs

High in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, Eithne Nightingale hears the echoes of history in ruined castles.

On a windy day, high up in the Atlas Mountains of southern Morocco, I walk towards a spectacular hilltop ruin. Houses stacked like decks of cards cling to the rocks on both sides of the road, casting shadows across my path. A stork sweeps down to its nest perched high on a stalagmite of dried mud, the highest pinnacle of the weathered remains of the old kasbah of Telouet. A minute later, it takes off and flies towards the newer kasbah, which unlike others in the region is built from stone.

I follow the stork along the European-style ramparts, stumbling across stones scattered like shrapnel across the disintegrated mud of the original kasbah, the former stronghold of the Glaoui tribe. Beneath the walls sits a Berber woman with silver-jewelled headgear, preparing wool for carpets. This was the castle built by

pasha T'hami El Glaoui, who ruled over southern Morocco on behalf of the French in the first half of the 20th century.

I arrive at a hefty wooden door, which I assume is the entrance, but there is no sign, no guide and no guard. I push the door open and walk into an abandoned square, the ground sloping and slabbed under my feet. Most passages leading from the square are closed off with rough planks scrawled with French or Arab graffiti. I walk through the only accessible thoroughfare into a small hallway, the rotten rafters and decaying plaster blocking out the sun.

I pass through darker, smaller rooms. These must be the dungeons where T'hami El Glaoui imprisoned Berber rebels opposed to imperial power. The pasha was well known for his cruelty, ordering the severed heads of his enemies to be mounted on the castle gates upon his return from Queen Elizabeth II's coronation. Local people still recount stories of how they dressed their sons as girls to avoid being massacred by the Glaoui.

I climb the stairs leading to the upper chambers and along a corridor. Light spills on uneven floors from grilled windows overlooking cypresses, fields of oleander and olive trees. I enter an inner suite of highly decorative rooms with intricate plasterwork. It's here I find the guide. Not the descendant of black slaves jangling 67 keys, as described in Gavin Maxwell's book Lords Of The Atlas of 1966 this guide is a Berber tribesman from the south who is surrounded by a group of French tourists.

He points out marble from Carrara, mosaics from Fez and silk from China.

"C'est la salle a manger," he explains. The dining room, perhaps, where Hammou Ben Mohammed, the pasha's nephew-in-law, invited French and Moroccan nobility to a feast. Midway through the meal, he had the kasbah surrounded by Berbers, who fired rifles and threatened death to all French men.

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"C'est le salon," the guide continues. The room, perhaps, where after Hammou's death, T'hami El Glaoui entertained nobles and celebrities from across the world, Winston Churchill included. The pasha was well known for his lavish hospitality both in Telouet and in Marrakech. "Et le chambre." The bedroom. The guide says the pasha had 100 concubines and four wives. Two of the wives were Berber, continues the guide, one was Arab and one was French. French! I'm intrigued.

I had heard about the pasha's taste for European women. He often employed talent scouts to spot unaccompanied white women at railway stations in Casablanca, Rabat and Tangiers and escort them to his palace. Then there is the famous story of how, when in Paris, the pasha seduced a young French woman but later burst out of his bedroom exclaiming: "Take her away. She wants to eat me!" There were undoubtedly French mistresses but this is the first reference to a French wife. How would she have adapted to living in this bleak, isolated place along with the pasha's other wives and concubines?

The French tourists admire an Islamic carved door, remarking "comme c'est beau" (how beautiful it is). At the blue inlay from indigo, green from mint and yellow from saffron they exclaim "comme c'est magnifique". My guide is so busy with his enthusiastic French tourists that I'm unable to quiz him further about the French wife.

I travel south to Ait Benhaddou, a partially restored kasbah on the edge of the Sahara frequently used as a film set. Here I have no problem attracting the attention of a guide. A young boy in a blue jellabah emerges from the palm trees and steers me away from someone's back yard. We walk through the entrance of this Berber fortress with its four towers untainted by European turrets. It is made of sorrel-stained mud, with a fine geometric design carved out under the recesses of the bamboo roof.

The kasbah seems to merge into the surrounding desert. Ahmed, my self-appointed guide, directs me through a labyrinth of dark rooms and up steep stairs to the top of the four towers, where the families used to live above grain stores. "Four towers, four families," Ahmed explains.

The sun falters and casts a shadow over a Berber bed over which hangs a wooden leg. "From the 13th century. For the soldiers fighting against the Jews against the French," Ahmed insists. Centuries and cultures conflate. My guide leads me through a 10-foot-wide door with a three-foot-wide carved wooden lock. "Berber technology," he explains with a broad smile. Then we come to the kitchen. Light falls on an earthen fireplace, a flour grinder and a milk churn. My guide starts to show me how to grind the flour but stops midway. "No, this is women's work."

Ahmed has never been to school but learnt bits of English, French and Spanish to show the tourists around this kasbah-turned-film set. The high point of his career was as an extra in Gladiator.

But there is another side to this kasbah it's a living castle. We pass a doorway through which a woman is carrying a basketful of hay. We follow her down a long dark corridor to a brightly lit courtyard where she keeps goats and sheep. After feeding the animals, the woman invites us into a dining room furnished sparsely with a carpet, a broken television and a large loom. She unravels piles of carpet for sale. Her name is Zara and when she divorced, she moved with her three children back to the kasbah where 10 families now live. Her three children include a son who is 15 and works in construction, a 12-year-old who works in a hotel in the nearly village and a six-year-old daughter.

Zara pours us both a cup of mint tea. For the 10th time that week I ask why this national beverage is poured from such a height. Her answer is the most colourful so far. "Tea without froth is like a Berber without a turban."

I imagine Zara gossiping with the pasha's French wife, comparing notes about living in their respective kasbahs and complaining about their errant husbands. They say history is a dialogue between the present and the past. But it seems unlikely the French wife ever existed. Records show that T'hami had two wives and neither of them was French, although he had numerous concubines. Perhaps one of these was French. Or maybe the story of the French wife is as fanciful as Ahmed's tale about the mysterious wooden leg. It is hard to believe that the same wooden leg would be used by Jews in the 13th century and the French in the 20th century. But then again, truth is a luxury for guides scraping a living in this part of Morocco.

There is a charm in visiting both these castles, unhampered by excessive tourism. Telouet is isolated, eerie, unnerving but magical too, its decay reflecting the demise and subsequent death of the pasha when Morocco gained independence from the French. Ait Benhaddou, restored for use as a film set, is more spectacular and hospitable to visitors. Yet this is no glorified theme park. As we drive away, a blinding sand storm sweeps across our path. When I look back, Zara's home is dissolving into the swirling Sahara dust.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Qatar Airways flies to Casablanca for $1637, flying a partner airline to Asia and then Qatar with an aircraft change in Doha. Air France has a fare for $1755 flying Qantas to Singapore or Hong Kong and then AF with an aircraft change in Paris. Royal Air Morocco charges $206 return from Casablanca to Marrakech. (Fares are low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, excluding tax.)

There are buses and grand taxis to Telouet from Marrakech but it is easier to hire your own transport, preferably a 4WD, and travel with a local driver. To go direct to Ait Benhaddou from Marrakech, take a bus to Ouarzazate (five hours) and then share or hire a grand taxi. If you have your own transport, you can combine a visit to Ait Benhaddou with Telouet by continuing on the P31 from Telouet and turning off 30 kilometres before Ouarzazate. A visit to Telouet can be done in an extended half day if under your own steam but two days are advised for a combined visit or a visit to Ait Benhaddou only.

Staying there

I Roccha is a superb guesthouse located halfway between Telouet and Ait Benhaddou. Ahmed and Catherine, the guesthouse owners, also organise trips. See terremaroc.com.

There are several organised one- to four-day tours from Marrakech or Ouarzazate to Telouet and Ait Benhaddou, including guided walks and stays at Berber guesthouses or trips into the desert. See info@authentic-morocco.com or naturallymorocco.co.uk.

Best of Morocco tailors itineraries to suit, see morocco-travel.com.