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Morocco’s Feudal Past: Who Was Thami El Glaoui, the “Lord of the Atlas?”

posted on: Oct 8, 2021

Morocco’s Feudal Past: Who Was Thami El Glaoui, the “Lord of the Atlas?”
Thami El Glaoui, Morocco’s “Lord of the Atlas. Photo: Wikipedia

By: Claire Boyle / Arab America Contributing Writer


Morocco has had a storied past, dating back centuries. Morocco’s background has brought a lot of interesting historical figures to the forefront, of which some were beneficial for the country and others who tried to maintain its feudal presence without recognizing its need for independence. Insert Thami El Glaoui, the Pasha of Marrakech or his European nickname, the “Lord of the Atlas” into this story, and one can see during the early to mid-1900s how independence for Morocco became a flashpoint topic. In this article, we will be exploring who Thami El Glaoui was, what was his role in the fight for Moroccan independence, and how was he remembered in the context of Morocco’s history.

Upbringing and Young Life:

Morocco’s Feudal Past: Who Was Thami El Glaoui, the “Lord of the Atlas?”
A painting of Thami El Glaoui. Photo: Wikipedia

Thami El Glaoui was born in “1879 in an area close to the Tassaout River.” He and his family were a part of the Glaoua clan which was a Berber tribe. Being born into this Berber tribe along with the fact that his father was a leader of it, gave El Glaoui a position in the clan as an assistant where he held some power over others.

Fast forward to the early 1890s, and suddenly the Sultan of Morocco, Moulay Hassan, and his “army got stuck in a blizzard” in the High Atlas Mountains. They were there to gather taxes most likely from the various tribes that lived in the area. One of El Glaoui’s family members rescued the Sultan, so the army then gave the Glaoua tribe a gift of weapons. Well, they in turn used this gift against rival warlords.

In the early 1900s, Thami, the Glaoua tribe, and other members of the army joined the Sultan’s son, Moulay Abdelaziz, in his fight for the throne against the Bou Hamara who tried to seize it from Abdelaziz, the rightful heir to the Sultanship. Later on, corruption occured and El Glaoui joined an effort to depose or get rid of Abdelaziz. In 1907, Moulay Abdelaziz’s brother, Abdelhafid assumed the throne which solidified Glaoui as the Pasha of Marrakesh and set in motion Morocco’s long association in being a French protectorate, and its eventual quest towards independence as well.

The Sultan’s Corruption and French Intrusion:

Morocco’s Feudal Past: Who Was Thami El Glaoui, the “Lord of the Atlas?”
Thami El Glaoui, and his son, Brahim. Photo: Wikipedia

When Moulay Abdelaziz and Moulay Hafid ruled Morocco, the country experienced trying economic times partly due to the rulers’ corrupt and inept practices which led them to bankrupt the state. And despite the Glaoua family’s loyalty for so many years, the Sultans decided to “scapegoat them and strip the clan of all their positions” to save face. This corruption led to foreign intrusion by way of the French. To keep the finances afloat and “prevent internal opposition, the Sultan signed the Treaty of Fez in 1912.” Thus, the consequence of signing this treaty led to Morocco becoming a French Protectorate, a position it would remain in until the country gained its independence in March 1956.

The signing of the Treaty of Fez allowed for foreign interference into the decision-making of the country, the influence of French colonialism to take over, and continuing feudalism in Morocco. Indirectly, the Treaty of Fez also allowed the intrusion of Germany into Morocco during World War II since the North African country was a protectorate of France.

So, where does Thami El Glaoui come into all this and what was his role in regard to the French Protectorate status of Morocco as well as his newfound title of the “Lord of the Atlas?”

“Lord of the Atlas:”

Morocco’s Feudal Past: Who Was Thami El Glaoui, the “Lord of the Atlas?”
The Telouet Kasbah also known as the ‘Glaoui Kasbah,’ an administrative center of the Glaoui Family. Photo: Atlas Obscura

Thami El Glaoui with the help of the French was now reinstated into his role as the “Pasha of Marrakech, a sort of regional leader or director.” Did he use this newfound status and place of power to help Moroccans or did El Glaoui become yet another leader who did not care about bettering the people under his rule? Well, one thing for sure, El Glaoui definitely helped himself by gaining “great wealth as a result of his Pasha position, and sometimes through dubious means.”

As the Pasha of Marrakech, he engaged in some ways to better his people through advocating for “mineral and agricultural resources.” But, he did have interests in internationalism which made him a friend of many Europeans including “Winston Churchill, Queen Elizabeth II, Colette, and Maurice Ravel.” This flair for the international coupled with his “charm” made him a candidate to gain wealth which was not always to the benefit of the Moroccan people.

Perhaps, his greatest mistake was in advocating against Moroccans who wanted independence from France and colonialism. He instead decided to support the French and “opposed the nationalist party that was rising which were the Istiqlal.” He cut off communication and believed that only pashas and other regional ranks should have access to the Sultan, and not the common class of Moroccans. By doing this, he maintained a sense of feudalism, an ideology that most nationalists did not support, and they demanded Morocco be made an independent nation.

Coup D’état, Forgiveness, and Conclusion:

Morocco’s Feudal Past: Who Was Thami El Glaoui, the “Lord of the Atlas?”
A portrait of Thami El Glaoui painted by Jacques Majorelle, a famous Moroccan painter. Photo: Marrakech Tricks

In 1950, Thami El Glaoui had a disagreement with the Sultan, Mohammed V of Morocco. Mohammed V was the leader of Morocco and a “nationalist demonstration that was put down brutally by the police.” This ended up in Glaoui’s family disobeying the chain of command of how to handle the terrible situation. Glaoui’s son who was also in power consulted his father instead of the Sultan which caused a rift between the two. This rift eventually led to a coup d’état attempt by Glaoui which was successful in 1953, but what he did not factor in was the reaction of nationalist Moroccans.

Nationalist Moroccans were already fed up with his anti-free-Morocco, so they instituted a popular uprising against the coup d’état. This led to anti-French bias and harmed their citizens who lived in Morocco, an attempt on El Glaoui’s life, and an “all-out war in the Rif.”

Finally, this uprising led to the “restoration of Mohammed V as the Sultan of Morocco.” Thami left behind his French allegiance, and out of graciousness or some other reason, the Sultan of Morocco forgave El Glaoui for his mistakes. Glaoui would end up dying six years later in January 1956, ironically, only three months before Morocco gained its independence from France. So, what is Thami El Glaoui’s legacy in Morocco now? Not much seems to be said in Moroccan history, but some of his descendants have gone on to become famous actors as well as founding an art fair.

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