A Brief History of Essaouira: From Ancient Roots to Modern Charm


A brief history of Essaouira

The above image is a drawing by Jules Noel (1810-1881) to illustrate Mr F Schickler’s journey to Morocco in 1860.

Throughout history, location and geography has been both a blessing and a curse for Essaouira. Going way back to Roman times, the coastline in these parts was well-known as an ideal anchorage point, with a protected bay and deep waters close to land. Its position on the northwest African coast was popular with an increasingly ragtag collection of smugglers and pirates until the Portuguese established a fortress here in the 16th century. The unfortunate pattern of European interference had begun and Essaouira’s fortunes would ebb and flow over the next three hundred years. For much of its early history, Essaouira was known as Mogador (likely named after a Muslim saint who was buried here) but we’ll refer to it by its modern-day name here though. Soon after the fortress was established, local Berber tribes took back control of the city and for the next hundred years the port was crucial to the global sugar trade, with ongoing skirmishes taking place against a combination of pirates and European powers. In the middle of the 17th century the French established more formal diplomatic relations with the Sultan of Morocco and began a relationship between the two countries which would shape the development of Essaouira for centuries to come.

In the eighteenth century, Mohammed III recognised the ongoing reconfiguration of global trade routes and the necessity of a reliable port on the west coast which would increase and facilitate trade with Europe. The established Moroccan port of Agadir in the south had questionable loyalties to the King and was a difficult journey from his centre of power in Marrakesh.

His solution was a practical one which involved drawing a straight line from Marrakesh to the Atlantic coast and seeing where he ended up. Waiting patiently at the end of the line was Essaouira, still boasting its natural harbour and fortress, the ideal place to setup a premier trading port. Interestingly, this straight line is still in use today as it marks the main route to get from Marrakesh to Essaouira.

The city of Essaouira as we know it today began to form at this time (1760 onwards), when a French architect (Théodore Cornut, with much local Moroccan assistance) was brought in to build and remodel the city and fortress. The city grew to become the principal port in Morocco and for the next 150 years, formed the start and end point for the famous caravan route from sub-Saharan Africa via the Atlas Mountains and Marrakesh.

The city flourished and many of the grander buildings you’ll see in the medina date from this period when various countries established diplomatic missions here and traders from around the world (including up to 4,000 Jews) settled in the city to start a new life and, for some, to make their fortunes.

From the middle of the 19th century, and for the next hundred years, France’s influence became more keenly felt in the city, including a period in 1844 when the city was bombarded by the French Navy and briefly occupied in retaliation for Morocco’s support of Algeria. When you wander along the ramparts, you’ll see the Spanish cannon which were used to defend the city during this, and other attacks.

In the first half of the twentieth century, Morocco was under the French protectorate which greatly influenced the culture and architecture of Essaouira including the building of a new part of town and the emergence of French as a second-language. You’ll notice throughout your stay in the city that French is still widely spoken by the inhabitants.

As the global trade patterns changed throughout the 20th century, Essaouira’s significance as a major port declined, with increasing amounts of trade between sub-Saharan Africa and Europe bypassing the region. The pace of life slowed down, the waters around the city and the port still busy with fishing boats but trade now limited to more local routes. The French protectorate ended but many of the French residents remained in the city, retaining their cultural impact, albeit in a softer style.

Throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s, Essaouira’s relaxed atmosphere attracted a counter-culture crowd from Europe and the USA (even though Jimi Hendrix’s time here has been slightly embellished). Towards the end of the 20th century and into present-day, Essaouira is reinventing itself as a tourist destination, the beautiful medina and port area attracting visitors fascinated by its history and architecture. Film and TV directors have also cottoned on to the atmosphere and uniqueness of the city and many films and shows have been filmed here, from Othello to Game of Thrones.

As the 21st century moves on, Essaouira is doing what it’s always done best; reinventing itself and moving with the times, the ebb and flow of the ocean, always, a constant backdrop.

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